Being a creative professional is often one of the best things ever — I get paid to do awesome things like design websites and wedding invitations (a quickly growing side hustle…), develop content strategies, plan social media content, and write stuff. Other times, it can feel like the absolute worst thing ever when a client wants to use a twelve-color palette, four different fonts, and a low-quality iPhone picture as their website’s header. And, oh yeah, all of those elements should appear with equal emphasis…and can we add another color to really make it pop? Also, I really like exclamation points, can we use all of them??!!
Figuring out how to tell a client or coworker that what they want is bad design or bad writing (without saying they want bad design or bad writing…) is hard. Everyone has their own opinions about what looks good (and what doesn’t) and when it comes to a creative project, everyone wants their opinions to be heard. Obviously, my creative tastes are not the only good creative tastes out there. But if you’re working with a twelve-color palette, you can’t use every color with equal emphasis — it would be overwhelming and there would be no cohesion. If you’re writing something for professional use, excessive punctuation or cliché writing might not be the best representation for your brand — it might be worth exploring other ways to convey excitement and emotion. Less (in my experience) is generally enough.
Same with fonts: my rule of thumb is a sans-serif font for web copy/print headers and a serif font for web headers/print copy, plus a script or other fun accent font if needed. Generally I use that accent font just for stylizing headers: think of a really classy suit — your sans-serif and serif fonts — with a fun statement piece — your script font (at my first job out of college, our organization worked with a great local design firm on an organizational rebrand. The principal creative used this metaphor to describe the accent color in the logo, and I just really loved that visual as someone who likes colors and fashion). Sometimes a client might want to add earrings or a hat (read: might want to use an accent element more liberally), and that can be totally okay. It’s when every piece of an outfit (or website, or brochure, or etc.) becomes a “statement” piece that you’ve got a problem — if every piece is making a statement, what exactly is the statement as a whole?
When someone is married to all twelve colors in their palette and all four fonts they want to use, it can be next to impossible to find middle ground. Especially if you tend to skew more minimal with design like me, working with a color-happy client can be a huge challenge. Designing professionally often requires a certain level of flexibility because no person’s preferences are going to be exactly the same as yours — but as a creative, that can be really, really tough to remember in the moment. It’s the same with writing — I come from a literary creative writing background so excessive use of clichés (read: lazy writing), superfluous punctuation, and overly flowery metaphors make me very, very sad. These are some of the things I try to keep in mind when working with a client whose ideas are less than symbiotic with mine:
I’m designing for the client, not for me.
Because I essentially create art for a living, I often struggle with separating myself from the work. This is an important skill to cultivate in professional situations, though, because I can’t always design something (or write something) exactly the way I want to. I am creating, first and foremost, for a client, whether it’s a coworker or a supervisor or a consultation. It’s their job to provide the vision and voice; it’s my job to refine and articulate that voice. If I can get my client to agree on six colors instead of twelve, fantastic — but if they are dead-set on all twelve…well, it’s my job to figure out how to work with that in a tasteful way. Maintaining focus on keeping the client happy while designing something of the highest quality I am capable of helps make the process easier.
There are no perfect projects.
I know. It sucks. As a recovering perfectionist, I get the rush that comes with chasing a “perfect” project or “perfect” client: someone whose vision completely aligns with yours or, even better, someone who just lets you do whatever the hell you want without questioning you. Unfortunately, unless you’re designing for yourself, that’s probably not going to happen (and let’s be real, sometimes we’re our own worst client anyway…). Letting go of the desire for everything to go exactly according to plan helps me appreciate the project for what it is, so deviations and multiple rounds of feedback feel less frustrating. When has anything ever gone according to plan anyway? And where’s the fun in that?
I won’t love every project…and I don’t need to use every project in my portfolio.
While no project is perfect, there are certainly projects that are better than others. And then there are those where I need to make sure I have chocolate at my desk (or a glass of wine waiting at home). A client might want something that really goes against my creative values (think comic sans…or cliché writing) — but that’s the risk you take doing creative work. Refer back to “I’m designing for my client, not for me.” It happens. Just like people who think the earth is flat, people who think bad design or writing is good do, in fact, exist. Again, have some chocolate or some wine ready…and remember that not every piece needs to be a portfolio piece. Sometimes, the professional payoff is a good story to tell about problem-solving and compromise.
Find a way to work with the client’s vision, not against it.
I was hired for whatever project I’m working on because of my creative skill set. If there’s something a client wants that won’t translate well or can’t be done, it’s my job to use those skills and think of a compromise. Nine times out of ten, if I come to a client or coworker and say, “I don’t really think twelve colors will accomplish what you’re looking for. What if we look at using six and incorporate an accent font?” they’ll be receptive. Most of my job writing and designing involves seeking out these kinds of creative compromises so the client feels like their goals are being accomplished (but I don’t feel my soul dying using way too many colors or exclamation points). Frame suggestions in relation to how they align with the client’s vision, and most of the time you’ll be golden.
If the client’s happy, I did my job.
I don’t love everything I write or design, but if it works for my client or coworker, I did my job. Like I said above, not everything needs to be a portfolio piece representative of my own personal brand and interpretation of my best work. Each project has a different consultant/client dynamic, but ultimately we want the same thing: a successful product. Staying client-focused (especially in those wine and chocolate situations) helps keep things in perspective and keep me from getting into the weeds with my own creative emotions. Doing creative work as a professional can be hard. Your client may want bad design — but look at it as a challenge to make bad design good. Or at least as good as it can be.