How to deal with design clients from hell 👹

How to deal with design clients from hell 👹

Ludovic Delmas
Ludovic Delmas

Every designer has dealt with a client from hell at some point in their career. However, for some reason, graphic designers tend to attract the worst of them. 

There’s something about being seen as ‘a creative’ that makes clients feel like they can walk all over you, give vague feedback, and demand endless revisions. And when it’s time to pay up? Somehow they’re too busy to even tap out a quick email. 

On the other hand, great clients understand the value of your work. They speak the same language as you and provide resources and meaningful feedback. It’s a two-way relationship. 

Unfortunately, these clients are few and far between. 

Instead, whether you’re a freelance graphic designer, UX designer at an agency, or you run your own design-focused business, you’re bound to spend a lot of your professional life dealing with people you’d rather not. 

So what do you do?

When you come in contact with a client from hell, you have three options:

3 options: 1. Avoid. 2. Engage. 3. Break up

In this guide, we’re going to walk through each scenario so you can turn those lemon clients into sweet designer lemonade.

Avoid: How to see the warning signs that you’re dealing with a design client from hell

The single best way to handle a design client from hell is to see them coming. And then run in the other direction.

Avoiding bad clients is the easiest way to lower your professional stress levels. Unfortunately, while it can be easy to spot your garden-variety terrible clients (angry, rude, cheap, etc.), the signs aren’t always obvious from the get-go.  

Instead, it takes experience and perspective to spot a lousy client early on. And many clients from hell have learned to hide their terribleness behind exciting-sounding projects, high pay (which may or may not appear), and ‘easy’ jobs. 

Here, we’ve put together a list of the most typical clients from hell, how you can spot them, and what to do about each.

1. The scope creeping client: They’re constantly moving the goalposts

Great clients come to you with a clear idea of what they want and a fair price for it. Bad clients promise you easy work with high pay and then demand more the second you start working. 

The scope creeping client keeps moving the goalposts. Your ‘easy’ job gets bogged down in add-ons while the ‘comfortable’ timeline suddenly needs to be moved up to meet their company goals (they didn’t tell you about). 

How to spot a scope creeping client

Watch for clients who casually mention a few extra things they might need you to do or who dismiss your concerns about the timeline or workload. Some project details are bound to change. But it’s a red flag if they’re getting stretched more and more each time you talk.

How do you avoid them?

Most scope creepers are self-aware enough that if you push them to make the details official, they’ll buckle. To protect yourself, add timelines and scope to your contract and clauses on extra payment if either needs to change. 

2. The overly vague client: They can’t give you precise details

Clients come to you for your creativity and unique approach. However, you still need clear direction to do your best work. Otherwise, you’ll just end up in an endless loop of revisions and vague feedback like, ‘I don’t know… Can you try a few more for me to see?’

How to spot an overly vague client

Luckily, these clients are easy to spot as they won’t be able to answer your questions right away. Watch out for people who give you the big picture and nothing more. 

How do you avoid them?

Ask questions. If a client consistently has issues answering questions now, they’ll be a nightmare to deal with later when you need specific feedback.

3. The ‘it-never-ends’ client: They want endless revisions (but don’t give feedback)

We’ve all been in that situation where a two-week project turns into two months (and then doesn’t get final sign-off for another six!) A particularly nasty client from hell is the type who keeps asking for revision-after-revision without helping you get any closer to a finished project. (They expect you to read their minds).

How to spot a never-ending client

This client’s terrible behavior often stems from perfectionism. Watch out for people who say things like ‘we’ll just work until it’s perfect,’ or, ‘it’s the final product that matters. I don’t care about deadlines.’ 

How do you avoid them?

These clients are hard to avoid as you most likely won’t realize you’re dealing with one until you’re already committed to the project. 

One helpful technique we’ve found is to limit the number of revisions you offer in your contract. Give two rounds for free and then set payment terms for any further ones. If the client pushes back, there’s a good chance they’ll expect you to work forever. 

4. The micromanager: They won’t let you do your job

Despite hiring you, some clients won’t leave you alone to do your job. They’ll appear in your shared Figma while you’re working, and leave comments before you’re finished. They expect everything to be perfect but won’t give you the time to work through your design process. 

How to spot a micromanager

A micromanaging client from hell will drop little hints early on about how ‘involved’ they like to be in the process (or how they ‘used to do a little design themselves back in the day’). They also might ask a lot of questions about your process and push back against it before you’ve even started. 

How do you avoid them?

Boundaries are to micromanagers what garlic is to vampires. From the first conversation, make sure you’re setting proper boundaries around working and how you expect to receive feedback. The more organized you are with your process, the harder it will be for them to look over your shoulder.

5. The ‘I’ll get you next time’ client: They make money an issue from the start (and taboo at the end)

Money is one of the most common ingredients in a client from hell. Either they promise you the world (and then disappear), or they push back against your rate from the start (even though they reached out to you!)

Another notable variety of this client is the one who promises you more work in the future for ‘doing them a favor’ this time. As almost anyone who’s been in that position can tell you, it’s not worth it. 

How to spot a money magician

Everything is about cost over quality. If you send an estimate before the work starts, they’ll nitpick every line item to bring down the cost. If you change hourly, they’ll question your time estimates or ask you to bring them down. 

How do you handle them? 

Invoice upfront. Most other situations like getting a deposit or invoicing after the work only benefit the client. By asking for payment upfront, you’ll see just how much of an issue they make money (or if they were thinking about ghosting you). 

Engage: How to master client communication, get better feedback, and set clear boundaries

I’d like to think that not every client from hell knows they’re causing you so much mental anguish. Maybe they’re just caught up in their own expectations, needs, and responsibilities (or a boss from hell!) 

Does that make it right or fair for them to treat you this way? Definitely not.

However, it does mean that they don’t have to be a lost cause. 

Instead, there are a few ways you can engage with a client from hell to turn a bad situation better. Or, at a minimum, get through this project without losing your cool. 

Know your worth

Freelancing is difficult. When you work for a company, you have an agreed-upon salary, and money doesn’t come up other than during a review. 

But when you’re freelancing, many clients expect you to justify your rates. 

Whether you charge hourly, per project, or on a retainer, they’ll want to know what that gets them

Many clients from hell will accept your rate and then try to bully you into doing more for it. Or, they’ll constantly remind you that ‘they could’ve gotten someone cheaper.’ But remember, they’re not paying a rate. They’re paying for your years of experience and unique talents. 

Know your worth. Stick to it. And don’t feel obliged to budge or do an unreasonable amount of ‘free work’ just to keep them happy. Because in the end, that will become the expectation.

Create a process for onboarding new clients

Client relationships often go sour because of mismatched expectations. The problem is that you’re most likely to set those expectations during phone calls or moments that are hard to refer back to without getting into a ‘he-said-she-said situation. 

Instead, create a standard process for bringing on new clients that includes:

  1. A template contract that ensures important details about deliverables, payments, and usage are covered.
  2. Invoicing upfront to stop you from having to chase payments later. 
  3. An explanation of your design process to let them ask questions before you start.
  4. Clear expectations for communication, updates, and how many rounds of revisions you include.

Tell them exactly what you expect from them (and when)

Clients from hell ask a lot from you. So it’s just as fair for you to ask them for what you need to do your job. This is especially important for clients that go dark, ask for endless revisions, or take forever to give you feedback and then ‘need it yesterday’ once they do. 

Here are a few resources that can help push those clients to be more proactive: 

  • A schedule for feedback: Let them know when you need feedback on designs before moving on. Explain that you’re doing your job to hit their deadlines. But the only way that happens is if they give you feedback on time.
  • When you’re available for meetings: Set boundaries around your availability. It’s fine to be flexible at times, but you can’t constantly interrupt your work to fit their schedule.
  • A list of resources you need to do your job: Your designs don’t happen in a vacuum. Whether it’s content, brand guidelines, or access to their internal tools, make sure your client knows exactly what you need from them.  
  • An agreed-upon deadline. You need to work on this project along with all the others you’re juggling. Make sure they understand that the deadline is the deadline and that you won’t be able to be as involved afterward (if you can’t!)

Give them examples of good feedback

As a freelancer, you know the difference between good and bad feedback. But your client might not. Part of your job is teaching what good design feedback looks like. Along with a clear timeline, you should explain to them:

  • Exactly what you want feedback on. Give guidance on what you’re working on. You don’t want nitpicky design feedback on fonts or color choices if you’re still working on the structure. Some people call this 30/90 feedback. Are you 30% done and want feedback on the bigger picture? Or are you 90% done and want them to talk about the details?
  • What type of feedback is most useful. Explain how good feedback hits a few qualities: it’s clear and specific, provides context and is framed within the project’s goals, and describes problems (but doesn’t offer solutions).
  • Who will be giving you feedback? Is it from a single person? Or a whole team? Does one person’s voice matter more than others? The larger the company, the more people will want to have a say. And the more you’ll have to push your client to come to you with an organized collection of notes. 
  • The process for how you’ll receive feedback. Choose a format that you’re comfortable with. Do you want to get feedback over email? In your design app? During a video meeting? 

Put in extra prep for meetings and presentations

Many terrible clients pick up bad habits because they’re nervous. Maybe they’re a small business owner and are stressed about spending money on a freelancer. Or their boss is breathing down their neck. 

Your presence in meetings or during presentations can help alleviate these fears. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Describe the challenge: Set the stage for what you’re going to show them. What was the initial challenge? What made it unique? This can feel unnecessary, but it helps frame your work as a response to their business challenge.
  • Show your work and process: Walk through your process, from competitors you checked out to some initial sketches. Seeing the build-up to your designs can help clients understand where you’re coming from.
  • Give them work in context: Don’t separate your work from reality. Show your designs in the context of their current app/site.
  • Ask questions: Whether you get the response you were after or something worse, make sure you ask questions and dig deeper. Ask them what they mean or if they can give examples. This forces vague clients to get more concrete and gives you a clear path to making your work more successful. 

Practice communicating your designs

You won’t always get the opportunity to present your designs in real-time. So you must practice communicating your work in other ways. 

Start by understanding the ‘shared language’ you have with your client. Are they designers? Or will they get confused and put off by too much jargon?

Then, make sure your explanations follow the 3 C’s of good writing:

  • Clear: Is your point clear from the start? What are you trying to get across?
  • Concise: Are you keeping it short? Many clients zone out if you provide too much content or focus on one piece rather than the whole. 
  • Concrete: Are you talking specifically to the challenge at hand? It’s OK to set context around design choices and inspiration, but make sure the bulk of your explanation is grounded in the current work.

Use data to your advantage

Data is your tool against clients from hell who micromanage, complain about money, or try to increase the scope. A personal time tracker is a great way to show you’re accountable about billing or explaining how long specific tasks took. 

There are plenty of time trackers out there for designers depending on your specific needs. 

Try Harvest if you’re an agency and want to tie hours to invoices (including expense tracking). 

For freelancers, Toggl Track is a free tool that can help track time spent on projects, while RescueTime gives you a picture of how long you spend in apps and can help you block distractions and stay focused. 

Document everything

Clients from hell have selective memory. You may come to an agreement during a call, but they’ll remember it differently a few days later when you ‘miss’ a deliverable. 

Whenever possible, summarize calls and meetings and email them to your client to create a ‘paper trail’ of discussions and decisions. 

Pick your battles

The more you push back, the worse a bad client will become. And as much as it sucks, sometimes you need to let some things go to get through and move on. 

A client from hell might just be opinionated in some areas. You also need to know which hills you’re willing to die on. 

Don’t take things personally (especially feedback)

Design work is subjective. And there’s a chance that your particular client from hell just doesn’t get your style. It sucks. But it’s part of the job. 

As hard as it might be, try to disconnect your self-worth from your work. The client not liking what you’ve built isn’t a reflection on you. It could be any combination of factors from mismatched expectations to fickle clients with unreasonable expectations.

Ask if you’re part of the problem

Don’t worry. We’re still on your side. But it takes two to tango, and you did say yes to your dance partner.

If you’re consistently finding yourself with a client from hell, it might be time to ask if you’re part of the problem. 

Here are a couple of ways you might be poisoning your client relationships:

  1. Missing (or extending) deadlines
  2. Taking too many liberties with the spec
  3. Not communicating enough

It’s easy to blame the client for bad relationships. But plenty of clients from hell are just suffering from PBFSD (Post-bad-freelancer-stress-disorder).

Breaking up: How to move on from a bad client

Even if you put in all the work, there’s no guarantee that a client from hell won’t continue to be a total pain in the ass. There are plenty of times when you need to walk away from a project or deliver your goods and then politely decline ever working with them again.

Breaking up isn’t easy. But there are a few best practices you can do to ensure a client from hell doesn’t keep following you around even once you’ve moved on:

  1. Keep your cool. No matter what’s happened, nothing good will come from losing your head. This is a professional relationship. And you’ll be judged later on by how you handled it. Detach yourself emotionally from the client and the work and move on.
  2. Finish up as much as possible. If you honestly can’t keep working with them another day, at least take some time to put together a hand-over doc explaining what’s been done, what’s left, and links to all your resources. This is as much for the next freelancer they sink their hooks into as it is for them. 
  3. Skip the little white lie. It’s easy to avoid conflict and tell someone you’re too busy. But in many cases, that means they’ll keep coming back to you. Instead, be as honest as possible. Tell them it isn’t working or that you don’t think you’re the right fit.  
  4. Offer to help them find someone else. This is an excellent opportunity to get back at your high school nemesis. Just kidding! While it can feel particularly underhanded to pass on a terrible client to another designer, you might genuinely know someone who would be a better fit. Just make sure you warn them about what they’re getting into.
  5. Close the door behind you. A client is still a client. And it’s scary to walk away from money on the table. However, once you’ve identified someone as a client from hell, you need to remember that. Close the door and move onto the next great project. 

Subjectivity in design is the biggest source of clients from hell. It doesn’t have to be.

There are so many reasons why people become clients from hell. Some are personal (they don’t value your work, or they’re just bad people). While some are professional (they’ve got their own boss from hell pushing them, or they’re from a culture that doesn’t respect freelancers). 

However, as designers, the common throughline is that our work is subjective

Bad clients get away with vague feedback, endless revisions, and trying to skip out on payment because they ‘don’t get it’ or ‘want it to be more blue’. For graphic designers, that’s unfortunately just part of the industry. But there’s another path. 

At Kickass UX, we bring the graphic designers together through UX education

Almost everyone we’ve met is tired of bad clients and subjective feedback and is ready for a career where they can stay creative and back up their choices with data and user feedback!

If this sounds exciting to you, we’d love to talk. Check out our program and get in touch!


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