Confidence can boost business while compromise can wreak havoc on a designer’s bottom line. Design business consultant Sean Low, of The Business of Being Creative, shares with EAL a client case study in self-assurance, a lack thereof, and its many implications.
Sean Low, design business consultant
The client: Low’s designer in question is a prominent one, with “very significant, high-end clientele.” Despite her stellar reputation and client base, she hit a dry spell, with spring projects being pushed back to the fall. “A falling bank account and a quiet phone challenged everything my client believed herself to be,” says Low. “Then her phone rang...with exactly the wrong client.”
The problem: The designer’s problematic new client wanted her to propose a design for a large residential project without compensation for the design, which was the exact opposite of the designer’s usual process (flat fee instead of percentage).
The designer didn’t stand her ground but instead got caught up in a seemingly never-ending design process, with compensation dropping as each day passed beyond the estimated completion date. “I began work with the designer nine months after the start of this brutal death dance,” shares Low. “I wish that the story would end with the designer receiving, from me, a boost of confidence, then having the client come around happy as a clam. No such luck.”
The solution: To combat her early compromise, Low’s designer offered her client the option of retaining all of her work product to date (drawings, renderings, pricing, etc.), finding her client a replacement designer and walking away from the project—provided that the client agreed not to disparage her in public or private and let her walk away without further ties to the project.
Yet, as Low explains, “The client was quite surprised, as they did not know the depth of pain they were causing, but did not wish to change course. They referred to their agreement and interpreted the vagueness as a right to continue as they had.” The designer was left with a choice to either quit and face consequences or “offer a very specific path to completion with absolutes: laying out responsibilities and timelines with no wiggle room.” The client agreed to the designer’s “absolutes,” and ultimately “the project finished with very little fanfare.” The designer has not seen or worked with this client since, Low says, “but she is grateful to this day (more than four years later) for truly learning the steep price of compromise.”
The takeaways: Since this experience, Low’s designer begins every conversation with prospective clients “with what matters to her as a designer—no matter the project, even before discussing the details of the project. If there is a smiling nod, the rest takes care of itself; if not, she knows there is no place to go. The conversation happens every time, regardless of how busy (or slow) my client is.”
It’s difficult to recover integrity once it’s been compromised, says Low. “The moment a client determines what is valuable about a designer’s work is the moment a designer has lost her business.” Designers who are already stuck in similar situations—where a client has bulldozed them and set unfavorable terms—should “Stand tall, accept what may come from drawing a line, and [then] draw it. Do the work as you expect of yourself first, your client second.”
“Believe in your value,” says Low, “the intrinsic value that only your work provides your clients, value you and you alone determine. In the face of any obstacle, this is the one thing that can never be lost. And if, like my client, you lose it, the only way back is with absolutism, and [by] accepting consequences.”
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