When the client becomes the “art director”

Many freelance designers go out on their own to be their own “art director,” but what happens when your client assumes that role? On the Creative Freelancer Conference LinkedIn Group, Neil Renicker of Renicker Studio asks this question:

Does this sound familiar to any of you? Your client hires you to do creative work for them – you sell them your expertise, your skill, and of course, your time. But they end up playing “art director” the whole project through, right down to the nitty-gritty details. And you? You turn into an Adobe Creative Suite sweatshop, just obeying the orders (even when they go against your best designer instincts!).

Any thoughts on how to manage those situations? Your compensation for the job isn’t affected – but your pride and your portfolio may well be…

This topic is really buzzing on the LinkedIn Group.

See what other creatives have to say, and share you input, by joining the conversation here

5 thoughts on “When the client becomes the “art director”

  1. David

    The designer needs to do his homework in order to sell the client on why his idea should be chosen and is in fact a better option to their preconceived notion. If the designer just shows “artwork” to the client, there is a good chance the client will chose his original direction if he isn’t convinced otherwise. People tend to stick to what has worked in the past. Asthetics should be a result of meaning, not the other way around.

    Also, some clients are just more willing to dive into a new direction and are willing to let go. Seeking out those clients and knowing who they are is also a key component before a job even starts!

  2. Tad Dobbs

    I’ve found that walking the client through your process, and sell yourself as a partner rather than a vendor helps during the courting phase. Once I’ve got the contract, I include the client in as much of the discovery phase as possible to get a feel for their vision, and to help them take ownership. Preliminary mood boards work great for a lot of the brand and web work that I do, but it can easily be translated to fit most projects. Offer up color swatches, type treatments, tone of imagery suggestions, and encourage them to take things off the board, group things differently, or basically get the “frankencomping” out of their system. This helps me realize what they are visually thinking which is often hard to communicate clearly while also allowing them to take the ownership that they need for a successful solution. A lot of times, I’ll do high-level brainstorming activities with the client before beginning any creative development for the same reason. Usually, it revolves around brand related elements like “If you’re brand was at a party how would you introduce them to a friend” or “If you’re company was a car what would it be.” Build that partnership early in the process, and there will be less surprises for both of you at the comp or final stages.

    However, some people just prefer to art direct the details, because it is the fun part of the process. You have to decide if that’s a client that you’re comfortable working with in the long run. I usually have a mix of both types, but I charge differently for a micro-manager than I do a partner, especially since micro-manager almost always takes longer.

  3. Leah McCloskey

    I usually attempt to “train” the client when I first start working with them regarding how to get the best results from our collaboration. I explain that if we divide up the responsibilities clearly, the process is much smoother and more open for creative solutions. Their job is to communicate the goal(s), and my job is to find ways to meet that goal. The thing that a lot of people don’t consider is that there are many effective solutions to the same problem. If the client gets too far down into the weeds, like telling me to make something bigger, I ask them what it is that they are trying to accomplish that’s not being done by the solution(s) I’ve presented. That brings them back the goal rather than trying to tell me how to do my job.

  4. Tom Bond

    I make a point of disagreeing with clients regularly. I remind them that they came to my company for design work because we do it for a living. If I feel that the idea they have is a bad one, I make sure to tell them, but state solid examples why.
    All that having been said, many times a client that behaves this way actually has good ideas. Don’t shoot them down just because your the designer and they are the client. Often they look at things in unorthodox and interesting ways that you might not.