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What if I Don’t Like the Work? Dealing With a Design Project Gone Wrong

Typically, the articles that I write on Design Shack are from the perspective of the designer. One topic that comes up regularly is how to deal with clients on various issues. However, today I’d like to flip things around and jump to the aid of the other team.

Designer/client relationships go both ways and just as often as there is a frustrated designer, there’s a disappointed client. Today we’re going to tackle the question of what to do when you hire a designer and just don’t like the work that resulted.

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Fred Asks for Help


I frequently receive emails from designers asking for advice on various topics from business to design. Recently though I received an email not from a designer but from a concerned client who simply didn’t know what to do.

The situation is extremely common and I’m sure it resonates with most people who have hired professional creatives at some point. The client, Fred, hired a designer to take on a major rebranding project. Step one was to refresh the logo.

Fred said that the designer obviously put forth a good deal of time and effort in this step, delivering ten different versions, each with around eight different slight variations for a total of eighty different logos to choose from! On a side note, I think too many options can be just as bad or worse than not enough, so I don’t really think this was appropriate, but Fred appreciated the dedication.

Now for the kicker, even with all of these options, Fred didn’t really see anything that he “was in love with.” In other words, he hired a designer to do some work, the designer delivered the work as promised, but he didn’t like it. Fred’s question is the same as that from every other design client in this situation: now what?

What’s the appropriate course of action here? Should Fred pay for the work? Should he tell the designer? Should more options be requested?

Structuring a Design Agreement


It’s too late for Fred, but I think the absolute best way to handle these situations is to prevent them altogether. The way to do this is to structure any design agreement clearly and carefully, planning for likely contingencies such as these.

Make It Clear What Is Being Purchased


The first thing that needs to happen before any money changes hands is that the terms of payment should be made crystal clear. People tend to naturally work out the simple stuff like deadlines and dollar amounts, but skip over one of the most critical pieces of the puzzle: what’s being purchased?

There are two ways to approach this discussion. The first is that you’re buying the designer’s time. He or she is an experienced professional, and to use their services in any way, you must compensate them for every hour spent working.

This is similar to hiring a doctor. You go to the office, let the doctor do what he/she thinks is appropriate, hear the diagnosis and treatment, then decide whether or not you agree enough to follow along. Regardless of whether or not you think the prescription the doctor gave you is worth filling, you still have to pay the bill that comes in the mail later because the doctor’s time is valuable and you used some of it up.

The second way to view design work is a product-focused approach. Here you don’t care if the designer spends two or twenty hours on a project, you are paying a flat rate for a given list of “deliverables”. You give the designer a list of your requirements and suggestions and receive a piece of design work in return (or multiple pieces depending on the agreement).

Build In Revision Considerations


From the designer’s perspective, the hourly rate is by far the best way to go. This way the agreement stays fairly balanced: every hour of work is met with an hour’s worth of payment.

From the client’s perspective though, the flat rate piecemeal system can often be desirable because it’s easier to budget for: you know exactly how much you’ll be paying. With this system though, the client needs to be sure that there’s a clear system in place for revisions.

It’s almost never going to be the case that a designer hands over a piece of work that you don’t want to change or tweak in some way. For this reason, it’s often the case that a flat rate will come with something like the following: $X for three logo options, one major revision (significantly change one of the logos) and two minor revisions (tweak colors, fonts, etc.).

In this agreement, clients know up front what happens in the case that they don’t like the work for any reason. With no extra fees, they can get up to three revisions, one major and two minor. Some clients will still need more though so you’ll need to go one step further and decide on pricing for each additional major and minor round of revisions.

Providing Feedback


I’ve written entire articles on providing feedback so I won’t spend too much time on this topic but I it’s worth briefly covering. When anything creative is involved, feedback can become a touchy subject.

Both sides are to blame here. Clients too often choose an extreme of flat out unprofessional, rude criticism or a hesitance to say anything negative whatsoever and tiptoe around the subject of not liking the work. Similarly, designers are too often emotionally tied to their work and forget who is paying the bills. If I like blue but the client insists that the logo should be yellow, I shouldn’t throw a tantrum or let my feelings get hurt, I should make the dang logo yellow and grow up.

The customer is most certainly not always right, but they are paying so that means they get the final say in many matters. If I hire a landscaper for my yard and insist that black gravel be used, the landscaper can by all means tell me that white gravel will look better with my house color but ultimately, I get to choose because it’s my yard.

As a client, you should be open, honest and professional. If your designer can’t take it, it’s time to hire someone else. You should never have to pretend that you like something. If the work is unsatisfactory, say so! It’s an awkward conversation but these are a part of every professional business relationship. As a designer, I greatly prefer clients who clearly let me know what they think and how I can make something more along the lines of what they were looking for.

The Matter of Payment


All of this leads up to where we’re standing with Fred. What should he do? He has eighty logos that he doesn’t like and a designer waiting for the next step!

The most important question here was whether or not the designer did his or her job. This is why I was so insistent earlier on making the terms of the agreement clear. In this case, it sounds like the designer went above and beyond the call of duty and worked hard to make the client happy.

If the logos were plagiarized, delivered in a raster format when the agreement was vector, or otherwise technically and morally insufficient, there would be clear grounds for non-payment. If the client doesn’t get what was promised, neither does the designer.

However, especially where creative work is concerned, there’s this awkward and huge gray area of work that was delivered to technical standards but simply isn’t what the client was looking for. As you’ve noticed already, I love a good metaphor so I’m going to stick with this theme.

Logos Are Like Big Macs


Imagine that I roll into McDonald’s and order my first ever Big Mac. I get my food, sit down at the table and take a bite only to discover that I don’t like it at all. Now, if I took the sandwich apart and found that they forgot to put meat on the bun or put onions all over it when I specifically asked them not to, then I have reason to get a refund or a replacement. However, if I simply find that a Big Mac isn’t necessarily a food that I particularly enjoy, then I really have no ground on which to demand a refund. I took a gamble on something new, whether I like special sauce or not, McDonald’s has kept their part of the bargain and I should as well.

This same logic applies when you’re not necessarily “in love” with the work that your designer does. Ultimately, this person did the work that was agreed upon and you owe them a fair wage. If it turns out that you don’t like the design style, that just means that you picked the wrong designer just like I picked the wrong place to eat lunch with my Big Mac.

Moving Forward


So what happens now? You simply don’t like the work and you’re out of free revisions. There are two courses of action, both of which involve being open and honest with the designer about what you’re feeling.

The first course of action is if you still have trust in the designer to do a better job. At this point, you attempt to structure a new agreement, distinct from the old one where you essentially just try again.

However, it’s understandable if the project has reduced your trust in the designer’s ability to deliver what you want. It’s often the case that you should cancel any further work, pay the agreed upon amount for the work that has been delivered, cut your losses and move on with another designer. Does this suck for you, the client? Absolutely, but you should’ve gone to Chipotle for lunch instead.

If the project is at an awkward point where the amount due is uncertain but you still want to cease activity, it’s time to have an open discussion and maybe even a debate with the designer about the value of the work that has been done so far. Think about how far the project has advanced. Has the designer finished 25% of the total work? Then you owe 25% of the total project fee.

Satisfaction Guaranteed

For the most part, this advice is widely applicable to almost any scenario where you as the client aren’t happy with the work a designer has produced. One important exception is if the designer is crazy enough to have a “satisfaction guaranteed” clause of some kind. Be sure to explore exactly what this entails up front because it just may mean that the designer is willing to do the work over until you’re satisfied.

What Do You Think?

Some of us have been on only one side of the designer/client relationship and therefore tend to see only part of the big picture. If you’ve been on both sides of a project gone wrong, you can see that everyone typically has a good mix of blame and innocence that can be assigned to them. Sometimes certain designers just aren’t a good fit with certain clients and you should always be well prepared when these situations arise.

Now that you’ve heard my advice, I’d like to hear from you. If you were/are a designer, what would you do in this situation? Now imagine that you’re the client. Does that change your perspective? Leave a comment and let us know.