Picking Good Clients for Industrial Designers

Article by Martin Gibson – @embody3d @martingibson - 09.08.2010

Sometimes we have to remember it is not just about whether the client picks you, but you also have a say as to whether you pick the client. The industrial design job market especially for contractors is extremely competitive and you will often find yourself viciously and desperately tendering against fellow industrial designers. But sometimes you have to remember some clients can be a lot more harm than good. Sometimes it is better to avoid certain types of clients who may end up theoretically costing you money rather than allowing you to be profitable. Sometimes it is better to turn down the work and try and find someone more appropriate even if it delays your work schedule a few days. As fiddling around with a bad project where you don’t make any money for 2-3 weeks will cost you dearly, how are you going to pay for rent, food and other expenses?

Here is a list of clients you should be very weary of, it is not to say you should ever avoid these clients completely though:

- Clients who have no clear goals or expectations
- Clients who continuously change their mind
- Clients who may not have the financial ability to compensate you
- Clients who may have no future intention of your work
- Clients who can’t or are unwilling to communicate effectively
- Clients who are amateur designers
- Clients who offer you unreasonable contractual terms
- Clients that wont allow you to disclose your work

I will now explore some tell tail signs to watch out for from the above 4 client categories.

Clients who have no clear goals or expectations

aka No Idea Norman

Be cautious of clients who have no idea of what they want and have no expectations or standards for your work. Sometimes you will meet a client whom in no disrespectful terms has no idea what they want, they might be puzzled so much they might not even know whether getting an industrial designer was a good idea in the first place. You will know who these clients are as they will often have no idea what design services are, what different materials are, and how to manufacture products. These clients might even prematurely cancel the whole project because they realise they either don’t need a designer or they realise that they should have done more ground work before contacting you.

Clients who continuously change their mind

aka Convoluted Clarence

Be weary of clients who continuously change their mind and product goals which might continuously change your product design brief. With these clients you can find yourself doing 2-3 weeks of ‘work’ without even doing a single bit of designing. And if your design contract specifies you only get paid for real design work you could be left empty handed for a long time. I recognise that nearly every client changes their mind, but here I am specifically talking about clients who will change their mind maybe 5-10 times over trivial matters, or clients who change their mind radically. For example, if a client wants you to design a rotationally ceiling fan and then they change their mind to wanting you to design a floor mounted built-in fan. If a client becomes a victim of scope creep and the time of the project for you increases, don’t for a second not feel obliged to transfer this cost onto the client. Don’t allow a client to manipulate you by sticking to the original quoted price. Have appropriate clauses in your contract or charge by the hour to counter client incompetence. These clients have not done effective ground work internally and will only waste your time and money.

Clients who can’t or are unwilling to communicate effectively

aka Missed Yo Call Mark

I understand world trade is more and more globalised, but sometimes when it comes to industrial design projects it is near imperative to meet your client in person first, especially if the project is complex and difficult to explain via other communication mediums. Most of the time there needs to be live and tacit communication where concepts can be explained and prototypes can be demonstrated. Clients who are unwilling to meet you in person or clients who may try and communicate complex graphical information via email or phone without sketches can turn into a disaster. Be careful of clients who don’t return your phone calls or emails in a reasonable time; or keep you waiting weeks to get your hands on a simple request like the company logo just so you can apply a decal on their product. Also if the client is adamant not to meet you in person this could also be a hint that they may have no intention of paying you and they are trying conceal their identity.

Amateur Designers

aka Arrogant Andre

Be careful of amateur designers. Sometimes it may be better to get a client who has no idea about design rather than a client who thinks they know everything all the time. Sometimes amateur designers will try and give you advice or even give you unfeasible or unrealistic parameters for your project. They may insist that a solid gold printer is the best idea for the next release of Canon’s PIXMA printer range. These amateur designers will often not value your input and ideas no matter how much you say injection moulded plastic is the best material for the printer. These amateurs are selfish, unreasonable and they will make you question why they hired you in the first place.

Clients who may not have the financial ability to compensate you

aka Tight ****** Thomas

This is by far the most important issue you have to look out for before undertaking contract work. We all love to design but we also need to get paid, and if a client doesn’t pay an invoice it could cause you severe financial insecurity. It is often very difficult to judge or research into your client and their financial history so you really have to be wise in making this judgement.

Make sure your client has a real address and a real telephone number, this might seem self explanatory but people have been fooled by this before. People who just have mobile phones and live in temporary dwellings are far more riskier to deal with than established businesses with real addresses and real telephone and fax numbers. Generally speaking, the larger the business the more pressure there is for them to comply with the law.

Other strategies to counter these types of ‘dodgy’ clients include insisting upfront payments to cover you initially. Also in your statement of work contract ensure you list that all email and telephone calls, travel time and work-related expenses will be billed to the client in addition to the hourly rate. This is extremely important to note.

If you are extremely weary of a particular client I recommend in an honest and a non-obtrusive way contacting some of their previous designers, suppliers and clients and ask them for a reference as to the companies history when paying invoices. This will give you invaluable information about your client. If your client is a large public business they may even disclose their financial results on their website so check this out!

Be weary of entrepreneurs and innovators. Sometimes these clients can have dreamy expectations, and often have extremely tight budgets. These clients might try and undercut you in every way possible, they might even try and bargain you down on every cost spent on your expenses report and they will also question you on every minute spent on your hourly log sheet. They might even have the arrogance to offer you a portion of your total invoice without even the slightest empathy and respect of your work.

There are options available if a client doesn’t pay you and these vary much depending on your country of residence. In Australia the first step you should take is mediation. In NSW for example there are Community Justice Centres where you can meet with your client and a neutral mediator to discuss your disagreement. This service is free of charge. But there are 2 problems with this process. Firstly, you will find it near impossible to get your client to show up to the mediation as they have no obligation to show up if they don’t want to (and why would they…they owe you money?!). Secondly any rulings made by the Community Justice Centre aren’t court orders, therefore you only have their moral conscience to rely on to get paid. The next step of course is taking your client to the district court. To lodge a case is approximately $75-$85, but you have to get legal representation and this can be extremely expensive. Just to give you an idea it can sometimes cost $250 for half an hour to just talk to your lawyer over the phone! It really isn’t worth pursuing legal action unless the sum of money owed to you is over roughly $10 000. Sometimes you really do have to cut your losses as miserable and unjust as that may be. That’s why it is important to make judgements of your client early and cancel the project immediately if there is any suspicion you might not get paid.

My general advice is, if you get any instinct that tells you something fishy could be going on, leave at once. Whatever you do, don’t make emotional decisions, make evidence based decisions. Sometimes it is the nicest sounding, trustworthy and re-assuring clients that are the ones that might be taking your work without remuneration. Make your decision based on facts by looking at the past record of your dealings with the client, and also what others have experienced.

Clients who may have no future intention of your work

aka Don’t Care Dave

It gives industrial designers great joy to see products make it to market and get developed. But sometimes your client might not have any intention of pursuing your design no matter how awesome it might be. This may sound crazy but follow along. Sometimes businesses may use your design work to literally steal your initial concepts and then develop upon your own design in house, cutting you out of the larger picture. Sometimes people hire industrial designers to do work just to show concepts off to their boss to make it look like they are doing something. Now depending on what your design morals are this might not bother you, but if you want to feel like your work has some value to this world I recommend investigating the businesses track record and observe how their product development systems and procedures operate. Also if they get you to sign a confidentiality agreement that assigns ownership of the design to them at the projects completion, and they choose not to do anything with your design, but you feel there is commercial value in the design that is able to be exploited, consider putting in clauses in these contracts that allow you to pursue designs that are trash-canned by your clients after a certain expiry period.

As any contracter would know it is extremely difficult to find new industrial design work whilst your working on another project. Where on earth do you find the time to get more work while you’re doing work!? You should always consider the longevity of a client and what future work prospects they may or may not be able to offer you after the projects completion. If you are doing work for an entrepreneur or innovator it is likely that once you have finished their pet project they will have absolutely nothing for you to do. However if you are doing work for a large manufacturer and they recognise that you provide a real value for money service, it is very likely they may contact you about more work in other departments or projects they have going.

Clients that wont allow you to disclose your work

aka Tight-lipped Timothy

One of the great delights of being a designer as appose to other professions is that once a job is completed you can then show off your brilliant work to the world and woo in future clients. But sometimes clients will get you to sign a stringent confidentiality agreement aka non disclosure agreement whilst will make you unable to publicly disclose your creative genius even on your own website or printed portfolio. This may not seem like a big deal, but what if you have 5 projects in a row with these types of contracts in place, what on earth do you say or show to your prospective clients about what you’ve been working on recently. It is extremely frustrating locking up your Picasso in the cupboard. Consider this.

Clients who offer you unreasonable contractual terms

aka Slave-driver Sam

It goes without saying, make sure your contracts are fair. Make sure your not doing too much work without enough pay, or if you are working too long on a project without enough pay. If you are unsure as to how long a project might take, or if you believe the client might scope creep on you, it is perhaps wise to charge the client per the hour rather than a total contract fee. Make sure you have a log sheet where you document the amount of hours you worked and what activities took place in this time. If you are not an expert at contracts I recommend this resource: http://www.amazon.com/Business-Legal-Forms-Industrial-Designers/dp/1581153988/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1281349413&sr=8-1

FINAL ADVICE – DOCUMENT EVERYTHING AND USE CONTRACTS!

My over-arching advice is in the first communications you have with your prospective client you need to quickly assess their suitability. The more you get sucked in, the more damaging the consequences could be for your design business. Now although this article portrays clients as being pure evil, I assure you 85% of clients you will get will be perfectly normal and reasonable people who will treat your work with reverent respect. However, it is important to recognise that there are people who either purposely or unwillingly, may try and manipulate your work, break contracts and be generally unreasonable to deal with. Evidence of this is all the hundreds and thousands of court cases jamming the district courts each year over the above matters. Furthermore, follow your instincts, and if necessary seek independent and neutral advice even if it is from friends and family, as they will not have the bias of being in the project and not know what the clients behavioural attributes are like. Sometimes it is the Mr. Niceguy on the phone that can be the most devious of them all. Please in the comments tell me your experience of bad clients and what your advice for others is!

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5 Responses to “Picking Good Clients for Industrial Designers”

  1. Johny says:

    Great article! Some of those thoughts I have had in my head for a while. You’re right in saying that some clients are better not having no matter how much they will pay you.

  2. Alison Jayne says:

    I hate tight ****** thomas….the ones who don’t pay are **** to do deal with. There needs to be easier and better ways to force people to pay you money and not do a runner. I have ran into instances like this twice! You can’t trust anyone.

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  4. rosea says:

    hi , thanks your post is perfect… ;)
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  5. Mario Barros says:

    Excellent article. It’s a good categorization about clients and it’s very helpful for preventing bad experiences.

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