Navigating the Client Landscape: How to Identify Good Clients from the Start

COMPUTER OPERATOR, vendor, artiste. Clients often misunderstand graphic designers’ jobs. They see us as frustrating contracted employees instead of valuable, skilled partners who provide creative business solutions.

Three experienced Triangle-area designers say we shouldn’t resign ourselves to working with bad clients. Take control and target only Good Clients. Be selective when dealing with prospective clients. Follow your gut instincts, they say, and don’t jump at every client opportunity.

Woody Holliman of Durham’s Flywheel Design recommends asking some probing questions when meeting new clients: “Have you ever worked with a professional designer before? If so, how did it go?” A prospective client’s answer can tell you a lot about how this client feels about the value of design. It also can reveal how they might interact with you (their future graphic designer), he says.

With nearly 20 years of experience in graphic design, Holliman has learned to look for specific qualities in prospective clients… qualities that make for pleasant, long-term profitable relationships. He wants someone who is an “experienced consumer of design, who understands the value (as well as the cost) of good design. They want to hire the best firm they can afford, on the assumption that this will maximize the return on their investment. They’re excited to be working with you and eager to help in any way they can. They respect your judgment and want to give you free rein to do your best work. They have exacting standards and expect a first-rate product.”

Holliman says desirable prospective clients see themselves as your ally rather than your adversary in the design process. This viewpoint is a key characteristic of good clients, one that all graphic designers should learn to identify from the first meeting in order to improve their business success.

Domenick Rella of Rella:Cowan Advertising in Durham concurs with Holliman. He especially asks prospective clients whether they have seen his firm’s work. “The ones that are red flags are the ones that don’t appear to have the same values and the same strategy/mindset,” he says.

Even when a desirable client opens a preliminary meeting with a declaration that they have already settled on his agency, he makes sure to confirm that the client concurs with Rella:Cowan’s creative style and philosophy. He says that experience has taught him to walk away from the opportunity rather than enter into a disastrous client relationship. “The most tangible thing is the work. If a creative prospect doesn’t like it, then that relationship is doomed to fail.”

“Marketing is not surgery,” he adds. “It’s fun. We want to have fun. If they truly value your expertise and counsel – and if they don’t think they know marketing more than you do  –  then you know it’s going to work out.”

One important perk of cultivating good clients, Rella says, is socializing with them outside of the office. If he has a strong negative reaction to a prospective client, he says, he will not accept the job.

Kelty Brittle of Fine Point Creative in Raleigh agrees with Rella, “Show your good clients a lot of love and treat them well. Often, good clients are people you’d want to hang out with afterhours. That doesn’t mean all of your good clients are going to be your best friends, but good things can lead to better things,” she says. “Life is just too short to work with frustrating people.”


In November of last year, Woody Holliman was one of the speakers at an AIGA Lunch & Learn event: How to Speak Business (Without Really Trying). He outlined how to recognize different types of clients. Below is the handout he gave attendees.

Woody Holliman, DESIGN+BUSINESS RELATIONSHIPS: How to Speak Business (Without Really Trying) AIGA Raleigh Lunch ‘N Learn seminar handout 11/16/10


Robin Rodes is a freelance graphic designer and writer from Pittsboro. In a previous life, she worked as a daily newspaper reporter and then a senior account executive with a NYC-area marketing communications firm. She holds a BA in Journalism from UNC Chapel Hill.


By Robin Rodes
Published October 17, 2011