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How To Pick the Right Clients


A few years ago I was interviewing a designer for a job. We ended up passing on him. Not because the work was bad, it wasn’t. And not because he interviewed badly, he didn’t. We passed on him, because while reviewing his portfolio, we came across work for a client I won’t name. Let’s just say their product kills people.

“Why did you work on that?” I asked.

There are two answers I would have accepted from him. “I don’t have a problem with their business model—in fact, I think there are too many people in the world.” Weird? Sure. But hey, he would have been making a stand. The second answer I’d have accepted would’ve been, “They’re terrible, but I really needed the money and had no other options.” I can’t begrudge anyone making a living, and we’ve all done things we’re not proud of.

Instead he looked surprised that I was asking the question and said something to the effect of it just being the next project on his plate.

I asked him if he agreed with how they made their money. He replied in the negative — he’d just done the design. I told him we didn’t take on any projects that we couldn’t ethically stand behind.

And here I’ll quote him: “Must be nice.”

And that’s when I decided not to hire him.

Now, I’m not trying to embarrass this individual, who I’m sure will have a solid design career, and I might have even done the same thing at his age. But as a designer, hell, as ANY type of craftsman, you are responsible for what you help to put in the world. You are defined by the clients you take on, and you can only stand as proud as the work you do and its benefit to society entitles you.

The clients you choose to take on define you.

In ten years of business (Christ!) at Mule, we’ve taken on projects we’ve been personally excited about, projects we thought had a fantastic benefit to the world, projects we thought were great fun, projects with subject matter we were curious about, and yes, even projects that were taken primarily to keep the lights on (if any clients are reading this please rest assured that yours did NOT fit into that category), but we’ve never taken on a project that we were either ashamed of or knew from the start would be problematic.

The former I can only leave you with your own moral compass to wrestle, but on the latter I think I may be able to pass along a few tricks to help you pick out the right clients and ensure the mutual success of your business and theirs.

Can you do good work for this client?

The business development process should go both ways. They’re trying to decide if they want to work with you, and you’re trying to decide whether you want to work with them. Are they tackling a problem that’s interesting to you? Do you have the core competencies to solve it? Is there room for you in the problem-solving process? Can they pay you?

Over the years the one constant that we’ve been able to rely on is that how a potential client behaves in the business development process is EXACTLY how they will behave during the project. Trust your gut. If they’re slow to return your calls now, while they’re trying to engage you, they’ll be just as slow later. If gathering requirements or success metrics is hard, then gathering feedback will be just as hard, if not harder. If biz dev turns into a May Day parade of red flags then disengage. You will not be able to do good work, and neither you nor the client will be well-served.

Do they understand what you bring to the table?

“Don’t worry. We know exactly what we need.”

Oh, thank God. Because I was shitting my pants wondering if I’d know where to place the buttons and rounded corners and other doodads.

Beware of clients that wait to call you until they have a perfect diagram of what they need. If they’re not coming to you for strategy and problem-solving, they’re not coming to you for design, they’re coming to you for production. And if you take on production work, you don’t get to call yourself a designer. (Yes, there’s a union. And we’re vicious.)

Look for clients that have clear goals, not detailed punchlists.

From a client’s point of view, hire a designer to help you get to a solution. Not to execute on one. You wouldn’t show up at a database analyst’s door with a fully realized database schematic. Don’t show up at a designer’s door with a drawing of a tuna can.

Beware of Negging.

You know that douchebag at the bar who walks up to your friends and says, “You know, I usually date models…” Yeah, that guy. The client services version of that is, “You know, we’ve got some really big name agencies who’d love to get this job.” Great, go call them. Don’t work for someone who tries to make you feel they’re lowering themselves to work with you. Good work comes from mutual respect.

My VC wants me to hire you.

No, just no. Never work with someone who shows up begrudgingly. It’s not going to work out.

I’m wary of working with startups in general. At least on their initial work. Even when they’re good, smart people, they’re people with dreams. People who probably walked away from their comfortable full-time jobs to follow a dream they’ve been designing in their heads for months or years. What they need is someone to flesh that out for them. They’re not usually in a mindset to have their dream messed with, nor should they be. Remember how mom dreamed of being a filmmaker and dad talked her into waiting until after having you and now she drinks? They’ll be better clients in a year, when you can do dream analysis, by which I mean analytics.

Is their project core to their business?

Someone who is in the business of selling pants will still be selling pants in three to four months, provided they’re still selling anything. But when someone selling pants comes to you with an idea to sell toasters, beware. Why are they getting into a new business? Is it a natural growth of their existing business? Does their expertise in their current business translate to their new business? Or is it an opportunistic attempt to “fill a hole in the market?” That hole may close before the project is over, and they’ll want to move to the next opportunity. Want to redo all that work? No, because they’ll want you to do it for free.

Which brings us to…

Work for money.

You are in business. You need to be as confident about money as you are about design.

Beware of clients who want you to work for equity. There’s too much there beyond your control. And especially beware of clients who tell you the work you do together will look great in your portfolio. For one, it probably won’t. A client who asks you to work for free already disrespects you. How do you think that’ll play out during the project? Think you’re getting portfolio-level work out of that? Secondly, you’re in business to make money. I’m lucky enough that I get to do what I love for a living, but only because I make a living off it. Working for portfolio fodder is the same as dying young and leaving a good-looking corpse.

Never work for free. Any work you take on for free will get pushed aside for paying work. That does neither you nor the client any favors. Neither of you will respect each other’s time. If the situation merits it, work on a discounted rate. But submit a budget showing the actual rate, with the discount applied.

Money is a standard part of any business transaction. I’ll go over strategies for talking about money in a later post, but as far as selecting clients goes, watch out for clients who don’t understand the financial value of what they’re hiring you for. In 95% of the jobs we’ve taken on, our clients have met or exceeded their success metrics after our work was done. Can we take full credit for that? Sure! Well, no, probably not, but it’s safe to say we were definitely a part of that.

Good luck.

Will following these rules help you get better clients? Probably. Are they failsafe? Oh, hell no. But they’re based on many, many years of trial and error, messing up, dusting myself off and trying again. As always, I’m not advocating for a single way of getting real or getting things done; I’m telling you how it worked out for me. Your mileage will certainly vary. Above all, the best advice I can give you in selecting your clients is to be confident, treat everyone with the same respect you want them to treat you, trust your gut, and iron your shirt.

If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy: Tips On Buying Design, Presenting Design Like You Get Paid For It, and Giving Better Design Feedback.


Would you care to elevate the discussion?

21 thoughts on “How To Pick the Right Clients

  1. Dani Kelley says:

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I’ve learned some of these the hard way. Filing this away for future forever-reference.

  2. Phillip Morris says:

    Correct answer:“They’re terrible, but I really needed the money and had no other options.”

    His answer:“Must be nice.” (Which translates into the above answer)

    Seems to me he answered correctly.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Yeah, I agree with Phil, “must be nice” sounds like a reasonable facsimile of “I needed the money” to me?

  4. Aardvark says:

    Agree with Phillip Morris, as to how to read “Must be nice.”

    Indeed, that was roughly my thought, coming into to the article from the following quote:

    “But as a designer, hell, as ANY type of craftsman, you are responsible for what you help to put in the world. You are defined by the clients you take on, and you can only stand as proud as the work you do and its benefit to society entitles you.”

    That said, I agree with the advice. The problem is the implication it has for sectors in which there is a poor understanding of planning and design (they don’t know what you can do, and the work you do may be in changing that state of affairs, while producing output of compromised quality), and a history of either not measuring the value of the organization or of value being non-monetary (i.e., it not necessarily being possible to fund according to the value design offers). I speak of academic and cultural institutions, libraries, etc. You might say “let em fail” to anyone too stupid to recognize the importance of coherent goals (I’d be there with you), but I’d wager that group incudes most people who haven’t been subject to the market, and as far as providing value to the world, I can’t say I’m confident that people will reliably pay for what benefits them, even if you are able to measure, document, and communicate that value.

    Also: don’t marry someone who is in a profession where jobs are scarce (you might have to leave your metropolitan design hub), have kids, or choose to work as a designer within some industry that needs it rather than being a free agent or member of a design firm. Do any of that and you might as well die young.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I agree with Phil. If he thought it was nice to to be able to choose it is probably because he would like to do that himself but for some reason he cannot. No need to clarify he needs food on his plate…dont we all?

  6. Ryan McAdam says:

    Great article. The work you do today definitely influences the work you do tomorrow. If you’re considering taking on a questionable client then you better be able to justify it to yourself so you can articulate the reasons to others. It’s intellectually lazy not to. That’s the point of the anecdote at the top of the article.

  7. mike says:

    If the lead anecdote wasn’t made up… words other than something between “cocksure” and “retarded”, escape me. The rest of the article wasn’t bad, but the anecdote… the anecdote is… troubling. The young man in question should actually be embarrassed for you. I don’t mean that in a “third grade” way, I mean that in a man-to-man way.

    There is a massive difference between cocksure and confident. The anecdote slammed you solidly into the former category. You surely had a better story than that which truly exposes such bung-holiness, que no? I’m sorry brother, but this is a gaff to your reputation. Most people have had to struggle at one point or another, to put yourself above and proclaim them wrong for that is dumbfounding douch-baggery.

  8. erik spiekermann says:

    Check out our client manifesto:

  9. twitter follower says:

    As someone who has performed several interviews and hires, the answer “Must be nice” does not equal “They’re terrible, but I really needed the money and had no other options.”

    “Must be nice” is “hey, fuck you for asking, who the hell are you?” which is an entirely unprofessional tone to what he perceives as an antagonizing question. Surely clients will also pose uncomfortable and challenging questions/comments and his choice of words indicates that he will likely have inappropriate responses to those clients. I wouldn’t hire him either.

  10. Alastair L says:

    It does look like the author failed to interpret “Must be nice” as “I needed the money”

    Yet “I needed the money” is never a moral justification, it’s a rationalisation, and it’s not even a good one.

    The rule is really simple, if the money you make is from an immoral act, it harms other’s directly or indirectly, the the money is dirty (and has negative karma attached). So making guns and selling them, dirty money, no question, even if you sell 90% of them to “Peacekeeping Forces” they’re still guns to be used to kill people.

    So what if you did some design work for Mr Wesson and Smith? Same deal, not maybe quite so bad (it depends largely on your real intentions, if you are aware of them or not) as designing a new trigger mechanism for them. Helping them sell more hand guns so the nation can harm itself — not good.

    So where does this cascading fall of karmic debt end. I don’t know but at a certain point it becomes hair splitting. If you’re a web host and host the website of the design firm who once made a print for the gun manufacturer — then I think we are getting into hair splitting territory. Then again if that design firm is your sole client and their major client is gun maker and they place ads in 17 magazine to promote gun use among teens then perhaps their would be an issue!

    Apologise if you like guns but it’s a good example, as Obama said “This is after all, America”

  11. Alastair L says:

    Also, since when was their a client you need so bad that you had to take them no matter what they did?

    So say it was a tobacco seller, if that’s justifiable b/c you needed the money, what did you need it for? To feed your kids? What are you feeding them? Could you sell your car? What if it wasn’t big tobacco it was a maker of the death chair or a brothel? Still okay, what if it was a website for a mob money laundering business or a phishing site to rip of the elderly? Still okay, Terrorist Organisation portal fronting as a porn site? At some point everybody gets disgusted and wont do the work they will just find another, less rich maybe, client who needs some work done.

    My point is the ends never justifies the means, ever. It might explain it to yourself but that is all.

  12. Alastair L says:

    To contradict myself a bit, I do agree with what twitter follower said. I read “Must be nice” as “aren’t you a lucky, cocksucker then”. But I wasn’t there and he may have been genuinely impressed that someone could actual choose their clients based on ethics?!

  13. Soulvy says:

    I’ve turned down clients (both as a coder and a horse trainer) for similar reasons. The one that makes me run-not-walk is “I’d do it myself, I just don’t have time. Just do exactly what I tell you.” If they can “do it themself” they are are welcome to the job, and far be it from me to interfere. If a person is buying my aesthetics, experience (mental and physical) and knowledge, then pay me, and partner with me and trust me. And trust goes both ways. I can’t shut my eyes at night if my days were spent supporting what I believe is wrong. Period. Wrong as in moral, evidently not ethical, given the diversity of opinion, but in the case of my work, my opinion is the one that matters. And so also to Mike and Erica. Thanks for a thoughtful stance on a topic that is usually kept in one’s pocket.

  14. L says:

    I would have to agree with Mike! It appears as though the author was either unclear or is talking “out both sides of his mouth.” The author clearly states that an answer he would have accepted was “They’re terrible, but I really needed the money and had no other options.” The person interviewing provided that answer, and did it in a professional manner, by not trashing his former employer. The author obviously failed to listen during the interview and didn’t put thought into things as he whipped up this article.

    -> I asked him if he agreed with how they made their money. He replied in the negative — he’d just done the design. I told him we didn’t take on any projects that we couldn’t ethically stand behind.

    And here I’ll quote him: “Must be nice.”

    The person interviewed clearly stated that he didn’t like how they made their money at his former company. The “must be nice” clearly implies that he didn’t have the option to walk away from the project. The answer in my opinion, clearly should have been acceptable, as it matched what the person interviewing “supposedly” wanted to hear.

    I would never hire a designer that said they would do “anything for money.” The author accepting that answer is completely contradictory to him stating that he only takes on projects that they can ethically stand behind. People that will do “anything for money” lack ethics. Unless he has a fucking company manual with his “ethics” clearly defined, ethics vary from person to person, and if he going to base hiring people on his ethics, he needs to ask a hell of a lot more questions.

  15. J says:

    L and I need clarification lest we never stop arguing:

    Was “Must be nice.” delivered in a bratty, pouty, defeatist, douchey, this-attitude-will-pose-a-problem-in-the-future-when-applied-to-client-situations tone… or… not?

    fwiw, I’m assuming it was douchey.

    It’s always douchey.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I am surprised to read this:

    “Must be nice” is “hey, fuck you for asking, who the hell are you?” …

    in which world does it translate like that? I have interviewed people myself too and for it to be interpreted like that there must be a whole tone and attitude to it. Just the words alone wont tell you either way, so jumping into such a conclusion already makes you a lousy person to be hiring anyone.

  17. Anonymous says:

    And by the way…a little thought about the morals when choosing a job, a gig or whatever you choose to call it.

    Do you guys know that in today’s complex web of companies interrelationships you can probably trace back a lot of your work back to some evil cause? Seriously. I am not saying with this that we shouldnt care at all…I do care and I like thinking others too..but it is almost impossible to find yourself entirely “clean” because the small gig you did, it may end up for a nice companie who sells supplies or works for or works with some other company who may not be that nice..or it may be owned by someone that also owns other enterprises that indeed do support awful causes.

    For example: you make a website for a local farmer who sells cans of jelly made out of fruit trees he owns. The guy is nice and he treats you nice, he pays what he has to pay, the project goes smoothly and you are happy and you have peace of mind. But the farmer uses roundup from Monsanto as a pesticide for part of his crops and he contaminates his neighbours -other farmers- because applying pesticides is not such an accurate task as you might think and the air gets poluted, the product travels…etc etc etc…

    You think the project was all fine, but if you trace back who you worked for then you are supporting a bad cause after all.

    All I am saying is REALLY hard to determine what impact your work may have in the end. I guess we can reject what is blatantly wrong and pray the rest wont come back as bad karma to bite us in our behinds.

  18. Jeff Tidwell says:

    Stop all this jibba jabba.

  19. Anonymous says:

    “Must be nice” is flippant and would definitely raise a red flag. However, looking through your list of clients, one could argue that, say, charter schools and the Wall Street Journal would pose similar ethical conundrums for some of us.

  20. HAL says:

    A position is to be filled. The world is full of talent. The world is full of people looking for work. Only one person will fill this position. Assuming candidates with strong portfolios are the only ones we are looking at, how will we decide the right person for this position in this studio?

    The job of a designer is not merely to design but to be a good communicator. If in the interviewing stage, a candidate can’t clearly stand by a simple choice they made – they probably aren’t the right hire. Taking this a step further, the candidate left this potentially controversial piece of work in their portfolio. Had the notion even occurred that this might not bode well to a potential employer? That would be bad. Was their portfolio so thin that they couldn’t have omitted it?

    The response of “it must be nice,” should absolutely send off a warning bell. It clearly articulates that he was of the belief that the very studio that he was in the process of interviewing for is somehow magically endowed with the fortune of only working with whom they want to. He on the other hand has never been so lucky. In that one statement, he assumes that choosing who you work with is just a matter privilege, as oppose to principle. Wrong answer. Move on to the next candidate.

  21. A corollary to “how a potential client behaves in the business development process is EXACTLY how they will behave during the project. Trust your gut. If they’re slow to return your calls now, while they’re trying to engage you, they’ll be just as slow later.” :

    If you are interviewing for a job and the firm treats you poorly, is unresponsive about their timeline, etc., when they are trying to impress you–well it will be even crappier for you working there.

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