Eric Karjaluoto

Design Not Widgets

The design buying process used to be a simpler transaction: 1) Client decides what thing (e.g., logo, identity, website) he/she needs made. 2) Designer provides quote. 3) Work is completed. 4) Samples go into portfolio. 5) Repeat.

It’s not like that any longer. Buyers know they need more than a unique shape or nifty stationery kit. They might want help with their company’s vision. They might need a system that better holds the organization together. Or, they might need advice on whether they should run an ad, or get new store signage.

A designer’s job is diverse—and it’ll become more so. You can get pissed off and fight this. Or, you can change some of your habits, relax a bit, and find yourself better off. Here are a handful of tips for doing so. (Be forewarned: you won’t like some of them.)

Check your ego

You probably aren’t very good at most design tasks. (I’m not either.) That’s OK, though. If you’re ridiculously good at one thing, you’re likely weak in other areas. Truth is, most design needn’t be amazing—it just needs to work. Meanwhile, most clients will take a solution that’s good across the board, over one that’s inconsistent. So, stop trying to be the next Sagmeister, and get the job done. It’s not about you anyway.

Know your value

You are not a set of hands. Let me put that differently: you are not just a set of hands. In a global economy, hands are cheap. Someone out there—who earns a fraction of what you earn—is 100x the craftsperson you are. For that reason, they should get the work (no matter how much you despise when companies off-shore their design projects). That said, design isn’t only about craft. It’s about thinking, ideas, project management, support, reliability, and all kinds of other (often not sexy) matters. Prove your value by helping your clients sort out that stuff.


Clients require help with a larger number of things, which means you’ll be pushed beyond your comfort zone. Maybe they need trade show banners, but you’ve never built those before. Perhaps they need to establish common nomenclature for their UX, and you’ve never heard the word “nomenclature” before. Or, they need a long format catalogue produced, but you’re not great with InDesign. The days of knowing everything about your job are over. So, run Google searches, watch YouTube tutorials, ask questions, and stumble your way through. You might be surprised by how simple many tasks turn out to be.


Lots of designers worry about not knowing how to code. This is a contentious topic, and one we pay too much attention. One we afford too little attention to is writing—a skill every designer must hold competence in. You need to be able to write clear creative briefs, emails, and documentation. If you can’t verbalize your decisions effectively, you won’t get far as a designer. The nice part? Your writing improves with practice; so, stop making excuses, and get to work at owning this skill.

Admit what you don’t know

You can fill in your knowledge/experience gaps, by giving something new a try. This is all good, but you shouldn’t pass yourself off as an expert in these areas. Instead, just be honest when you’re doing something you’re less familiar with. For example, one of my clients needs help with his shop interiors. I hold opinions on this matter, but I am not an interior designer. So, I continually remind him that my advice about his space isn’t fully informed. He’s OK with that, and most times my suggestions work out. I never make like I’m an expert with such matters, though.

Connect your clients to other professionals

Sometimes your clients need help with tasks you have no domain expertise in (e.g., product photography, trademarks, SEO, social media). It’s tempting to take all this work on, but you shouldn’t. Without the required expertise, you’ll lose money on this work. Or, you might want to hire an outside party, mark up the work, and pocket the difference. Again: don’t do it. The management time will eat up all your profit. Instead, find good partners, and give your clients their contact info. Your clients will appreciate your transparency—and your willingness to help them find someone capable.

Teach your clients to do it for themselves

A lot of us designers are control freaks. As such, the idea of handing design tasks over to a client is scary. I say it’s necessary, though. Fact is, you can’t be there to make every visual decision. Plus, your client might not want to pay you to be there that much. So, build good templates, provide instructions, and help them do some stuff on their own. Even if the results aren’t always perfect, they might suffice. This approach affords your client more control. (It also helps them see that your job isn’t all fun and games.)

Keep it simple

Most of us have a tendency to push our work too far. When we do this, we often delude ourselves into thinking that we’re providing good value to our clients. In truth, this is largely gold-plating. Often times, the best solution is the simplest one. So, don’t complicate your work unnecessarily. If a simple solution works, run with it. These ones often resonate well with clients—and make for lasting design. Additionally, if you learn that it’s not the right approach, you can retool a simple one more easily than one you over-invested in.

Find less expensive options

Clients aren’t used to designers showing them how they can save money. (This might be why so many are reluctant to discuss their available budgets.) Nevertheless, you know there are ways to get the job done for less. Sure, some come with trade-offs. Those trade-offs might be worth it, though—particularly if the client is budget-strapped. Suggest ways they can cut some corners. Make note of projects that might be unnecessary. Point out volume pricing options. Every time you do, you prove that you’re putting their needs first. (Don’t forget to bill your hourly rate while deliberating and making these recommendations.)

Use templates

Templates are easy to hate. They often reek of a sort of sameness that feels like the dumbing down of design. That said, you shouldn’t dismiss them too quickly. Some jobs just don’t have a suitable budget for the work required—but still need to be done. In these situations, a $50 template and a few hours of implementation might be good enough. Customization is expensive. Buying something pre-made can dramatically impact these costs. Remind your client that a little compromise can save a lot of money. When the available budget is greater, you can move on to a more custom solution.

Be the water

Sometimes you care so much about a relationship that you suffocate it. You write daunting contracts. You behave in an overly formal manner—to seem professional. You fret losing the project. In my experience, all these tendencies are unnecessary. Keep the contract simple. Heck, encourage them to fire you if they’re unhappy. Give them the control. And if they want out, hand over the files. (So long as they’ve paid for your time to date, files aren’t worth fighting over.) Speak clearly, be honest, but skip the formality. And don’t worry about losing the project. If it goes away, you’re freed up to work on something else.

Build it so you can walk away

Most businesspeople contemplate how they can parlay one project into another, preferably larger, one. This is completely understandable from a business development standpoint. I suggest a different approach, though: build everything so that your clients need you less. By this I mean building good, adaptable systems they can reuse. Doing so helps you earn their trust. (And it’s the right thing to do.) Besides, if you keep getting the job done right, you’ll never find yourself short on new work.

Forget your portfolio

There’s good reason to obsess over your portfolio. It’s part of how you get new work. It’s also a point of pride. That said, most designers put too much stock in it. In fact, wanting to have a good portfolio can cloud your decisions and make you more difficult to work with. So, I say you worry less about your portfolio, and instead obsess over your clients’ needs. Make enough of those folks happy, and you’ll always be busy.

Charge by the hour

Fixed project prices are dangerous and unhealthy. They put both parties at risk of losing money and they create stress when expectations aren’t balanced. So, I want you to pretend you’re a taxi. You help your client get to their destination, but they make the decisions on when to stop/continue. Shifting to a pay-as-you-go approach affords your client the power to choose—and means they determine which tasks are worth the time/money. I explain how to do this in my post, How we fixed our studio’s cash flow problem.

Be a part of the team

Design feels like a business, but it’s really more of a partnership. When I work with a client, I try to forget that I work at smashLAB. For the time that I’m with them, I’m just another member of their team—and I need to help them the best way that I can. What I like about this approach, is that it invests me more in what my client needs to achieve. Take the same tack, and you’ll find yourself making better recommendations and choices for the people you work with.

Whew. That was longer than I had planned! But look at you… you got through the entire thing. Nice!

When you start out in design, you tend to think that there’s one right way to do things. That’s not really the case, though. Instead, there are many options, and you’re free to rewrite your approaches however you’d like.

The real test comes down to how your clients feel about the way you work together. Don’t sweat whether you’re doing what your peers are. Instead, ask yourself how you can afford your client good value in the most convenient way.

Whether you’re working as a freelancer, or as a full-time employee, the person who pays you will appreciate that you put their needs first.

Sign up to receive new articles by email: