Clients: It’s Not Their Fault

I’m lucky to have connected with Clare Ultimo of Clare Ultimo Inc. back in August 2008. We worked on a project together for a mutual client and have remained in contact ever since. I consider her a mentor, and a great one at that!

We speak multiple times per week bouncing ideas, new concepts and trends as well as the occasional personal story off each other. We often laugh and sometimes cry but more importantly we learn from each other. Just last week, Clare brilliantly pointed out that everyone’s in business these days and she’s right. I had never compared the modern era of entrepreneurism to the corporate era when Clare opened her studio in 1987 but it’s different. It’s this very point, that makes me value her insight – as without her the thought would have never crossed my mind.

Let’s hear what Clare has to say about “Clients: It’s Not Their Fault”:

Only a few years ago, clients that bought communication design services were well educated in the design process. Many of them went to design school, later deciding they would be happier buying the work than making it. They were vested in the marketing power of branding and spent years developing their own skill in a marketplace that looked, at that time, “stable” to them. They followed standards that would seem rigid to us nowadays; standards that nonetheless made the work easier and profitable for everyone to do.

These clients won design awards and actually cared what other corporations thought of their visual branding. They understood stuff like corporate color palettes and spoke all the technical lingo of their time. You knew in advance that these clients would be clear about what a “kill fee” was, they understood usage (and planned to pay for it in advance) and they knew that what they paid for did not include endless rounds of revision unless you were billing them. In short, you as designer or developer did not spend ANY time educating clients about your work. They came to you already understanding the business of communication, of design, of branding and marketing…and all you had to do was what you did best: invent, design and produce a fabulous “thing” that made them look good to their higher-ups. They actually paid you for this (very well, in many cases), and you didn’t spend a minute explaining what “comp” was to them. Ah, The Good Old Days…it all changed so quickly, we didn’t know what we had.

The New Client

Corporate meltdowns eliminated a lot of jobs and created a new breed of client: the entrepreneur. These are brave folks with their back against the wall and new dreams to realize. The only problem is that most of these folks had little if any contact with the visual purveyors of their previous corporate entities. They never had to deal with the blurry edges of the creative process, or for that matter, the hard structures of deadlines, clear communication, design briefs, budgets, and all the rest that makes great communication design projects. So while the potential and the need for design is greater than ever today, the folks buying it are less informed about it too.

In 2010, design clients are ubiquitous. Your Aunt Tildie is a client because she wants to sell her cookies on the internet. The guy who walks your dog needs a website. An economy who can no longer take care of it’s corporate shareholders opened the floodgates, and now clients are everywhere and everyone, whether they know what a kill fee is or not, needs a logo. Designers and communication experts need to be smarter than ever before, and much more saintly too, if they want to keep their sense of humor about all of this.

I once knew a design firm that fired Prince. When I asked the principal of the firm about it, he said “well, not every client is right for us and you have to maintain your standards”. (Boy, would I love to have been a fly on the wall during that termination meeting!) That firm has long since broken into smaller pieces, unable to carry a huge overhead and forty employees through dwindling corporate design budgets, the meat of their income. And while we all need to be picky and careful who we give our talent and time to, corporate America, traditionally the fountain of great design, ain’t what it used to be. This new breed of client is a victim of a system that isn’t working so well for anyone anymore.

So it’s not their fault if clients don’t know what they’re doing, or we have to explain the process over and over to them, right? Right! Annoyingly, we’re all in this together. But in the end, I think we’ll be in a better position, no matter what it looks like now. We all may have to do more than what’s expected of us for a while, (and that means clients too!) but when we begin to surprise each other with the integrity we always knew we had – business will be better than ever.

Great point Clare! Thank you for your insight. I would like to hear what you think about this article! Feel free to share your thoughts below.

Clients: It’s Not Their Fault Article Courtesy of:

Clare Ultimo Inc.



Since 1987, Clare Ultimo Inc. has been on the forefront of graphic design, corporate communication, and branding, as an award winning Graphic Design Studio located in New York City.