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What Clients Say Vs. What They Mean

As funny as it may seem, and the truth always being funnier, it's a source of constant frustration for creatives who count on a project running smoothly, while extra days, and weeks cut down not so much the profit margin, but the extra time cutting into the very ability to make a living. Sure, it's okay to laugh, but we must also learn how to head off the problems caused by this gap in language and meaning.


My worst say vs. meaning story was when the president of a large comic book publishing company for which I worked wanted me to redesign the corporate stationery. She said she wanted something "sophisticated."

One, two, six, ten attempts later, she was screaming about wanting something "sophisticated," and I wasn't giving it to her. I repeated the dictionary definition of "sophisticated," and she said, "no, no, no, NO! I WANT A SOPHISTICATED DESIGN!"

"Could you show me some examples of what inspires you, and speak of the level of sophistication you desire?" I asked after twelve design attempts.

She went to a piece of paper on her desk, and handed it to me. It was a competitor's letterhead, covered in cartoon characters. "Oh, you want something whimsical," I replied.

She looked stunned, but the next design met with her approval, although she made sure my yearly review stated I was unable to take proper design directions, and I was denied my annual raise. Lesson learned!

Classic Foolishness

The problem with communicating with a client is that creatives have terms not used in everyday conversations, especially web design. If you watch a client's eyes as you describe how you will build their site and what tools you'll use to make it functional, you'll notice them fog over.

They have no idea what the hell you're saying, but they won't admit that by asking questions because that would make you smarter than they are, and they have the money, ergo, they are the smartest person in the room. They certainly can't defer to your knowledge of the subject, and lose complete control, so they will say things that sound odd to creatives, because they are trying to communicate their wishes, using what they feel is creative language…. or they're cheats, and liars, and want to rip you a new one.

  • What the client says: "This is a great opportunity for you!"
    What the client means: "Do this for free."
    Answer: "I really prefer the opportunity to earn money to pay my bills."
  • What the client says: "This design has to respond to everyone!"
    What the client means: "The last designer I drove insane mentioned 'responsive design' but I didn't understand the term, and I didn't want to pay more."
    Answer: "Responsive design would fit your needs better. It's built into my quote already as it's now a web standard."
  • What the client says: "I want people to know this is my site"
    What the client means: "Make the logo HUGE."
    Answer: "I'll certainly make sure your brand is well represented.
  • What the client says: "This site has to be very popular"
    What the client means: "I want lots of traffic."
    Answer: "We'll build in all the sharing buttons, but you will need to keep up with fresh content, or the site will die" (this will keep the client paying you for content creation).
  • What the client says: "I'm not making changes… the project is evolving!"
    What the client means: "I'm not paying for the multiple changes I've demanded."
    Answer: "Even so, the costs are increasing over the approved design direction, just so you are aware."
  • What the client says: "We all need to be flexible for this project to move it along"
    What the client means: "I'll be changing my mind a lot, but don't want to pay for changes, and still want it on time."
    Answer: "You'll find the contract allows you full freedom to be flexible within the parameters of the payment schedules and scope."
  • What the client says: "The last three designers were idiots!"
    What the client means: "I'm an idiot, and can't work with a professional."
    Answer: "They should have issued you professional contracts to protect your rights, and spell out the parameters of the project so everyone had full transparency, and clear expectations."
  • What the client says: "We need to build a relationship built on trust, and not a piece of paper!"
    What the client means: "I don't want a contract that will hold me to timely payments, and changes."
    Answer: "My contract is digital!"
  • What the client says: "I've consulted with a friend who's an expert in design, and they have many concerns about your design."
    What the client means: "My six year-old daughter doesn't like the design and she won an art contest at her school."
    Answer: "Design can be subjective from person to person. We're seeking out a design that functions with your brand, AND your demographic that will sell at a higher level. How does that friend feel about the functionality, and reach potential?"
  • What the client says: "I prefer you work on site, here, so we can brainstorm as we move forward."
    What the client means: "I'm a control freak."
    Answer: "That's why I've set firm milestones in the process, so you will be aware of all steps in the design, as well as the payments."

Don't Borrow Trouble!

There are two types of new clients: The ones who are frightened by the process of design because it is completely alien to them, and the ones who feel design shouldn't cost more than $100. It doesn't matter if they are sole-proprietors, or large corporations. What creatives do is beyond their understanding. So, the best approach is to get as much of the fear, and uncertainty out of the way up front. The best way to do that is with a thorough creative brief that includes as much as possible.

Grill the client to find out what they want, desire, expect, translate the odd wording with a show of examples they like, and then spell out "how I work" with clear contractual terms, milestones, payments, and what will be delivered in terms of rights, files, and anything else that comes up in the initial discussion.

THAT is when you will see trouble down the road and can walk away with a minimum of investment of your time… or enjoy a smooth, and wonderful experience, and perhaps a repeat client who trusts you, and appreciates your talent.

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