A List Apart

Laura Kalbag on Freelance Design

Good Designers, Good Clients

A note from the editors: We’re thrilled to have the brilliant young Laura Kalbag with us talking about freelance design, process, client work, and the occasional dog walk!

I love working in client services. When I say this to people, their reaction is either shock, or sympathy from those who think I’m completely deluded.

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In the web community, it often seems like client work is what people do when they need money to fund the projects they really care about. I might be considered an oddball for not aspiring to work in a hip startup or create a product out of a side project. Client work has a reputation for being stressful, with clients being difficult and demanding. But for me, client work is helping people realize their meaningful projects. It doesn’t have to be enormously stressful—and it’s incredibly worthwhile.

Clients from hell?

Every day I see people on Twitter and Facebook complaining about clients or linking to stories on Clients From Hell. We’ve all been tempted to vent about clients being ignorant, distrusting, and generally unpleasant. Chatting with another designer about client work last week, I started to say “somehow I never get these awful clients that other people talk about.” For a long time I’ve felt like the lucky one—my clients were all smart, kind, and open to ideas. What a fluke! But then I realized that it might not be that great clients just seem to find me. At least a little bit of those successful relationships must be down to me.

Of course, I’m fortunate that my clients are good people in the first place. When I’m looking at potential projects, the clients who stand out are those who speak passionately about their project, and genuinely care about the outcome. I’ve now learned how much more smoothly a project will run when the clients are truly engaged.

I’ve also changed my perception of clients’ behavior. Where I might have previously derided a client for being ignorant, I now see where there’s a need for education. Where I previously complained about distrust, I now see a desire for openness.


As a designer, fifty percent of your work is communication. Probably even more. If you don’t enjoy communicating with your clients, then you’ll really struggle to succeed in client services. If you think that working freelance and remotely means you’ll be left to work for days without disruption, you’re not just wrong, but you’re going about client services in the wrong way.

  • A designer needs to be able to describe how something might work. Being able to communicate your ideas verbally or in writing, as well as visually, will prevent you from having to create mockups for every tiny detail in a project.
  • A designer needs to be able to explain the particulars of their design decisions. This prevents the endless iterations where a client is using you as a production tool for their design eye. You are the expert and it’s your job to explain why you’re right.
  • A designer needs to be able to take charge. You can’t expect a client to give you a list of tasks and the desired completion dates. Waiting for instructions from a client will leave them frustrated and impatient as they’re expecting you to lead the project. A designer needs to continually assess the level of interaction required to make a project run smoothly.
  • A designer must have confidence and pride in their work, even if it’s unfinished or unpolished. Sharing work with a client early and often means feedback is frequent and pertinent. This prevents the huge risk in creating a mountain of deliverables for the “big reveal,” and allows the client to focus on the feedback you need to continue.

Blaming the client

When you’re starting out in the world of freelancing you’re likely to be uneasy with the idea of getting something wrong in front of your clients. You feel driven to strive for perfection before showing your work to another living soul. Hearing feedback that you haven’t reached that perfection can be frustrating. It’s far too easy to become defensive and blame the client for not providing the direction you need to do your best work.

Helping clients become good clients

It’s unlikely that a client hired you because they knew how to do the work for themselves. Clients don’t necessarily come to you armed with the knowledge of how to be good clients. Maybe the client has never even worked with a designer before. You’re there to guide them.

Helping yourself become a good designer

As I grow as a designer, and a freelance professional, I’ve come to realize that my process is a work in progress. I’m always learning how to communicate better. I was pretty bad when I started freelancing. Five years later I’m better, but nowhere near perfect.

Client work shouldn’t be difficult, but it does require a lot of effort. That effort should pay off. When I invest time in communicating with my clients, our working relationships strengthen and the work we create together is better as a result.

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