Episode #110: How to Get Taken More Seriously as a Designer

Sometimes it can be hard to get clients or coworkers to take you more seriously as a graphic designer instead of seeing you as an order taker. Find out 8 ways to get taken more seriously as a designer and treated like an expert, not an order taker.


In this episode of Design Domination, I’m talking about how you can get taken more seriously as a designer, instead of being treated like an order taker. Get lots of tips that will help you get more respect, get less pushback, make more money and stand out from other designers.

It can be so hard to get clients or coworkers to take you more seriously as a designer. You often feel like you’re the order taker. “Do this, do that, Cinderelly.”

But there are a lot of things that you can do that affect how you are treated. It starts with you and how you manage the relationship.

Let’s get into some helpful tips for how graphic designers can get taken more seriously and seen as more of the trusted expert.

1. Have processes.

Processes are one way to show that you are a true professional. They say, “I do this work, I know what’s involved with this type of work, and here’s how it needs to get done.” You mean business! You’re not winging it every time.

Where there isn’t a process, the client will try to dictate.

You can have processes for how you handle sales calls and how you onboard clients—the earlier you can demonstrate these processes the better! That will position you as an expert from the start of the process, which is key at the beginning of any new relationship. It’s very difficult to change how you are perceived later on.

This could include how you want potential clients to schedule a call with you or if you want them to fill out a form first. It could also be how you handle taking payments. I went into detail about these things in episode 8, Improve Your Processes and Your Client’s Experience.

You can also have processes that state how you prefer to receive files, what types of files you need, different types of work and how you want to get feedback on design proofs.

2. Set expectations.

Setting expectations lets clients know they can trust you. You’re also putting them at ease and you’re taking control of the situation.

It reminds me of when we adopted an aggressive lab mix. He was 5 years old when we adopted him, and this was the first time we ever had more than one dog at a time. He was food aggressive. He scarfed his food. He was sometimes aggressive with other dogs. He pulled on the leash.

After training with a dog trainer, everything changed. Of course, dog training is usually really more for the pet parents, not the dog. The training reinstated me and my husband as the pack leaders. The trainers said our dog was stressed out because he felt the need to be the pack leader.

After the training, he stopped growling when we went to feed him. He stopped scarfing his food. He stopped fighting with our other dogs, and he stopped pulling on the leash. He was relaxed.

It’s similar with clients. If they don’t know what to expect and when, they might get anxious. They might start asking questions, like “When will you have the design proof ready?” or “Are you going to get the project on time?”

Letting them know what to expect and when puts them at ease and instills confidence.

Setting expectations also sets boundaries. You’re saying, “This is how I do business. If you want to do business with me, this is how I work.”

Create a list of must-haves and deal breakers. Your must-haves, especially for any new clients, should be getting a signed contract and money up front. Deal breakers might be late payments or ignoring late fees.

Include these things in your proposals or contracts. If a client breaks one of your rules, address it with them or fire them.

You might say, “But, Colleen, that sounds like I am making it harder for clients to work with me.” You’re not actually. You’re making it easier, and you will get more respect.

3. Sell results, not the work.

When most clients come to you, they’re looking for a price for a particular project. Most designers will give an estimate right then or shortly after the call or email from the prospect.

But you need to change the conversation to get the focus off the price because you need to understand a lot more in order to really price things properly.

Start out by asking them about their goals. What are they trying to accomplish with this work? What business problem are they looking to solve? How has this been costing them by not addressing yet?

This shows that you’re not just designing something that looks good. It says, “I am looking to get results for you from my work.” and it shows that you’re interested in them, not just creating another piece of design work for your portfolio.

It also shows you’re a business person who should be taken more seriously.

But the other thing is that oftentimes clients come to us thinking they know what they need, and what they think they need isn’t always correct. Once you find out more from them, you may determine that what they were thinking they should do really isn’t the right solution for them.

Alerting them to that fact gives you a unique opportunity that will put you in front of other designers who aren’t asking these questions and who are just providing what the client is asking for.

For example, we once had an electrician friend come to our house who took a look at an outlet in our garage. We had been keeping a chest freezer in there, but the outlet would short out during thunderstorms. We lost hundreds of dollars of food in there a couple of times. We thought we had a faulty outlet.

When he showed up and looked into it more, he said the problem was actually not that outlet but one connected to it outside the house that was getting water in it when it rained hard.

So what we thought was the problem really wasn’t. The expert figured out the real problem.

4. Know your worth.

A lot of designers are afraid their pricing will turn off potential clients. As I always say, that doesn’t mean you want to price low. Low pricing attracts cheap clients, who usually end up being bad clients, those that interrogate you about every design decision, are just looking for a deal and don’t really value the work or your expertise. Low pricing can make you lose out on more projects. I can’t tell you how many times that has happened. I’ve lost more projects based on low price in the past, than for being priced too high.

You’ve got to know that your pricing is more than just your time.

You might say, “Well, the client could Google how to do it.” Yes, they could. That’s if they wanted to do that in the first place. Most clients are not looking for a how to. Plus, looking up how to do something doesn’t give you the intricacies of all the things you need to take into consideration with a project. It doesn’t replace real-world experience.

But even if they know how to do something doesn’t mean they have the time or interest in doing the work. They need to focus on other tasks.

They are looking for a guide who knows how to solve their problems and is confident about being able to help them do that.

Think about how valuable your time, your knowledge and the convenience to them is. Expertise takes years to accumulate.

5. Present your work as the solution.

Present your design work and why you designed it a certain way, why you chose those typefaces or colors, why you used large margins, etc. You don’t need to get into a full-on artistic critique.

You just want to show that a lot of thought and meaning went into the design that takes into consideration their needs.

This could be based on research of their target audience. It could be based on visual design theories. Everything in the design should have a reason for why it looks like it does and that should align with their objectives.

Back up design decisions with facts, not feelings.

For example:

  • “I chose a darker shade of blue to help you convey trust to your audience.”
  • “I chose brighter colors that are more appealing to your audience of teens to 20-somethings.”
  • “I used a larger text size since you serve an older audience.”

These are all objective and hard to argue with, as opposed to saying, “I picked blue because I like it,” or maybe because they like blue, or “This is my favorite font, and I wanted to use it.”

When presenting your work, you should also be confident about it. This is much easier to do when you have objective facts and research than personal opinions and preferences as the basis for your design decisions.

But what’s also vital when presenting your work—and this doesn’t matter if you email them a proof, show them a proof in person or in a virtual meeting—never ask what they think.

Imagine if you had a plumber come out to fix your kitchen sink. What if, when he was done, he asked you, “What do you think?” Wouldn’t that make you feel like, “Wow, why did I hire this guy? He doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing or doesn’t seem to be confident about his work.”

It would cause doubt. It would cause confusion.

Experts present solutions. That’s what clients are looking for.

6. Express your opinion.

Sometimes clients or coworkers may request something that you don’t think is a good idea. It might be because they just want it that way or the CEO wants it that way or whatever.

Many designers are shy to speak up in these situations because they are afraid the client will get offended or won’t like what you have to say. You might also say, “Well, they’re paying me, so I should just comply with their requests.”

Look. I get it. Been there, done that.

But the fact that you’re getting paid means you have all the more reason to express your professional opinion!

Now, having said that, that doesn’t mean you should shove your opinion down their throat. You can only do so much. It’s still ultimately up to them to make a decision. But it’s your job as an expert to warn them of potential problems with what they might have in mind or why it’s not a good idea.

Otherwise, you could just silently sit back and comply and then maybe something does happen down the road, and they come back and ask you why you didn’t say anything.

I’ve always just said, “Here’s my professional opinion as to why I don’t think this is a good idea/why this won’t help you.”

Sure, they could suggest something that will totally muck up the design, but you’ve got to leave personal feelings out of it. Focus on how that would muck up the design:

It wouldn’t be appealing to their audience? It wouldn’t be accessible to individuals with visual disabilities? Something else?

In some cases, you may want to get in writing that the client isn’t taking your advice. You wouldn’t say it that way obviously. You would just confirm via email—or even have them sign something depending on how serious it is, like if it’s a legal or accessibility concern—that they decided to proceed (or not) with XYZ, although you recommended otherwise.

7. Get recognized as an authority.

Speaking of expressing your opinion, it really helps you get recognized as an authority and to build trust with prospects and others in your industry when you answer questions in Facebook groups where your colleagues or potential clients hang out, write blog posts on your own website, do guest blog posts, write articles on LinkedIn or Medium, or even speak at a MeetUp.

I used to be absolutely terrified of all of this stuff. They were on my never-to-do list.

I started by writing blog posts and sharing them on LinkedIn. Then I got into Facebook groups and realized people appreciate my insights.

In 2018, I got into podcasting for this business, not my client business. That helped me get in front of a new audience who had no idea who I was.

But all of the writing and speaking has helped me in both businesses.

When you do these things, prospects will see them and appreciate your approach or your knowledge. It’s also the first way for them to get to know you a bit. It can make you memorable, especially if you talk about the same topic and become known as that person.

Ever since I got into accessibility in 2016 and started talking about that one thing—not only to others privately but also on my podcast, other podcasts and at events—I’ve become known for it.

Whatever clients you serve best, whatever their industry is, these are great ways to get in front of them and get noticed.

When you get recognized as an authority, clients or even potential employers come to you. They already know they want to work with you. It’s easier to get work.

Engaging in online groups, writing and speaking not only get you in front of your audience but help you stand out from other designers. If it comes down to a generalist designer versus a designer who specializes in their particular area, who do you think will get the work? Who do you think they are willing to pay more to?

You can also build authority by getting certifications in certain areas. This builds trust, shows you take what you do seriously and that you invested time and money in a course or class to get certified.

I think certifications are great. But some designers feel the need to get a bunch of certifications to make them feel worthy. Sometimes that’s an obstacle they put up to delay putting themselves out there, like, “Oh, I won’t offer brand strategy as a service until I have a certification in it” or whatever it may be.

8. Be confident.

This can be the hardest part, especially because so many creatives are sensitive types, even people pleasers. Confidence comes from within but you can at least put on a little bit of a show by speaking confidently.

Having a mindset of confidence and of being an expert changes everything.

It’s funny because the other day, my mother in law was visiting. She was in the other room while I had a Zoom meeting with a prospective client. When I got off the call, she rushed in and was like, “Wow!”

I was like, “Wow, what? LOL.” I had no idea what she was about to say.

She told me she was so impressed with how confident and in charge I sounded talking to this group of people—prospective clients. She remembers when I would complain about business issues and clients years ago and how I wasn’t confident.

I told her, “I was just having a conversation and let them know what they needed and how I could help them.”

But I remember the days of when that was hard and it was uncomfortable and it felt unnatural, even though I knew I was good at what I did.

You can be confident but not really feel that you’re an expert. You may compare yourself to other designers. You may see their work and think yours isn’t as good as theirs. You maybe haven’t been doing this work as long as other designers.

In your mind, all you hear is “I’m not good enough”:

  • “I’m not good enough to charge more.”
  • “I’m not good enough to get work for this client.”
  • “I can’t charge as much as this other designer because they’ve been doing it longer than me.”

I hear these things all the time from designers I mentor, and I did the same thing for years. Heck, I could still say I’m not good enough now about other things I have been doing in my career.

You have to understand the word “expert” doesn’t mean that you have to know everything. No one learns everything overnight.

Just because another designer has been doing something longer than you doesn’t make them more qualified. In fact, I know a designer who became a designer after having a career as a florist and she got into accessibility at the same time as graphic design. She taught herself InDesign from the Adobe manual. Her files are better set up than 99% of designers out there, including those who’ve been using InDesign for 20 years.

Plus, there are always things to learn in the accessibility or web development, for sure, where things change, or there are many sub-areas of expertise.

When you don’t have the right mindset, you put yourself on lower ground than clients or maybe even coworkers, like they’re on a pedestal and in charge. You don’t consider yourself equal and then you put yourself right into an order taking position.

You have to realize you’re on common ground but you have to believe that.

That also comes into play with your business, not just your work. If a client disrespects you—and that could be paying late, standing you up for a meeting, constantly second guessing your expertise—then address the issue with them or fire them.

Continually putting up with bad behavior means you’re allowing someone to treat you this way. When you allow that, they don’t take you seriously.

Want more help to be seen as an expert, not another order taker?

Start by getting my free guide, 17 Questions to Ask During a Design Consultation, to help you start off the process by leading and being the expert.

If you want to go beyond that, check out my Brand Identity Builder, which will give you a solid process for brand identity consultations, execution and delivery. It includes worksheets and a checklist that you can print out and have on hand during consultations along with a list of resources. You don’t need to be a logo designer to benefit from this information either.

It’s 42 pages and covers:

  • what to include in the proposal, so that you are seen as an expert and stand out from other designers.
  • what information to get from the client, so you have an objective point of reference and a smoother relationship.
  • what to think about before you even start designing, so you create a more successful brand identity.
  • what to consider as you’re creating the brand identity, so you ensure it works for the client and you enhance your expertise.
  • ways to present your work and address feedback, so that you impress the client and get less pushback.
  • how to finalize the logo and create the proper deliverables, so you enhance the value of your work.
  • how to showcase your work online in a professional and impressive way, so that you can attract better clients.

If you would like one-on-one help, go to creative-boost.com/mentoring.

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