There are a lot of differences in mindset and behavior between graphic designers who are perceived as order takers and those who are perceived as experts. Here are 14 reasons graphic designers are seen as order takers instead of as experts.
These mistakes can happen at various stages throughout the design process. They result in the client lumping you in with every other designer and seeing the service you provide as a commodity. That means they see you as just another order taker, not an expert.
Mistake #1: Letting the client lead
A client could try to lead at any stage of the process, but in the beginning, it’s key for you to start off the relationship with you in the driver’s seat because it’s much harder to change perceptions later.
When a prospect first contacts you, they usually say, “I need a brochure. How much is it?” They don’t give you any background information. They just want a price.
They may or may not be a viable client since they’re price focused, but I digress…
My point here is that most designers will simply answer this question without finding out more information: “Step right up to the counter, please. May I take your order?”
Hold your horses. This is not a fast food joint. You need to get more information, and it’s OK to say so instead of just answering their question by giving them a dollar figure.
So if you have a process of finding out more and evaluating a prospect before giving a price (and I hope that you do), that doesn’t mean you should deviate from your process just because they’ve started off by asking the money question or any other questions. You should lead the conversation.
Stick to your process. This will also help you weed out tire kickers, who are only interested in a price and have no interest in giving you more information so you can really help them.
Mistake #2: Relying on the client’s diagnosis of the problem
A prospect may come to you asking for a brochure, but you may notice they really have a branding issue. For instance, maybe their logo looks out of date or totally out of alignment with their audience. Is putting lipstick on the pig really going to help them?
You could mention that up front (not necessarily the pig part though) or after you work with them on a project. Then you could do a paid discovery call. Because you deserve to be paid for your ideas, not just putting them into the computer into a design.
I mean, if you help them diagnose the issue, isn’t that valuable to them?
Think about it. With this particular example, they could continue to spend money on the design of a brochure and printing it, right? But if the brochure isn’t having the desired effect—say, increased sales and more customers—they’re just throwing money away.
They don’t realize the issue isn’t the brochure, but the branding. So if you tell them it’s a branding problem and how to fix it—for a price—suddenly, they can quit spending money on things that aren’t working and invest in a real solution. This is valuable insight you’re providing.
Mistake #3: Not asking any (or the right) questions
Before starting a design project, you should be asking questions about the client’s goals, problems, audience (meaning clients or customers) and their business, some of which are:
- Why are you looking for help with this at this point in time?
- What are you trying to accomplish?
- Who are your competitors?
- Who is your audience?
- What job title do they hold?
- What education level are they?
- What gender are they?
- What nationalities are they?
If you don’t get this information, you can’t effectively design something for them that will address their needs, and that’s the whole purpose of graphic design. Plus, sometimes there is a lot more to the story that may affect your approach.
For instance, a client once came to me and said they needed a new website design. I asked my usual questions and then asked about competitors. I also asked why they needed a new website design.
I mean, it was obvious to me from seeing their site, which had been designed in the 90s and left for dead, why they needed a new website design. But maybe there was something more than that—and there was.
They wanted to look more modern and professional. OK, great. But why did they want to look more modern and professional? They wanted to be taken seriously so they could get more advertising revenue.
Digging deeper led me to the real issue.
By the way, if you don’t know what questions to ask, I just gave you some ideas. But you can also download my free guide, 17 Questions You Must Ask During a Design Consultation, at creative-boost.com/questions.
Mistake #4: Taking on any work
When a client comes to you with more work, I’m sure you’re ecstatic. But what if they ask you to do something you’re not very good at or don’t know how to do?
Say you’re a designer who’s really great at branding and print design. One day, a client asks you to add some particular functionality to their WordPress website. You’ve never done this type of work before, so you really don’t know how simple or complex it might be.
I mean, you don’t know what you don’t know. How much time are you going to spend trying to figure out how to do it? That’s time you won’t be paid for. That’s not giving you any insight into the nuances you might need to be aware of as part of that work.
What happens if you screw up something in the process? Do you think the client will trust you? Do you think they will bring you more work in the future? They’ll likely remember this blunder more than any good work you’ve done for them in the past.
You shouldn’t take on work just to take on work. The goal in working for yourself is not just to get more work. The goal is to make money and be profitable from the work. If you take on work that ends up taking you 10 times more than you had planned because you didn’t know better, that’s not profitable.
So don’t tarnish your reputation and risk any future work and referrals from a happy client. Instead, find someone who has done this type of work and refer your client to them or subcontract the work to them. If you don’t know anyone who could do the work, then just say no.
You’ll still be the hero saying, “I don’t do that work but I know someone who does.” You’re doing the client a favor by not taking it on.
You don’t need to be everything to everyone.
Mistake #5: Pricing too low
As Blair Enns says in his Win Without Pitching Manifesto book, “Price the client.”
Every client is different and has different needs. And the larger the client, the more they have at stake and the greater potential value of your work.
Clients who understand the value of design aren’t looking to pay dollar store rates. They are looking for a trusted expert, and experts aren’t cheap.
When you price too low, it doesn’t say, “This is a good deal.” It says, “Inexperienced,” “doesn’t understand the work” or “poor quality.”
You can actually lose jobs by pricing too low. I know. I was told this early on in my career when I asked why I didn’t get a few jobs that I was cut out for. They thought I didn’t understand the scope of the project.
Now, think about the general practitioner vs a specialist—different kinds of doctors. Why would you go to one over the other? You might visit your regular doctor when you have a cold or when you need a physical or to find out more about what your medical issue might be. In some cases, they will refer you to a specialist.
Why a specialist? Because their unique expertise is what they do all the time, every day, all day long. They live, eat and breathe what they do. They are known for a specific type of work and they know all the in’s and out’s.
…which leads me to mistake #6.
Mistake #6: Charging for your time
Specialists charge more because this is their area of expertise, their focus. They know so much more about it than the general practitioner. Part of what they’re charging more for is that acquired knowledge, that unique expertise.
Graphic designers give away their expertise and creative ideas free when they only charge for time.
It’s like the story of Picasso drawing a woman’s portrait. A woman asked him to sketch her, and he made a few strokes on the paper and handed it over to her. She loved it and asked how much she owed him. She balked when he said $5,000 (or whatever it was).
She asked how could he possibly charge that much when it only took him a few minutes, and he told her that it took a lifetime for him to do it. That means it took him his whole life to be able to acquire the skill and knowledge to do that so quickly and so well.
When you get better and work faster over time, you shouldn’t be getting paid less.
Mistake #7: Thinking you’re designing for the client
The design you create for a client is not a piece of artwork you’re creating for them to hang on the wall, tailoring it to what they would like.
The people you’re designing for are their audience—their clients or customers—not them. Some clients don’t understand this either.
It’s not serving the client well if you don’t understand who you’re designing for and, as a result, you create something that doesn’t work well for their audience. That means they won’t be coming back to you. You were supposed to be the expert and understand their needs, but you let the client’s personal tastes take over instead.
Now, they won’t always end up taking your advice even if you give it, but you should always present your professional opinions regardless. If you don’t, then it’s on you; if you do and they don’t listen, that’s on them.
Mistake #8: Not doing any research
Graphic designers should be researching before doing any design work—researching the audience, researching the client’s business and researching competitors.
In terms of the audience, what style, colors or design elements might appeal to them?
In terms of the client’s business, do they have any brand guidelines that you need to follow? How does the client want to be perceived? What can you do with the design to help them come across this way?
In terms of the competition, you don’t want to design anything that looks like something a competitor has. But you also want to one-up them—design something that looks better.
Mistake #9: Asking what the client thinks
Asking what the client “thinks” when sending a design proof is handing over to them the power to judge your design, when they are not usually qualified to do so.
If you’re looking for an art director, go work at a design firm. Don’t put the client in the position of art director.
Mistake #10: Not presenting your work
I talked about this extensively in episode 24.
Instead of asking what they “think,” you should present your work—whether that’s in writing, in an e-mail or sticky notes in a PDF; by phone or video call; or recording and sending a link to a video of you walking them through the design. Just explain why you did what you did and how it relates to their objectives and their audience.
The act of presenting the work puts you in a more assertive, professional stance: “Here is how the design meets your objectives.” Bing, bam, boom, as opposed to the submissive stance of “What do you think?”
See the difference? One way shows you as the expert who’s confident they’ve come up with an effective solution, and the other makes it sound like you’re not really sure and they’re the design professional.
This leads me to the next mistake.
Mistake #11: Making any changes the client requests
Graphic design is an iterative and collaborative process between you and the client. The client should be allowed to give feedback. But when they do, it’s up to you to still be the expert and make expert decisions.
The client might say to “make this text bold and red.” Maybe it needs to be bold. Maybe it should be red. Maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe it should be made “more prominent” in another way. It’s up to you to figure out what will work best with the design and then convey to the client why what you chose to do works better.
When you do that, you’re acknowledging their request, which makes them feel heard and understood, rather than them assuming you just ignored their request because you didn’t do exactly as they asked. You took what they said, translated it into what they really were looking to accomplish and complied, just in a different way.
Mistake #12: Not following up
The order taker is like wham, bam, the job is done. On to the next client.
If you want a long-term relationship with the client, follow up with them in the near future (a few months) and ask them how the brochure, logo or website (whatever it was you designed for them) has been received, how it’s been working for them.
- What kind of response did it get?
- Has it helped to increase sales (or donations, whatever the case may be)?
- Has it helped the company or organization get the increased exposure they might have been looking for?, etc.
Checking in serves three purposes:
- It shows you genuinely care about helping the client.
- It reinforces that your work serves a purpose.
- If the work served them well, it’s an opportunity to ask for a testimonial: “Great. So glad to hear that, Mr. Client. Would you mind if I use that, along with your name, for a testimonial on my website and on social media?”
New clients are more willing to trust you when you have testimonials and see how you’ve helped others.
Mistake #13: Not finding additional ways to help
When you understand what a client is trying to accomplish, you can find other ways to help them. Don’t wait around for the client to contact you again. Anticipate what they need instead.
Look around their website and also check out their digital and print materials and see if there’s something else you could help with.
For example, do their print materials have a disconnected look from their website? You could approach them about the benefits of making them look cohesive and potentially get more work out of it.
But what’s important here is how you’re being perceived—as the expert who’s looking out for them and understands them. You’re also letting them know that you are thinking about them, so they will appreciate that as well.
When you do this, it keeps you front of mind, and that will add to the likelihood of you getting more work from them in the future.
Mistake #14: Not changing your mindset
Last but definitely not least… In fact, it’s the most important one because it affects everything else. And that is mindset.
By “mindset,” I don’t mean a cheery attitude. I mean owning your expertise and actually believing that you’re an expert, that what you offer has value and that you deserve to be paid for it.
You might say, “Well, I’m not qualified to be an expert.”
To be an expert, you don’t need to know absolutely everything. You need to know more than the client. You need to know how to properly do what they’re hiring you to do.
You might tell friends and family that you’re an expert in design and feel comfortable with that. But maybe when you’re talking to clients, you suddenly don’t feel like the expert anymore. You become intimidated and aren’t sure what to say or do in certain situations.
Like they question something about your fees or something in a design. You don’t step up because you think they will walk away if you don’t give them the answer you think they want to hear. You think if you tell them you don’t agree with something that they will find another designer. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll respect you more.
Being a doormat doesn’t earn you respect, and do you want to work with clients who treat you like that?
Looking back years ago on some of my own experiences, it was because I didn’t truly believe at that time that I was an expert. I was confident about my abilities, but I hadn’t fully made the mindset shift yet. I was still exhibiting some order taker behavior.
When you make the mindset shift, everything changes. And what you say and how you say it comes across with confidence, and that confidence instills trust in clients.
When you’re the expert, you lead, you charge more, you get better clients and you only do work that you want to do.