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10 Secret Code Phrases to Get What You Want from Your Graphic Designer

Pixels, white space, focal points and sans-serif. Designers have their own language, and it’s baffling if you’re not used to it.

It’s almost like we have a “secret code,” and we reserve our best work for the clients who know it. When you speak with us, you might feel like you need a translator to communicate what you want and get marketing materials that stand out.

But the good news is it’s simpler than it sounds.

In the end, you don’t need to know the difference between points and pixels to get the best work from your designer. You just need to know a few secret code phrases to help you describe what you want and avoid the red flags that set graphic designers on edge.

Code Phrases to Avoid:

Say the phrases below at your peril.

When we hear these come out of your mouth, we immediately start either formulating how we can say “no” to working with you, or calculating how much more we should charge for the project so that we can cover the additional time it will take to deal with you.

1. “I’ll know it when I see it.” When you say this, we have visions of parading design after design by you as you sit passively and observe. Design is a two-way process. Your participation and guidance are key to coming up with a final product that meets your needs.

2.”Here, I made a layout for you.” On the other hand, we don’t want you to do our work for us. Tell us about your conversion goals and the market you want to reach, let us know if there is a certain mood you want to create or an image you want to convey, and then step back so we can do what we do best: solve communication problems visually. When you try to do our work for us, you limit our ability to deliver the best solution.

3. “I had a huge falling out with my last designer.” This one puts us on edge. We wonder why? Was it them, or was it you? Were you impossible to work with? Did you not pay your bills?

4. “I don’t have much to spend now, but there’s more work coming.” Whenever you don’t have money set aside for design, it’s like telling a designer that you don’t value good design or well-planned marketing, and you won’t appreciate the impact it will have on sales. It’s a red flag that you’ll be hard to deal with, won’t pay invoices on time, and might even be out of business within a few months or years — none of which are qualities top designers are looking for.

5. “How much does <hideously complicated project> cost?” Designers sometimes have standard prices for projects that have a tight description and don’t vary much. These could include website headers, HTML emails of a particular length, and even logos. But for any project that’s complex, such as a free report, corporate website, or product packaging, we need to gather information before we can give you a price. Experienced business people know this, so asking for a “ballpark figure” before giving details just makes you look like a beginner.

6. “I want to show this to my <spouse/friend/child>.” There is nothing wrong with asking for feedback, but this one still makes designers nervous, and here’s why: none of these people are inside your business. If you want to talk with a marketing director or your business partner, that’s fine, because they probably understand your business and marketing goals, but when you go outside of your company for feedback, what it really tells us is that you can’t make a decision on your own.

Code Phrases to Use:

The phrases below are music to our ears. Clients who understand the value a designer brings to the table and know the importance of well-planned marketing say things like this:

7. “What do you recommend we do?” The simplest way to get inspired work out of anyone is to make it clear that you value their opinion. Graphic designers are no exception. Instead of starting a project with your deliverables set in stone, give us a chance to think about it and make recommendations. Sure, it might take an extra day or two, but you’ll often be amazed at the ideas top designers give you. It can be the difference between a mediocre marketing campaign and one that makes you millions.

8. “How much time do you need?” This question tells us you know good work takes time, especially for new clients. First projects always take the longest because we are inventing the “look” of your company from scratch. It takes a lot of thought, back-and-forth, and revisions, all of which take time. But if you’re willing to be patient, it’s worth it.

9. “What’s the best way to communicate?” Some graphic designers are impossible to reach by phone, while others prefer it. Some are happy to talk with you at 10 PM, while others can’t. Before you start your project, it’s important to know how your graphic designer prefers to communicate, and then do your best to accommodate it. You’ll have less mixups, more fun, and a designer who loves working with you — all of which lead to higher-quality work.

10. “Here’s the information you need. Here’s the target market. Here’s how we’ll approve your proposals. Go to work!” The ultimate designers’ fantasy: a client who has all of their text and photos organized; who knows their target market and overall goal for the piece; who has a clear approval process in place; and who is willing to give us the time and authority to do our work. If you learn nothing else from this article, learn these phrases, because they cover everything we want to hear.

The biggest secret of all?

Clients who are easy to work with and use the secret code phrases on a regular basis don’t just get our best work. They also get the lowest invoices, because we can work efficiently and don’t have to fight our way through the process.

How about you? Do you have a good working relationship with a designer? What makes it work? Or have you had nightmare experiences?

Tell us about it in the comments.

About the Author: Pamela Wilson is an award-winning graphic designer and author of the Big Brand System.

  1. Andrew J. Gay Jul 30, 2010 at 9:38 am

    Oh, now this is an article I can fall in love with! One of the things many business owners appreciate the least is the designers time, effort, and energy. Designers have a way of interpretive visualization that is a very rare commodity. And lets face it, we are all quite sensitive when it comes to our designs.

    Want to get a great design, and come in on budget, follow the rules lain out in this article. Want to have the price get out of control and not get a great design. Don’t.

    Thanks Pam, this article should be a buyers guide for anyone thinking about hiring a designer for any of their projects. Remember, we make you look good…. be nice. lol


    • An article I can fall in love with – Thats a bit of a bold statement, but this would be a helpful post to reference so prospective know the best practices for dealing with web designers.

  2. Be nice, and come bearing chocolate. I completely forgot to mention chocolate!

    Andrew, I learned early on to disassociate myself from the work I produce so I won’t get all sensitive about it if a client doesn’t like it. I give them the best solution I can come up with, but if it doesn’t work for them, there’s more where that came from.

    Oh yes, and it should be dark chocolate. Gotta make that call to action specific, right?

    • Andrew J. Gay Jul 30, 2010 at 11:08 am

      Chocolate for sure! lol

      To be fair, it’s not easy for some clients to know how to express their wants, needs, and desires. It’s always helpful to have a really good pre-design meeting for exposure of clients tastes, and their target audience. Good designers have a way of walking a client through these crucial steps early on.

      Everyone wants to avoid multiple do overs! Seriously, the designer doesn’t want to provide 10 designs for the price of 1, the client doesn’t want to get confused with too many selections and styles, and the process often gets diluted when this crucial stage isn’t managed well.

      Be specific.. I prefer Lindt milk chocolate truffles!

  3. Anthony Mangia Jul 30, 2010 at 10:30 am

    Pamela –

    Great article! I’m working with a graphic designer now for my logo, business cards and website, and I think that some of this information might come in handy…although I think I may have already committed a few of the abovementioned faux pas! Thanks for writing a great article.

  4. Hmm… maybe you can find out if they prefer milk or dark chocolate? ;-)

  5. Mark Atkinson Jul 30, 2010 at 11:04 am


    I read an article entitled “How web design goes straight to hell” the other day, and this fits hand in hand with that!

    Being in the design business myself, the above comes into play time and time again. People who are easy to work with get the best work. Period.

  6. Jon-Mikel Bailey Jul 30, 2010 at 11:10 am

    My favorite, “you’re the designer, design something”. This is great, should be required reading for all design clients.

  7. James Chartrand Jul 30, 2010 at 11:17 am

    Well said, Pam. As the owner of a graphic design agency, I can say honestly that each of the sentences you chose are definite red flags – and sadly, we hear them a lot.

    What does this mean for us? Additional email to see if this is a project we should avoid… instead of email that focuses on building the best solution for the product.

    As you pointed out, there are easy ways to work WITH graphic designers instead of setting off alarm bells.

  8. Perfect! I need to forward this to every new (prospective) client! I’ve heard all those hateful phrases, and I can’t drop clients fast enough after they’ve been uttered…

  9. Thanks James! As someone who is actually LOOKING for Graphic Design, I will work hard to not be the bad client and try to make it work so everyone gets what they need.

  10. Regarding number 2, my experience seems to be contrary to what’s written.

    For every site I’ve had designed for me, I’ve made a sketch on paper, then scanned it, and then sent it to my designer. And the outcome has been superb.

    That said, I also make it clear that I want the designer to use his or her own intuition if something I’ve mocked up isn’t smart.

    But I can’t imagine a *better* solution than making a sketch so that the designer has a visual reference to model the site after. I think it’s best for both parties involved.

    That’s been my experience at least.

    • @Bamboo Forest.

      It may be that you have a clear vision of what you need and an intuitive approach to sketching out that vision, but as someone who has, shall we say, “proactive” clients I can assure you that you are the exception, not the rule.

      By placing limits on what a designer can do before we even begin, you’re really diminishing what can be achieved. It may be that your designer can work within your vision, but do they ever exceed your expectations?

      By removing all the limiting factors, you open us up to a much wider world of possibility.

    • You’ve said the magic words:

      “I also make it clear that I want the designer to use his or her own intuition if something I’ve mocked up isn’t smart.”

      That leaves the door open for the designer to participate in the process, and that makes all the difference.

      The worst “sketch” I ever received was a paper layout that had the headlines and columns of text and pictures chosen, typeset and cut out and taped together. I was to follow it exactly.

      I bit my tongue to stop from laughing and did the job, but that was the last time I worked for that client.

      (James, I’ll bet you have plenty of stories like that!)

  11. So… communicating clearly and common sense are the secret? :)

  12. Thomas Petersen Jul 30, 2010 at 12:43 pm

    Funny. This post talks about the opposite.

    How to get your client to love your design :)

    • Uh-oh, Thomas. You’ve figured it out!

      You’re right, of course. Ideally it’s a two-way process, and the give-and-take between client and designer makes for a better end result, and a product that both parties are happy with.

  13. Wow. So, the best way to get what you want is to NOT expect the person you’re paying to make it all about you? Sure sounds like a graphic designer who wants some pampering wrote this handy little cheat-sheet…

  14. Surely the person paying you can say and do what they want? (within the bounds of professionalism of course). You are a service provider and have agreed to provide your expertise for a period of time. How efficient or cooperative they are (or you perceive them to be) is surely largely down to them? I suspect this article comes from the transference of frustration from not being able to bill at a desirable (to the OP) rate. I would therefore direct her to free market economics 101.

  15. @Really? and @Wonder boy,

    What I propose is a collaborative work environment, where client needs and my expertise both come into play.

    When you’re working with a really good designer, you’re not getting their best work if you try to tell them exactly how to do the project you give them.

    It’s like making reservations at a Michelin three star restaurant, then going back into the kitchen and insisting the chef prepare your meal with the recipe and ingredients you brought from home.

    You’ll still get your dinner, but you won’t have the opportunity to see what the chef would have done if you had simply asked for a specific dish, and left the preparation to them.

    Does that make sense?

    Of course I’m not suggesting that the designer knows all and the client can’t weigh in. I’d never have made it in this field if I had that attitude.

  16. @Pamela – I’m inclined to see where you’re coming from… but I stand by my point. I’m a contract software developer. I can relate situations from my line of work to yours. Companies pay me lots of money a day for months on end and give me a $300 laptop to develop on. Their not going to get my best work, and this behaviour is not logically justifiable given the money they’d save over time by providing a faster machine. But beyond making a friendly and professional suggestion (I have never seen this have any effect), I don’t care, because they are paying me fungible wealth to compensate me. I guess that’s why it’s called “work”. I realise I’m being glib in order to make my point, for which I apologize.

  17. No apologies necessary! I’m writing about my personal version of nirvana, but I know it’s not the way it really works a lot of the time. A girl can dream though, right? ;-)

  18. 1, 2, 6 are things you might hear from a client who doesn’t trust you. If, as a designer, you’re hearing that a lot, perhaps you’re not setting appropriate expectations at the start of the project.

    5 shows a lack of preparation but I don’t think that’s always a red flag. Some people need some initial help and education if they’ve never dealt with a designer or contractor before.

  19. Hey @anon,

    Agreed: there’s a certain amount of education and help when someone hasn’t worked with a designer, and that’s understandable.

    I almost never hear numbers 1-6 nowadays, but I heard them a lot when I was starting out. Once you realize what those phrases really mean, you can filter out the people you’d like to work with and the ones you’d be better off avoiding.

    Thanks for commenting.

  20. Marlene Hielema Jul 30, 2010 at 6:25 pm

    This post makes me shudder. Substitute “design” with “photography,” and welcome to my world! Especially #4: “I don’t have much to spend now, but there’s more work coming.”

  21. Shannon Noack Jul 31, 2010 at 6:08 pm

    What a great list! As a designer myself, I’ve definitely heard most of the “phrases to avoid” and love to hear the “phrases to use” :) Learning the lingo of someone you’re working with is the best way to get results, with any industry. Thanks for the list!

  22. Excellent list. What has worked for us is a combination of “Here’s the information you need. Here’s the target market and What do you recommend?”. If we approach like this I think designer will play a participatory role rather than a subserviant role

  23. Mary Ellen Coumerilh Aug 01, 2010 at 4:36 am

    I’ll admit it right now – I am a beginner. Like, REALLY new. However, I am very serious about a professionally-designed logo. I figured it would cost REAL money, so I have been saving up for quite some time as I don’t want anything that says “hobbyist/amateur.” I figured you get what you pay for. Thank you so much for your sage advice!

    I have been stressing about not having any idea at all what concept would communicate with my target market, but this article has shown me that this is truly the job of the designer and not me. What a relief. Now I feel I have the tools to communicate with my designer on a more efficient basis.

  24. Excellent article, thanks for sharing!

  25. Ross McDonald Aug 03, 2010 at 9:30 am

    If I got a leaking tap I wouldn’t think to myself “I wonder how the plumber would like me to go about engaging his services to make this process great for him” I start with my requirement (stop my tap leaking) then research (look for local plumbers, recommendations help) and invite them to have a look, ask any qu’s and cost. I’ll answer any qu’s necessary to help him cost accurately, but its on him to manage me. He fixes people’s plumbing problems everyday, i only get mine fixed once every couple of years (hopefully). I don’t know, nor want to know the ins and outs of plumbing, thats why im paying him.
    For plumber, read designer. Its the designer, or account manager or whoever’s job to manage the client in the best way to get all the information out and put in action a clear, uncomplicated process. Clients are generally too busy to learn how to be the dream client. They will deal with a lot of different contractors in different fields with different requirements and processes, remember.

    • Hi Ross,

      You know, I don’t see myself as a plumber at all. I mean, there are designers out there who are the equivalent of plumbers: they’ll either fix what’s broken, or install something that works, period. Plumbing work is usually behind the scenes. It’s valuable, but that’s not where I can really add to the process.

      I’d much rather work with clients who equate my input to what an architect does for a house. An architect gets to know the needs of the person who plans to live in the home, and figures out both systems and a style that will work for them.

      There are all kinds of designers out there. My article is written from the point of view of someone who has a lot of experience to contribute. Clients don’t have to take advantage of that experience, but if they don’t, they’re missing out.

  26. How about; “Yes i will pay you on time… “

  27. Ahhh… the power of the Design Brief. Or, have they gone out of style? [no pun intended]

  28. “Experienced business people know this, so asking for a “ballpark figure” before giving details just makes you look like a beginner.”

    That’s cr@p. Savvy marketers and experienced business owners will always want to know how much anything costs.

    Not knowing so can send them bankrupt and without the information they can’t calculate your ROI, or even assess if they will go ahead with the project.

    Not being able to give them a ballpark figure will make you look like you either haven’t a clue about your own business, or you’re hiding something.

    You have to understand your customers. The question is not about price. It’s code for “Can I trust you, do you know what you’re doing.”

    Often the reason they ask for a price is because they have a budget set aside for marketing, and if your cost fits within it, they will say go ahead. It really is as simple as that for some of them.

    Or, they could be hard nosed direct marketers or just methodical numbers men. Your pitch just won’t proceed until you give them a number.

    Or they may already know how much it should cost, so they are testing you to see if you do actually know what your doing.

    Never make the mistake of thinking that just because they ask about cost, they can’t afford it or haven’t got the budget for it.

    Again, savvy marketers won’t even tell you what their budget is, or say it’s half or even less than what it actually is.

    So they may surprise you by continuing to spend more and more money with you if you do a good job.

    But if you treat them as a client who only has limited funds, then you’ll miss out on any extra revenue.

    • The thing about graphic design is that there’s no “how much it should cost”, really, each project is different, each designer is different.

      Until we have all the information we need, we, as desiners, can’t risk giving you a estimate we don’t know if it’s going to cover all of client’s needs during the process.

      And even having that, I’m going to tell you one price while Pamela Wilson will most probably tell you a really different one.

      Asking how much for a (insert design project here) is like asking to a real estate company “how much for a house?” – David Airey

      • Exactly. And the post says:

        “How much does cost?”

        It’s not that there aren’t set prices for anything, but if the client wants a complex project with many variables, we need to gather information so that we can price it accurately.

  29. clients find it very hard to express what they want. These phrases are usefull but its a good graphics designer that shows them what they want

  30. Thanks for this article! I took the liberty to propose a French translation.

    You’ll find it on my blog :

  31. Thankyou very much this good topic and good detials
    thankyou agian
    abualez elmekhlafi

  32. First, thank you for writing about this topic. It is definitely one the main ingredients of success for designers and has been one of the bigger lessons I’ve had to learn.

    While what was described in points 7-10 is practically the holy grail client for designers, they are few and far between. This is why it is mainly your responsibility as a designer (and a sane human being) that you manage the expectations of the relationship between you and your client.

    I’ve had great success in letting my client in on my creative process, letting him or her know what to expect next. If you can demonstrate a clear path, most clients will follow.

    You pulled my heart strings on this one.. THANK YOU! :)

  33. To get a client like the one which is mentioned in point 10 is a distant dream.

  34. Its really hard to find designer who work form heart. Choose designer based upon their work not based upon their rates.

    Also from our experience designers who are having background of arts are normally great.

  35. Designing is most important part for first impression, but it doesn’t mean it should shiny. Good designing means understanding user’s mindset who are coming to site with motive. For example if same user go to bar and gym will have different mind set both the place, so designing should take care of that as well.

  36. Fantastic article and I wish it had been written 10 years ago when I was a web designer in HTML 2.0 when EVERYONE was a designer – whether they had the eye for it or not!! Cheers

  37. Yeah, this is the way how marketing people and cumunicators mean to “comunicate” with the graphic designers.And you can clearly hear the all knowing arrogance of the marketing people who mean they know everything about design because they dont know where their job ends. This is the kind of people who think graphic desigerns are just moving some pictures arround the whole day. And you always can save money with the design. This Article is crap and it approved me one more time how PR and Marketing people work when they’re coming to me with crappy ideas and thinking they have invited something totaly crazy new stuff.and the title is typical “how to et what you want”. why don’t you make something like 10 things you can do wrong or after this ten thing your designer will fucking hate you.

  38. Russell Davies Nov 02, 2011 at 12:15 am

    My all time favourite is.. “but it doesn’t have the WOW factor”. It’s a sure fire way to annoy our team every time we hear that.

  39. Love this I’ve heard them all. This takes the “live and learn” out of the equations.

  40. That looks great. A budding designer should go through this

  41. Haha nice article. We often mis-related info what we suppose to tell to our designers.

  42. Ha-ha, Eddie! Yes, that one gets major bonus points.

  43. Elise Forsyth Mort Mar 23, 2016 at 5:02 am

    Actually I thought the list was very gracious and polite. Educating clients on the process of hiring any type of professional is to be expected in one way or another. Many people are simply unaware of how it works. I have clients asking lots of questions about the process because they haven’t hired a designer before. As long as we are fair and reasonable, everyone wins.


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