Respectfully, You’re Fired

In a presentation I gave recently, I advocated designer Mike Monteiro's thoughts on telling clients no. Monteiro maintains that, contrary to popular opinion, telling clients no — when necessary — is not bad business, it's actually a form of respect. It shows that we respect our clients' intelligence enough to expect them to understand a well-reasoned argument for better design.

When clients insist on making changes that are detrimental to the design process or its outcome, it's easy to let our thinking default to annoyance, then anger, and — finally — apathy. In this scenario, we are annoyed that clients would purport to know enough about design to tell us how to do our jobs. We are angry that they're ruining our beautifully crafted masterpieces with their clumsy ideas, too-large logos, offensive color schemes, and ill-fitting imagery.

But, rather than reverting to our rational brains where we know that clients only ask for these things — most of the time — because they don't know anything about design or the design process (they shouldn’t have to, by the way), we allow ourselves to become apathetic. We assume that, surely, since clients demand these foolish and ridiculous things, they wouldn’t have the capacity to understand if we were to counter their ideas with our professional advice.

Therefore, instead of respecting our clients’ intelligence by giving them a chance to consider our educated design perspective, we simply give them what they want — which is most certainly not what they need. By becoming apathetic, we sabotage our chances to champion good design. As a result, we create bad design and end up resenting and disrespecting our clients in the process.

During my presentation, the notion that telling clients no is sometimes not only necessary, but respectful went over fairly well with the crowd. The idea that firing clients is also sometimes necessary and respectful, on the other hand, was not received so readily. This initial reaction is understandable considering that firing someone is often viewed as radical and harsh punishment. But, we must consider that sometimes firing clients is not only beneficial to us, but also to the clients that we’re firing.

Just as in any relationship, designer-client relationships can sour if they are not built on a foundation of respect. As designers, if we don’t respect our clients for any reason — perhaps they treat us inconsiderately or their moral code doesn’t align with our own — we shouldn’t be working with them. And, obviously, if our clients don’t respect us for any reason, we shouldn’t be working with them either. The moment we realize that respect between ourselves and our clients is not mutual is the moment to end the relationship — a.k.a. fire the client.

This strategy may still sound harsh, but it’s much better than the alternative — continuing to work with clients with which we don’t share respect and, all the while, making ourselves and our clients miserable. This tactic will only yield a continuous cycle of bad design and mutual resentment, unhappiness, and failure. It’s a slow and painful affliction that could have been prevented with one quick, albeit, painful conversation.

Undoubtedly, this exchange will be difficult and, of course, it’s only natural to fear that having it will be disastrous for our careers. The most overwhelming worry associated with firing clients is about what these freshly fired clients will say about us to damage our reputations. While, certainly, some rumors are bound to be spread, we must consider that if we had agreed to continue working with these clients and — as a result — continued to produce bad design and contribute to mutual resentment, unhappiness, and failure, they would most likely be saying things just as devastating anyway.

The difference between these two paths is that, by ending the relationship, we are free to begin moving on, but, by doing nothing, we must continue to endure the presence of bad clients and the resulting toxic relationships. At any rate, as long as we are ending these relationships for the right reasons and doing so respectfully, we are not at fault.

In fact, somewhat ironically when considering the weighty nature of ending relationships with clients, wonderful things can come of it! The clients who didn’t respect us can move on to find designers that they do genuinely respect — or, at least designers who are willing to set aside their design morals and do whatever these clients want. More importantly, though, firing problem clients frees us up to do work that we might actually enjoy for clients that we might actually like! As designer James Victore so succinctly explains in the video above, “firing clients is not a death sentence, it’s the gateway to other great things!”