Clients aren’t stupid

1 February 2010, in Project 52, Rants | 37 comments »

The first time I came across the Clients From Hell website I laughed and sympathised with the poor designers that had sent those quotes in. I’m not laughing now though.

Just an example

The website mentioned above is just an example of something we tend to do frequently: make the client sound stupid, like he or she will never understand the complexity of our work.

Oh, aren’t we clever?

No. We are not brighter than our clients. We are not more intelligent, like sometimes I’m led to believe if I listen to some conversations and to the constant moaning.

I was recently in a meeting with a client — a clever, intelligent person; he was asking us questions that we, as “people of the Web”, would have never considered. His questions reminded me of how much we take as common knowledge when talking to and designing to the general public.

This made me realise how sometimes we probably sound like obnoxious snobs, and how I should probably be even more careful than I already am when talking to someone that doesn’t work on the Web.

Lots of intelligent people just don’t understand the terms we use and are probably completely lost in some conversations and meetings. That won’t help us pass our points across.

Making an effort

But am I accusing the wrong side? Should clients simply make more of an effort to learn the jargon? After all, there is a learning curve for when someone starts working with a website. We all know too well that one of the biggest problems with the client/designer (I’m using this term very loosely here) relationship happens when the client has faulty expectations about the input that will be required from him or her during the process.

We too learn the jargon of others, out of necessity. Like when we go to the mechanic or something breaks around the house, and we have to talk to a technician, another professional. We understand that by having a car, we need to make the effort of knowing at least a little bit of how it works, so we don’t catch ourselves stranded in the middle of the night in a lonely road, helpless.

But that doesn’t mean I know what a mechanic is talking about when he’s going on and on about what’s wrong with my car. And I would probably be completely lost if I had to speak to a textile designer or an architect about their work. I just hope they explain it to me in a way I can understand and trust them to do their best work.


Sometimes people are just plain mean, or disrespectful. That is a completely different thing. Like in any other business, there are tough clients, tough people that we have to deal with. But not knowing that an online image is to be measured in pixels, shouldn’t make a client from Hell:

I need to know what size you need the graphics for the website. Is two? Maybe three inches good?

Or maybe we should make things clear in our terms of service and contracts:

“I thought your quote was for an unlimited time limit, I’m not finished with my changes and I don’t want to pay any extra!”

And, of course, sometimes people are just clueless:

I need to get moving, anyway you can do some work on this on your vacation. That’s a long vacation, I bet you’ll get bored anyway, and this is back-and-forth via email, not phone, so it shouldn’t cause you any stress.


I have no conclusion. I still haven’t found the secret to convey my work and my methods in a simple way. Even the words that sound the simpler to us strike me as sounding completely foreign during meetings (like JavaScript, HTML or CSS). But I’m sure as hell making a bigger effort of not being patronising, of putting myself on other people’s shoes, and trying to make things sound as clear as possible.

I feel most of the times, if we are facing a “client from Hell”, it’s our fault and we should do something to fix that.

And now I hope I don’t ever have to complain about a client again, or at least remember of not doing it in front of someone else. That would be most embarrassing.

  • And now I hope I don’t ever have to complain about a client again, or at least remember of not doing it in front of someone else.

    I think you will, at some time. It’s not our fault most of the times, but this doesn’t mean it’s the client’s fault most of the times either.

    By not using jargon, being polite and assuming your client doesn’t have a clue about what the hell your work is all about, you’re really doing the best thing possible.

    But sometimes everything will fail, and there will be this completely unreasonable client. However, when this happens I think it’s best to assume the client isn’t being dumb or an ass on purpose, and try to politely explain why he/she is being unreasonable.

    I’m not experienced, but I think there’s no “easy fix” for this. It’s all about getting better at communication with non-experts about your field of expertise. That will take time, and well, failure. But eventually, we’ll reach our solution.

  • I don’t think most devs/designers think clients are stupid, I know that even though they know nothing about the web, they probably know a lot more than me about something in another field that I don’t. However, knowing this doesn’t always make it easier on a dev/designer when dealing with particulary non-web savvy client, especially one acting dumb on purpose (I thought websites were free??). It’s up to us to help educate them, but it’s still frustrating. I enjoy the CFH website and think it’s only trying to provide se comedic relief to a frustrating situation, not neccessarily make them look stupid…it’s kinda a good way to blow of steam of a stressful day. I bet those mechanics make fun of us when we ask to change the thingy in the thingy that make the car go ;)

  • Jason Lyman

    I have heard some designers say that it is not our job as designers to educate our clients. But I think that that is completely untrue. Why shouldn’t we help them understand what we are talking about? Then as the project progresses we can communicate faster and more easily.

    Plus, when they come back with more work for us, I believe they will think higher of us because we respected them as people. They still may not understand all the whys and wherefores of design, but they feel comfortable dealing with us because we treat them as a person.

  • I totally understand as a client in everything that is not what I do many time I feel lost in space, and feel thet the technicians speak parsel tonge or something, I always try to make thinks simple since I do packaging, vignetes, catalogs and stuff the size is no problem I told the clients to take a ruler and measure what they want his product to be like, but when is web design is a bit harder but remenber “72 pixels = 1 inch” I told the client to measure with the ruler I do de conversion no need to explain the ratio the clients can get confused, many people that i have worked with tends to have a guru complex always talking with tech and specialized terms so the client feels lost, ignorant and by the way in nedd of this very technical guys, I can tell you a client that understand more what we do even in a simple way is a happier and most important a “returning” client, if you think full tech when a client ask you for a dynamic site you think php, mysql, java, ajax, but one of my clients when asks for a dynamic site for his really tiny site, talking to him I find out that for some of the non-web people “Dynamic=flash” that why the other web designers gives him a very expensive rates for a real tiny site, by explaining him a little and pay attention of what he really wants now a have been working for him for 7 years now.

  • Nice post and I agree. There are some comments on Clients From Hell that simply don’t warrant being there – have a look through and see how many times there are comments like “what’s this Lorum Ipsum?” and “why have you written Latin everywhere?” – that really isn’t a stupid comment and doesn’t deserve to be ridiculed.

    More often we should take a step back and remember that we are experts so we shouldn’t expect people to know what we do and be frustrated and impatient when they don’t. There are plenty of clients who hardly know how to use a computer let alone know anything much about design and the internet.

  • I explain quite well what everything is or does. I can talk on a low level about problems. This gift is mainly given to my by my parents having a slight interest in what I do and a great girlfriend who knows that explaining things is a way of learning things.

    However I do freely complain about clients. And the trend I notice is that if they sell products (items) and not services (time) they will forever complain about the rate and the expense. They often feel that they are buying a brochure or a website. Thinking very physical about it.

    The first question I ask prospects is what they sell. If they sell a product I make sure to somewhere in the dialogue (during one of the meetings or mailings) explain how my service works and that they are paying for the hours bundled into clean cut projects. Having very clear estimates is basics. Clients selling products perceive ‘the website that I want for € x. Not realizing there is a limit to the time or the extra stuff they tend to wish for near the end of projects.

    You can avoid this by a clear estimate and communication (as you also pointed out). But there will still be room for arguing and disagreement. As in any business and relation.

    • I totally agree with @Jeroen. The best thing to do is to clarify things from the very beginning: time limit and price. Also, if he asks “stupid” questions, just explain in clear terms how things work and what would work best for him, from your point of view. Give examples, arguments and you’ll be fine. Be patient, don’t just jump when he’s asking something weird. If he’s paying for your services, he can’t do it himself, right? So, you just have to prove you’re right, without making it sound he’s wrong. PS: The Clients from Hell is pretty amusing, even though at times tragic. It made my day:)

  • I understand where you’re coming from, but your last example, where the client is asking for you to work on your holiday, is not a client who doesn’t understand website jargon. I’m with @Jeroen, and you need to set limitations with clients upfront.

    And seriously, I think it’s funny listening to someone trying to explain something without knowing how… just like kids coming up with hilarious sayings, clients asking, “Can you make this jingle sound more brown?” or them enthusiastically coming up with tacky things is hilarious.

    Every industry has their jokes that are only funny to them, and why can’t we just have a laugh without trying to be so PC all the time? Don’t laugh in your client’s face, but have a laugh with the other web/design nerds.

    • Hi Kat,

      The last example was merely to illustrate that clients can sometimes be, indeed, stupid; not because they don’t understand our work, but in general. So, yes, I agree with you.

      It’s good to have our little inside jokes and pet peeves, but what I’m referring to with the article is mainly the moaning that I listen to frequently that could easily be avoided if we just did something about it.

      Thanks for dropping by :)

      • Yeah i’d agree with Kat too.

        I think @yaili made a good point though, there are times when we take it for granted and expect clients to understand what we’re babbling on about sometimes. I think some people also get caught up on the little comments that their clients make and it can make work a little more stressful than it should. As long we we set our boundaries from the beginning (something i need to learn) and take a little time to help the client understand a little more then the design process can be a lot smoother and a happier experience for us all.

        Great post!! :)

  • We must act with humility in the face of someone who do not have the same knowledge that we, because they also know things we do not know. An article to think. Congrat.

  • I agree, there is no need to be talking to a client about HTML or Javascript or any other technology because they do not need to know. It is our job to abstract all that away from our clients and focus on turning their business goals into a website that works for their business and our job to make sure that works for their users too.

    It is normally down to unreasonable expectations because the client does not understand our industry or those clients that want to dictate how the site should look. There has to be an element of trust from the client that they trust us to deliver their goals just like you trust a mechanic to fix that clanging noise coming from the engine of your car.

    I also think that people working in the same office doing different tasks come at problems from different angles and I don’t think that is helpful either.

    Communication is key to a mutual understanding. This is something that I personally have to work on and is needed to earn that trust.

    • Completely agree. I find myself talking as a web designer instead of a guide when discussing where the client wants to go with the project. Clients don’t usually tell you how to do it, they tell you what they want. If you can’t extract that then the project is a failure. It like having a conversation, communication both ways usually leads to more conversations and business. When it’s a one sided conversation or someone is talked down to, there is less likely to be additional conversations.

      If you respect them, they will respect you.

  • tiago vieira

    Client’s aren’t stupid. I agree.

    They are only a part of a value chain trying to get the most out of us.

    One thing is “not knowing the difference betwen a pixel and an inch” – and that can be explaind, other thing is failure to communicate and this is the real problem.

    – technical communication gap
    – design issues due to the fact that the client don’t have the communication objectives set or we don’t understand (client don’t like drafts, don’t want to know our opinion)
    – client is extremly clevar and just want to take the most out from us
    – client thinks he is a designer or has someone closer that thinks the same

    I always said that clients are the ones how knew more about their clients (and these are the ones that we need to communicate with through our work). This represents a problem when our client don’t want to know this and want’s us to design to himself.

    Other thing is abuse. So we try to specify the most in terms of service, what we propose to do. For example if you say that you do a Photo Gallery, with categories and so, and if you don’t specify how many categories and photos within each category can have, this represents a flaw and if he wants he will take this in it’s advantage.

    So it comes to this:
    – Client must know objectives
    – Designer must understand objectives
    – They have to find a way to communicate in the same language (designer can do some teaching, as part of the job and contribute a better society)
    – Design should be in accordance to clients objectives and not experimental
    – The contract must specify all terms of service as they where explained to a 5th yr old child.

    And when you fell that despite of all your efforts, everything fails and there is nothing that you can do to a closure, there is always your contract…

  • What I found funny is that clients who are at the lower end of the scale in regards to their spending budgets are more likely to make those type of requests, changes or expect you to work when on holiday/relaxing.

    To them they see your task as a hobby not a career or a craft, something that takes years to learn and to get better at.

    Clients like these will always view you one step above their, “my nephew does sites!”

    Web design has a low entry level, being able to publish/create sites within days/weeks gives the impression it’s easy to master but I’d rather pay someone else do it.

    Make clients aware of how serious you are about your profession and they tend to see you in a different light.

    If you’re getting clients that spend £600 on the whole thing then…expect them to want the Moon on a stick.

  • I think a lot of the problem involves clients not truly valuing the time and effort of developing for the web. It’s the stigma that “you don’t actually work, you’re on the computer all day.”

    Having said that, it’s pretty arrogant to mock the person you agreed to provide your services to. What if your client stumbled upon ‘Clients From Hell’ and made the connection between your post and their request. DOH!

    Take the higher ground.

  • Having been a freelance copywriter for nearly 5 years and working with 75+ clients, I believe:

    1. Some clients are great.

    2. Some clients are not.

    The clients who are not great are not necessarily stupid, but they may lack common sense… or may be dishonest… or whatever.

    There are many reasons a client can be bad to work with. And I don’t think you can say “It’s all my fault” or “It’s all their fault.” The guilt is almost always shared.

    An observation: The more I have to explain about the value of my work up front, the less likely it is they’ll appreciate it when I’m done. The best clients usually understand enough going in to value and appreciate your work.


  • What is this? This Facebook redesign SUX!!!!111 How do I login!

  • Nils Holmström

    I think it’s a simple matter fo venting frustration, much the same way teachers trash-talk students in the faculty lounge, and doctors complain about stupid patients who wont take their medecine or fat people who wont stop eating. (and believe me, they do)

    This doesn’t mean we can’t treat the client respectfully and/or try to see what we ourselves might have done wrong, it just means were humans, and when we’re under stress we want to bitch and moan and blame someone other than ourselves.

    just my 2 cents…

  • Although I think that clients ask valid questions, where we consider sometimes as common knowledge, that list on clients from hell contain some pretty useless and dumb remarks. And indeed it’s nice to have a laugh with them while others vent their frustration.. that’s what standup comedians do all the time, take a well-known situation, ridicule it and vent their ‘acted’ frustration.. and the audience laughs. good therapy imho ;)

    eg of ignorant ppl: “Thanks for emailing me the PDF. Can you please resend it to me at 100% and not at 147%”

    or this one: “Can you include a splash intro animation that turns the screen into a mirror so they can see themselves? We really want to push the metaphor.”

    or all the ones that think that webdesigners are magicians and live of air and work for free..

    • I’m afraid I can’t agree with the examples you gave, Tom. I’d never say that a person is ignorant because they are not aware that you can zoom in and out on a PDF file. Even the mirror example: there are websites that allow you to see whatever your camera is capturing…

      Because some things are obvious to us, it doesn’t make them immediately obvious to everyone else. That’s the message I’m trying to convey on this article.

  • They put the blame on the guy who sent them a perfect file… while it is their own software they can’t work with. This is no error the designer made, this is their own lack of knowledge.

    And the example with the cam: come on, this is very far fetched. (Show me a site that does that .. or better)

    There are lots of other examples as well that indeed show a lack of knowledge, and that doesn’t bother me, but the way they make their comments towards the designers is worth venting about. (there’s a story about a designer who says that you shouldn’t build a flash-site specifically aimed towards the iphone, and he’s being mocked by his all-knowing client…)

    It is just for these types of ironic situations this site is very funny to read ;) I agree that some other comments are not always the fault of the client, but show a wrong sense of superiority of the designer who posted it.

  • tiago Vieira

    here is something new:

  • max.elliott

    Nearly all of the comments on that clients from hell site break down into four categories;

    1) Clients trying to get something extra for free. It’s normally called negotiating, and it’s something most tech-minded people don’t get. This is why programmers salaries are dropping while the work is getting harder and more complex. When a “geek” says ‘10.50/hr’, what other geeks hear is ‘10.50/hr’ and most managerial types hear is ‘I’ll do it for 5.25/hr, and extend your deadlines by 50%’. This is business as normal for most of the rest of the world. My wife teaches voice and piano lessons in KC, MO, and we get this a lot from parents who want the lessons, but cannot afford to pay the going price. Most of those people who ‘didn’t read the T.O.S. or whatever preperatory paperwork you send them (contracts, etc), those telling you how easy it’s going to be when you know better, asking for one more little thing… These people are aware that they’re technically incorrect, but are just squeezing you for more on the off chance you’ll cave in. We find that you just have to keep reminding them of the existing agreement. There is much copy/pasting from the introductory papers.

    Learn to negotiate and handle those that are handling you and this entire category goes away.

    2) Those that do not know the Jargon. “inches” instead of “pixels”. “Bigger” instead of “Bolded”. Here I have no sympathy for the designers in question. BECAUSE as experts it is our job to make their desires come true and it is up to US to learn what clients mean. THAT’S why we get paid at all. It is NOT our job to “train” or “teach” our clients, it IS our job to understand them. If you do not get this point, you need to pack up your lappy and go home, you total failure. *cough*

    3) Urban legend. Some of these tales are just plain made up. I know because they were made up when we used to tell them about IRC users, and USENET before that, and Tech Support Callers after both of those. The exact same tales.

    4) Those suffering from “Magical Geek Syndrome”. I’m a programmer, and I specialise in programming for the internet. You folk are the people I tell my clients to hire when they suddenly get the idea that because I program servers, I can make a pretty webpage. Not so. I also do not build airplanes, nor do I erect skyscrapers. I can make a database that’ll execute magical-seeming data transformations on a page refresh, but it will look like a steaming pile of plain text data with a few links when it comes out to the user. It’s not really our jobs to cross train like that, in the same way one would not hand a master mason a hot rivet gun and make him walk the high steel. Both jobs involve construction, but try this and you’ll soon need a new master mason.

    Anyway, that’s my free 20$ worth. Remember that it’s worth what it cost. :D

  • The clients from hell site gets on my nerves as well – while it is sometimes funny to laugh at bad situations designers have only one person to blame for letting the clients get this out of hand – OURSELVES.

    I just did a video interview with a friend and we talked about POSITIVE experiences with clients and how we can foster that – which does not happen to often.

    • I like Liz’s remark that if bad client experiences happen to you all the time, the common denominator is yourself, so maybe (just maybe) you’re doing something wrong. Very well put :)

      Thanks for the link!

  • shiv

    here is something new:

  • Hey Inayaili,

    I think you raise a great point here. I think there are two categories: clients who are just unaware of certain things, and clients who are just rude, clueless on human conduct, and disrespectful to you and what you do.

    With the first kind of client, I agree that we shouldn’t get frustrated with. Also, why would we expect someone who hires us to already know everything and be familiar with everything? After all, that’s what they’re hiring us for! It wouldn’t make sense for them to be a super savvy design enthusiast. The only thing – I think – we can really ask from the client is to recognize precisely that – that they’re coming to us because we’re the expert and they’re not, so to trust our judgment and suggestions when it comes to design.

    And the second kind of client…well, those I just rather not work with.


  • What helps a lot about communication between client and designer is when the client hires a consultant to take care of finding designer/developper, and manage the project. This way you talk to someone that understands all, and often the client is 100 % confident to his consultant, so that’s pretty nice work being made in the end.

  • what you say about clients is a truth one…

  • From my experience, it is even much better if the clients do not know the tech jargons, because when they do, they feel like they are some sort of expert on the matter, they interrupt you when you try to educate them on some matters and believe that their knowledge guarantees them a “fair” price on the job.
    You give them a quote and they say “hey, it’s just HTML, I’m not asking you to code in PHP”.
    Let’s be honest with ourselves. We all know clients can be very unfair when it comes to dealing with web designers. It comes from their perception of what we do. Frankly put, they do not see us as professionals in the likes of Architects and the rest. When they walk up to a lawyer, they don’t dare underprice, not even when they deal with other professional services providers. We are professionals in our own right, and what we do is also pretty hard with how the internet evolves everyday leaving us scampering to update our knowledge constantly. That’s hard work. They don’t see that. They merely see a computer. And that’s wrong. I’ll call it career discrimination.
    It isn’t our job to educate them on what we do, it is their own prerogative. The best we can offer is a user manual and that’s all. Because people buy cars doesn’t mean the manufacturers have to educate everyone on the intricacies of automobile engineering, they give you a user manual and that’s it. You want more, go learn yourself. We are service providers, not tech-handymen. We deserve a measure of respect. And we deserve our prices. Our tools are not getting any cheaper, no thanks to Adobe and Apple. We also deserve to live good lives like other professionals do. We deserve our pay, we work hard for it. We also deserve our respect, if not more than other professionals. Web design education never ends, there is always a new version of html and css and then some geeks might come up with a new programming language and then we all have to be abreast with it. It’s also not easy sitting in front of a computer screen for long periods of time. We might enjoy it, but that is our own personal satisfaction, not reason for the clients to devalue our work, because we do not live busy work lives based on their own definition of busy work lives. We are professionals and it is about time they started seeing us that way.
    So I love Clients from hell, since we can’t fight for our rights for fairness, we can at least laugh about our career prejudice….

  • Eric M.

    David Tele Ogundeko, I’m a Web Design virgin compared to everybody who has commented on this post. I’ve been teaching myself everything I can about HTML, CSS, best practices and on and on and on. I’d love to have a job like yours in the world of Web Design. While I’m a virgin in your world I’ve been working in the “high tech” field for over 30 years. Specifically in the relational database development industry. No, not designing database…..building data servers (Oracle, DB2, SQL Server, ASE are a few examples of data servers). I had the title of Senior Engineer but my real job was to make sure that my fellow Engineers never lost touch with the fact that actual human beings used the compiled versions of their code on a daily basis. I also made sure that they implemented the features and functionality the customers/users wanted. If you think the “Client from Hell” is tough try telling a multi-million dollar customer that the Engineers think their feature request is stupid.

    What I’ve learned over the years is that it’s the client who feeds us, puts a roof over our heads and cloths us. What I’ve learned is to treat them with the respect they DESERVE no matter what.

    I may be a virgin in the world of Web Design but I’m hungry to enter it. And, I know that when I do the lessons about clients that I’ve learned with come in very handy. So David, keep up the attitude about clients…I’m coming for your job.

  • Jason Devins

    Some clients are just plain ol’ stupid. I’m not even talking about self managing their website, I’m talking about things like managing their business.

    When a client calls to complain that their website is “broken” and has an attitude and you come to find out that the reason their website is broken is they didn’t pay their phone/broadband bill so it’s not their website it’s the fact they have no internet…what do you do?

  • Still there are clients that are considerate and some aren’t. We will just have to bear for that sometimes.

    With past experience, I have learnt that client who paid, will expect you to do everything including their laundry sometimes.

  • Endre

    As we are the professionals we have the responsibility to be able to talk to our clients. We have to make them understand our world just like we would talk to our grandmothers.

    There is no need for jargon to express our own world.
    If people are not able to express themselves simply they might not understand themselves.

  • Joshua Fuson

    I think some of the issue is the “bike shed effect”.

    Most people would not argue the finer points of designing a nuclear reactor – because they have no clue, and they know they have no clue.

    With a bike shed, many people will argue the finer points of how it is to be constructed, down to the proper color of paint, even though they are just as clueless as they were with the nuclear reactor.

    It’s not just an issue of “explaining” things to people. If someone has their mind made up that things are to go a certain way, and you violate that expectation (even for their own good), don’t expect them to be uber appreciative. Many people would rather be right than be rich.

  • We should understand the needs of client. However, sometimes clients are not able to express their thoughts clearly and this is the time when we feel trouble.