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How to Maintain Creative Integrity When Working for Clients

This is a guest post by Dan Johnson from Right Brain Rockstar, a blog about how you can earn a living from your creativity.

Whether you’re an artist, graphic designer, or involved in any other kind of creative pursuit, it’s important to maintain your creative integrity if you want to be fulfilled in your work and minimise frustration.

This means having control over your own creative direction and being true to your own self-expression.

If you’re an artist, this can mean creating what you want to create, rather than what people tell you you should be doing, or what is most likely to sell (although realistically you may have to find a happy medium, at least when you’re starting out.)

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/iboy/

In web design, however, you are unlikely to have as much creative freedom if you are designing a site for someone else. The client will usually have some idea of how they want their site to look, and in some cases they can provide far too much creative guidance.

So how do you design a website for a client while maintaining your creative integrity?

Lay Down Some Ground Rules

When doing creative work for someone else, you need to be clear from the start that you’re the expert. Provide details of how you work, to let potential clients know what they can expect when they work with you.

This example from A Little Bit of Something may be on the extreme side, but it makes it clear that this designer is not going to tolerate too much creative input from their clients:

“You wouldn’t tell Mr. Marks of Spencer how to make slacks or Mrs. Audrey Audi how to build motor cars, would you? So please, Sir, don’t tell me I should ‘bevel’ things. Get back to doing what you do best and let me do the web designing.”

It works because it’s presented in a humorous way. People who get it will be happy to leave the designing to him, and people who don’t get it aren’t likely to contact him in the first place.

Be Consistent

Make sure the work featured in your portfolio is consistent in style and quality. That way any potential clients who browse your previous work will get an idea of what they can expect from you.

Obviously every site will need a unique design, but if the style and quality of your work is all over the place, your customers may get the wrong impression of what you are capable of, and that may lead to disagreements when you show them your design for their site.

Turn People Down

If someone comes to you asking for something that isn’t in line with what you do, or you don’t feel comfortable with, it’s perfectly acceptable to turn the job down.

For example, if someone asks you to build a Flash site, although you may have the ability to do so, you might not be comfortable doing it because you know it won’t perform as well as an HTML site.

I’ve experienced this as an artist, when people have come to me asking me to draw a funny caricature of them playing golf in a Superman costume. While this is something I could probably do, it’s not in line with the style of work I usually do, so I usually refer them to other artists I know whose work is more suited to this style.

Accept Constructive Feedback

Sometimes your client might offer constructive design feedback that can actually be useful.

It may be that something in your design has overlooked one of their business goals, or a certain design element is inconsistent with their overall brand.

In this case, don’t be precious about your work. If the client can provide a good reason for changing the design, then you should do your best to accomodate their request.

Offer Advice

If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation where your client is trying to do the design work for you, sending you horrible graphics to put on the website, or suggesting crazy colour schemes, you may have to decide whether you want to succumb to their requests so that you can still get paid, or to walk away from the project.

If you decide to continue, the best thing you can do is try to advise the client that in your expert opinion this is not a good way to proceed, but if they insist on doing things their way, then you can take no responsibility for the performance of the website, and that you don’t want to be credited with the design of the site (you certainly don’t want any Frankenstein websites in your portfolio.)

Don’t Be Afraid to Walk Away

Hopefully if you’ve taken all the measures I’ve suggested above, then you will have weeded out all the wannabe web designers and your clients should let you have the creative freedom that you need.

However, at some point you may find yourself in the situation where your creative integrity has been compromised to the point that you can’t continue with the project.

In this case, if you can’t convince the client to take your advice, then you may decide to bite the bullet and walk away.

This is a last resort, but if you really don’t feel comfortable with what a client is asking of you, then it may be the only solution.

You should certainly think about writing something into your contract that will protect you if you decide to cancel the contract on the grounds of losing your creative integrity.

Don’t Sell Out (too often)

As you can see, maintaining your creative integrity is not always easy when you are doing work for other people.

Occasionally you may have to sell out and do what a client wants so that you can get paid, even if it means compromising your creative integrity.

I would just advise that you try to avoid this whenever possible. If you find yourself selling out on every project, then you really need to look at why you are attracting the wrong kind of clients, and what you can put in place to avoid this.

If you continue to compromise your creative integrity for too long, then not only will you have very little quality work to put in your portfolio, but you will soon become disillusioned with the whole creative process, and you will lose any passion you once had for the work.

Have you ever struggled to maintain your creative integrity? Tell us about it in the comments.

About the author

Dan Johnson

Dan used to be a WordPress developer at WDFS, but now he has gone off to pursue his passion for art, and he blogs about making a living from creativity at Right Brain Rockstar

Radek - 3 years ago

Great article!

Hugues - 3 years ago

Hi Dan, very interesting reading, I found myself in two different positions recently and I’d like to have your opinion:

1) clients who asked to be kept in the loop at every step, questioning the design constantly but sometimes with a good approach, if you have to compromise once (for good reasons) how do you react to “get your credibility back” ?

2) clients who asked for a certain type of design in your portfolio, to the point where you’re wondering if they just don’t simply want a pure copy of this design, how to turn around the situation if they refuse any changes made? (which led me sometimes to work without showing my portfolio).

As you say, I might attract the wrong clients, but sometimes it starts well and gets worse during the process. Thanks!

    Dan Johnson - 3 years ago

    Hi Hugues

    Yes, that happens quite often, where you think a client is fine at the start, but they get progressively worse. I think the best way to avoid this is to talk with them as much as possible in the early stages to get clear on what they want.

    1) You should have a clear process for accepting feedback from clients. Any change requests they make should be backed up by sound reasoning and not just their own personal taste.

    2) A lot of people just want you to rip off someone else’s site, but they won’t tell you so. You need to spot this early, if they tell you they really like a certain site, ask them what they like about it and how that applies the their business. Make sure they have a unique offering and they’re not just getting you to create a clone of another site.

      Hugues - 3 years ago

      Thank you for your advices, very appreciated!

James Gordon - 3 years ago

Very good points. I’ve known a few clients who would change their minds way into a project. That also has to be accomodated and cannot always be foreseen or avoided. Sometimes I’ve just had to go with it until they were satisfied. After all its all about what they want.

    Jason Pelker - a couple of years ago

    No, it’s not all about what they want.

    I would guess that these clients did not solicit further business from you, nor did they recoup their expenses from the project from increased revenue. If so, you both lost, and you only have yourself to blame.

    As a professional, you should abide by an oath stronger than even the clients’ desire. Maybe something along the lines of “waste no client’s money on frivolous design projects”.

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