How to get or recognize great clients

Louis Sullivan said, “Great architecture requires great clients” or something close to that. This weekend, I was thinking about this in a moment of design rage and it dawned on me. I’ve never had a class, seen a lecture or read an article on how to get or even recognize great clients. I was hoping the collective C77 board intelligence could help me out. Any clues?

One example I have is an architect once told me about when his office got successful enough to start turning clients away. He had a client that just kept insisting for bad design in their million dollar house project and after 2-3 meetings the architect told them he wasn’t their man.

The problem with that is that it depends on judgement based on hundreds of client meetings. Even then, he had to burn 8-12 hours on preperation and meetings just to turn the job down. Are their signs we can depend on earlier?

Another example is organizational structure. The boards discusses sales-oriented organizations a year ago and we concluded that it was difficult to make great design when sales is in charge and they are insisting that they need a copy of the competitor product, costing $10 less and with Mickey Mouse branding.

Any other organizational signs?

The clarity of their brief can be taken under consideration.

The more vague, the more I’d stay away.

But I have never seen a design firm at 100% capacity. And instead of turning away customers, they will add capacity before they hit critical mass. Maybe it’s different for the architecture folks, but those guys take themselves way too seriously.

I turn away probably about 95% of the potential clients that randomly contact me.

A few anecdotes.

The greater the instance on an NDA, the greater likelihood the idea is crap and not worth it. I’ve had billion dollar brands work with me with no NDA (obv. they have big lawyers) and "inventors want a 10 page NDA and more signed.

If they don’t email you with your name (dear sir, or blank), delete it. May not be in your email address, but they should be able to spend 5 min on google or LinkedIn.

If they phone and hangup several times(if you don’t answer) instead of emailing for fist contact. Forget it.

If at first chat they offer equity… forget it.

…just getting started…


Sometimes your gut reaction is the best indicator.

I took a lot of jobs and would argue that most of them were with terrible clients. “Inventor” types who watched shark tank too much and insisted because they had already spent money on patents that their ideas would be worth millions, and were not open to any changes or improvements. Just wanted somebody to “CAD it up” or “make it look prettier”.

I could tell early on I was in for pain but obviously it was all freelance and I needed the cash.

Ultimately you will need to spend some time with them to get a sense of their level of arrogance and demands, and even then until you actually start negotiating a real statement of work the craziness might not come out.

The best thing you can do is plan deliverables and payments in a way that minimizes your risk, and gives you an exit strategy if you need to jump ship.

I’m not as worried about this as I’m worried about working on a project that goes nowhere or is clearly land-fill material.

I was looking at my portfolio this weekend and I’m proud of all the work in it. However, there are really only four or five products that made it to market that I think, “Wow…I didn’t have anything else to give on that.” That was too often because of my initiative though. It was a struggle to get the client to give me the extra time/budget/resources to do the job right because they were ready to sign off on whatever napkin sketch I had.

I think Richard nailed it pretty well. You either know the NPD process or you don’t.

Bad clients will tend to be the ones who don’t know and will say “I need to launch.”

Good clients will know the process and be specific about where they are in the process and what they need at that time. “We see this opportunity and need to to run some ideas by our customers.”

The evil word I always watch for is “Just”… as in “I JUST need a few sketches”… or “I already have an idea I JUST need a CAD model and a rendering”

Either they want to do a design project or not. The ones that don’t understand NPD will “JUST” need this one thing and it will snowball into a bottomless pit of hours they won’t have money for.

While you need to eat, and if you are in that position, you have to take the work, but once you can turn work away, you have to start evaluating “opportunity cost”. By that I mean every hour you choose to work on one project, you choose not to work on another project. So taking in taking a project you don’t like, you may be missing a project you do like. Getting the project you do like might take more biz dev or other costs, so if you take a project you don;t like, charge double so it at least buys you time to invest in more biz dev for better projects.

One of my favorite biz dev philosophies came from our then GM at frog SF who said we only take projects that make us rich or famous. Hopefully they do both, they better do at least one. If they do neither we aren’t taking it.

Good point on the “JUST”, Yo. I say the same thing and if someone comes to me for JUST product/identity design for a startup, I tell them “sure”, as long as we’ve done the brand and product positioning, defining the DNA, etc… If you want just a logo or sketch, go elsewhere.

Gut feel has a lot to do with it. I actually work a lot with startups, new brands and people not experienced in the process. It’s given me a different attitude to client and process management. They hire me because I do what I do, and they can see the value in it.

I also only take on projects I find interesting and I think can be successful. 1. Successful because the client has a good idea, business plan, resources to reasonably finish or get far enough along. 2. Successful because I have something to add and can make the project better.

I don’t take projects where I think I can do great design, but will ultimately sit on shelf because the client has no money for development or getting to market.

I don’t take projects where I know I will be not seeing eye to eye on the process or design.

I don’t take projects where my value is not recognized by the client, regardless of if they pay me what I’m looking for.

I don’t take projects where I think the idea is stupid and even if they can get to market.

I don’t take projects if they don’t need me, or need so much more than me that I wouldn’t make a difference to the end result.

I don’t take projects if I can’t get paid.

I don’t take projects only for the money no matter how much, if that’s the only thing going for it.

I do take projects I think I can do good work on.

I do take projects that I think are a good idea by a good person I can work with.

I do take projects that challenge me and provide me with an opportunity to do something new or get involved in a different area or skill.

I do take projects for potential future upside (fame/riches, etc.) if the short term rewards are at least as above.


My client work involves

  1. Quick assignments for the challenge, expanding my network or building salary
  2. Long term projects

For the first I am not so critical but I do look for the best match to my portfolio and least possible risk in terms of payment stalling, planning, and reaching a consensus on a design. The way the project is described and your first impression of it is very important. The way the client is thinking and innovating has to suit me as well otherwise you can run into endless loops of miscommunication where at one point somebody just has to tie the ends together and decide ‘this is it’.

For long term projects I look for clients that I truly enjoy working with and see myself building towards something in the future.
I recommend looking for 2 or 3 of these clients and continuing working for them.

Follow-up question: How do you attract the great clients? From Richard’s comment about turning away 95% of the people that contact him, maybe this is a harder question…

That is a hard question. Let me sketch out an answer. I think here are probably 3 ways to get the “great” clients:

  1. dumb luck. They call you, you don’t blow it. It happens. Not a strategy to rely on though.
  2. relationship building. Slowly overtime build relationships with key people at a company. Both consulting firms I worked for were great at this. Wining and dining prospects until they got to the right decision maker to get a good project.
    3 grow together. Thinking ok Karim Rashid and Umbra here. They grew together.
  1. Do good work.
  2. Don’t be a dick.
  3. Profit



I think you’ve recognized my problem. Oh well.

We designers tend to be a little introvert, even if we do work, that is seen as “superficial” by the “non preferable” clients.

There is already great, great advice on this first page. Thank you so much for:


I’d have paraphrased “don’t be a dick” a little.

You got to talk to people! Actual face to face meetings.

As a former taxi driver, who now does sales as well as product management I can’t stress that one enough.
Talk and later nail down the essence in small written briefs.

Next thing: Know who you are, where you stand and what you are aiming at. Long for clients, who bring you there.

I have the gut feeling, that you Ray are not in the perfect place at the moment. (Me myself, I am not.)

I sense that you long for the company to take a different direction than the head of sales does. But I don’t get what the CEO wants.
If he is undecided (still), that would be a major risk. A brand can’t be everything and a whole company less, so.

Wishing you well.


Actually, I’m in a pretty good place. I was just reflecting back on how I got here and it was mostly dumb luck. I wish I had known how to plan it better and I wish I could share that knowledge with the frustrated designers that I often meet.

Also, I’ve been reading academic research into management decision making when it comes to creativity. To sum it up, most managers are bad decision makers. All designers at some point will run into this problem. Looking back, I can’t think of what distinguished the good decision makers in my career from the bad.

Welcome to life.

Recognize them by their history, by the assets they do bring to a project and their respect for what you bring to the table. My experience has been that when a potential client has a convoluted idea of the new product development process, its going to be a nightmare.
Either they know the process or they know that they don’t know the process and that is why they are hiring me. I politely avoid anything that falls in between and on a few occasions that has resulted in the client spending a lot of money somewhere else and then returning to me with a new found respect for the process.

I have worked corporate, startup and now as an independent consultant. It took me a long time to figure out the best way to get the clients you want is to call them, email them, visit them at trade shows.

I will reiterate what has already been said.

Rule 1: Don’t Be A Dick
Rule 2: Do Good Work
Rule:3 Sell yourself constantly but make sure to remember Rule 1 while doing this.

My experience has been that when a potential client has a convoluted idea of the new product development process, its going to be a nightmare.
Either they know the process or they know that they don’t know the process and that is why they are hiring me.


Thanks for cracking me up!

Some of the “truths” that we found here about gauging potential clients holds the same value for gauging a potential “spouse”, or what ever you’d call your love interests. :wink:

Or is that only me?


When I was in school, I remember Astro founder Brett Lovelady visiting and saying ‘only show work in your portfolio that you want more of.’ Seems like whenever they have down time, idealist firms do in-house and nonprofit projects to help position themselves for the kinds of clients they want to attract. Some firms I’ve noticed show as few as three case studies, so continually curating your previous work is very important.

There’s probably a lot of “isms” that are great indicators of a bad client, I can think of a few:

“Not to play designer, but…”

“I have a design background.” - Hasn’t designed anything in over a decade, happens to be graphic/interior design

“If it saves time then just render 1 or 2 views.”

“I can give you a budget once I see the design work.”

To be fair, I work in a speculative facet of design, and that being the case you have to be on point with sniffing out clients who will drain you dry because the work is “free”, it is easier to add more staff when everything is billable, but with spec you have to become adept at avoiding resource drains to focus on the best qualified opportunities.

Part of being great at sales is having the ability to qualify new opportunities well. Bad salespeople chase everything and dilute finite design resources that are better off focused on well qualified opportunities.

Qualifying is a great skill to have as a designer and it is not uncommon for experienced designers to be as good or better at it than salespeople because they have a clearer picture of the amount and type of work that will result in success.

Some of the comments here list out positive and negative qualifiers, my advice would be to do the same. Some positive and some negative qualifiers might cancel each other out or trump one or the other. So, what I have found useful is to put a weight on each positive and negative qualifier, like from 1 to 10, and use that to rate new opportunities. I’ve found that this helps estimate risk vs. reward.