Why are we in this business of unreasonable deadlines, less reasonable clients, challenges in earning a living, and immeasurable daily stress?

As designers, we all seem to bitch and moan about clients, projects, vendors and other aspects of the profession on a daily basis. Why do we put ourselves through the agony, torture, sleepless nights and sometimes concern if the rent will be paid at the end of the month?

The pitfalls of graphic design
We all have those moments in our design careers when we wonder if perhaps a job flipping hamburgers might be a better idea. Dealing with the battles of a project we knew we should not have taken on, working twice as hard to get paid by a client than on the actual job, the constant justification of rates and invoices, and competing with anyone with a computer calling themselves a designer can impact anyone in the industry.

For Nigel Holmes, the ultimate stumbling block for the designer is “dealing with a middleman who intervenes between you as the creator and the actual client. This often happens in advertising, but not nearly as often in magazine work, where the art director is usually ‘the client.’”

Having to be the “bad guy” presents a struggle for Sheree Clark in her position at Sayles Graphic Design.

“Because I am the ‘suit’ in our operation — meaning I am the one meeting with clients — I am also the one who has to tell our creative staff when a perfectly wonderful idea has been shot down,” Clark explains. “It’s like I have to live the terrible experience twice — once, when the client gives me the word, and then, back at the office, when I have to pass that word along to the people who created the work.”

Collecting late payments from clients, responding to e-mails and “half of the day spent tied to a keyboard” are the design business pet peeves of Petrula Vrontikis.

Clement Mok says that “Trying to professionalize the design profession.” is what he likes least about the business.

“Coming up with fees that potential clients will agree to and that will allow us to remain in business,” is the most difficult task for Ellen Shapiro. “This was not a problem until the last couple of years, but pricing is getting increasingly difficult to deal with.”

Peleg Top finds the least pleasurable aspect of graphic design to be “having to always fight for our rights as designers.”

Art Chantry is frustrated by the constant need to secure more business. “It cuts dramatically into the time I would like to spend on the actual work. The constant search, alongside the demands of simply running a business (paperwork, etc.), dominates my time,” according to Chantry. “It’s probably around a 90-to-10 percent ratio, with the creative work being the 10 percent. I’m often astonished at the huge volume of work I’ve managed to produce; how did I ever find the time?”

The joys of graphic design
For me, many negative aspects of the design field are mitigated by the positives of loving what I do for a living, using my skills and talents to visually solve the problems of clients, and the rare moments of great creativity. I love those occasions when everything comes together: the idea seems brilliant, the approval process is quick and painless, the completed design piece is just as imagined and the client is thrilled and let’s you know he or she is pleased. While these instances may be few and far between, they are what make a life and career as a designer ultimately worthwhile and gratifying.

Peleg Top gets that same feeling from “being able to create something that makes a difference, that promotes a cause or that makes profit for someone.”

Sheree Clark most enjoys getting to work with people who have a positive attitude and purpose. “Nobody comes to a graphic designer because they are terminally ill or they need an expensive engine overhaul,” says Clark. “Our clients – for the most part - are companies and individuals with a story they want to tell the world. They come to us to help get their message out; they come to have us to help them be more successful, they come because things are going well and they want them to go better. People look forward to meetings with me and my firm because they value our creativity and our advice.”

“Making an impact and helping others understand an issue,” is what Clement Mok most enjoys about the design profession. In addition, he appreciates “making the experience of the everyday and the mundane more enjoyable.”

Petrula Vrontikis finds her great pleasure in solving problems and facing interesting challenges. She says she likes learning what makes businesses and organizations “tick” as part of the design process.

“There is nothing more thrilling for me than doing good work,” adds Art Chantry. “In a way, it’s the ultimate triumph.”

All in all, graphic design is a great profession. As in any chosen field of endeavor occasionally there will be difficulties, challenges and times when murder may seem like a viable means of solving some problems.

Genevieve Gorder, of double-g, explains it in her own way when speaking about meeting the goals, demands and desires of clients.

“Fear is the biggest problem in design,” says Gorder. “It’s the fear of the unknown for people who don’t know design. What they want, they could have done a hundred times over and they haven’t,” she adds. “Don’t give them what they don’t want, but rather what they need.”

Former Saatchi and Saatchi Executive Creative Director Paul Arden takes that message further. “A client often has a fair idea of what he wants. If you show him what you want, and not what he wants, he’ll say that’s not what he asked for.” Arden comments. “If, however, you show him what he wants first, he is then relaxed and is prepared to look at what you want to sell him. You’ve allowed him to become magnanimous instead of putting him in a corner.”

Arden continues, “Give him what he wants and he may well give you what you want. There is also the possibility that he may be right.”

Designers need clients. The clients need designers. Designers need to remember that graphic design is a business. But who says you can’t have fun along the way?

Contributors mentioned in this excerpt:

Nigel Holmes/Explanation Graphics

Sheree Clark/Sayles Graphic Design

Petrula Vrontikis/Vrontikis Design Office

Clement Mok/The Office of Clement Mok

Ellen Shapiro/Shapiro Design Associates, Inc.

Peleg Top/Top Design

Art Chantry/Art Chantry Design Company

Genevieve Gorder/double-g (no link available)


Arden, Paul, It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be, Phaidon Press, 2003

Shapiro, Ellen, The Graphic Designer’s Guide to Clients: How to Make Clients Happy and do Great Work, Allworth Press, 2003

Note: This excerpt from my book, The Savvy Designer's Guide to Success: Ideas and tactics for a killer career, originally appeared on the website Creative Latitude.

The Savvy Designer's Guide to Success was released in 2009 as a PDF on CD from HOWBookstore.com

© 2009 Jeff Fisher LogoMotives