What Makes a GREAT Client

Many designers’ clients, my own included, often seem to have a lingering suspicion that they aren’t being a good client. Perhaps they feel that they’re being overly indecisive, and need some handholding to reassure them that they are “normal.” Although almost every designer has “client from hell” stories, in truth, the vast majority of clients are just fine. However, I thought it might be useful to describe some of the traits that make a GREAT client. This should be important to you, because great clients usually end up with great projects. And bad clients can sabotage a really outstanding design for themselves faster than a two-year old left alone with crayons and a clean wall.

Sure, there’s the obvious stuff like paying bills promptly, and not sending 10 or 20 e-mails a day. But when I think back on the most successful projects I’ve done, here are some of the qualities that stand out for me:

Great clients clearly articulate their goals, without telling the designer how to achieve them. (Clients who “know exactly what they want” and just need someone to “draw it up” often end up with a project designed by an amateur — themselves.) A great client would say, for example, “I want this room to be light and airy,” rather than “I want a 6′ x 4′ sliding window on the west wall.” They get exposed to more creative ideas this way.

Great clients are open to these creative ideas and relish the idea that they might end up with something completely different than they were first imagining, yet far more wonderful. They often are willing to spend just a little extra to get something really special. But they’re clear on their budget, and would rather do a smaller project, with better quality. They know themselves, along their tastes and preferences, but have the ability to enjoy a range of aesthetics, and realize that they are growing a little in this process.

Great clients understand that great design doesn’t happen overnight, and are willing to plan ahead far enough to be able to take the necessary time for a design to ripen into something special. They understand that good design is the result of iterations, and see the early designs as steppingstones to something much better. They are clear about any needed deadlines, but don’t put pressure on the designer needlessly. They do their homework when needed.

Great clients are great communicators. When in doubt, great clients ask questions rather than keeping issues to themselves, and know when to push the designer for something just a little better. They are doing the project for themselves and their own enjoyment, rather than some unknown future buyer. They have made sure to hire professionals they trust, and have the self-confidence to not second-guess decisions they’ve already made. Most especially, they don’t create a design committee from their circle of friends, each of whom has wildly different tastes and ideas.

Great clients value the relationships in the project. These clients usually choose to work with a specific contractor for the positive working relationship and the stress reduction this contractor brings. These clients consider the overall construction experience, along with the contractor’s project management skills and craftsmanship level, to be at least as important as the price.

When the inevitable construction problems come up, great clients stay in problem-solving mode, and don’t immediately start looking for blame. (They fully comprehend that humans don’t have x-ray eyes and reliable precognitive abilities.) Knowing that the designer and the contractor have done this many times before, they don’t try to micro-manage a process they don’t fully understand, but still act as full participants.

And when they get a great result that far exceeds their initial expectations, they say, “Thank you!” and are happy to talk about the designer to their friends. A designer couldn’t wish for more. I have been blessed with many great clients over the past twenty-five years or so, and look forward to many more.

5 Replies to “What Makes a GREAT Client”

  1. Richard, I was introduced to you through Josh at 8 Inch Nails through Facebook. I really the sentiment in this page and will probably use some of it in my own marketing. Let me know if you have any issues with that. Great stuff!

  2. Richard,
    This post is very good. I like that you’ve focused on “great” clients, what it takes to be one, as opposed to what clients do wrong. Makes for good positive energy, which of course breeds more.
    I have a question: May I have your permission to re-post this in my blog (see address above)? This is an invaluable guide that can be helpful to all architects and designers and can only improve the playing field for all of us.

  3. Richard;
    I agree with Warren. This is a great article and needs more exposure to the potential clients out there.

    I have the same question as Warren: May I post this on my web site and use in my marketing with a few tweaks if need be?


  4. Richard,
    I have seen many such pieces enumerating the desirable characteristics of this or that category of relationship. I don’t think I have ever seen another this good. I admire its brevity and clarity; and it seems to me dead on the money. I do have one question: What do you mean by “these clients choose to work with a specific contractor?” Do you mean they select their builder more or less at the same time they select their architect with the intention of creating a team that will take the project from start to completion? Or do you mean something else?

    1. OMG, Dave, nice to hear from you! Thank you for the kind comments. I did not necessarily mean to address the specific timing of hiring the parties here, but only to suggest that clients who care about the process as much as the results will usually choose to negotiate a contract with a contractor rather than go through a competitive bidding process. In general, though, I think that costs can be better controlled (or evaluated) when the contractor is on-board as early as possible. Not every contractor is comfortable with a somewhat “fuzzy” budgeting process at an early design stage, though.

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