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Client is as Client Does

What you are about to read is nothing new — and perhaps long. It is a mixture of two, maybe three, well-trotted subjects that in this writing relatively no new light will be shed. Instead, consider this an open therapy session where I lay on the couch and tell you about a set of realizations I have had — some that many already have had and accepted and after reading this will likely go “well, duh!” These realizations are the result of four months of arduous manual labor rooted in prior stubbornness, pride and context.

Let us take it from the top. For three and a half years I worked in a very small design firm in Chicago: We were four people, at times only two. We had two major clients that kept us busy and invoicing most of the time — that was good. We then had dozens of smaller clients that kept us busy for short periods of time and invoicing irregularly, if at all — that was not so good. We often struggled to reel in these small clients: Start-ups, one-man or small family-run operations with very little budgets for design services. We were the poster children of design under appreciation.

Classics like “I can do this cheaper at Kinko’s” and “I know a guy who works at home that can do this for half the price” were common and very real conclusions to our meetings or replies to our estimates. We lost a good number of potential clients to someone working at home and charging half the price. We hated these designers. Undermining us with their cheap pricing. At the other edge of reason, some clients felt we were too small, unable to accommodate their needs and bureaucracy and they would take their projects to bigger design firms. We hated these bigger design firms. Eclipsing us with their project managers and multiple-room offices. And we hated the clients for choosing either of these extremes and not us. Other times the client would just admit of taking matters into their own hands and designing the logo, brochure or web site themselves. We, of course, hated these clients too. Mocking us with their DIY, cheapskate attitude. Hated them. All of them.

Fast-forward to September 2005 and Bryony and I have become these clients. All of them. The cheapskate client, the — not as often as I would enjoy — let’s-just-spend-as-much-as-it-takes-to-get-it-right client and — most commonly — the DIY client. We bought a condo in Brooklyn that needed semi-major work. I was not prepared for what was about to come.

For our first encounter with a contractor we needed to make a hole in our basement through the foundation to install a vent for our washer/dryer. Based on a recommendation I called an Israel-born contractor who was all business. He was to charge $2,100 for the job. Twenty-fucking-hundred dollars for a fucking hole in the wall? For a few hundred bucks I could probably buy the stupid drill and make the hole myself. [Realization No. 1: I can perfectly imagine one of our small clients going “Four thousand fucking dollars for a stupid drawing? I can do this myself”]. We agree and the contractor shows up with two guys ready to drill a hole. The job is done efficiently and the result is beyond satisfying. The contractor returns and collects the money. Thinking that he is too expensive (but worth it) we agree that we will probably not call him again.

Our second encounter with a contractor comes through a recommendation from an electrician that has, to this day, been trying to fix the boiler that heats our house. This contractor is older, works alone, is a fellow Mexican and, music to our ears, is plenty cheaper. He comes in to drill yet another hole in our basement through the foundation — just below and to the left of the previous hole — to install a pipe and faucet so that we can use a hose in the backyard. It takes him a full weekend to do so. He is slow. But did I mention cheaper? He charges $1,200 for a hole, piping and some considerable re-sheetrocking. We like him. We give him more work through small jobs needed throughout the house. Not only is he affordable for our budget, he is actually quite nice and gives us a lot of attention. [Realization No. 2: This contractor is just like we were in Chicago, very appreciative of getting work, and going the extra mile to satisfy everyone involved. I also realize that we would rather spend less money on a slightly less efficient (but very competent) contractor than give work to a contractor that is more efficient but has another dozen, lucrative jobs he would prefer to tend to].

Up next was adding a door in the hallway. For this we turned to Lowe’s and Home Depot, the Landors of home improvement. Eventually we settled for Lowe’s where we paid around $1,400 for the whole thing. Here the process was long and boring. First, a guy had to come out and measure the hallway. A week later, an estimate came through. After approving it, it took around three weeks to get the installers to come. Once there, it was done quickly, efficiently, perhaps dryly — barely said good-bye when they left. [Realization No. 3: Working with the bigger fish gets the job done as you would expect, but it’s just a little too wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am for us. We agree that Home Depot and Lowe’s are to be used only in case of dire need].

One of our numerous trips to Home Depot. This one on a Friday night after work.

Our next project is tiling the kitchen countertop. We decide that we can handle this ourselves. Bryony does the necessary research and despite many Home Depot and Lowe’s employees telling us that we can’t, in our right minds, put tiles on a Formica countertop, that it will never stick, we roll our eyes at them and proceed as planned. [Realization No. 4: Ignoring advice from professionals is not as hard as it seems; if a client is convinced they can do something a certain way, they will do it with or without your help]. We spend a full day sanding, priming, putting down white sticky stuff, putting down tiles, putting in white puffy stuff between tiles and painfully cutting and trimming tiles with improper tools but we finish the job. Tired. Just one tile cracked and the edge of the countertop could be considered uneven. But we did it and we saved ourselves a good $2,000. [Realization No. 5: Why on earth give money to someone when you can do it yourself? Sure, it ain’t perfect, but no one will notice. I then think about all the poorly executed design out there — I notice. Good thing we don’t have contractor friends over for dinner regularly].

Left: Sanding every surface on the kitchen. Right: Ugly countertop.

Pretty countertop.

What comes next is a true testament to the DIY trend. From the moment we made our offer on the place we knew we wanted to get rid of the existing tile in the basement. A pale gray with red grout, unknown dirtiness and some side effects of flooding. Sometime in October we began the process by hammering the hell out of the tile. We bought a sledgehammer that I wielded semi-mightily. It took us about three weekends to loosen all the tile. Another weekend to take out the debris and clean the basement only to realize that the 650 square feet of basement was covered with little ridges left from the mortar — making it impossible to lay down a new, even set of tile. This seemed daunting. After doing research we came to the sad conclusion that only chisel and hammer would do the job. I implored Bryony to hire someone to do the dirty work. She didn’t budge. We spent all four weekends in January hammering out the ridges in 30 degree weather. Agony describes this process. With a smooth cement surface, (and bruises and blisters on our hands) we were ready to lay down the tile. I once again asked Bryony to pay someone to do this but Home Depot would have charged us over $10,000 (plus the cost of materials) and even our Mexican contractor would charge around $5,000. Both options required more money than we were willing to spend. The next four to six weekends were spent tiling. From morning to night. [Realization No. 6: At what point do I actually start losing money if I considered all this work as billable time? I could be doing other things. If, say, my hour was worth around $100 and worked 12 hours a weekend for six weeks I could be making $7,200. Does the inevitable slowness of doing alien things yourself become a bad business decision? Too bad hypothetical questions are hypothetical. I’ll never know].

Basement as it was when purchased.

Basement as it was when banged upon.

Basement as it was when flooded.

Sometime back in April we finished. We laid down 650 square feet of tile. Our knees purple and lower backs stiff. The tile is in place, crooked in some spots, but by golly we did it. The sense of satisfaction was beyond what I imagined. [Realization No. 7: With enough research, conviction and tools anyone can do pretty much anything, I mean, cavemen didn’t hire hunters to get that tatanka, they just went out and hunted the beast — a survival method. Why would it be any different with graphic design? The need to communicate triggers a survival method, perhaps not as dramatic as hunting, but with the right amount of determination budget-conscious clients can and will do things by themselves. And that’s alright].

Pointing at our progress.


A few spots where things don’t match. Equal to bad kerning I suppose.

We are currently in the process of changing the dark garage door that leads into the basement for a light and airy window door. This, to say the least, is beyond us. We are spending over $4,000 on this project and hiring our friendly Mexican contractor to do the job. We were willing to spend more for a speedier contractor but we thought it would be best to give the bigger project to someone that has taken a bunch of small, sometimes unchallenging jobs. Good thing we saved all that money on the tiling. [Realization No. 8: Back in Chicago, one of our two major clients decided to redesign all their corporate brochures, over 80 of them, many of which we had been helping produce for a long time. They gave the “creative” part of the project to a slightly bigger design firm and we were then handed templates to produce dozens of new brochures. This sucked. I didn’t want to be the client that didn’t have confidence in his service provider. Our guy can do it, perhaps slower but he can do it].

I had never been on the client side. I can’t say I understand all their quirks now, but at least I have an appreciation and respect for their concerns and requests: their trepidation to spend oodles of money on anything (specially a service like graphic design that seems so easy and painless to do), the hesitation to trust a stranger (of any size) with the message of their business or service, the agonizing of letting-go of the reigns… [Realization No. 9: Like their businesses, our house is an amalgam of expenses and dreams on a limited budget. We all get by as best as we can. We put our money where we think it’s best spent. We do things ourselves when we believe we can. I now — finally — understand that. The next time a small client decides to do things by themselves or hire a more affordable designer or a more staffed firm I won’t hate them… I will just put on my gloves and tackle the backyard].

Backyard as it was when we bought it. Weeds were 6 feet high.

Bryony took out most of the weeds. Arid ain’t it?

So arid it floods when it rains. Digging a ditch to create a home-made French drain.

Starting the prettyfication of the backyard.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
ARCHIVE ID 2702 FILED UNDER Miscellaneous
PUBLISHED ON May.26.2006 BY Armin
Randy’s comment is:

Much appreciated, Armin.

I've been feeling some of the same lately, shopping around for the right vendors for our own projects. The balance becomes different when you're not spending your clients' money, but your own. Sadly, there's no way to DIY a water-based four-color job on FSC paper shipped climate cool. One day...

On May.26.2006 at 01:11 PM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

Interesting observations about our working relationships when transposed and put in context of another profession, Armin....Saaaaay, don't you need a mural on that grim backyard grey wall? I work semi-cheap.

On May.26.2006 at 02:07 PM
David Ferreira’s comment is:

This reminds me of a story from art school, a whole 25 years ago, that I will never forget.

There was a design lecture at RISD by one of the all time design heavyweights, Ivan Chermayeff. To set the context: My dad was a plumber and I had no interest of going into the trade. He, like I, also wanted something else for my future livelihood. Anyway, I was sitting there in the RISD auditorium, excited and ready to go. When Ivan opened his lecture with the words "Design is a lot like plumbing." It kind of knocked me for a loop. At that moment, my perspective on my design work changed, as well as my relationship with my father.

My dad has since passed away. Last year I installed some exterior water spigots and a shut off valve in my home, that required some soldering. I think I was able to piece together some of the things that Ivan was talking about and, bond with my dad at the same time.

I'm doing my roof on Saturday. Don't worry… I'm paying a crew of skilled Union roofers. I'm just a helper. Let's hope it doesn't rain.

On May.26.2006 at 02:21 PM
unnikrishna Menon Damodaran’s comment is:

Armin, excellent post. very well written. your realizations are inspiring too. can we expect a DIY book for graphic designers home.

On May.27.2006 at 06:12 AM
haynie’s comment is:

All of a sudden I want to tear apart my house.

See you later!

On May.27.2006 at 07:41 PM
Patrick C’s comment is:

Well, duh!...

Joking. But I realized this in school years ago. Mostly because my father and stepmother were business owners in an unrelated service/product industry. Their stories about dealing with condominium boards were revealing, relative, and immediately rid my mind of the notion that design was a "special field" or that clients (and thus myself) behaved differently when purchasing services or products in any field. It's a great lesson though.

Although it is satisfying, occasionally, to do certain things yourself, I believe that we should all accept and embrace our codependent, extremely specialized civilization. The last thing I want to do is go to Home Depot on a Saturday morning to "learn" how to install hardwood so I can then go buy it the next weekend and then spend the next several weekends living in chaos and making a bloody mess of my floor. I will hire someone to do it right and quickly (during the week while I'm working) or wait until I have the money do so.

On May.27.2006 at 07:51 PM
Ravenone’s comment is:

That looks like the slate tile mom put in for part of our basement. ;) Very cool.

On May.28.2006 at 12:29 AM
dan’s comment is:

Armin I'm glad you mentioned the time you spent, as it is the biggest issue (in my opinion) for DIY. Many people think they get the job done for cheap but they never seem to factor into the account the TIME they spent other than it saved them money... What about looking at it from this way - that time he/she spends doing DIY could be spent doing what they do for a living i.e. (how much more would they make?) in their profession - then take that extra time/money and put that towards getting another professional to do it. I'm betting it would take less time to design enough work to pay for the DIY work thus possibly you come out better off..? I hope this makes sense?

- its really a personal call though as there is a far bit of enjoyment from DIY - but is it worth the hours of work when you could be making more doing your day to day work!? Maybe not - but factoring in the time a professional could do it in and how much you or I would take doing DIY building – I’m going to have to stick to the design.

On May.28.2006 at 07:03 AM
george’s comment is:

The time spent in DIY and money saved from hiring contractors is not equal to work hours and money brought in from invoices. Just because most people are simply not willing to work 7 days a week the same thing. People need variety. Besides, if one works all week long (7 days, 8 hours a day) the quality of his job is going to drop considerably.

On May.29.2006 at 06:32 AM
Frank’s comment is:

Well said Armin. I've had a similar enlightening remodeling my mom's kitchen. This experience should be mandatory for all designers.

On May.29.2006 at 09:19 AM
Milan’s comment is:

This was great! I grew up with my dad as a building contractor by day, helpful handyman at night. His lifestyle was a very interesting balance of both catering to commercial clientele and providing quick help to neighborhood families. Only now do I recognize the parallels of this...

On May.29.2006 at 11:50 AM
Robynne’s comment is:

I love my power tools and I still have all my fingers attached. Great DIY story Armin. Looking forward to meeting you in November.

On May.29.2006 at 09:37 PM
Jeremy’s comment is:

Great story It puts our work in perspective, thanks for coming to Texas this year. Good luck on the new property.

On May.30.2006 at 02:32 PM
Pei-Yee’s comment is:

What I'm kind of missing in the discussion is this.

A bad DIY job can seriously devaluate a house and in a way that also applies to websites. You might not sell on a website like you would with a house. But a bad DIY job can cost you more if you need to keep hiring ppl to get the job done right or can cost you income and visitors because it doesn't work as it should.

On May.31.2006 at 04:09 AM
Doug F’s comment is:

Great post! I have found myself in all the same positions, both in business with my own studio and at home with projects that I've done myself and those that I've hired someone else to do.

I've also been in the position of being on the client side of working with other creatives when we had interior designers remodel our studio. Throughout the process I found myself constantly thinking "Oh no, I've become a client," as I evaluated the work that was presented to us. I felt awful the whole time because I was so worried about treating them with the same respect I hoped my clients would have for me.

Some day, if I ever get brave enough (or a client trusting enough), I'd love to analyze a design project from start to finish and have a client write down their feelings at every step so I can understand what they are going through. I'm sure it could be extremely helpful in making the process smoother for both sides.

On May.31.2006 at 08:09 AM
Steve Mock’s comment is:

As my unhandy uncle was fond of saying to his wife: "How much do you want me to screw this up before I call a professional?"

On May.31.2006 at 08:45 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> A bad DIY job can seriously devaluate a house and in a way that also applies to websites.

Pei-Yee, yes, you are right. And given our inexperience in this, that was my biggest fear. That we would do it wrong and then it would cost even more to fix the mistake, plus we would have wasted a bunch of time. But my good fortune placed me in the very capable hands of Bryony who has a scary, natural knack for these things. She was the brains behind the operation while I provided as much brute force as I could muster. A pretty good combination so far. And I think (or at least want to think) that we've done a much better DIY job with our house than most DIY design by clients that I have seen.

> Looking forward to meeting you in November.

Same here Robynne.

On May.31.2006 at 08:54 AM
Greg’s comment is:

I feel like the difference between DIY construction and DIY design is the establishment of a clear standard. Everyone can tell when a hole in a wall isn't patched right or tile is placed incorrectly. But when a logo's type is majorly f'ed up it takes a professional to notice and fix it. And I'm not talking about style, which we all know not everyone has. I'm talking about fundamental basics, like stretching type or letterspacing lowercase. I suppose the contractor's equivalent would be leaving the hole in the wall or spacing out the tile with three inches of grout in between each one.

What I'm saying is that there's a point in home design where you look at what you've done so far and say to yourself, "man, I screwed this up bad. Time to call someone who knows what they're doing." There's no real point like that with graphic design, mostly because 50% of the population doesn't know what good fundamental design is.

On May.31.2006 at 01:06 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Armin, I feel your pain. In our first Seattle house, the one you stayed at, I replaced almost every light fixture, painted 100% of every surface including the closets, grounded every electrical outlet (I have some previous electrical know-how), installed a disposal and rerouted/updated plumbing in the kitchen, and cosmetically remodeled from floor to ceiling both the kitchen and the bathroom. And what did we do after finishing all of that? We sold the house and moved.

Sure there's satisfaction in knowing that I did it all myself. I knew the story behind every square inch of that tiny house. But if I had to do it all over again, I'd save myself the grief and would've hired the work out to contractors. I did a pretty good job, but it wasn't what a professional and a real architect would've done. Yes, it would've cost much more, but the investment would've paid for itself many times over when I sold the house.

So I guess the analogy could extend itself to design. Clients could internalize their own brand work and teach themselves the process -- but the results could never compare to the same process being handled by a branding agency. I have a client that's discovering that painful lesson right now. So we're being hired to go back in to clean up their DIY handiwork.

We ended up moving into a new construction house, and I freaking love it. No tiling, no painting, no fixing a damn thing. Just sit back and enjoy my time in the damn house. We are planning a big landscape renovation in the backyard -- terrace steps, water pond, etc. But I've learned my lesson. Outside of planting a few shrubs and laying down some step stones, I'm hiring a professional landscaping crew to design and do the work. Because that's what they do.

On May.31.2006 at 03:58 PM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

DIY design work is a tricky thing for non-designers. It all looks so natural and self-evident, but when I get called in to redo the work I have to remind myself of the emotional investment by the client.

Once, I was called in to the mayor's office in my city of New Orleans (pre-Katrina) to help work out the city's logo. They've had a fleur de lis logo for over 300 years and wanted it "new". Their designer had a good idea for the new fleur de lis logo - an original emphasis - but the proportions were so totally off she didn't know why it wasn't right - only that it was "wrong".
Her investment in this design was tenacious, so my only recourse was to find a way to bring all the elements into a classic proportion and make her feel that she had her logo intact. My job was to do something different and still look like her DIY.
After laying down a grid (Golden Mean) and working with her elements in proper proportion I managed to lay all the elements in line and re-ink them by hand, not by machine. The result was precision and soulfulness.
And of course, when I saw the logo on CNN during the post hurricane news, I remembered being proud of that logo dispite the misery.
DIY is an investment in more than time and money, something gets transfered that is good for the soul.
We realize that clients, like ourselves, are looking for something worthy to own. It's our job.

On May.31.2006 at 11:27 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

One correction:

"For this we turned to Lowe’s and Home Depot, the Landors of home improvement."

Uh, no. Those would be the Kinkos of home improvement. ;o)

Nice article, Armin!

On Jun.01.2006 at 04:02 PM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

I'm way late to this, but a few things to add:

As with all things, anyone's suitability to DIY any given task is variable. In the case of home renaovations, if you're handy, smart and patient/meticulous, chances are that you will do a better job than most contactors (the nightmare stories I have heard about contractors, and the unbelievably bad work I've seen ...), because it's your home and you care about it. On the other hand DIY botched home renovations abound; they can, as noted, devalue a house, and worse, they can be dangerous.
Hmmmm. Who you gonna call?

Interestingly, Armin & Bryony have chosen a contractor based largely on relationship. They chose the guy they like; and i'd be willing to bet that if he was the most expensive guy (and the cheaper guy was an asshole), they'd still choose him (but not if he was incompetent). We say it all the time: it's about relationships. You need to trust someone, you need to spend a lot of time with them ... I really think the best client relationships are based on personality.

On Jun.04.2006 at 11:33 PM
jenn.suz.hoy’s comment is:

First things first - kudos on the home improvement!

Secondly, I will warn those interested, this will be a bit of a soapbox scenario.


I love this article, I love the analagies it draws, I love the whole "designer becomes client" switch that you were forced to take in your renovations. I can't say enough that I absolutely love all of that.

Why do I love it so much? Because it very strongly (to me, anyway) points out a belief that has been hammered into my head during my traditional training, and again at my current design position: We, as communicators, must be sure our message is clear before we can expect others to trust us with their messages.

Example: Your prospective clients sought you out to learn about your design services, and yes, your company's personality. As a small design firm, yes you don't have all the resources of a large-design company, and you lost clients because of that. Also as a small design firm, you are more expensive than the "basement designer", and you lost clients because of that. If it happens every now and then, that's natural. People shop around. You can't please everyone, yadda-yadda-yadda. However, if it becomes a problem in that there isn't enough work to go around and you are frequently losing out to the big-guns and the little man, then it becomes a miscommunication on your part. Your message, whatever it is too strongly emphasizes what you are not instead of what you are.

Now, as I do agree that not all instances to all people recquire professional craftsmanship, and sometimes you can "get by" with doing it yourself - that is all fine thinking from the client's prospective. From the expert, however, you should be giving them clear-cut reasons as to why your way is the best possible option for them. There needs to be a unique and appealing draw that makes them go that extra bit to hire you over Jim-Bob in his basement or WeAreSuperHuge, Inc. And especially over doing it themselves, which is as big a competitor as Jim-Bob and WeAreSuperHuge, Inc.

What it boils down to, is our messages, as the professional communicators, need to be clear, and need to speak to who we believe our target audience is. Because, if we are losing our target audience to ThatGuy Corp. down the street, then we are not actually targeting the market we feel we are. It doesn't always need a super-huge budget identity overhaul. It can simply be a metter of which past clients we highlight, which stages of our process we emphasize, how we answer the phone, how we're dressed. Little things can drastically change a message for the better (or the worse).

On Jun.08.2006 at 11:10 AM
ashley’s comment is:

What a great paraellel to be drawn from your everyday activites as a homeowner. Thanks for Sharing!

On Sep.12.2006 at 03:28 PM