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Client Taxonomy: Bruisers, Nodders, and Champions

Clients come in all shapes and sizes. But how do you handle a Bruiser? What do you say to a Know-It-All? And what if a Donald Trump is on the other end of a boardroom table? Which of these tough, brainy, or bossy people sound like your clients? Which did we leave out?

Brainiac (a.k.a. Know-It-All, Smarty Pants)
Brainiacs know more than you can bury with Google, and as clients, they tend to be rather rewarding. However, their bright minds can lead them down the path of debating about ethical, social, or cultural issues that may not relate to the work. They’re easily distracted by their own rapid-fire brains.
Attributes: reads heady books, Democrat, uses a Mac too
Known for saying: I know. I could design this damn thing myself.
Managing them: Be a good listener, and you’ll earn their trust. Then, fumble a couple of things, and explain that you’re human and are prone to error. Have them tell you about a time that they ‘messed up’, which will really get them thinking. Use simple language, don’t use $2 words and fall into their trap.

The Bruiser is less boss, but more boxer. They love a good fight, and love to argue for the sake of arguing.
Attributes: likes to fight, hates to listen, may curse
Known for saying: You know, I have some other agencies in mind, and they could manage this project swimmingly!
Managing them: Don’t ever let them get physical. While fist stomping is tolerable, it should be quelled with humor, a quick wit, and plenty of jabs at yourself. Otherwise, they may damage some of your furniture. Self-deprecation has been known to work extremely well. Including them in the creative process may also pay out in huge dividends.

Champion (a.k.a. Designer’s Best Friend)
They trust you and all the work that you can offer them. Champions are a rare breed, but they are out there, and sometimes possess the attributes of other folks mentioned here. So you may have a Brainiac client, who is very smart, but they contribute that wisdom to your creative direction as a Champion. The net result is a golden opportunity.
Attributes: may have a PhD, mixes with the venture capital crowd, plays chess
Known for saying: That’s an excellent idea. Let’s go with it.
Managing them: There’s not much work to do here, but make sure you show gushing respect for them. These clients are hard to find.

Donald Trump
The Boss (or The Donald) knows more about marketing than you care to know. He (usually this is a he) has a brainstorm constantly, and these ‘fresh ideas’ are all golden in his book.
Attributes: likes to lead meetings, talks more than listens
Known for saying: I don’t get it.
Managing them: You have to be the aggressor, and there are some things that will put them in their place, such as forgetting their name; after one or two times, they’ll get the impression that they’re not the only one in the room. Also, when you give presentations, make sure they’re sitting down and you’re standing up since this gives you the power position.

Nodders are good listeners, but almost too good. They will look directly at your eyes, almost peering through them. Their nods are in sync with your sentences because they want to reassure you that they’re listening.
Attributes: nods a lot, wears contacts, bloodshot eyes
Known for saying: Yes. or Um-humph. Uh-hah.
Managing them: Take them with a grain of salt. Don’t be surprised if they leave a meeting with zero contributions at all. Rejoice when they pay you on time.

Weakling (a.k.a. Loser or Doormat)
Weaklings usually have a lot to offer, but they’re rather shy and introverted. They may speak up at meetings, pitches, or critiques, but will say very little. Weaklings have a lot of potential to offer insight, but are usually afraid to speak up because they never had the opportunity to lead.
Attributes: hunches a lot, has cool glasses, looks at watch often
Known for saying: [not a whole lot]
Managing them: They need some prodding to come out of their shell, and will usually work better in a one-on-one situation; large groups with too many members tend to irritate or discomfort them. Chocolate works well to get their motor running, as does coffee. Red Bull has been known to transform them into a Brainiac.

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PUBLISHED ON Mar.18.2008 BY Jason A. Tselentis
Jeff’s comment is:

Good write-up. LOL @ Bloodshot eyes.

On Mar.19.2008 at 08:12 AM
Armin’s comment is:

The only one I have to disagree with, or at least provide an alternative to, is the "Champion". In my experience the champions are usually the ones that understand that it's the designer's job to counsel on the best solution while they steer the designer in the right direction based on their knowledge of their audience, understanding of the organization's culture, and conscience for the end result. They don't have to be the smartest or most well connected people -- I have hardly ever worked with PhDers or people that mingle with VCers -- they just have to have an appreciation of what design can do and have confidence in what designers can do.

Also, it's usually the "weaklings" that prove the most difficult. Someone that can't provide feedback or contribute to the process can't help advance the project in an efficient way.

On Mar.19.2008 at 08:43 AM
Doug Bartow’s comment is:
Don't forget about The Poseur.

They usually mean well, and often appear to have many of the traits of the Champion, but when push comes to shove, they lack the 'hammer' with their bosses, and are unable to sell your mutually agreed upon design direction upstairs. Furthermore, they often lack the tact and acumen needed to negotiate for a bigger budget given the scope of the project just got expanded due to the scenario described above.

On Mar.19.2008 at 10:18 AM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Armin, your comment on the Champion is misplaced, what you refer to is the Reincarnate. The Reincarnate is a designer that died and came back as a client (a.k.a. Old Soul, Angel). Sometimes they can champion the design like you suggest, but they are less of a designers client, and more of a dead designer who came back as a client.

On Mar.19.2008 at 10:39 AM
Peter Whitley’s comment is:

Younger designers eager to get their freelance feet wet also face The Dreamer. This is usually a friend or acquaintance that has some bold vision that involves the designer's significant contribution. After months of discussion and comps, the Dreamer maintains an ever-shifting vision...impossible to hit as the goals of the project morph to suit the Dreamer's daily interest. Then the Dreamer starts talking shit and steals the designer's girlfriend.

On Mar.19.2008 at 10:59 AM
Michelle French’s comment is:

Oooooo. Funny. But not enough.

What do you call the guy who knows exactly what he wants so he has already done all the hard work all you have to do is draw it on the computer? (And that idea usually sucks.)

Or, the old guy, forced to work with a woman, calls her (me) "Little Lady" with a tone that leaves no ambiguity at the contempt in his attitude. Now, call me a bitch—that usually means I have stood up for myself and my work. But "Little Lady" is meant to trivialize everything I bring to the table.

Still, I made millions for that guy.

On Mar.19.2008 at 12:17 PM
Tselentis’s comment is:

What do you call the guy who knows exactly what he wants so he has already done all the hard work all you have to do is draw it on the computer? (And that idea usually sucks.)
Artificial Intelligence (a.k.a. A.I.)

Or, the old guy, forced to work with a woman, calls her (me) "Little Lady" with a tone that leaves no ambiguity at the contempt in his attitude. Now, call me a bitch—that usually means I have stood up for myself and my work. But "Little Lady" is meant to trivialize everything I bring to the table.
A Frank Sinatra (a.k.a. a James Brown, a Jason Kidd)

On Mar.19.2008 at 02:53 PM
Sean Flanagan’s comment is:

The Justifier
They are often in middle-management at their companies, and act as a go-between you and the true client, who is often either the CEO or VP of marketing. Their (your) work has to be approved by at least one boss above them, who, in turn, must have it approved by the actual client. They realize that their job is virtually meaningless and trivial, and that their ideas don't matter. To counter that, they scrutinize the tiniest details of your work to grasp some sort of power over the project.
Attributes: flip-flops, takes forever to approve things, has a degree in business
Known for saying: Let me run this by the team and Can you move that trademark symbol just a hair lower?
Managing them: Be prepared. They will often catch you off guard with a host of minute detail changes that add up to a day's worth of work, and expect to see the changes very quickly. Figure out how many people must approve each stage of the project, and estimate how much time it will spend with each of them. Then clear your schedule as best you can for the days you think you might have to do extra work on the project. Also, try to schedule kickoff meetings with the actual client so you can anticipate feedback from them.

On Mar.19.2008 at 03:02 PM
ed mckim’s comment is:

ironically, every single one of these "client types" can be attributed to designers.

or businessmen.

or retail cashiers.

or anyone.

i don't see how this is making a point anymore about clients than it is about designers.

i'll take my "you're taking yourself too seriously" comments of the air.

On Mar.20.2008 at 12:23 AM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Ed, your point is well taken, and being serious is okay. So please stay on the air.

Clients have labels like those above for the creatives ('artsy-types', a.k.a. 'us designers') and talk about us in much the same way. To your point that any of the caricatures in this rough taxonomy could be a marketing person, designer, retail cashier... well, you're right. But this is a design forum. We're talking about design and clients, so that's our framework.

If I wrote this piece for a magazine like Gentleman's Quarterly, then it would talk about the types of guys out there and how they handle dates, relationships, or marriages. But that's another story for another day... and another media.

P.S. I adore the underdesigned approach of your website, Ed. And I will take this comment off the air.

On Mar.20.2008 at 11:41 AM
Chad K’s comment is:

I think we need room for the person that all of us fear and absolutely hate (falling somewhere between the Braniac and 'The Donald'), one with infinite names such as:
Control Freak, Bitter Professional, The Booby Trap

They seem supportive and fostering of creative ideas until further communication with them reveals that they have no interest in your design and think they could have done, or can do a better job themselves. This client often responds with confusing requests that cannot be negotiated. Often times their comments come without words, but in a shoddy photoshopped collage of your original design. They often don't realize that you actually make a living with what you do and that design programs should not be sold without a background check.

Managing them can often be difficult, if not impossible (most times severing the relationship would be the best idea, nicely of course).

On Mar.20.2008 at 01:19 PM
Peter Whitley’s comment is:

I think a typology of designers would be fun actually.

The Holy See
The designer who consistently poo-poos every suggestion because they aesthetically disagree or already looked at it that way in before you arrived. The only way to get this reluctant designer to make "improvements" to your project is via personal compliments.

The Drone
They don't want to know who the project is for, what the value proposition is, or even what it's about. They just want you to tell them exactly what to do...unless it's 5:01 PM in which case they'll be gone.

The Gadfly
Nice, funny, inquisitive, and completely unable to design even the simplest of postcards.

The Artiste
This intense visionary will take your most mundane, perfunctory component and turn it into a bold new treatise on the state of Design in the West. In the Artiste's hands, letterhead becomes a manifesto, the business card become proclamation on the social injustice of Helvetica.

The Ascetic
The Ascetic maintains a library of two fonts, one of which will be used for proposal A and the other for proposal B. No, that's not the manuscript...that's the finished design.

The Temp
This designer brings every wonderful quality that you're looking for to the table and consistently deliver exemplary results...going above and beyond the requirements of the task. Unfortunately the Temp is also underpaid and fielding offers from agencies willing to pay twice your rate.

On Mar.20.2008 at 03:27 PM
Pesky’s comment is:

Peter, that's no fun! Evil and flawed clients are the focus here. Where's you're loyalty, comrade? :::laughing::: Pretty funny, but I think I fit into more than one of those categories and that's sad. Artiste/Gadfly...sad.

On Mar.20.2008 at 04:38 PM
alex pearson’s comment is:

Not all of us work in big agencies... and most of these client-types are on specific rungs of the corporate ladder. So I think there is a whole group that has been omitted:

The Entreprenuers... a scary breed that can be very difficult to work with. However, the good ones will promote you and you may have a chance at building a small business into something great.

These are just a few kinds of Entrepreneurs

The Scaredy Cat
This client is just starting their business. They have never started a business before, but they've been thrown into a situation, where they have to. They LOVE your design, couldn't be happier with it... until a week later. You console them, maybe change the color a bit, and they're happy again... until it comes time to print.

They need a lot of hand-holding, possibly a few hugs. They never know what they want, and cannot communicate it. They only know what they don't want, but not until they see it. Even then they can't say what it is they don't like. It just needs to "pop" they'll say. Usually after many different versions and revisions they will go back to the first comp sent.

A.J. Pennypacker
This client has already made a successful business, not by presentation but by sheer hard work. Somehow you've made the mistake of convincing them they need to rebrand. Which they never wanted to do in the first place, let alone pay for it. Although everything they had before you came along was designed by the phone book's art department, your work is examined under an electron microscope. First set of comps are always rejected completely. Design suffers, is usually compromised to appease somebody's wife, and the pay sucks.

On Mar.20.2008 at 06:07 PM
Pesky’s comment is:

grievous spelling error #236465

Your instead of you're. Thank God I caught it before Gunnar tells me.

On Mar.21.2008 at 03:18 PM
Patrick Lambe’s comment is:

This is wonderful stuff! Speaking as a taxonomist, this is, strictly a typology but who's arguing? (Wouldn't want to be labelled a Justifier).

But it just struck me that you could do with a really good artist, and to justify the expense turn this into a training module for rookie designers. See Mike Reed's artwork for an example of how powerful these characters can be http://redwing.hutman.net/~mreed/index.htm

On Mar.26.2008 at 09:26 PM
mogo’s comment is:

What about the Committee as client -- the many-headed hydra whose heads often contradict each other? Personalities can run the gamut, rendering the beast anything from docile to (as I've found) a True Instrument of the Devil.

I still have nightmares.

On Mar.27.2008 at 10:31 PM
Patrick Cahalan’s comment is:

I don't know if a term has been invented for them or not, but there should be one here for those who incessantly say "basically", "going forward", or "here's the thing. . I don't disagree, BUT..."

On Mar.29.2008 at 02:13 PM