We’ve probably all had at least one client from hell, but how do you spot them from afar, and how do you keep them under control? Laura Snoad finds out

From individuals that simply don’t pay, to those who are professional backseat designers, who try to seduce your staff or have such inhibiting speech impediments that you end up misspelling their brand name – you really will have to deal with all sorts in the wide world of client relationships.

“It sometimes feels like you need an MA in psychology to handle a difficult client,” laughs Plan B Studio creative director Steve Price (plan-bstudio.com). One of his worst experiences happened recently with a client in Germany, who managed to transform every conference call into a brawl out of EastEnders.

Clients can be some of the strangest creatures you’ll ever let into your studio (photos from a workshop by Pencil)


“We were barked at constantly, and it was very easy to get sucked in and start shouting back,” Steve says. “I’d just have to end the call as it would quickly get out of hand. It became a running joke that every time we took a call from her we looked drained, it was so all-consuming.”

Taking his mother’s advice – to “breathe” – Steve mitigated the situation with Oprah-like empathy. “We soon realised that she was getting so angry because she’d only recently moved to Germany, was doing the job of eight people and wasn’t getting any support from her employer, all 3,000 miles from home. The only people she could take it out on was us.”

“I’m not sure if you’ve ever been asked to design beneath your usual standards, but it’s an art in itself – and something we’ll never attempt again“ - Rob Gonzalez

Zen-like patience and a School of Life psychiatry qualification might have succeeded in managing that client’s stress, but what happens when you have a client who is simply inept?

London-based Spencer Wilson (spencerwilson.co.uk) repeatedly gets asked to add humour to editorial illustrations by clients who clearly haven’t read the accompanying copy – “not so good if the piece is about health-and-safety malpractice or heart disease”, he sighs.

Some clients’ promises turn out to be lies – so look out for warning signs (illustration by Spencer Wilson)

The fussiest – in the worst sense – client that the London studio Sawdust (madebysawdust.co.uk) ever encountered was when the studio was appointed to redesign a menu for a relatively well-known fast-food chain. Asked to use drop shadows on lettering, bevelled effects on headlines and glowing boxes for prices, the studio soon realised the client was just not interested in good design. “If there was a Photoshop filter, they wanted to use it,” says Sawdust founder Rob Gonzalez. “I’m not sure if you’ve ever been asked to design beneath your usual standards, but let me tell you, it’s an art in itself – and something we’ll never attempt again.”

For Simon Manchipp, creative director at branding consultancy SomeOne (someoneinlondon.com), the funniest bad clients are the truly dysfunctional ones. His worst client experience to date was when a high-powered businessman turned up for a crucial meeting absolutely smashed. Buying time to prepare the team for the situation, Manchipp suggested the client go freshen up while pointing out the boardroom for his return.