Mike Monteiro: What Clients Don’t Know (And Why It’s Your Fault)

When Mike Monteiro and Erika Hall cofounded Mule Design, neither of them knew anything about the business of design — that is, how to sell it to and deal with clients. They made plenty of mistakes, so he’d like to tell you a few things to avoid in your career as a professional designer.

Photo Credit: Amber Gregory
Mike remembers when he first came to San Francisco from Austin, he wanted to live a healthier lifestyle and stop driving a car and ride a bike. He hadn’t bought a bike in a couple decades, so when he walked into the bike shop he was overwhelmed by the choices. The bikes ranged from $300 to $5000 and he had no idea what type of bike was right for him. Thankfully, just as he was about to storm out in frustration, a super cute bike shop salesperson came up and offered to help him. She explained about all the different bikes, and guided Mike to the bike that was a right fit for what he was looking for. This, Monteiro says, is an example of empathy: something that designers are sorely lacking.

Don’t complain about your clients’ not understanding you something you failed to explain.

This disconnect is often a byproduct of the tendency of designers to be deeply immersed in the intricacies of their craft. When they arrive in client services, they are unaware that they’re expecting their clients to know just as much about design as they do. This would be like a doctor condescending to patients because they didn’t go to med school. (They even have a saying for this in the medical profession: bad bedside manner.) “Put yourself in your client’s less stylish shoes,” Monteiro says, and get used to explaining things to them. “It’s part of your job.”

Eye-rolling is not a design skill; it’s passive-aggressive. Assert yourself.

A common complaint Monteiro hears from designers is that they aren’t included in the evaluation or decision-making processes. What they’re really saying is that they’re not invited to the meetings. Monteiro isn’t about to let them off the hook for this. “Eye-rolling is not a design skill. You need to assert yourself.” Ask to be included in meetings. If you contribute one positive thing at the meeting, he says, he guarantees that you will be invited to every meeting thereafter. Clients want you to be there, they just don’t know it because you aren’t telling them that you need to be there in order to do your work.

RFPs are a client’s way to tell you they’re scared.

(Author’s note: creative liberties were taken in painting this story as a fairy tale. Let it be clear: according to Mike, this actually happened.)

Once upon a time, there were Three Little Pitches from three agencies. They each presented to a client in an attempt to win the job:

  1. The first little pitch was full of comps that the agency pulled out of thin air.
  2. The second little pitch was more convincing, but when they were asked questions they disappeared into thin air.
  3. The third little pitch, however, broke the rules. The agency arrived empty-handed. When the client asked to see an example of their work, the agency responded: “I don’t know your symptoms yet. How can I solve your problem when I don’t know what it is yet?”
Be like the smart design agency: don’t do work that you haven’t been paid for and means nothing. Remember: clueless people make things up.
Mike Monteiro

Mike Monteiro

Mike Monteiro is the co-founder and design director of Mule Design, an interactive design studio whose work has been called “delightfully hostile” by The New Yorker. He prefers elegant, simple sites with clear language that serve a real need. He prefers that designers have strong spines. Mike blogs frequently about the craft and business of design. In early 2011, he gave a Creative Mornings talk entitled “F— You, Pay Me” that uplifted the downtrodden the world over, and he can be heard weekly as the co-host of Let’s Make Mistakes with Leah Reich. None of the terms Mike has coined are printable on a family website.

Never work with someone you can’t argue with.

If you don’t know how to say no to your clients, you’re not doing your job right. Don’t let someone else dictate your process. Anyone can be a pixel-pushing monkey, but that’s not what they hired you for: they hired you for your process. If they think research is a waste of time, tell them that’s unacceptable and explain why. You need to be able to do your best work, and they need to respect how you go about doing it. And if they have a shitty idea, don’t agree to design it. Respectfully and matter-of-factly inform them that it’s a shitty idea and move forward. Living in fear of your clients is no way to live, let alone a way to run a business.

No one is born a good client. It’s your job to teach them.

Everything that goes wrong in your dealings with clients is your fault. No, really. When a wrench is thrown into the machinery, you have to figure out how you allowed that wrench to sneak in through the front door.

Sure, we’re human: we make mistakes. But if you’re being pushed around, it’s your fault for letting yourself be pushed around. If your clients resist your decisions because they don’t understand them, it’s your fault for not explaining them properly. If clients are making unreasonable demands and constantly telling you to jump, you have obviously given them the impression that your response will be, “Sigh…how high this time?” You are the common denominator in your professional relationships. If you’re constantly dealing with “bad” clients, you’re picking the wrong ones.

Don’t despair, fair designer. There’s some good news: when everything is your fault, you have the power to fix it. You can start right now by getting back to work.

Mike Monteiro (or, if you’re brave, @Mike_FTW) has been yelling at designers to get their shit together for years. He finally codified this message in the now infamous “Fuck You, Pay Me” talk at San Francisco Creative Mornings. He co-hosts Let’s Make Mistakes, a podcast on the culture and business of design with Katie Gillum on the Mule Radio Network. He also wrote a book on the subject, Design Is A Job, which you should buy if you want your clients to take you seriously.

Text —  Cori Johnson