When Designer Becomes Client

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When you write a book, generally speaking, you don’t get to design the cover. That’s up to the marketing department at the publishing house. Chip Kidd has given great talks about all the unhappy authors who didn’t trust their publishers’—and his—vision.

If you’re a graphic designer, however, you’re often invited to design the cover of your own book. But when my book, “The Graphic Designer’s Guide to Clients,” was published in 2003, I decided to leave it up to Allworth Press. They know what they’re doing when it comes to publishing and selling graphic design business books.

The cover design was assigned to James Victore. I was happy. Until I saw the comp.

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It was a JELLYFISH. My first thought was that there could be no more perfect analogy for “client.” You think you’re going to have a beautiful day on the beach, and then you get bitten on the ass. The analogy may have been perfect, but I thought the image was too negative for the cover. After all, clients might be buying (wishful thinking) and reading the book, too. All of a sudden, I wasn’t just the author any more. I was the client. “May I see another design?” I asked.

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Allworth came back with the cover above. A fight. Still negative. But kind of OK. I didn’t want to fight and went with it. Ultimately, though, I felt that the ochre-orange background, the wood type, the retro look … they just weren’t ME. And it’s not like I’ve written hundreds or even dozens of books. Everything I have to say about what I’ve learned about clients over many years in the business — how to meet them, how to get them to give you work and get paid for it, and how to keep them happy and coming back for more — is in this book. Plus 17 in-depth interviews with designers like Drew Hodges, and his agency’s client, the producer of “Chicago,” that reveal all kinds of valuable, insider information.

Edition 1 54-55

The original interior pages, designed in-house by Allworth, seemed a little disjointed. And I could tell from Amazon reviews that a few readers were not easily able to find the information they were looking for. Some even thought I was “just showing off the famous designers I knew,” rather than directly imparting information about how to attract and work with clients.

Last year, Allworth (now part of Skyhorse) publisher Tad Crawford and I sat down and talked about bringing out a second edition of the book that would update all the out-of-date information and address such issues as social media marketing and how to compete with crowdsourcing sites. I agreed not only to rework the whole manuscript and add new case studies and many new images, but to redesign the book.

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Allworth sent me the original QuarkXPress files, and I was able to open them in InDesign, change all the style sheets, edit the text, and redesign the layouts. I added bullet-pointed to-do lists and sample dialogues for designers to use when things get tough (like when clients don’t want to pay your fee). I also added “takeway message” boxes on almost every spread so readers can browse the text and easily understand what the clients and designers who graciously allowed me to interview them have to say. (Ah, if it were only so simple that you could make up a list: Do this, one, two, three, and you will get great clients and make them happy.)

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Now for the cover. I am not a cover designer. For years, I’d admired the work of Felix Sockwell. I love, love, LOVE his continuous-line icons on the pages of The New York Times. I’d worked with him on a pro-bono project for the AIGA last year and wanted him to do the art for my cover (and would pay him 50% of what Allworth was giving me to redesign and typeset all 256 pages plus cover).

One of the lines in the book is: “I can pretty much predict what Zevvie, our German Shepherd dog, will do when another dog walks down ‘her’ street. But clients? I can’t predict what my own clients will do from one day to the next, much less yours, whom I’ve never met.” I go on to describe how a “bad” client behaves, and suggest ways to deal with the most difficult ones (or choose not to do business with them).

Visually, I had an idea, sort of like a dog owner’s guide to German Shepherds, where arrows point to the ears, the nose, the tail, etc. Felix would draw a client, kind of like the guy in the comp above, and captions would point to the eyes, the ears, the heart: “What do they see when they look at your work?” “Are they hearing you?” “Does your work touch their hearts?”

Felix thought that was a terrible idea. And he hated my all-caps type. Well, now he was the designer and I was the client. I took my own advice and did not micro-manage.

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Felix worked hard. He did tons of stuff, ultimately delivering a “thinker” silhouette and six icons representing aspects of the client-designer relationship.

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The cover above was a go. In my gut, I didn’t love it, but Tad of Allworth was happy and time was running short (isn’t it always?) so we proceeded. Last August, it was ready to go to the printer.

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Then I got a link to Laurie Rosenwald‘s work. It had exactly the kind of energy and color sense that made my heart go pit-a-pat. I was like a groom or bride leaving my almost-spouse at the altar. I wanted HER for my cover.

I sent Laurie this design brief: “This book is the guide to an elusive but desired creature: The Client — who is neither male nor female, old nor young, no distinguishing racial characteristics, lives everywhere in the world. Is a high-level CEO or manager at an organization you wan
t to work for, already known for good works and good design. Is a bit arrogant but approachable, highly critical but wants to be pleased … needs the designer’s ideas and talent to achieve business success, but feels deep down s/he knows it all and if only had five minutes more time and training could do it without you … knows how valuable your contribution is but often doesn’t want to pay more than $49. In doing this book, I have taken on the task of (mostly through the experiences of other designers who have been very successful) explaining where to find, how to meet, approach, write proposals to, do good work for, be appreciated by, and get paid well by them. The best advice from most designers I interviewed seems to be: ‘They’re all different. You’ve got to get to know each client individually, and figure out the right approach for each one.’ I’m very eager to see your ideas!”


Here’s what Laurie did. Purple? I hate purple, but I loved it immediately. In the book, Stefan Sagmeister talks about how Tibor Kalman was able to “get clients to love things they thought they hated.” This cover is a good example of that. All you need is charm and a great idea. There was only one thing, though: that bell-shaped skirt. It reminded me of all my collected images of the Infanta Margarita. With a trembling voice, I told Laurie the cover looked a bit like “The Fashion Designer’s Guide to Clients.” Many of the clients interviewed are men. “Could you make the figure less … feminine?” I asked. No problem.

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Aah. Here’s my client: an all-seeing cash register with a heart. And s/he’s got legs, like all good campaigns. Now, what to do with all the great stuff Felix did?

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I used Felix’s handshake drawing on the table of contents, and featured the icons on an intro spread, as well as using them on the part-title pages. Then I got him an illustration job for a client. Laurie, she should be doing international ad campaigns for big agencies. I wish I could help more with that.

Is everybody happy? Me, Felix, Laurie, Tad and everyone at Allworth? And the readers? I hope so. I hope you will find all 256 pages crammed with useful information that helps you be more effective designers who work more productively with clients.

Imprint contributor and author Debbie Millman (president of Sterling Brands and chair of the SVA Master’s in Branding Program) was kind enough to write this blurb for the back cover:“Clients are the lifeblood of any designer’s business; without them we’d have no work. Ellen Shapiro’s Graphic Designer’s Guide to Clients not only provides every important tool to find, woo, and cultivate good clients, Ellen instills the most elusive of attributes in her readers: confidence, clarity, and a magical sense of empowerment. This is a necessary book for anyone and everyone building a design business.”

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The book comes out Tuesday, April 1. Here’s the link to purchase on Amazon.

My next book: directed to clients. How to know when you need a designer, find the right designer or firm, write a design brief, evaluate the work, and let the power of design contribute to your organization’s success.

Maybe the jellyfish should be on the cover. YES! The jellyfish. They were right all along.

Print’s New Visual Artists 2014 issue—our annual 20 under 30 list featuring the brilliant minds of design’s future—is out now. Check it out on your favorite device or in, well, print.