When humility rears its beautiful head

~ 02 June 2005 ~

After years of working in the industry, I think I’m finally coming to terms with humility and how it plays into client work. A rather surprising muse I suppose, as I’ve not always been the humblest of persons.

Of late I find myself verbalizing concerns over certain elements of my work as I’ve presented logo and website comps to some of my clients. On several occasions in recent weeks, I’ve penned emails that went something like this:

“Client, overall I’m pleased with where I’m headed with this layout, but I just don’t think the nav style I/we have selected is working. You?”

Foolish? A lack of confidence in my skills? Bah. I argue the contrary. Perhaps I’ve finally gained enough confidence to spot flaws in my work that were previously imperceptible, given my rather myopic view of things at times.

Why not fixed the flawed nav before sending it to the client, you ask? Before I likely would have, half the time hitting the mark and the other half missing it. But now I’ve come to value client interaction — probably more than ever before — as a more efficient means of delivering a polished comp.

Did you fail to ask the right questions before comping ever started, you also ask? Not necessarily. Even the best Q&A sessions don’t guarantee flawless comps.

All that said, here’s a disclaimer: You’ve been hired by the client because you’re the one who can command both pixel and code with swift hands and a keen eye. So don’t expect the client to make decisions that you’re already qualified to make. Deliver a well-refined comp. And don’t sell your work short. But muster up some humility, and don’t be afraid to be the critic of your own creations.



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1   Dave S. ~ 02 June 2005 at 10:27 AM

I’ve caught myself doing this recently as well. When I know something isn’t working, I’ll make note to the client that I recognize some modification is necessary.

Instead of asking them outright if they agree with the sentiment though, I’ll make it clear that I’m open to suggestion, but in a way that also makes it clear I’m not expecting them to make any decisions. That way the onus is on me to provide a way forward, unless they happen to have any strong opinions on the matter.

I think even as a contractor, admitting there’s room for improvement in your work is something everyone should be doing. Now, how you verbalize that to the client is the key…

2   Cameron Moll ~ 02 June 2005 at 10:33 AM

Yes, that seems to be the key — verbalizing it while still exuding enough confidence to show that you’re working towards the (almost) flawless work the project requires.

3   Jason Beaird ~ 02 June 2005 at 11:20 AM

I’ve definitely found that my critique of the work I do is much more insightful than the type of critique I often get with clients. Sometimes when I’m happy with a comp, a client will request a change for reasons that make no sense at all. Other times, I admit to the client what parts of the comp should be better developed and they want it exactly as it is. Humility in confidence may be an oxymoron, but if your interest is in both doing the best job possible while maintaining your integrity, you can’t be arrogant.

4   Sean S ~ 02 June 2005 at 11:37 AM

I don’t know if I would consider this humility as much as plain-and-simple business saavy. Humilty isn’t thinking less of yourself than you ought, but thinking about others before yourself.

Obviously your goal in every project is to satisfy the client, so since your “new” approach is more inclusive (and open to suggestion) I think you’ll find it easier to obtain that goal. You’ll probably cut your project times significantly with this strategy.

Of course, because you’re a designer, one of your goals may go unattained … to satisfy yourself. That might be where the humilty comes in. You might find yourself handing over designs that the clients absolutely love but you’re still not sure about. At that point, how you feel about your work is irrevelant because your job has been done and you’ve accomplished the main goal

5   Jonathan ~ 02 June 2005 at 12:28 PM

Before going freelance, before I submitted my resignation letter to my boss at the largest church-management software development company in the country, I had the fortunate opportunity to work under the tutelage of a Director of Marketing whom had worked as TV Guide Channel producer, as well as Dayspring International, as well as a Big-Money Silicon Valley Dot Com startup. While working with the oh wise-one, I learned that a significant part of creating a masterpiece of Marketing lies in the actual ‘process’ of creating. Process brings to light the flaws. Process shines down on imperfections. Process yields the cream. While working on a project, we begin to understand the subtle needs of our client’s business. There is no way to know every detail that’s needed to make the project perfect from the beginning. We only know that “something” isn’t quite right until it’s been done. Humility is needed to recognize “that something” and to take the next step, whatever it takes, to make it even better. So, what I guess I really learned from my boss … in addition to process … was humility; that lesson has helped me while working for my clients. Just a thought….

6   Dave Simon ~ 02 June 2005 at 01:52 PM

My problem is that, right now, I’m working with the most difficult and honest client I can find: me. Doing my own site(s) and it’s difficult to find the right mix.

I want to make it different and innovative, but need it done soon. So I’m being brutal on myself, rejecting idea after idea.

The problem with being your own boss and working on your own stuff is that you are a picky client and a hard driving boss!

7   Dan D. ~ 02 June 2005 at 02:02 PM

Art & Design is the only industry where a client, who’s last artistic endeavor was with a crayon in the first grade, has the audacity to tell a designer what good design is and why your design stinks.

I can’t imagine telling my Chiropractor on how to adjust my cervical spine and then criticize the fact that my c-7 is still not anatomically aligned. Yet, when it comes to design, no matter the client, they seem to be able to draw upon a magical creative powers that allows them to direct.

To solve this issue I created a “Client Survey”. This is a survey that asks questions about the companies viewed persona and identity. This survey is to be completed before I even bid on the job. First, if the client just skimmed through it without any thought, I know they are not going to be a client worth my time.

Second, clients are really impressed with the survey in that it allows them to brainstorm and become involved in the creative process, but not really.

Then, when criticized or told to go into a new direction, I simply refer them to the survey they filled out. Then if they choose to continue in a different direction, I get them a new budget and schedule.

This by the way is a fantastic site! I really have learned much from all of those who comment.

8   Angus Pratt ~ 02 June 2005 at 02:02 PM


I find myself working for people whose customers I don’t know. Part of my job is to say "This is weak. How can we improve it given what you know of your customers?" I am the expert but like a good doctor I need to explore all the symptoms and monitor how the patient is feeling throughout the process.

Kind of like Cluetrain Manifesto stuff.

9   Jim Renaud ~ 02 June 2005 at 03:21 PM

Dan: I somewhat disagree with you. I have learned that the client often knows their business so well, they know what is good and bad for their site and design, to a point.

Your metaphor of the chiropractor is a perfect metaphor. As a patient I might not know what technically is wrong with my back or even how to fix it, but I can definitely feel the pain.

We designers have to solve and remedy these symptoms.

I do agree that clients often pick up the knife or can tell you where to cut them, but that can often be a sign they don’t think you have the answer.

Also I think if we don’t view the client as an ally in the process than it’s very hard to solve their problems. Sometimes they request weird solutions like people who view prescription drug commericials and think Viagra is right for them. But like the doctor we have to discuss with them why that option isn’t best.

Cameron: if I can keep the metaphor going, sometimes a doctor tries a drug to fix a problem but then they run into a better drug that might do it better. There’s nothing wrong with fixing issues that arise.

10   Matt Robin ~ 02 June 2005 at 06:21 PM

Hi Cameron - I tried sending you an e-mail about something (but your e-mail address didn’t work) any ideas?

Note: I’ll comment about your post tomorrow, it’s late here now in the UK, and I’m off to sleep!

11   Matt Robin ~ 02 June 2005 at 06:46 PM

Okay, okay, my curiosity got the better of me and I returned to read your post anyway!

Well, Cameron, it seems from your description that you were just emphasizing (aloud) your own sense of perfectionism. The client was probably none the wiser, lacking in your web design experience, and would have been unlikely to spot the same style issue. Humility could only occur if you demonstrated it based on an action caused by the other party (the client) - and that wasn’t the case. So, perhaps you are verbally expressing your design thought processes more openly due to MORE confidence in how you interact with clients.
Questioning your own work is not a sign of low confidence in your abilities - you are just being a stronger critic because the work is self-representative and you want greater respect for what you do. You are already proud of your work, but maybe on a sub-concious level, you want other people (clients) to appreciate how tough you are on yourself to get the desired results.

Note: Not all of my posts will be this wordy (it’s only my second one though!)

Dave Simon: I can definitely relate to your most recent post! I’m trying to get my site up to scratch with a redesign at the moment - and with so much freedom to do what I want - I still find I’m being super-critical of each stage…it’s annoying at times. I took a break from it this evening, and read about ‘Bushido’ instead!

12   Sean Fraser ~ 02 June 2005 at 08:12 PM

It’s an art; humilty, isn’t it. I will apologize for my mistakes but I will not accept the lack of judgment by others.

I use an RFP written like the best pycho tests: three “client personality” questions included with the usual proposal questions but they are written three different ways. Client assessment. And, depending, I’ll know presciently that I’ll be saying, “I apologize for not understanding your request about [INSERT INSIPID DESIGN REQUEST].”

My confidence remains even after showing concern over design flaws or apologizing for my mistakes.

Two small things.

There’s a book by an interesting gentleman Gerry Spence, “How to Argue and Win Every Time: At Home, at Work, in Court, Everywhere, Every Day”, I read ten years ago and I recommend to Everyone. It shows how to humble but not unconfident.

And, I know that I give each client my best work but - in the end - after contract completion - it’s their’s (even if it does contain their design requests).

13   Jay ~ 02 June 2005 at 09:58 PM

I’m glad you guys have the luxury of picking clients, and not vice-versa. Dealing with clients has to be a cooperative, as opposed to antagonistic, process. I’ve been on the antagonistic side before, and it sucks. But the humility part comes in when you listen to the client and try to do what they say, regardless of how stupid you might think it is. Often, something I begrudgingly do actaully ends up working well in the final product. Now maybe that’s because I work hard to make what they are asking for work with what’s already been done, or maybe it’s because a client often knows what he or she wants. They may not know ‘design’, but often that doesnt matter.

14   Tyler Thompson ~ 03 June 2005 at 01:30 PM

Man I needed that. Thanks a lot. It is time for us to be confindant in our abilities and show people why they hired us in the first place.

15   reese ~ 04 June 2005 at 09:44 PM

Thanks for this. Humility in general is one of the greater virtues. And as you mentioned, there’s a difference between a lack of self confidence and simple humility.

I’ve found that many of my clients, particularly the non-commercial ones, are delighted to be “involved” in the process and consider it a compliment when their opinions are turned into a thoughtful conversation between us.

I also try to educate some of them along the way—if I feel something is working well, but sense the client may have qualms about it, I’ll explain my thought process and even interject a little design theory (in layman’s terms) to help my case. Often I find myself working with some brilliantly creative clients, too, so I make an effort to compliment their eye for style or composition, etc. Building good client relationships are worth the effort and can make a designer’s life easier and more fulfilling.

16   Andrew Turner ~ 06 June 2005 at 05:21 PM

Ah. Well.

I’ll say this - I’ll edit the work I create when I’m the one wholly responsible for the design.

Part of my own personal wrestling match, often, is that I’ve been hired to carry out the vision of someone who can’t visualize; so it’s round we go, often mixing, matching, revising, experimenting, right on through until what may have had potential as a portfolio piece is now reduced to just a paycheck.

At least I’ve decided not to pull all-nighters for the wrong reasons anymore.

That said, I’ve lots to learn regarding “teaching” the client, that buzzphrase being shuffled around often of late, and perhaps finding clients willing to learn…

first post, great site, blah blah blah, thanks.


17   Ryan ~ 07 June 2005 at 12:55 PM

As part of the design courses they taught at Univ. of Calif, Irvine, they teach you to step back, question your own work and critique it. It helps the composition to evolve from ideas into something visually perfect.
If something both you and the client developed just isn’t working, it doesn’t hurt to step back and analyze it, and get the client’s input. It actually can build a better piece of art.

Bottom line, don’t kick yourself if it isn’t done right in the first few phases.

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20   john reed ~ 12 August 2005 at 06:45 PM

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