What to Ask Graphic Design Clients

Communication is key to a mutually beneficial relationship

Three designers in meeting gathered around a table

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The first, most crucial step in any graphic design project is to talk with your graphic design client about scope, timeline, budget, goal, target audience, and overall message. Gathering as much information as possible even before you have landed the job helps you develop an accurate estimate and can help keep the job on track. The ultimate goal is to foster a mutually productive, successful, profitable, and enjoyable working relationship. Here are a few things to ask.

  • What Is the Message?

    Man holding megaphone up to telephone
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    Find out what message your client is trying to get across to the target audience. The overall message can be something as simple as thanking customers, announcing a new product, or promoting awareness. Then, ask what tone the message should take—for example, excited, happy, compassionate, dramatic, etc. If you're meeting with a team, ask each person to come up with a few words to describe the message's mood and brainstorm from there.

  • Who Is the Target Audience?

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    An effective message speaks directly to and resonates powerfully with its audience, so it's imperative that you know who you're targeting. Their motivations, needs, tendencies, preferences, etc. should drive the style, content, and message of the project. For example, a postcard aimed at new customers will be completely different from one aimed at existing customers. Some variables that can impact design include:

    • Age
    • Geographic location
    • Gender
    • Occupation
    • Economic status

    Depending on the message, you might also have to consider factors like religion, political stance, personal habits, and other specifics.

  • Who Is the Client's Competition?

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    Knowing your client's needs and market also entails knowing your client's competition. What does your client do or offer that's better or different than the others? What challenges is your client up against in the marketplace? Learning all you can about the competitive environment will help you craft a design that stands out from the rest.

  • What Are the Specs of the Project?

    Simple paper wireframe

    The client may already have an idea of specifications for a design, which can help you determine the time and budget needs. For example, a 12-page brochure takes much longer to design than a four-page foldout. If the client doesn’t know exactly what they are looking for, now is the time to make some recommendations and to finalize details such as:

    • Dimensions
    • Number of pages
    • Black and white, two-color, or four-color print
    • Paper stock
    • Size of the print run (the number of pieces to print)
  • What Is the Scope of the Project?

    Closely related to the project's specs, its scope refers to exactly what your work will entail and what the client expects from you—for example, the number of comps, logo ideas, website pages, etc. Will you be expected to attend weekly meetings? Print runs? How will you handle extra requests that come up in the course of the project—for example, an additional contact form on a website or another illustration in a brochure? Agreeing on these issues ahead of time helps prevent all-too-common scope creep: the tendency for a job to expand beyond its original parameters, which creates frustration for both client and designer. Head it off with communication.

  • What Is the Budget?

    In many cases, the client will not know or disclose the budget for a project. They might prefer to get your estimate first, weigh some ideas, or genuinely not know. In any case, ask.

    If a client shares a specific budget with you, this can help you determine the scope of the project, your hourly rate, and the total cost. There's some give and take here: You or the client might need to scale back on scope, or you might find there's room for expansion. This is figure best arrived at jointly.

    You'll likely need (and should take) some time to review the project's parameters to develop an estimate, and it's perfectly appropriate to say so. You don’t want to throw out a number that will have to change upon further review.

    Sometimes, the client's budget will be much lower than you were expecting, in which case you must decide if other factors, such as experience or a nice addition to your portfolio, are worth it. Ultimately, you should be comfortable with what you are making for the amount of work, and the cost should be fair to the client.

  • What's the Deadline?

    Nail down a specific date for the project's completion. On the client's end, the job might coincide with a product launch or another important milestone. On your end, you must consider your workload and availability. Find a reasonable goal between the two. In the case of rush jobs, extra fees are common and appropriate. Be sure to discuss all of this before committing to the work.

    For a large or lengthy project, put together a schedule with specific milestones to help keep it moving along.

  • What Creative Direction Can the Client Provide?

    Pantone color palette guide
    Getty Images/kivoart

Get the client's input as you prepare the project outline. Although you'll be creating something new and unique for them, it might have to fit within some existing creative parameters and established branding, such as:

  • Colors
  • Fonts
  • Logos
  • Other designs
  • Websites

Some clients, particularly large ones, have style sheets delineating some of this. If not, ask for some existing materials that demonstrate established branding that you must strive to match or at least complement.

Getting input from clients can be difficult. Decide up front how and when you can expect background materials as well as feedback on each milestone, and make the completion of each milestone contingent on it.

The All-Important Proposal/Contract

Include all the information you've gathered in a formal proposal that is as specific as possible. Once both parties agree, turn it into a signed contract. In this way, both you and your client know exactly what to expect. Remember: Going above and beyond for a client is good business; so is ensuring that you're paid fairly for your time.