How to manage difficult clients, with help from DesignStudio, How&How and An Open Understanding

Poppy Thaxter
0 min read

How to manage difficult clients, with help from DesignStudio, How&How and An Open Understanding

Working with clients, at its core, is about a relationship working towards a shared goal. We’re not here to call out toxic behaviour or industry practices, however, like many professional interpersonal relationships, there can be tricky situations to manoeuvre from time to time. To find out more, we spoke to three practices of varying sizes and structures to see what rules and agreements they implement to keep projects and payments running smoothly.

Nobody ever enjoys having to chase up an overdue payment, especially with bills and salaries to pay. How can we best optimise the process to ensure all work is fairly, timely and accurately compensated? 

“At DS,” Vinay Mistry and Elise Santangelo-Rous, Executive Creative Directors of DesignStudio in London tell us, “we try to ensure that from the outset we are transparent with expectations of payment at each stage of the process.” With a clear timeline of both deliverables and expectations, they find that this ensures “everyone is on the same page before a project starts and is a commitment for everyone to stick to.” For branding agency How&How, located in Lisbon, LA, and London, the rare few instances of a client’s late payment will usually be sorted with “a gentle, then a slightly sterner” reminder. “Usually it’s due to the finance team needing a nudge from a project manager on the client side,” Co-founder Rog How tells us.

We’re sure many of you have heard designer horror stories of a client vanishing after a project has been handed in, resulting in hours of work going completely uncompensated. To avoid these kinds of catastrophic scenarios, there was a shared agreement among the creatives we spoke to, of upfront and scheduled payments. How&How ask for a full 50% deposit before work is started, “and that is partly to make sure that the client is fully bought into us as a studio and happy to make that level of commitment.”

An Open Understanding
An Open Understanding

I tend to not start a project until the first deposit invoice is paid.

Mistry and Santangelo-Rous highlight that, for many clients, working with a design agency is a new process, and that they may not necessarily understand that creatives need upfront payment in order to begin work and deliver outcomes. “We also clearly outline the consequences of no payment,” they add. “If these steps are taken and clients still don't respond, the project is paused until payment is received.”

James Kirkup – Founder of London-based studio An Open Understanding – concurs. “I tend to not start a project until the first deposit invoice is paid.” However, “if the future or the final invoice isn’t paid,” he reveals, “I simply don’t present, deliver or turn on any more creative until it is.” This staggered approach to payment ties in with the project’s development and feedback, and, according to our respondents, is most likely to keep all parties satisfied. How&How make sure their client is really happy with the work in stages, rather than a big reveal “so the billing just becomes a formality at the end after sign off of each stage.”  

Not every tricky client comes with financial difficulties though – they might even pay perfectly on time – but that doesn’t mean a clash of opinions won’t pop up during a project. Speaking to the three studios, we discovered that managing this side of a project is as much about the process as it is about the work itself, as making sure your concepts are clear, justified, and understood is what gets the client onside and reduces the chances of a creative disagreement. 

For An Open Understanding, Kirkup outlines that, like How&How, their process is intended to avoid any big surprises when the creative outcomes arrive. “Now that’s not to say they know what to expect,” he tells us, “but we can always relate back to an idea or thought that we’d shown in a previous moment to back up a design decision.” An initial discovery phase helps to clarify what directions they could take the project in, “and where we think we shouldn’t.” At that stage, Kirkup explains, “we tend to get that buy-in that steers things in the right direction.” 


We look for creative ways to connect and ensure the best result.

With graphic design being a highly subjective field, How&How make sure their process works as a conversation, rather than a final answer to the given brief. For a creative agency, opposing opinions are almost unavoidable. “In order to mitigate disagreement,” How reveals, “we always provide at least two options at each key creative stage, and there is no compromise on this.” DesignStudio reflect this need for a shared vision and expectations in their own approach. “We understand that everyone comes to DS with differing levels of exposure to design itself or branding,” Mistry and Santangelo-Rous highlight, “which can lead to differences of opinion on visual outcomes.” During the early stages of the project, the team will share ‘best-in-class’ examples of work by both DS and other studios – ensuring the potential project direction is understood and agreed upon by all parties. 

In the case of a particularly ‘stubborn’ or unconvinced client, there’s nothing like having some solid, researched evidence to carry the argument. “We might have to justify the use of a colour by showing that all of their competitors are using it already,” How reveals, “or that a particular illustration style will be appreciated by customers even though the CEO doesn’t like it.”

With the lingering impact of the COVID pandemic, workplace communication has never been more flexible. From Zoom and Slack, to Miro and email, everyone has their unique preferences for the quantity and format of feedback. It’s vital to make sure these align to save any mixed, or even missed, messages. “I tend to believe that with the first few points of contact you get with a client you can gauge how they might react through the process of a project,” Kirkup explains. “Some are super engaged, some care less for the concept and just want the end product, some completely surprise you. But with experience, it’s your job to guide them no matter their take.”

Sometimes clients’ go quiet, but Kirkup reckons that’s okay most of the time. “We’re all busy right?” he adds. And, realistically, we’re not always going to take priority in someone’s to-do list. Before jumping to terrifying conclusions or thought patterns, he always tries to understand why a client may go quiet. “Again, structuring projects and invoices to a timeline that’s agreed upfront can help this.”


There’s nothing like a scope doc with some solid terms and conditions to fall back on.

The team at DesignStudio opt for weekly status calls between client and DS teams, ensuring regular communication and project momentum are maintained. “At a minimum,” Mistry and Santangelo-Rous note, “this allows for regular feedback slots, but overall helps maintain a strong relationship. Beyond that, we also look for creative ways to connect and ensure the best result. This includes working each others’ offices, digital collaboration on platforms like Miro, or out-of-the-box immersions together including cultural events and travel.”

In a worst-case scenario, and a client goes awol, “there’s nothing like a scope doc with some solid terms and conditions to fall back on,” How informs us, “so we put feedback time into this doc and the timing plans.” The agency have a clear plan of how to approach this situation in a proactive and respectful manner. “If it comes to it,” he continues, “we first start pushing back the delivery date, citing the client’s delay which has caused this (which it has, so there is never any push back there), and then if we need to escalate that further, we add charges for missed booked production days.” Thankfully, the studio has never had to actually charge this, as the client always responds. Their approach has been developed over time, and as a result of trying lots of methodologies in order to achieve “the holy grail of clear consolidated feedback” via a single person on the client side. “We work with the client to set up a process that works for them in order for us to get what we need to make progress.” 

Whilst every client is different and requires a tailored approach, the key takeaway is summarised nicely by Mistry and Santangelo-Rous: “a shared vision, a mutual understanding of the process and responsibilities from both parties can build a trusting relationship and help deliver an outcome that everyone is proud of.” This comes down to clear communication and a mutually-agreed approach. Whilst for some, it may feel like a lot of back-and-forths, this dialogue keeps everyone on good terms – reducing the chances of a last-minute typographic direction shift or heated colour palette debate. “If we don’t get the feedback in the way we need, we send it back and ask for it either to be fleshed out, or consolidated so we have a clear way forward,” How notes. “Again, clear communication is the key all the way!”