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What to do when the client provides lousy art

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Every sign person has to occasionally deal with the client who brings a poor quality design and wants an effective sign made from it. It’s earned the name “nephew art” since the client so often says something like, “So my nephew—he went to art school—he did this cool design for me….”

Sometimes they produced the design themselves; other times a relative or friend is the culprit. Either way, you realize it won’t deliver a clean, powerful message as a sign.

Bob Sauls did a great job of explaining what he does when the customer brings a poor quality, homemade design in Coping with client-provided art in the May/June 2012 issue of SignCraft. Below are the key points from that helpful article.

In the Nov/Dec 2012 issue, he covers dealing with professionally created art that misses the mark as a sign design and how to help the client get an effective sign. Don’t miss it. Now back to Bob:

The obvious thing that crosses our minds when a customer brings us nephew art is, “I could do so much better! I would be embarrassed to own this sign. What if he tells others I made it?” But let’s make what’s best for the client our objective. As we look after our client’s best interest, our work and reputation will take care of itself.

Although our prospect has gone to the trouble of creating their own design, they may not be as attached to it as we might believe. Here are a few tools to try before you give up. You may find your client has a new respect for you and your design skills—and that can lead to more work and great referrals.

Remember you have the home-field advantage. The prospect sought you out to help solve their signage problem. Once they’re in your showroom, your quality samples and impressive website or portfolio will go far. And showing that you honestly care about their sign will help you win their confidence, too.

Purchases are rarely made when a client feels negative or confronted. It must be clear that our advice is sound and carefully discount the value of their design—without creating animosity. That’s a tough challenge.

Here, the attorney’s designer had put much emphasis on an illustration of the historic home that housed the practice, keeping the attorney’s name on one line. Bob suggested altering this layout to make the real message—her name—graphically dominant, but built the sign as designed. Once it was up, they saw his point and asked Bob for a new layout, which you see here.

The “Some-words-are-powerful” approach: One of the most effective tools of persuasion known to the design world is tweak. We can often improve bad art by simply telling them we’ll tweak it. If they’re receptive, great. If they say nothing, they still have given you the okay to make the needful changes.

The “This-is-a-great-start” approach: The goal here is to let them feel really good about their involvement, but not about the art itself. Explain to them that it’s rare to have a client who cares this much about their project. You can say, “This really isn’t a bad start. In fact, let’s take a good look at this design and build on it.”

The “We’re-all-reasonable-here” approach: Maybe the customer is trapped into using the nephew’s design as-is because of family dynamics, or he’s just plain made his mind up. (In those cases he probably drew it himself.) Your goal is to take charge for the client’s benefit. Ask: “If I saw a few ways to improve upon your artwork, would you want to know?”

The “Draw-the-line” approach: If you have tried the above and the client is still not budging, you have a decision to make. Some clients see our role as that of sign maker, not sign designer. I am not suggesting that you give in to reproducing lousy art. But consider this: a prospect has sought you out, and they are willing to pay. It is you who are drawing a line in the sand. Be certain that this is the type of project that really demands you take a stand.

But if you choose to go with a tough love approach, try this: “No, ma’am, I simply will not do it that way. I believe you will never be happy with that. Here is what we can do for you if you will allow us….”

You can click here to read Bob’s complete article, Coping with client-provided art: Making nephew art say “Uncle”.


Even professionally designed graphics can miss the mark as signage. Bob got involved on this project after the church committee had already started working with another designer. He priced a sign from their design but expressed his thoughts about a stronger design. The committee asked that he include the descending dove and blue colors, but chose his design for the sign. The result was more signage projects and several referrals.





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