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Resourceful Designer podcast: Offering tips, tricks and advice for starting and growing your graphic or web design business.

Wants and needs. What an interesting juxtaposition.

I want a new sword for my collection. But I don’t need another sword. I want a cheeseburger and poutine for supper. But I don’t need all that fat or those calories. I want enough money to do whatever I want in life. However, I only need to make enough money to cover my expenses.

Wants and needs. They govern a lot of our decisions, don’t they?

Your clients’ wants and needs.

What about you and your design business? How do wants and needs factor into what you do for your clients?

As a design business owner, your goal is to make money. After all, a business that doesn’t make money doesn’t remain a business for very long. Sure, it’s great to do some pro-bono work from time to time, but I don’t know of any designer who cherishes working for free. No, you want to make money so that you can pay your bills, support your family, take vacations, and perhaps indulge yourself from time to time.

To make money, you need to charge your clients for the services you offer. And the more clients you have and the more design work you do, the more money you earn.

As a design business owner, it can be tempting to simply give clients what they want in order to make a sale. Like when a client comes to you with an idea in mind and asks if you can design it for them. You know you can, and it would be easy money. And so many designers across the globe work this way. They do exactly what the client wants.

But the problem is, clients don’t always know what they want, or what they think they want isn’t the best option because they don’t know any alternatives.

Adopting this strategy of doing what your client wants is not conducive to growing a successful design business. You may get work. Maybe even lucrative work. But your business will eventually reach a cap if all you ever do is what your clients ask you to do.

To be successful, you need to figure out how to deliver what your clients need, not just what they want.

How do wants differ from needs?

Now don’t get me wrong. You’ll have clients whose wants and needs are in line with each other—those who are business savvy and understand what is required for their businesses to grow. You’ll enjoy working with those clients because you’ll be able to communicate with them on an even level.

However, many clients don’t understand that their wants and needs may differ.

I find this especially true with newer entrepreneurs–people who have left corporate life to start their own businesses. They’ll often get their ideas from what others are doing and falsely think they’ll experience the same success if they do the same thing. They see someone else grow their business by sending out postcards, so they believe they should send out postcards as well.

That’s not the proper way to think about or grow a business. Giving clients what they want might make them happy in the short term, but they’ll eventually realize that it doesn’t solve whatever problem they’re trying to fix. And clients always come to you, a designer, to fix a problem, whether they know it or not. That’s what we do as designers. We’re problem solvers.

Just doing what a client wants can lead to unfulfilled expectations and frustration on the client’s part. “I spent good money on these postcards; why aren’t they working?” It’s because postcards weren’t what the client needed.

Your job as a designer is not to fulfill your client’s every desire or cater to their every whim; it’s about understanding their needs and addressing them in a way that meets those needs and exceeds their expectations.

When you give your clients what they need, you are helping them achieve their goals and solve their problems. When you manage that, your clients will view you in a whole new light, and they’ll want to work with you more.

Do you ignore what a client wants?

Does this mean you ignore what the client wants? Of course not. The key is to balance what the client wants and what will work best for their business. For example, a client may want you to redesign their website because they’re not getting enough traffic and low sales. They think that getting more traffic to their site will increase sales and solve their problem. When more traffic isn’t the solution, better-qualified traffic is.

Having 1,000 random people visit a website probably won’t increase sales as much as attracting 100 targeted visitors. The client wants more visitors, but what they need is better-targeted visitors. And it’s your job to explain this to them.

My own experience.

One of my clients is a hearing aid clinic. When they first opened and were trying to build up their client list, they wanted to get as much exposure as possible. One of the marketing strategies they wanted to explore was placing ads in local magazines.

The salesperson they contacted at a nearby distributor represented several magazines. He convinced them that they would get the most exposure by placing an ad in a local outdoor life magazine that covered hiking, bicycling, canoe and kayaking, snowshoeing etc. It was a newer magazine with a circulation of over 500,000 copies delivered every month.

He told my client that it was a new magazine, and they were offering special discounted prices on ads. He assured them it was a fantastic once-in-a-lifetime deal to put their name in front of half a million local people. The clinic asked me to design a full-page ad, excited about all the exposure it would give them.

When I received the ad specifications from the distributor, I saw on the sheet that the exact specs were used by other magazines the distributor represented. One of them was a senior living magazine.

For the fun of it, I contacted the distributor, not telling them who I was, and asked for details on placing a full-page ad in the senior living mag. I found out that the distribution for this magazine was 100,000 copies, and the price they quoted me was almost the same price that the hearing aid clinic was paying for their ad in the outdoor life mag.

I then called my client and explained that according to the documentation I received, the outdoor life magazine targeted people ages 18-40 who enjoyed an active outdoor life. The senior living magazine was geared towards people 55 years and older who still want to get the most out of life.

I explained to my client that yes, the senior living mag had a distribution of one-fifth the size of the outdoor magazine, so they wouldn’t be seen by as many people. However, those 100,000 people who received the senior living magazine were probably in or at least approaching the target market of people who require hearing aids. In contrast, most of the outdoor life magazine’s target market won’t be interested in hearing aids for many years to come.

The client wanted me to design an ad for an outdoor life mag, but I convinced them that they needed an ad in the senior living magazine. And they agreed.

And you know what? Within weeks of their ad appearing in that senior living magazine, their phone rang off the hook with new clients saying they saw their ad.

Listen to your client to figure out what they need.

It’s essential to listen to the client and understand what they think they want. This will help you to figure out what they need. Then it’s up to you to explain to them that there’s something else they need that they don’t see.

I had another client who started a subscription box that offered science experiments for kids ages 3-8 years old. It was two moms, and they wanted me to design their marketing material. The sketches and layouts they presented of what they wanted me to create were juvenile. When I asked about them, they said they wanted something that appealed to young children. They had even asked their own kids’ opinions on their sketches.

I asked them how many 3-8 years old could afford to spend their allowance on a monthly subscription box? They looked at me like I was crazy. Then one of the ladies explained that the kids weren’t paying for the subscription box. Their parents are. To which I replied, “Exactly. So why are you marketing to the kids when you should be marketing to the parents?”

Instead of explaining to young children how much fun they’ll have doing these monthly science experiments, they should explain to mothers how their subscription box offers something constructive for kids to do. It’s an educational pastime that doesn’t involve kids looking at a screen. It’s a bonding experience between them and their child. And it will improve the child’s knowledge of science which will help them in school.

You know what? They had never considered marketing to parents and thought it was a brilliant idea. Now imagine if I had simply designed what they originally wanted when they first approached me?

What clients want and what they need are often two different things.

What clients want and what they need are often two different things, especially when it comes to graphic design and website development.

Clients often come to you with an idea of what they want their finished product to look like. They might have images or a style in mind, but that’s usually where their ideas stop. It’s often hard for clients to see the bigger picture.

They may want a flashy website that is all about them, or they see something on another website and want it on theirs, but they may not need all of the bells and whistles.

As designers, we need to interpret what our clients want while still giving them what they need. And often, what clients need is someone like you who can take their vague desires and turn them into a functioning reality.

Sure they want an attractive website, and you can do that, but what they need is a website that functions for their business. This means striking a balance between the two and creating something that meets their wants and needs. It can be a challenge, but it is essential to create a successful final product.

It’s not always easy.

With some clients, this will be easy. With others, it might be more difficult.

Sometimes it’s as simple as suggesting different fonts or colours than they originally had in mind.

I recently designed podcast work for a client and submitted two different ideas. He liked the layout of option one but preferred the font I used in option 2. He asked if I could use the font from option 2 in the first one. I told him no. The font from option two wouldn’t fit the layout of option 1. What he wanted wouldn’t work.

Or you might need to steer a client away from using too many images, making their website too busy or convincing them to eliminate things that don’t help them.

Other times you may need to suggest alternative or innovative ways to accomplish something the client might not have thought about.

A recent website client wanted me to create a page on their site to list all the books they recommend. They wanted a page they could edit whenever they wanted to add a new book. They would add the latest info and format it to look like the rest.

Instead of doing what they wanted, I added custom fields to the website and created a section to enter book information quickly. Now, whenever they want to add a new book, all they have to do is click a “Create Book” button I made for them, fill out a simple form, and the information will automatically show up on the page already formatted.

The client can’t believe how much easier this method is than what they were doing before and has thanked me several times for designing it that way. It wasn’t what they wanted. But I figured it was what they needed. And I was right.

The point is that you need to adapt your designs to fit the client’s needs, not the other way around. That doesn’t mean you never have to do what the client wants, though. It is a compromise. And on some occasions, if you’re lucky, what a client wants and needs turns out to be the same thing.


When you give a client what they need, especially when it’s not something they considered initially, they are more likely to be satisfied with the work you do for them. They’ll appreciate your out-of-the-box thinking. They’ll feel like you took their needs into account and over-delivered.

Remember, good graphic designers and website designers take the time to learn about their clients and what they’re looking for before starting any project. Use your skills and experience to figure out what your client needs and deliver on it. This helps ensure that the client is happy with the final project.

This may be harder for newer designers. Knowing what clients need comes from experience. Often, ideas for new clients come from interaction with past clients. The more you work at this, the easier it will become. At that point, you truly become a problem solver, and not just a “yes person.” meaning someone who simply follows orders. And that opens up a whole new opportunity for your design business.

Remember, your goal as a design business owner is to make money. And when word gets out that you can take what a client wants and turn it into what a client needs, clients will be lining up to work with you, and the money will start flowing in.

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Running a graphic design or web design business all by yourself isn't easy. If there are any struggles you face running your design business, please reach out to me. I'll do my best to help you by addressing your issues in a future blog post or podcast episode here at Resourceful Designer. You can reach me at feedback@resourcefuldesigner.com

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