Dealing with a bad customer-provided design

By SignCraft Magazine

Posted on Tuesday, May 19th, 2020

A customer comes to you with a design they made up and want to use it for their sign. You know it’s going to look bad. Of course, they believe it is wonderful. But you know when people ask, “Who made your sign?” and they say you did, most will assume you’re responsible for the unattractive design. What do you do?

SignCraft turned to a veteran sign designer Gary Anderson [Bloomington Design, Bloomington, Indiana], who has been creating custom signs for over five decades, for advice. Gary’s work and his articles have been published in SignCraft since 1983, and he has published two books on sign design with SignCraft: Signs, Graphics & Other Neat Stuff and More Signs, Graphics & Other Neat Stuff.

We’ll let Gary explain the straightforward, practical solution he developed over the years, and share a few examples of his outstanding work:

I’ve been talking about this scenario for years. Customers bringing homemade designs to sign makers was always a tough issue—even before computers and the Internet came along. Then it got worse.

One option is to make the sign, turn it around and lean it against the wall until they come to get it so you don’t have to see it. When they arrive, take it quickly out to their car and put it in the trunk. But that only solves part of the problem. The bigger issue is that other potential customers will see it, and you don’t want to be held responsible for that bad design.

My favorite way of dealing with this issue was pretty simple. I would look thoughtfully at their design for a minute or so, then say, “You deserve something better than this.” Most of the time, they would look a little surprised and maybe a bit uncomfortable.

I would go on to explain that it isn’t about my ego. It’s simply that they deserve a more functional sign design than this. Usually, they don’t understand what you’re talking about, so I would go on to point out a few of the key weaknesses in their design in a professional and respectful way. There’s no point in being rude or arrogant about it. It’s just the facts.

The font choice is almost always wrong. It’s often some flowery script that no one can read. The sign may be for their gun shop, but the script makes it look like they sell lingerie.

Is the copy on their design properly prioritized, and are there strong contrasts to add interest? Are the colors appropriate? Is negative space used to make it more readable? Probably not. Is some piece of irrelevant clip art eating up space needed for their main message?

By telling the customer that they deserve something better, it’s pretty hard for them to argue that they don’t deserve a better sign. It often opens the door to moving away from their homemade design. The bad news is that their design probably won’t be very effective for them. The good news is that you know how to get them what they deserve.

You have to be ready with a list of how a better design will benefit them: More people will notice your sign. It will be easier to read, and faster for readers to understand your most important message. IT WILL MAKE YOU MORE MONEY. It will get more people in the door. It will get your phone ringing or send more people to your website. What business owner is going to argue with that?

As you explain this, it helps to be standing in your display area surrounded by cool examples of what you can do, and to have a portfolio of great-looking signs that you have done for them to look through.

I would go on to explain that it’s not going to cost any more for them to have a more effective sign. They are going to spend the same either way, whether they get an attractive sign or not. I don’t want to just take their money. I want their sign to be a success. That was another point that was hard for them to dispute.

I believe even a basic sign deserves some design attention. You want to make sure that it has adequate contrast, appropriate font and color choice, well-prioritized copy and proper use of line value and color to make it appealing. Even on a parking sign, you have to make those design decisions.

On rare occasions, though, I would finally have to just say, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you with the sign. You may want to check with a few other shops.”

About the time I retired, the problem was getting even more pervasive. People were playing around with designs on their computer at home and bringing those to me. Or they would bring a two-page list of fonts and say, “These are the fonts I like…” Usually, none of them were appropriate, and I had to explain that to them.

It got harder with the Internet. Now people get online and fall in love with things they see, whether they are relevant for their business or not. I used to have to talk people into something cool that I knew would be good for their business by building a picture in their mind. Then it got to where I had to first talk them out of whatever they had seen online—and erase the image they had in their head first. That takes more time, and that’s not a good thing.

As a designer, I was pretty dictatorial. Because if you’re not, you’ll be stuck doing signs you know won’t be effective and that you don’t enjoy making. If you let customers steamroll you, you’ll never do anything you’re proud of. Your life will be boring and you’ll be frustrated. It’s a bad situation to put yourself in. –Gary Anderson

If your business is relatively new and you don’t have much work, you may feel forced to produce their ineffective design. If so, you can still get to work on producing some great-looking samples that you can use to sell the type of work you want to do. Keep improving your design skills so that your work is obviously more effective than the generic signs that dominate the marketplace. You’ll be able in time, and you’ll be more successful when you say, “You deserve better than this…” —Editors