No, by design.

No, by design.

When you hire a competent, qualified, and experienced designer, you hire them to say “no” to you when it is needed. If you are refusing to accept the designer’s capacity to say “no” as a critical part of their skill set, you are simply interested in hiring a mouse monkey — someone slightly more skilled in Illustrator than your third cousin.

People who employ high-end design agencies tend to know this and, if they don’t, they are quickly educated. But most small to medium-sized businesses and not-for-profits relay on freelancers, students, or 3–4 person shops for their design work. If that’s you (or if you’re a designer at the beginning of your career), please read on. Much unpleasantness, frustration, and disappointment can be avoided with just a bit more understanding.

Mouse Monkey can be a perfectly reasonable job description

There have been many times in my twenty-year career that I’ve eagerly taken on the job of a mouse monkey; most often I did so because I needed the money.

Mouse monkey:* a person hired to follow very specific instructions from their client. Someone severely underpaid for the job assigned to them. A qualified professional who is routinely taken advantage of. Usually relating to computer work.

When I first started to freelance as a graphic designer I spent several two hour “meetings” in a coffee shop with a client who needed to talk about her ex-husband (and not the logo I had designed for her skin-care business). These get-togethers came with a free high-end coffee and a pastry that I couldn’t otherwise afford. I got paid for the logo, and to act as my client’s confidante. I did this because I was too desperate to draw healthy boundaries and too young to reject the portfolio lie — do this job because it will be great for your portfolio. When I was a grad student, the offer of a few hundred dollars to re-format someone’s newsletter in InDesign meant groceries for a month. In the newsletter job, my client paid me to design according to their aesthetic values and not according to my expertise (thus, rejecting design choices based on readability and functionality). And when a client offered me a pittance to design a series of logos and re-design two web sites (when my partner had just been diagnosed with cancer and couldn’t contribute to our household income), my response was: “for 3k you can own my over-qualified design ass.” These were the times when I was thrilled to be someone’s mouse monkey, even though in some of these cases my job was (emotionally or intellectually) pretty taxing.

Types of “No”

Consider the following 3 types of boundary issues common in designer-client relationships: (1) scope creep; (2) micro management; and (3) soul expression.

Say no to scope creep

The situation with the skin care client that I described above is a form of scope creep. Our previously-determined client-designer relationship, where I was to be paid X to design Y, extended to multiple, lengthy meetings discussing her personal relationships. This is far more common than we’d like to believe** ; much has been written about the free emotional labour often expected, particularly, of women. Other types of scope creep include: being “asked” to do any type of significant work not previously agreed upon, for the same fee; significant changes to copy or project specs during the final phase of a project; and sudden “emergencies” that force an adjustment in project deadlines. It is fair to say that these situations can be a perfectly reasonable part of building positive client relationships / doing good business. However, good relationships are mutually created in an atmosphere of fair compensation and respect (for time, resources, or other constraints).

Say no to micro management

As the person hired for my design expertise, trust me when I say any of the following:

  • this, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t worth the time/resources it will take to do it;
  • if you want to keep to your modest budget, you will have to supply me with X, in the format of Y; or
  • if you want to keep to your deadline, we (and by this I mean You) will have to do/send/sign A no later than B.

Essentially, this comes back to the old adage that states: choose two from good, fast, or cheap because you can’t have all three. In this case I may say “no” to changing the colour of icons from dark to slightly less dark green because I know that my client can’t afford the money or time that it will take to do that, or because I know that it won’t greatly affect the design to leave it as it is (personal preference vs. critical design flaw).

Say no to expressing your beautiful soul

A designer is hired to do the right design for a business or an organization based on a number of factors, such as target audience/user group, context of use, differentiation in market place, etc. A good designer will use a variety of soft or hard research methods (a user-centred design process) to determine and propose the most fitting design to the pre-defined task or problem. They may not become a subject-matter expert, but they will be able to serve as a critical, bird’s eye view on their client’s business or organization. Even if they don’t come from the school of user-centred design, they are likely getting hired for their particular design approach, whether stylistic, theoretical, or methodological. This is what they are getting paid for: their expertise in design. Unless it is clearly in a designer’s contract to express a client’s beautiful soul (such a design task is possible, but unlikely), the client is ignoring professional expertise when they attempt to make aesthetic or functional decisions that trump those made by the expert.

There’s no one type of design work

For the past decade I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate on research projects with folks from a wide range of disciplines, from oil and gas to literary studies. Some of my colleagues have had previous experiences working with designers, but many had not. While my (and my design research colleagues’) ultimate goal has been to further design research and to diversify, through design, the existing pool of available ideas,*** there have been times when my role has been to add functional or aesthetic value to existing objects. Not quite the role of mouse monkey, but in the case of design research, pretty darn close — still valuable to the “client” but far from pushing the boundaries of my available capacity.

Value isn’t really the point here — it’s having a clear understanding, for yourself and communicating it to the client, that pushing pixels is only a small part of what good designers have to offer.


I say all of the above not intending to absolve designers from any responsibility in creating the appropriate value for their work, or to paint clients as freebie-hungry, know-it-alls. In my experience, however, the best client relationships that have led to the most all-around successful design projects have been ones where (1) the client has trusted and supported the right designer to do good work; and (2) the designer has valued themselves enough to say “no” when it was needed.

Designers (hence, design educators) have some responsibilities too. We need to teach / be taught how to communicate with others about the value of our work, what we bring as part of our expertise, where we have limits, and what we will need to be successful in our work. Designers need to write / use clear, fair, and detailed contracts that determine everyone’s roles, rights, and responsibilities.

Finally, designers, design organizations, and design educators must refrain from devaluing design through spec work, or by encouraging junior designers towards unpaid labour that will be “good for their portfolio”. Every piece of design should come with a bill: if the work volunteered, then the bill should still state its value (the actual cost of the work being donated).

*I am taking some liberties with the original, informal definition. I hope you’ll forgive me.

**This type of scope creep is not limited to the design industry.

***Significant impact on design; significant impact through design.