Do clients think designers are proactive or reactive?

Arguably one of the most difficult aspects to ‘being a designer’ is managing expectations. And more specifically; managing client expectations.

Problem is we all have such different expectations. And sometimes the gap between what a designer can deliver (because of skills, time and budget) and what a client expects is not just a gap, it’s a chasm.

That’s why one of the questions we asked clients in our recent survey was: on a rating from 1 to 10, how does your design supplier react to your requests/briefs?

This is the fourth article about our August 2020 ‘What clients want’ survey.

To help designers understand what clients want, we surveyed Australian clients from a wide variety of industries. Their budgets ranged from a once-off project fee of $3,000 to an annual marketing spend of $1m.

When we asked: on a rating from 1 to 10, how does your design supplier react to your requests/briefs? … we were really asking is your designer proactive or reactive?

26% of all clients scored their designers as 7/10

Is 7 out of 10 a good score?

Not really. Mathematically 7/10 is better than average, and therefore it’s often perceived as OK but when it comes to ratings and reviews, 7/10 is mediocre, because people are generally nice, and rarely willing to give other people or services a truly low score.

In the commonly used business measure of a Net Promoter Score*, customers who give you a 6 or below are Detractors, a score of 7 or 8 are called passives, and a 9 or 10 are promoters. (The Net Promoter Score is determined by subtracting the percentage of customers who are detractors from the percentage who are promoters. This generates a score between -100 and 100 called the Net Promoter Score.)

Seven is like the average cut off number between not so good and great. It’s the median. Under 7 is where you should worry but a score of 7 is not celebratory

So, are designers proactive or reactive?

The jury is hung. Using 7 as the average score, 49% of the clients were happy, while 51% were not. But there is good news.

Just over 10% of clients scored their design supplier as outstanding.

5% of respondents gave their designer supplier a perfect score of 10, meaning they regularly didn’t wait for briefs, the designers initiated discussions and they initiated projects. Another 7% of clients scored their creatives a 9.

At the other end of the scale, 25% of all clients scored their design supplier less than 3 ‑ as absolutely reactive ‑ with 1 being they supply exactly what is asked for.

I changed designers because the incumbent just weren’t inspiring enough
Anonymous client response

How does this compare with the UK?

These responses correlate strongly with the 2019-20 UK What Clients think report based on face-to-face interviews with over 500 clients.

Not driving things / the agency that is too passive, too eager to please and waited to be briefed was rated one of the top 3 criticisms of all UK agencies.

The number of design agencies who regularly exceeding client expectations was only 16%. That said, it’s worth noting another part of the survey explained expectations were more frequently unmet from lack of service or communication breakdown rather than quality of creative work. (More on that in future articles).

How does this compare with previous Australian research?

At our 2019 UNseminar ‘How to think like a client‘, Coca-Cola’s Natalie Cukerman, Bank Australia’s Fiona Nixon and Good Shepherd Australia and New Zealand’s Elisabeth Tuckey gave valuable insights from a FMCG, corporate and not-for-profit perspective.

Even though these three clients were from completely different sectors, all said they wanted a design partner rather than a supplier and ultimately they wanted a relationship that made their life easier.

They knew their briefs, at times, were pedestrian, but they loved to see/hear proactive solutions. Didn’t matter budgets may not stretch right now, they loved their design suppliers to be thinking outside the box. They liked to hear what was possible.

Designers who offered industry insights and research stand out against those with generic pitch decks.

Our results in detail

When clients were asked: on a score from 1 (they supply what is asked ) to 10 (they don’t wait for my briefs, they initiate discussions and projects), how does your design supplier react to your requests/briefs? the results were:graph of how clients rated designers

At first glance  it looks like an even spread, but closer inspection shows these scores are more negative than positive. Nearly 50% of the clients scored their design supplier between 7 (average) and 5 (a bare pass by any standard) — not a great endorsement by any standard.

So, what does this mean?

Speaking generally, sadly, it looks like half our clients do not expect greatness. They just expect designers to do what they were asked. That’s not good for anyone.

It’s not good for the client because they’re just getting what they asked for, nothing more. Worse they could be consistently underwhelmed.
It’s not good for the design supplier because their work is rated as mediocre.
And it’s not good for our industry because we know from other responses in the survey, these clients think design is overpriced.

On a positive note, it also means designers who do initiate discussions, who do share insights and research and who do communicate regularly will exceed most client’s expectations.

These results correlate with other insights from this research, like in a 45 minutes to pitch, just under 50% of clients didn’t want to see a folio. They wanted to talk trends specific to their industry sector or about case study — the best project a designer ever produced, regardless of the relevance to their client sector.

So, rather than spend time honing a website, or a perfect pitch deck, designers may be better spending time researching their current clients industry for gems to proactively share. It will add to your credibility, instil confidence in your ability and better still – it’ll be appreciated.

I notice when designers go above and beyond to understand the brief and make me happy as a client. They are the ones that get the work. I’ll pay more for someone who cares about the work as much as I do.
Anonymous client response


Want more?

Here’s three more articles about our What clients want survey:

  1. What clients want to hear in a pitch
  2. How clients find designers
  3. How clients prefer to meet designers
  4. A summary of our 2019 UNseminar – we invited three clients to be grilled by designers.

As always, happy to discuss, just email.

Carol Mackay

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The Design Business Review is Australia’s only online design management magazine. It’s professional development information written specifically for Australian designers by Australian designers. Best of all, it’s free.

After 30+ years running a graphic design firm, I pivoted from client-focused projects to consult to the design industry. Now with the Design Business Council I use my experience, and research, as a design mentor and coach. I help designers build robust, sustainable businesses, and help businesses integrate, and profit from, design.

The core of the DBC is the building a design community – over 85% of designers work in businesses with less than 5 employees, many less than 3. That means designers don’t have the same support network of other professionals. The DBC’s solution is supplement paid gigs with research, mentoring breakfast meet-ups, informative UNseminars and practical workshops in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

An archive of my previous career is at
My current work can be viewed at and

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