The Designer and the Relief Pitcher

If you know me well, you know that baseball is my favorite sport, and I often employ baseball analogies to explain concepts to students and clients. Here I will use the analogy of the relief pitcher when it comes to designers, clients and projects gone awry.

I’ve played relief pitcher often in my design career. Coming to the mound as a replacement is a pressure situation. Everyone’s counting on me to save the game, except for maybe the starting pitcher. The relief pitcher is called into the game when the starter is fading, injured or generally losing control. Whatever errors, bases on balls and home runs he has allowed now become the responsibility of the reliever to fix.

A designer who’s removed from a project by a client leaves stuff behind that either needs to be straightened out or tossed out altogether. This includes the relationship with the client. It’s no matter whether it’s the client or their first designer who’s at fault for the breakup; when the project becomes mine, I get to play clean-up.


Not every designer-client relationship is a good fit. Every new relationship – and new project – comes with a learning curve. There are going to be bumps in the road with any project, and how the designer handles any challenges is key to retaining the client. Conversely, how the client regards and responds to the designer is key, as well. Sometimes they learn that they don’t fit – either due to expectations, working style, communication skills or emotional intelligence level. If the fit is not there, the wise thing to do is let it go, resolve what needs to be resolved, and go find another designer.

When the client calls in another designer – a relief pitcher to take over the game, they’ve already had a less-than-great experience and are naturally cautious with the new one. My first pitch is vital. I need to establish trust and confidence in my ability and professionalism quickly. Any misgivings and uncertainty on the part of the client needs to be addressed appropriately, and care must be taken not to repeat someone else’s mistakes. I make sure everything’s in writing, that expectations are clearly understood, and tend to be unabashedly direct. I don’t delve into the details of the prior relationship, but do determine with the client what creative or communication differences were apparent and what they’re expecting of me both creatively and relationally.

My best tactic as a relief pitcher is to begin all over again. Rather than fixing the first designer’s work, I propose to start fresh, making it a brand new ball game and taking the mound at the top of the first inning as a starter. I have my own style of working and way of thinking, and have proven successful over and over again. I won’t take work by another designer simply finish it. My work is my own. This policy respects the previous designer and ensures I am not tied to their approach.

Creative people tend to be ego-driven and many of us are naturally sensitive to critique and challenges. Clients – business people, business owners, executives and professional practitioners – also have egos and often regard design as a necessary commodity and not a business asset. It’s much as if they’re on opposing teams. The designer’s best practice is to serve the needs of the client while maintaing his or her own interests and parameters. This is hard to do. It’s like throwing a strike over the center of the plate.

Why do designer-client relationships go wrong?

  • Designer-client relationships are jeopardized when expectations are not clearly defined and confirmed at the beginning of a project. This is a concern for both parties. The client and the designer each come to the table with ideas about how things should go. Each will be disappointed when they don’t go that way. A colleague of mine has noted, “Communication is in what is heard, not in what is said.”  Conversations should be confirmed in writing (email or text), so that each party understands what the other understands.
  • Trust is broken when what is promised is not delivered. This is true in any relationship. Faithfulness is proven over the long term, and a designer needs to be able to deliver on time, on budget and with the expected quality. When a promise is made, he must be sure to follow through on it. For example, if I promise my client that I will provide concept sketches by end of day on a given Monday, I need to make sure that happens, or inform the client that I’m unable to and need to re-schedule. If I simply let it go, what will the client think?
  • Trouble stirs when the designer or the client complains about the other. Rather than addressing challenges and misunderstanding together and working out differences within the relationship, people often go to their colleagues to complain. Somehow, if we can get others to agree with our bad feelings, we feel justified and empowered. When the complaints happen on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter,  they’ve got the whole world involved.
  • When the designer doesn’t solve the right problem, it wastes the client’s money and the designer’s time. The client’s need has to be understood so that concept development moves in the right direction without being derailed. There are times when a designer will create a stellar solution but it’s off the mark for what the client needed.

Unrealistic expectations and false assumptions will show up during the process. We can do much to set forth parameters and expectations up front, but not everything can be anticipated. Sometimes a client will come with unrealistic expectations, add to the scope of work, or impose unrelated restrictions on the designer. And a designer will follow certain practices that the client doesn’t expect. When issues come up, discuss and communicate rather than retreating to the dugout or throwing the bat at the pitcher. Consult with an umpire if necessary.

When the manager calls in a relief pitcher, he’s hoping to save the game and walk away with a win. In baseball, this is not always possible. Every game has a winner and a loser. But with design projects, there can be a win every time, if communication and professionalism are established and maintained, and if we keep our emotions tempered and egos at bay. Working for the other’s highest good will result in a win, every time.