Top Ten Warning Signs of Toxic Clients

The Business of Creativity

“The book is a valuable resource for practices that will appeal both to new businesses determined to get it right and to established businesses that know they can do better.””
Communications Arts Magazine

Studio Designer CEO Keith Granet wrote The Business of Creativity as a guide for interior designers to build the best platform for their design talents. As a devoted design evangelist, Keith is a seasoned expert in the best practices for a successful interior design business.

In this book, Keith considers “Chapter Five: The People You Don’t Need in Your Life” to be perhaps the most important of the entire book because recognizing bad employees and toxic clients supports the overall health of a design business. In this excerpt from that chapter,  he shares some brutal and honest truths about types of toxic clients to avoid taking on.

Keith makes an important distinction between difficult and toxic clients. Difficult clients can be fairly common because hiring an interior designer is an expensive and time-consuming enterprise that is not taken lightly. Handling difficult clients can be managed with trust, communication, and respect. When you come across a potential client who does not have the ability to trust anyone, you might be meeting a toxic client.  Keith stresses the importance of trusting your gut and using your natural intuition to know if a person will simply not be the right fit for your design business.

Top Ten Warning Signs of Toxic Clients

The following are explored in greater detail in Chapter 5 of The Business of Creativity.

  1. They don’t offer you a glass of water.
    It reveals that a client is only thinking about themselves.
  2. They don’t ask you anything about yourself.
    Since you are about to embark on a long-term professional relationship, your clients must display some measure of interest in you or your business. This is vital for a smooth and effective communication for a potential design project.
  3. They don’t tell you anything about themselves.
    You will have a very difficult design process if your clients do not open themselves up to reveal their personalities or lifestyles. If you do not have a sense of a clients’ preferences or design opinions, it will be almost impossible to satisfy them as a designer.
  4. They tell you that they make quick decisions.
    This might be a huge red flag as people who say they make quick decisions are generally the ones who have been told they are difficult in decision-making. You might want to avoid people who say this upfront because it comes across as defensive.
  5. They tell you that they are easy to work with.
    This closely relates with #4 above as clients who say this from the get-go are often hiding the fact that they been called difficult. When dealing with someone who says they are easy to work with, always turn to your natural gut instinct of whether a person is being honest or simply trying to hide a temperamental personality.
  6. They promise you future work if you discount your current fees.
    Protect your value and consider reversing this idea by offering to first finish a project and reducing the price on a second project if it goes well.  It is important to earn money on your design work and not just new clients. If a client is always asking about discounted fees, it is a huge warning sign that this client does not want to pay you what you are worth.
  7. You are their third designer.
    This a common sense warning sign that if a client has burned through designers, you might be the latest in a long list of people who will not tolerate a toxic client. There are always exceptions but pay close attention to the professional design history of a possible new client.
  8. You don’t get to meet them.
    In commercial projects, sometimes you may only interact with a client’s “handlers.” However, designing a residential project for a client you never meet makes for an almost impossible design situation.
  9. Only half of them show up to meetings.
    Make sure you are on the same page with all of the client stakeholders in a project, especially if you are working with a couple. You do not want to experience costly redesigns because you only followed one person’s preferences. Make sure everyone is present in all major decision-making in a project.
  10. They have chronic amnesia.
    Avoid clients who cannot remember if they are approved ideas, designs, and especially payment amounts. Not only do you avoid someone potentially dishonest but you also save your sanity.

This is the fourth in an occasional series of blog posts drawing from ideas explored in Keith Granet’s books The Business of Design and The Business of Creativity. To get more detailed insight on best practices for your design business, you are encouraged to read both books and they can be found at the following links:


The Business of Design
The Business of Creativity










Alternatively, if you have already read either book and want to share your experiences using its advice, send an email to