This My Little Pony episode perfectly defines the client-designer relationship

My friend Amy (@ALSVossler) emailed recently to tell me about a My Little Pony episode she’d been watching. I’ll let her give you the details:
“I found myself thinking, “Oh my goodness! This is Derek Murphy’s life in My Little Pony format!”
“The premise is that a dress designer generously agrees to make fancy formal dresses for her five friends (for free).  After she makes them, and they turn out to be gorgeous, she shows her friends.  All of the friends say, “Hmm.  That’s not what we were expecting.”  One of the friends, who while not a fashion designer, knows all about sewing, tells the designer all of the things she has done wrong.”

“The revisions to the dresses keep getting progressively more ridiculous.  There’s a corny little song that the fashion designer sings, but it this part was so funny:

Stitch by stitch, stitching it together
Deadline looms, don’t you know the client’s always right?
Even if my fabric choice was perfect
Gotta get them all done by tonight

“Except, in this case, the clients aren’t right. The dresses turn out ridiculous–really ridiculous, and all of the friends who are wearing them can’t figure out why other ponies think the dresses are hideous–after all, the dresses were just exactly what they wanted. Of course, the designer is mortified that her handiwork is being ridiculed (she has a reputation at stake).  In the end, the friends realize their stupidity and go with the original designs, and it has a happy, cheesy ending.

“One of the ponies even says, “If we had just gone along with your designs in the beginning, this wouldn’t have happened!”

“So, at least you can rest assured that little girls everywhere (and the few silly adults who watch it) are being taught the valuable lesson of “For the love of all that is holy, listen to your designer!”


Here’s a clip:

You can watch the full episode here.

My Comments

As Amy pointed out, the episode matches my typical client-designer relationship; it took me several years to learn that, as a designer, it’s my job to tell authors what covers will sell the most books, and make them listen to me – and that when I give in and do what they want, I’m actually failing them.

It’s a constant struggle to assert my authority in this way, but I’ve become better at it, by setting very clear stipulations on my website about how I work.

On the other hand, I think a lot of the frustration I deal with is due to the fact that I – like Rarity, the pony designer in the clip – do a lot of work for free, over-estimate my ability to get things done, and am too generous with my time.

None of those other ponies even wanted a new gown, they just wanted simple little fixes. They probably wouldn’t have spent any money on new dresses. They just didn’t care.

But Rarity loves fashion and she just can’t let her friends go out in such crappy clothes. She insists they let her work for free. She imagines it will be fun and easy, because she loves designing and making clothes. One of the other ponies has doubts:

So, all you have to do is make a different, stunning, original, amazing outfit for 5 people – plus yourself – and lickety split?

Rarity replies, “Ha ha ha, you make it sound like it’s going to be hard.”

But the ponies aren’t happy with their new dresses, even though they were free. They don’t really care but Rarity insists that they be happy.

Ok, no problem, they were just the first pass. There’s more where that came from. I want you to be 110% satisfied. I’ll just redo them.

She’s determined to make them appreciate the gowns as much as she does – the problem is they have very different standards and tastes, and what they like isn’t necessarily good design. She lets them totally take over the process and tell her exactly what to make, which isn’t fun at all, and a lot more work than the gowns she made quickly.

So much more time and effort, and in the end all the ponies get what they want – ugly dresses.

But of course, the ponies love them. “It’s exactly what I asked for!” they cheer.

One of them asks Rarity, “Are you as happy with them as we are?”

She says, “Well, I’m happy that all of your are happy. I’m just relieved to finally be done.”

But then a big shot fashioner designer comes into town, to see her work. These dresses.


He says, “Oh, those amateurish designs look like a piled on mish-mash of everything but the kitchen sink!” And all the ponies laugh. “Who’s responsible for subjecting as to these horrors, not to mention wasting my valuable time?”

Rarity takes a walk of shame. Her business is ruined. The other ponies realize they’ve screwed up her life.

So they finish her dress. “We just followed your brilliant design, like we should have let you do for our outfits. Those first dresses you designed were perfect.”

Likewise, if I see someone with an ugly cover asking how to sell more books, I usually offer to make them a new one. But I rarely have time. I’ve done hundreds of free covers, but I also have a stack of makeover requests, not to mention my real work (paying clients) that needs to be the priority.

Unlike Rarity, however, I’ve gained enough experience not to bow to the whims of my clients. I know they’ll be happy if they sell more books (rather than being happy right now with the cover they wanted, and finding out later it won’t sell).


Life lessons

Hire a great designer and let them do their job. At least half of my clients still take over and dictate what they want me to make. And out of those, only a few ask me afterwards what I think about it. And I usually tell them my first samples were better and would have sold more books. Which means, half the items in my portfolio could have been better, and those authors could have been selling more books.

I do the best I can, but it’s not my fault if the authors demand I make the cover they want, and ignore me when I tell them it’s a bad idea. I’ve had the same experiences designing author websites.

If you’re a designer, the customer is not always right. Usually they’re wrong. It’s your job to teach them and convince them, and give them what will make them most successful, not necessarily what will make them happy.

About Derek Murphy

I help authors and artists turn their passions into full-time businesses, make a bigger impact, and blaze a luminous trail of creative independence. Right now I'm in Taiwan finishing a PHD in Literature, writing several books, and managing a handful of online businesses. Find me
  • I saw that episode of MLP a year or so ago and thought, “This is my life.” Yep.

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