When Clients Take Too Much Design Control
“Looks great. Let’s just move the main content down and change the font to a brighter red and Papyrus…”
Have you ever dealt with a client who suddenly flipped on “design mode” mid-project? The expectation is that you are an expert, and you act as a filter between the client and a (successful) finished product. Web design is more than just coding a client’s vision.
You’ve spent the time honing skills. Now let’s reclaim your artistic license while keeping professional.
Pixel-Pushing versus Design
To keep from going in too many directions at once, let’s assume two things:
- The project budget is not a concern
- The original designs you’ve submitted are undeniably more successful
Some of you may think that these two conditions are rare, but it allows us to focus on the real issue: clients who seize control of design.
This article is a discussion on keeping communication open at all points of a project. This helps prevent the dreaded “pixel-pushing” phase, where a client gains full control of revisions without any real reason behind the changes. This can lead to a poorly designed site with usability or visibility conflicts.
What’s the problem?
The designer in a “pixel-pusher” relationship is a tool and not expert. Think of it like a translator: I may not know Russian, but I can still communicate effectively through a translator. But in the case of web design, there is much more going on than just direct translation: actual design and internet background are needed to make educated decisions.
The biggest issue in this kind of relationship, the designer loses the ability to use their own judgement. They are left to scale down font sizes and column widths at request. Instead, it’s expected the designer convert the client’s ideas into a functioning website. All sense of artistic license is lost. You’re now the temporary employee of an apparent visionary.
This wouldn’t be a terrible situation if the client actually had design experience to base their decisions on. Unfortunately, this is usually not the case.
Who’s the Expert Here?
Clients who flip on designer mode halfway through a project have the potential to cause more problems than they realize. The Oatmeal captured the conundrum perfectly in a recent comic.
One thing that makes this comic so accurate is how the client asks for the revisions. The language is passive. “It would be great if”, or “Please just…” don’t seem as threatening, and it’s this mitigated language that starts the communication conflicts. If you’re starting to hear revisions piling up, take some time to ask the client about their intentions. “What level of involvement did you want to have in the project’s design?” is a good start. This will allow you to plan moves accordingly.
As we’ve said before, designing for the internet is designing for other people. The actual audience is (usually) not the client themselves. Are you more in touch with the expected audience’s habits? Or is the client? The client is an expert in certain aspects of the website (e.g. topic), but not all of them.
Revisions Should Not be Arbitrary
Typically clients request a change because they assume it is for the better. By demanding changes, there is no discussion about the thought process. This is a problem for most successful client-designer communications.
Our philosophy at One Mighty Roar is that revisions which request a major design change should try to solve a problem. This isn’t an attempt to be difficult, but it does sometimes challenge clients to make decisions on more than just a whim. If you consistently make revisions without cause, you risk losing consistency of overall user experience and efficiency.
It’s not necessarily your fault. I know from personally experience that it’s easy to convince yourself that the design was inadequate to begin with. Stubborn is different from confident, just like collaboration is different from dictation. Limiting the number of revisions that can be made within a project’s budget is a great way of keeping the requests from going overboard.
Does it benefit the audience?
Treat personal taste carefully. It is ultimately the audience that has to appreciate and use most sites, and reasons like “I just like the way this looks” glosses over this point. How would the expected audience react to your changes? What problem(s) does the current design present?
Educating the client on your thought process is part of the job. Colors look different based on background contrast, certain fonts increase readability, etc. Bad design is commonplace. This leaves some people desensitized to components of good websites. That’s where you come in.
At the same time, we’re not always creating to impress fellow designers. This is a hard fact to swallow, especially when the latest round of revisions requests “more bright orange” and a primary font of Papyrus. Sometimes the interest of the client and the interest of prestigious portfolio piece don’t cooperate. Be professional for the right reasons.
Reader Response From Twitter
I asked our Twitter followers “What do you do if a client starts demanding design changes that would hurt the site?” Thanks to everyone who took time to respond. I’ve highlighted some of the big ideas below:
@LaserRedWeb: All you can do is offer advice and guidence, if the client still doesn’t listen then do as they say it’s their money
@Delltar: Clients are for designers like parents for a teenager,sometimes they are annoying,they don’t understand, but he needs them :D
@mindsmiledesign: I’d show them some options, including what they suggested in one option. Then, pray they see its inferior to other options.
@bornfamous: Sadly, I cave in and let the site go to hell. Then I drink.
@jctatme: I try to find stats, UX test results, anything concrete to convince client their design changes are hurting the site
@Phillysoul11: [I] kindly explain why the changes would hurt the site, and then offer alternatives. If they persist, give in or drop the client.
@doublelama: It’s their money so the final decision is up to them. (Of course you keep a copy of the ‘good’ version for your portfolio.)
@FWebDe: Educate them about why it’s a bad choice. After all, you probably know more about design than they do.
You Won’t Always Win
Ultimately, the client will have the final say. No amount of debate can change this.
On the same note, you’re not required to put all work into a portfolio. Sometimes it’s best to just let work fade into the background and move on. Even though it betrays what many designers stand for, the outcome may not always make you proud. The primary role of a web designer is to create a website that meets the clients goals. The client might not always agree with the approach, but the best you can have is intention.
What about you? Do you have a foolproof approach to dealing with clients with poor design eye? Share your expertise in the comments below.
- How To Explain To Clients That They Are Wrong
- Rules for Successful Client-Freelancer Working Relationships
Banner image photography found via el patojo on Flickr. All other photos used in post link to the pages of their respective authors.