Teach me: "educating" clients about design!

What is the best way to “educate” clients about good design?

I have presented my newest client with three mockups of her site. Overall she was very pleased with them, but she keeps sending me emails with new ideas that I think are pretty off-base from a design and/or usability perspective.

Things like:
-Using a different layout/design for some pages. Different colors, nav in a different place, the whole deal. I see that idea as potentially confusing/disorienting for the user.

-Using really bad “canned” stock images and/or cheesy clip art. I think it diminishes the professionalism and credibility of the site.

-Using an unusual font for body copy. Why do that?

What is the best way to educate clients about these sorts of things without seeming like a self-righteous know-it-all? On the one hand, she’s paying me to design her site so I guess I need to do what says she wants? On the other hand, isn’t she also paying me for my expertise about what works on the web, and wouldn’t I be remiss if I don’t try to gently guide her towards some better understanding of that? Also, I would like to end up with more than a paycheck: I want something I can feel proud to put in my portfolio.

I’ve been freelancing for 6+ years, so I’m kind of surprised this is the first time I’m running into this. I could just use some advice from folks who been there and worked through this sort of thing before.

It can be a difficult battle sometimes. As a designer, you should know why you do things in certain ways, but some of those things are just so instinctive – especially if you’ve been in the sector a while – and it’s so inconceivable that you’d do it differently, that trying to come up with a coherent argument while at the same time not standing there open-mouthed that anyone could come up with such a daft suggestion can be tricky.

On the one hand – at the end of the day, it is the client’s site, and they need to be happy with the final product. On the other hand – they’ve hired a professional, and a true professional should always be trying to create the best possible product, and not simply and unquestioningly churn out something that does what the client says he wants but is actually rubbish. I would always try to educate any client who was coming up with bad suggestions. Sometimes the trick is to ask them why they want to do whatever it is they’re asking for, and then you can get to the bottom of it and find an alternative and better solution that gets to the same end goal but via a different route.

  1. Yes, changing the design completely for some pages will be disorientating for the user, it will make those pages look like they’re on a separate website, and so it will reduce the brand strength. By all means use a slightly different colour scheme to highlight different sections, but that’s about as far as I’d go.

  2. Cheap stock images and clip art look cheap. They make it look like someone without a lot of skill or experience has quickly knocked it together in Word 97. That isn’t a good look. Professionally shot and selected images will make a site look professional, and that makes it look more credible, no question at all.

  3. Body text should be in the most readable font that you like. As a general rule, that is going to be one of Arial, Verdana, Trebuchet, Lucida Grande, Calibri or Georgia. Possibly Tahoma if you don’t use italics. Anything else is likely to be sub-optimal for reading body text at web page size. By all means get creative with your headings and branding (as long as you can find a common font that mimics it reasonably closely, for the bulk of people who don’t have your rare font), but not for body text.

I think on the whole you’ll have more success using Bobby’s approach to DeathShadow’s :cool:

Thanks for your thoughts, everyone. It seems that “gentle persuasion” is working with this client. I at least got an email back saying that I made a lot of good points that she will consider and get back to me later in the week.

Another thing I sort of struggle with sometimes (with clients) is how to walk the fine line between telling them what they need to know vs. overwhelming them with technical knowledge that may be beyond them. It is a struggle sometimes to explain WHY I recommend certain things sometimes w/o feeling like I have to put them through coding or usability 101 in order to even be able to explain it.

I think, in addition to classes on design and coding, there should be classes on how to deal with clients! :wink:

Sounds like the type of client I’d tell them “You apparently either don’t want a website, or hired me for no good reason.” – then I’d walk out the door… But then I’m the guy who’s told more than one client “You think you can do better, YOU DO IT – otherwise what the hell did you hire me for?”

Though as you said, if in six years this is the first time you’ve had this issue – that’s when I’d cut my losses and run to find a better client. Sometimes no amount of money is worth the hassles of a bad client – usually such clients end up costing you more in the long run as their micromanagement and desire for things that fly in the face of good development practices suck down so much time – that no matter what you bill them you end up making less money per hour of labor than you would flipping burgers.

Though that’s another solution – start billing them for overages due to them not letting you do the job you were hired for. Suck it up and do what they want – then bill them extra AND provide a full explanation of what’s “wrong” with what they want – possibly with a contract saying such things were not your idea or your fault… that way they can’t come back and sue you for said problems. (Which I’ve seen happen! Hell, I’ve encouraged companies to sue former developers!)

A lot depends on how we read the client. If it’s not an ego issue, and the client is just being engaged in the process, it should be OK to point out that this or that doesn’t work.

“You know, Mary, if you want some pages designed differently, I can do it, but from experience I can tell you that people prefer a consistent look to a website. What do you think?”

If the client pushes back, the ball is in your court. You can simply give the client exactly what the client wants, and just make sure to document everything so that it’s not your fault in the end. Or you can be an artiste and gently tell the client that you cannot work with her and good bye.

Good luck! :smiley:

Yeah it’s a tough one though. Sometimes, it’s not just about being that “artiste” but also what you might want to build for your portfolio. Right now, I am working on a project outside my job, and am basically getting paid nil, in exchange for the fact that it has potential to be a good portfolio addition. But if she tries that kind of art-direction thing that ends up ruining the site, and I could not change her mind gently, I would gently turn down the project, because why bother at that point?

I think the key though, is be gentle, be professional. Just look at what you are trying to accomplish. Are you trying to just pay rent? Are you adding that to your portfolio (or are you in a position to even care about that) and then decide whether it’s worth it.

But about educating the client, it might help sometimes to point to other professionals who agree. Maybe show her a website outside her industry that exemplifies what kind of info design you believe in and explain why. Or grab a great article from a usability expert to back up your opinion. If she is a good client she will be swayed, and may just let you drive from then on. If she is a control freak nightmare client, then, again, assess what you want to achieve from the project and make your choices that way.

Thanks Stevie D!