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Designing For Clients Made Easy

Derek Ashauer

So you’ve done the marketing, found the client, signed the deal. Now you only have to do the work! This article isn’t going to focus on selling your services or the actual design process or even Photoshop techniques, but all the obstacles (and there are a lot) that many of us run into while trying to complete a project for a client. I think there are many common pitfalls we all run into, which can be avoided.

You are going to be working with your clients for quite some time. You also want to establish a very good relationship with them so they will refer your business to their friends. Along the road, there will unnecessary challenges that will complicate the project and your life. I’m sure we’ve all had clients who make us overly stressed for no real reason. A lot of these problems can be prevented if you set things up well with clients from the start.

How does the process of working with clients affect your business?

  • Client referral – if you work well with your clients, they are more likely to refer you to their friends.
  • Time – if you reduce the amount of time you spend "dealing" with clients, the quicker you can complete projects and work on others.
  • Stress – the less you have, the happier you will be!
Be A Pro

One of the first and most important things you should establish is respect and professionalism. Having the client trust you and your judgment can make any project easy. If they trust you to make the decisions they can’t, you can work through a project without any hurdles whatsoever. Should the Website have drop-down navigation or a sub-navigation system? Don’t ask your clients, wait 2 weeks for a decision, make the drop-down or sub-navigation, then redo it because they change their mind and want the other option. Instead, just do what you, the professional, think is best.

Now, before you laugh, I recognize this isn’t likely at all. Most of the clients out there won’t give you complete control over their Websites. However, if you do establish that respect, it will be much easier to walk clients down the easy road rather than let them lead you down a long, windy and tortuous road. Often, I don’t even get these petty questions because the client assumes I’ve made the right decision and they don’t need to worry about it. And they don’t.

Set Realistic Expectations

Once you’ve gotten all the contracts and payments out of the way, you need to establish with the client some expectations for what will happen next. This includes an outline of the development process, and what is going to happen at each step; everyone’s jobs (both the clients’ and yours); and a timeline.

The Development Process

Making sure your clients know what’s happening is very important. This doesn’t mean you have to explain HTML to them, but let them know the steps you are going to take. Here’s the usual process outline that I give to a client:

  1. Design consultation
  2. Create design
  3. Show design comp
  4. Make any modifications to design as needed
  5. Build Website
  6. Add content
  7. Clean up any small things

Once the clients know the steps I’ll use to build their Website, they can be better prepared to work with me — not against me.

I’ve found that the design phases account for about 75% of the time I spend dealing with the client. It may take me 6 hours to come up with the design and a few more on modifications, plus 10 hours to build the site. However, because of the back-and-forth nature of design approval, you actually spend more time (not actual "work time") in these stages. Once the design’s approved, you can blast through the build without needing to talk to your clients or wait on them for anything: you already have everything you need (until it’s time to put the content in, of course).

Everyone Has a Job, Even the Client

I think one big mistake that’s made often is that the developers only work on one part of a Website at a time. For example, gathering content can often be the biggest time-killer in any project. If you already know all the pages that are going to appear on the Website (which you should, after your design consultation), what’s to stop you from having the client work on the content while you design? If it takes two months for the client to work on the content, and it takes you two months to design and build the Website, then the project can be completed in just two months! If you wait until you’re finished building to ask the client to start working on the content, the project takes four months.

There are other tasks that can be finished in parallel with the development process: domain name shopping, hosting, email account setup, etc. Having these tasks handled by the time the site is ready to be launched will make the close of the project that much easier.

A Timeline

A realistic timeline can save you from having an unruly client. Have you ever had a client say "Hey, why isn’t my site built yet?" If you had a timeline already set in place, you could simply answer, "I told you it was going to take X days to complete the site; so far, only been half that time has passed." They can’t argue with you about it provided you have an agreed timeframe in writing. The flip side to this is, of course, that you have actually to meet the deadlines you set.

Having a timeline can also help to make clients happy. If you’re able to reach a development goal before the scheduled timeline, get the client on the phone and tell them right away. They will be more than happy to hear that you’ve focused so much energy on their project that you have completed it early. I don’t promote the idea of purposely setting long deadlines knowing you will be able to finish early, but doing so isn’t the worst thing in the world I suppose — especially for a troublesome client that you need to score some extra points with.

Design in Detail

Now that we’ve discussed the basics of preparation and approach, let’s delve a little deeper into the design process itself. In the following sections, I’ll explain in detail how I handle the design process. It accounts for around 75% of the time I spend dealing with my clients, and I’ve identified plenty of places where I can help speed things up and move more efficiently on the project.

Design Time: Getting It Right The First Time

I find that when working on a project, I spend most of my time in the design phase, trying to create something that the client likes and is willing to approve, so that I can move forward. But I realize that, if I can complete this part faster, I can work on more projects and ultimately make more money.

Once, a long, naïve time ago, I found myself so eager to design a site that I actually had one finished before the contract was signed. I knew they wanted to work with me, so I figured, "Why not get a jump on the design?" I thought I was a genius: I could have a design ready for the client almost immediately after we signed, and they would think I was amazing!

In the end, this strategy killed the deal. The client didn’t like the initial design, and I spent hours and hours going back and forth with design changes. The client ultimately decided to go elsewhere for the design, as he didn’t think I knew what he wanted. Now that I look back, I can’t blame him: I didn’t know what he wanted.

Now that I’ve designed quite a few sites, I can usually get the first design approved without many major modifications, if any. This saves me a huge amount of time in coming up with endless comps that continually get shot down. Is this because I am the greatest designer ever? I wish. Here’s how I approach designing for my clients:


Most likely, you’ve done some research about your clients’ competitors and their Websites. Very often, clients will tell you that they like their competitor’s site (or an element of their competitor’s site). They want the same thing, but "cooler." Find what you think works on these sites and what doesn’t. Use that information as a starting point when you begin your design. As one of my favorite SitePoint articles says, "Good Designers Copy, Great Designers Steal."

Put the Client to Work

One thing that most of us ask our clients when we’re trying to put a design together is, "What sites do you like?" This isn’t a bad question, but it shouldn’t be the only question you ask when looking for direction. Have your client go through a list of competitors’ Websites to find out what he or she likes about them.

Competitor sites needn’t be the only place you look for inspiration. I often tell my clients to check out Cool Home Pages. I ask them to write down the categories in which they found the most appealing Websites (such as "Corporate," "Experimental" or "Futuristic"). I then have them compile a list of 10 to 15 specific sites they liked. (If you’re designing a logo, have your clients check out the logo section of Cool Home Pages, as well.)

If your client is like many of mine, this review can be a rather daunting task. It’s difficult enough to get the most minor information from clients, let alone to have them sit down for 30 minutes and look through a bunch of Websites. Try to emphasize that by doing this now, they will save many days in the design process (because you are going to nail this design on the first attempt!) and get the Website online more quickly in the end. Clients are always more willing to provide you with information when you tell them it will see their new sites online sooner.

What pages do they want?

Usually you get an idea of how many pages the clients are looking for while you’re dealing with the contract. Now is the time to nail down exactly what those pages are. Given a definite site architecture, you can more accurately design the site to specs. You can also have clients begin to work on the content they would like to include on each page. Compiling the photos and text while you’re designing can save you a significant amount of time on the project.

Be a Detective: Interrogate Them!

Once your clients have taken the time to find some sites they like, go through them together. You still won’t know enough about what your clients want if you just take the list, view the selected sites, and begin the design. Instead, visit each site and ask questions that will help you discover exactly what it is about the site that your clients like. Just because the clients said they likes ESPN’s site doesn’t mean they wants their Website to look like it. Maybe your clients just like ESPN because they’re huge baseball fans and love to check the stats on a daily basis.

When you visit a site on the list, the first question to ask is, "What do you like about this site?" If the clients aren’t sure, get more detailed:

  • Do you like the colors?
  • Do you like the images used?
  • Do you like a particular feature?

On a side note: If the original contract you signed with your client is for a basic 10-page, static Website and your client continually points out sites that involve Flash, use this as an opportunity to up-sell your client and make a little extra on the deal.

Before you move on to the next site in the list, you need to know exactly why your clients chose each Website they listed.

However, be wary of the clients who like everything. You’d think that clients who say they would like anything might be easy to please. Oftentimes, these kinds of clients just don’t know what they like yet — they will wait to see your initial design before they finally form an opinion about the kinds of sites they like. If your clients won’t go through sites on their own, go to a few of the sites you’ve found in your research, and review them together directly, either over the phone, or in person.

You Mean You Don’t Like Red?

Now that we have gone over everything that your clients do like, the single most important question should then be asked: "What don’t you like?"

This question can be more revealing than all the information you have gathered thus far: it ensures that you don’t even try to do something that is guaranteed to fail. If the clients don’t like the color red, then you know there’s no chance a red site is going to get an approval. You might create a design that would win every design award on the planet, but if it’s in a color that your clients hate, it won’t stand a chance of gaining approval.

This question can also be asked while you are interrogating your clients about each site they’ve identified in their list of favorites. It can really help you identify the elements of the Website to which your clients will react positively.

Don’t Be A Pushover – Explain Your Decisions

When you decide you’re ready to show your finished design to your clients, make sure they see it while you’re talking to him. Emailing clients a link to the development site and allowing them to view it alone has the potential to cause problems. Here’s why…

When we create a design there are (usually) reasons for the way we’ve chosen to lay everything out. From colors to imagery to font choice, you have most likely considered other alternatives but ultimately chosen what has become the finished design. Clients won’t understand all this at first glance. You need to be there to explain why the design is laid out as it is. If your clients understand the reasoning behind your decisions, they will be more likely to accept them*.

* Remember: You are a professional, so present yourself as one: your client will be more likely to respect your decisions.

This can help alleviate those petty ideas like, "Can we move ‘Latest News’ to the left and ‘Our Sponsors’ to the right?" Although these aren’t huge tasks when you’re still designing in Photoshop, they could mean another week until you get design approval. You’d have to go back into Photoshop, make the changes, and call the client back again. And you may not get back in touch with him for quite some time, which would cause even more delays.

Other Helpful Hints

Talk to the one in charge

Make sure you talk to the person who will be making the final decision. If there’s a middleman in the process, it’s almost guaranteed that some information will be lost in the translation to that final decision maker. If you’ve been working with the marketing representative, but the CEO is the one making the final decision, try your best to make sure you talk directly to the CEO about the design.

"You want how many comps?"

Often, a client may ask that you come up with 5-10 different comps for them to choose from. This can be a nightmare, and can actually be counter-productive. From my experience, clients who are given too many choices can never make a decision. The whole point of going through the design interview is to pinpoint exactly what the client’s looking for, thus eliminating the need to create design after design. Simply explain this to the client. Also explain that preparing 10 different comps will take 10 times longer. In my opinion, a designer should never do multiple comps.

Don’t take it personally

I can get a little emotionally attached to a design — especially if I think it’s one of my better designs, or I’ve spent a good deal of time on it. If you show a design to a client and they don’t like it, you can’t take it personally. Ask the client what they don’t like about it, then look at your consultation notes and figure out where you went wrong. Maybe you started getting some good ideas for a design but they weren’t really what the client wanted. Save this new design for another client and move on. If you get over-emotional and fight for a design that the client doesn’t like, it can cause tension that can hamper the smooth running of the project.

Pick a good time to talk

Before you show your clients the design, make sure it’s a good time to talk. Do they have time to go over it or are they busy with other things? Have they had a bad day? The 15 hours you may have spent on a brilliant design can be shot down simply because the client is in a bad mood at the time. If it sounds like they’re not ready to discuss the design, just say you can call back later when they’re more prepared. There’s nothing like having your design torn apart by your New York client simply because the Yankees just lost to the Red Sox.

The clients that can’t make up their minds

"I like this from comp 3 and that from comp 7, can we combine those together? Oh wait, now that I have seen those together I don’t like either of them at all. Let’s try…"

This happens to everyone: it’s the client who just can’t decide. This is where your professional demeanor will come in handy. If your clients are nit picking over minute design elements, such as whether the corners of a box should be rounded or square, try to explain that this difference is not going to make or break their site. Most visitors will see the overall design of a Website and judge the professionalism within the first 5 seconds. Your design will be great — the shape of that little box isn’t going to make people leave.

Remember: it’s all about the money. Try to get across to your client that the look of the Website is professional and the minor points aren’t going to improve or detract from the overall look. The longer your clients argue about the petty things, the longer it will take to get the site online. The sooner they launch the site, the sooner they can start selling products, attracting prospects, and so on.

Wrappin’ It Up

The moral of this story is: don’t design without knowing exactly what your clients want. I know you love to design; that’s why you do it for a living. However, you’re not designing for yourself: you’re designing for others. Designing for clients can be like designing in a box when you are given tight limitations in which to work, but that’s the challenge all professional designers face. Handle it well, and you’ll stand out as a better Web designer.

In the end, having a tight, business-like control over the process will see you spend less time preparing comps that go nowhere. This means you can spend more time doing other things — like checking the stats on your favorite baseball team at ESPN.com (or working on other clients and making more money…).