By John Tabita

Stop Making Endless Design Changes

By John Tabita

Last week, I talked about the slippery slope of scope creep, which can begin with something as insidious the client making last-minute changes to your already approved design.

When a client has second thoughts about your design that far down the production road, chances are they were never fully-satisfied in the first place. Or perhaps some mysterious third party has suggested a different layout, color scheme, or functionality not originally discussed.

The trick to limiting the amount of changes is to nail the initial design as closely as possible to the client’s vision. That means you’ll need to ask questions. Lots of questions.


The first question I always asked was, “Do you have a particular design or layout in mind?” If a client had a pre-conceived notion of how they wanted the site to look, I wanted to know beforehand. Whether they did or not, I asked for examples of other sites they like and why they liked them. If they had an existing site, I asked what they liked and disliked about it.

The next thing I asked was about their competitors’ sites—which they liked, which they didn’t, and why.

One technique that helped was to ask the client to list a number of adjectives describing the look and feel they wanted for the new site, such as “corporate,” “conservative,” “artsy,” or “elegant.” Then I listed about 100 different words and asked the client to circle the ones that best described their company.

I hear a lot of designers complain about “not being a mind-reader” when they don’t come up with what the client had in mind. But you don’t have to be clairvoyant; just ask the right questions.

Only once did I create a design that was completely different from what the client wanted. She expected “artsy,” and I gave her “corporate.” But it was my fault; I wasn’t thorough enough with my design brief questions.

Now comes the time to present your mockup to the client. Assuming you nailed the design, any changes should be minor. It’s fine if the client wants his logo “3 pixels to the left,” but how many times will you allow that?

If you read my 27.5 Must-Ask Question for Consultative Selling, then you know it’s important that you identify all the decision-makers and ask the right questions. Well, now you’re going to repeat that process to “close the deal” on the design of the site. Just like you gained agreement about doing business together, now’s the time to go back and forth until you gain agreement on the design.

And you thought the “selling” portion of this project was over.

Regardless of whether you allow two or twenty design changes, make sure your client knows your limit long before this stage of the process. Regardless of what number you choose, setting a limit doesn’t mean you have to strictly enforce it. We all want our client to be pleased; setting limits lets you rein in those who never seem to be.

Image credit

It’s not too late to get my free guide, 27.5 Must-Ask Questions for Consultative Selling. Just follow me on Twitter and I’ll send you a link.

This is part 10 of the series Putting a Stop to Abusive Client Behavior:

  1. Stop Client Abuse of Web Designers Now!
  2. Stop the Abuse! 7 Steps to a Well-Trained Client
  3. Stop Wasting Time with Prospects Who Aren’t Serious
  4. Stop Giving Away So Much Free Information!
  5. Stop Writing Proposals to Win Business
  6. Stop Doing the Same Things and Expecting Different Results
  7. Stop Waiting to Get Paid! How to Collect Even when Your Client Delays
  8. Stop Getting Walked on and Set Some Boundaries Already
  9. Stop the Slippery Slope of Scope Creep
  10. Stop Making Endless Design Changes
  11. Stopping Abusive Clients: The Complete Process
  • Great post John. I have always told my clients that I will do as many revisions as necessary. I do this to close the deal, and it works. I have come across a few clients who as you say are never satisfied, and I have paid the price by living up to my end of the deal. I think I will follow your good advise and make sure there is a limit set to the number of revisions made. Thanks.

    • I made this mistake on the very first design job I took on, a print job. It never occurred to me that I should set a limit. Around revision #7, even my wife made the comment, “Is he ever going to stop making changes?”

      If you don’t set a limit, get frustrated, and finally put your foot down, you’re the bad guy. But if you set a reasonable limit, then allow the client an extra revision, you’re the hero.

  • Gem

    Absolutely agree here! I’ve always found that the clients who constantly want to make changes at the end of a design process have never felt involved enough in the whole process. Even though my consultation is pretty in-depth (now, after a couple of years of really refining it!), there are the occasional clients who love to have that tweak (“Can you do this version and another version and send me both so I can choose?”). When this happens I will immediately organise a meeting and really go through every detail. Some clients really love to have their finger in every pie, so play to that! Show that you can dedicate time to them to go through their worries, because it will save you time from the drip-fed amends that would have come afterwards.

    I’ve also found that after the consultation, that the next time the client hears from their web designer is when the designs are ready. I think this period of time can make a client nervous, which is why I introduced a design assessment report. It basically puts all of their responses to the initial consultation in my own words in a nice, neat, professional format, and I add some of my initial design thoughts, fonts, colour schemes, layout wireframe, screenshots of the websites they already liked with notes about the details they want to emulate etc. It started as something to refresh my memory, especially if the consultation and start of the project were a few weeks apart, but I sent it over to a client once and they completely gushed about it. From then on, I offered it as part of the service, and I now even sell it as a standalone report so that people can see if I really understand their own vision before buying my services.

    • All very good points, Gem. It’s tempting to try to rush things and get straight into production. But like you, I found that the more up-front work I invested, the less chance of misunderstanding later.

      I found clients can become a little overwhelmed at first, but once they realize that the questions being asked really make them think, they begin to appreciate the process and get involved.

      I pulled out some old design briefs when I was writing this; I’d forgotten how many questions I asked. The last question on it was, “Is there anything else we haven’t covered?” One client wrote: “I can’t think of anything, but I’m sure you’ll pull it out of us.” You know you have your client’s confidence when you get comments like that. Being thorough as you’ve described helps inspires that trust.

      • Gem

        My final question is pretty much identical : ) I’ve even got a question on there that asks “How would you like a client to describe your website?” – the amount of times that people haven’t thought about the effect they want to have on their clients is quite astonishing! I love to watch clients lean back in their chair, take a sharp intake of breath and really see their project from the eyes of the people that are actually going to USE the site. Added to that, it means when I send a design over to them I can refer back to this answer to strengthen my reasons as to why I might have done something in a particular way.

        Brilliant post, by the way!

        • Brilliant? Wow.

          The question you described reminds me of a Yellow Pages sales technique called “picturing the buyer.” It’s getting the advertiser to picture how the end-user, his potential buyer, would be looking through the Yellow Pages for a company like his, and what would or wouldn’t get that consumer’s attention. It’s very effective in convincing someone that a his name, address and phone number three pages back isn’t going to stand out over and above the display ads. It’s important to get the client out of his or her self-centered mindset and get them thinking how this advertising or marketing will be perceived by the ones who matter most … the customer.

          Great input, Gem. Thanks!

  • Fantastic article!

  • Kevin Fisher

    Great comments….If I may offer my 2 cents–I’ve always found 2 key things that help this problem:

    1. Always talk in terms of problem solution “What’s the problem we’re solving here and how will we know it’s been solved” Make sure that this is clearly delineated at every stage, and send plenty of “this is what was decided at the last meeting” e mails. This goes a long way to taking that nasty thing we like to call TASTE out of the equation. There’s no path more riddled with heartbreak than trying to design something someone (and their wife, nephew, dentist and butcher) LIKES :-)

    2. Present a clear and detailed estimate for the work your gonna do–“x sets of initial comps”, “x number of refining comps”, “x set of revisions” whatever you feel the job will need and then the important point; After we arrive at this point I’ll be happy to do as many changes as you like and they will be billed at $X per hour. Drive home that you’ll hit a point where the meter starts running, detail each stage of the process as it happens (in the “what was accomplished” e mails) and when you get to the per hourly changes make sure you tell the client that you’re now on the clock. Suddenly there’s and incentive to get it right.

    I’d like to say that these things always guarantee I get paid what I’m worth but we all know that’s a pipe dream… however it does cut down on abuse and actually actually helps me cement long term relationships with clients who always have a clear understanding of where they stand

  • Yes a great article. I keep coming back to this time and time again so it’s good to get a fresh view of an old problem. I actually find good clients can work against the next project as I’m more inclined to be more flexible after spending time with a ‘reasonable’ client. I’ll definitely make use of some of your idea! Thanks

  • ChrisR

    “I’ve always found that the clients who constantly want to make changes at the end of a design process have never felt involved enough in the whole process.”

    Even worse is when you’re led to believe that staff members X and Y will be the decisionmakers and then after months of work when you very much involved those folks, you find out that actually client Z really has the final say but never spoke up during the first 2 or 3 or 4 rounds of design.

    • Yes, we’re going through that right now. The person we thought had final approval shows everything to her boss behind the scenes, who makes further changes to her changes. We’ve now informed her this round will be the last.

  • I love every single one of your posts! As funny as they are true and such helpful advice! Brilliant!
    Just one thing – I went through the whole process of registerring with Twitter to get your ‘27.5 Must-ask questions for consultative Selling’ but I have not received anything. What did I do wrong (I’m new to Twitter). Any chance you could send it to me, please?

    Once again many thanks for your great tips delivered with such humour!

    • Christine,

      I emailed you a link. I respond to each follow with a direct message and the link. It’s possible I missed you.

      Glad you like the articles. Thanks for you appreciative comments.

Get the latest in Entrepreneur, once a week, for free.