Who Do You Design For: Clients or Users?


By Brian Haught

If you close your eyes and think back to the first design fundamentals class you ever took hopefully you remember the instructor saying,”When beginning a design ask yourself who is your audience? If you don’t know who you are designing for then how can you design anything at all?”

Fast forward to the present. Now you are a freelance designer, you have met with the client, discussed what they want and agreed to do the job. Suddenly the client sends you a sketch of a horrible monstrosity of a design so unholy your eyes begin to burn. The client attached instructions that do not resemble the previous discussions and break every rule you can imagine.

Now ask yourself, “Who are you designing for?” By definition, your job is to communicate a message via images and text. But, as a businessperson your goal must be to meet the requests of the client. If you go against the client’s explicit requests and produce a user-centric design, oddly enough you’ll have an unhappy client. Now the flip side of the coin. If you cooperate, lay down your sword, turn off the grids and produce what the client has demanded, the design will fail and in turn you will fail. The bad design will always come back like Rocky and smash you right in the face.

I still feel there is no right answer, but all I can do is plead my case. This is the very definition of a catch-22 and this 800 pound gorilla shows no signs of going away. I get down on all fours and beg the client not to demand drop shadows and convince them that whitespace is a beautiful thing and is not to be confused with wasted space.

About the author

After several years as a corporate slave and servant to the public Brian Haught1 got a wild hair and went to college. Today he landed a position as Art Director for a local company where he oversees and implement the print and online advertising. He manages to do several freelance jobs a year and find time to play video games. You know the important stuff. All in all he is just a guy who likes design, art and anything “techy”.

Editor’s note

This post is one of the finalists of our guest author contest2. Over three weeks selected top-10-lists and discussion articles will be published. To rate the articles we’ll analyze their popularity, users activity, quality of backlinks, traffic and further data.


  1. 1 http://www.haughtpixels.com
  2. 2 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2008/07/17/write-a-guest-post-and-win-apple-macbook-air/

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  1. 1

    If you believe a treatment won’t cure your patient, will you sell it to him?

  2. 52

    When I tender for business from a prospective client, all of the design principles are discussed and, often, a draft design is used as part of the sales process. If you’ve won a contract without really talking about these things, then you probably will find yourself trying to convince people to do things properly (or compromising, or doing it their way) if you’ve followed a process, it’s less likely that these things will still be uncertain at such a late stage.

    If you do find yourself in the situation, then the professional process would be:
    a) Discuss your concerns with the client and explain the professional reasons behind each point. Make it clear how important each of your points are and what they affect. If it’s going to affect their search engine ranking, they’ll be pleased you mentioned it.
    b) Based on the outcome of this discussion, you’ll now be facing 1) doing things your way 2) doing things their way 3) compromising – you’ll have to decide whether your professional integrity can take 2 or 3! If you have to bow out, explain why and try not to burn any bridges.

  3. 103

    (ref 19,21 and 34) I am surprised by how some of you missed the point of the article. I don’t think he wanted to answer the question. I think he was posing a question for us as designers to ponder and think about. If his goal was to cause a big discussion and make us think then he did just that. Every designer at one time or another has had to deal with such a problem, and the answer depends on too many variables to really answer for evey client. That is evident in all the different responses. Good article.

  4. 154

    A good article, but I think it includes the hidden assumption that as a general rule the designer knows what’s good for the user and the client does not. For example, if you’re designing for a far-eastern market like Japan, what you think is pretty / good for the user probably is wrong.

  5. 205

    Interesting that those with negative comments are also those with a misunderstanding of the articles’ point, and even more interesting is the amount of improper punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and incomplete sentences contained in the critical responses. If you came to this article thinking you were going to finally discover the answer to a question that has been present since advertising came about, you already did not understand. The title is not “Who do I design for: Clients or Users?”

  6. 256

    Stickstone Design

    August 13, 2008 12:04 pm

    It’s your responsibility as an expert in the design industry to educate your clients so that they can make well informed decisions. Yes, THEY make the decisions at the end of the day. After all, they’re the ones holding all the Benjamins.

    On another note, I’d hardly call this a worthy article by way of comparison to the norm. Although, I’m surprised to see some of these replies!

  7. 307

    Everyone says they design for the user but that’s just everyone being self-righteous. You can advise and argue all you like, but at the end of the day the employer has the final say.

  8. 358

    I think most clients would understand the need for designing user-centric interfaces. But if I ever get into situation where I have to adhere to client completely, I use 80/20 principle here as well. 80% of my design goes for the client making him happy (hopefully) and 20% of design that is critical is always laid out with enough care that makes sure user was not forgotten for this design.

  9. 409

    ref 53 – it is obvious that the article has prompted a great debate: the example was miserable. you can not put on an equal footing designer and the client or the client may very well be the work itself.

  10. 460

    “the employer has the final say”… and the responsibility if the work has a negative return, who will be?

  11. 511

    In the end it all comes down to whether you need the job or not. If you’ve got clients backed up for months then you can afford to turn down the job – congratulations! If your trying to pay a mortgage and raise a family then you don’t really have much choice, politely explain your reasoning and try not to cringe when they tell you to “try it any way”.

    Some clients are great, some aren’t – that’s life.

    “convince them that whitespace is a beautiful thing and is not to be confused with wasted space.”

    If only it were that easy?

    Remember, “the client is always right”, incorrect at times, but always right.

  12. 562

    Once you get the power to say, you don’t have such problems.But how? How to let the client appreciate your work, believe in you,depend on you?May be we need to developing our own unique brand.

  13. 613

    I would go with USER…. if you satisfy the user’s need then obviously the client will also feel happy about it. Most decent clients will accept the design which satisfy the user’s need. End of the day both clients as well as designers will get benefits from users only.

  14. 664

    I design for Both “Clients” and “User”
    if client suggest…some thing which is not good ,

    I explain them this is the reason i don’t what this element like this…

    if he says no i need then to do like that way….

  15. 715

    Nicely put! Freelancers normally think that they design for themselves now that they freelance but that’t just an illusion.

  16. 766

    ref.61 – … then all that is taught about the draft chart is throw: good taste and innovation are no longer satisfied, imports only product on the ropes a mind unlikely.
    Moreover, the demand from many neglected, is: “Who do you design for”. The process of education designer who sees a certain compromise, devalues a little chart final product.
    We are so worried towards great idea. Because of money and complacency is not achieved anything, indeed, there away.
    Then we can close graphic and design schools: to learn these two simple rules just 5 minutes.

  17. 817

    this post demands one answer. Design for the user. Make suggestions but do not force the user into a certain design. If the user makes a bad decision on design, he or she will know by the client’s output. Then maybe the user will follow your suggestion(s) next time.

  18. 868

    Marketing is an impure art, design is an pure art. At least they should be shown separately. Do not exist in the same man (or woman).

  19. 919

    ref.67 – Right. Design is a pure art, but negligible. No solution. That’s all.
    We have been very good, in the past. Congratulations.

  20. 970

    I think that by definition the job is to perform the service that a client is paying for.

    It’s not a case of designing either for the client or for the user. The service is enabling the client to more effectively communicate their message to their audience.

    Fortunately by hiring a designer, the client has already admitted they need help and will be open to using your expertise – provided that you don’t mismanage them, of course. People skills not design skills is the root of the problem raised in this post.

    Don’t agree? well that’s OK. As a freelance you can always tell them to go to hell right?

  21. 1021

    For both… The design needs to fit with the client. It’s his image. And design to make the user feel happy..

  22. 1072

    I think this guy might get the prize ;)
    @ Brian Haught – All the very best. I am waiting for my article…

  23. 1123

    I think that what is not clear is the definition of art director and designer.

  24. 1174

    … and convince them that whitespace is a beautiful thing and is not to be confused with wasted space.

    Amen for that brother….

  25. 1225

    All you can do really is persuade them bit by bit, showing exapmles of what works and why.
    It’s a tough job, but it’s our job!

  26. 1276

    Then you are no longer a designer but an art director, freelance or not. The title of Brian Haught’s article then it should be “For those who make the art director?”

  27. 1327

    It’s also important to remember that sometimes you won’t have a choice in the matter, if the client’s website has to be designed to a certain brand, it may conflict in some ways, which I’ve found out recently.

  28. 1378

    This is one of the ways to avoid addressing this issue, I believed it was a defect exclusively Italian. you’re one of them?

  29. 1429

    Suddenly the client sends you a sketch of a horrible monstrosity of a design so unholy your eyes begin to burn.

    Been there many times. Usually though, the client’s suggestions are not to be taken literally. Try to switch to their point of view to see what their sketch is supposed to mean.

    Example: when the client demands that his images open in a pop-up, show him a lightbox effect, he’ll never mention pop-ups again. :-)

    When a client scribbles his ideas on a piece of paper he doesn’t know all the cool things we know … that’s why he hires us. Just don’t go overboard and lose focus on the client’s vision.

  30. 1480

    I manage the clients design expectations. They are looking to me and paying me a lot of money for my professional design/marketing skills. Then I design for the clients project goals which usually end up aligning with the target audience. I think a lot of Web Professionals forget that they are not just designers or programmers…but marketing consultants. Otherwise we’re just geeking out or making pretty pictures and not giving the client their money’s worth.

  31. 1531

    Design for: clients and users?
    there is a third one, design for: designers.

    a lot of developers create their design to please design gurus or just for portfolios sake. They complicate things, they almost forgot that Clients and Users most of the time dont review the source code or the css-code or whatever source.

    hey, if im a shopper, i would’nt click view source just to buy and shop. so why design for designers as priority? well to developers its not about how good you are in css code or scripting. but how you target your audience well and meet your goals.

  32. 1582

    A wise person once told me that in such a situation, after having exhausted diplomacy, that the customer is always right. You don’t have to put your name on it, though…

  33. 1633

    ref.80 – you are a geek: you do not know the difference between designer and art director.

    ref.81 – this is cleverness, cunning, which in Italy also call ‘paraculaggine': in dead periods we create what we like most, perhaps with changes, alternatives, we also waste. Then, depending on the case, we offer this works.

    ref.82 – To teach, everyone is wise then to put into practice …

  34. 1684

    actually, when this circumstances somes, we just follow the client specification…. but, just try to make it user friendly as much as possible.

    I myself experience this situation multiple times. I really hate the design after the project is complete… what to say? = “customer is always right” … :)

  35. 1735

    I think in some cases it’s best to design for both, but keeping the user in mind is always key and you also need to keep the client happy since they’re after all financing the project. Then there are times where you get the client who is well “stubborn” for lack of a better word and like izwan00 stated above, you may end up disliking your work on that project for one reason or another.

  36. 1786

    There is a theory our lecturer gave us when we asked him a similar question. He said educate your client and tell him/her what looks good and how it would be better for the audience /user.. This really works. We constantly tell our clients how things would look good, would function better in view of the audience/user. I understand its hard, but don’t be disheartened. Educate your client.

    All the best

  37. 1837

    a ‘good’ designer doesn’t have those questions…sounds a little bit cocky, sorry, but in my mind this has no relevance at all



  38. 1888

    Number 87…..what? You have never had a client, you will never make it as a freelance designer without questions. It has no relevance becuase you have no real world experience. Sorry, just call it like it is.

  39. 1939

    Is it me or are these articles getting shorter

  40. 1990

    Just say NO! It’s much easyer.

  41. 2041

    Sorry dm0, you’re wrong. Picture it this way; your a client, let’s say a single middle aged man with no kids, and you own a children’s book store. You want to sell books to parents and their children.

    As a single, middle-aged man with no kids, you may not like balloons, primary colors and cute fuzzy animals. Your personal taste might be lean more towards black and white, minimal, Swiss design. But if you force your designer to use that as the direction for your kids book store advertising/signage/website, you aren’t going to sell many books to children and parents.

    Clients are almost never users.

  42. 2092

    I figured, the client knows his target audience well enough to have an implemented design done; however some dont…well ALOT dont.

    Depending on the client and what it is theyre trying to promote or execute, depends on the leniency of the newly designed themes, usually theyre pretty convincible to agree to disagree and go with the more feasible approach (you, the designer) have made, as it can be argued that your design can be efficiently executed, manageable and friendly to the people who visit the site and if the client needs to make theyre own changes.

  43. 2143

    An analogy…
    (obviously if you’re not a doctor)

    Would you tell your doctor HOW to heal you when you are sick, because that’s the way you say you should be cured?


    Let the man do his job, he’s the one who knows about medicine.
    Of course he has to listen to your symptoms, but he is the one taking the appropiate decisions.

    I don’t agree with this article.


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