How To Get Sign-Off For Your Designs

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“How did you do that?” My colleague Leigh sounded impressed. He had been working with a problem client for weeks trying to get design approval. Then I came along and was able to get signed-off in a single conference call. “Can you teach me how you did that?” he asked. I mumbled something about years of experience, but the truth was I didn’t have a clue. It just seems I can find design approval easier than most.

As I thought about it I realised there are actually quite a lot of things that have become second nature for me over the years. But I have learnt the hard way through many painful projects. Unfortunately because I started designing websites back in 1994 there was nobody around to teach me this stuff. I wish somebody could have just shown me how to avoid all of those endless revisions. Hopefully some of the advice I share with you here can help you avoid years of pain and suffering.

My first piece of advice focuses on the old adage — prevention is better than cure.

Prevention Is Better Than Cure

In our enthusiasm to start a project we often don’t take the time to prepare the client. For many clients this will be their first web project. So they may not really understand what that involves or what their role is.

Headscape factsheet about design
At our company, we pre-empt common issues and prepare the client by giving them a PDF factsheet about working with designers1.

So before you leap into your next project, let me recommend you complete the following steps:

  • Educate the client about their role
    Take the time to explain to the client what you expect from them. I always make the point of telling our clients to focus on problems, not solutions. I encourage them to avoid making design suggestions, but rather to point out why they feel a design is wrong. The job then falls onto us to come up with the right solution for their problem.
  • Take the client through a process
    Because many clients are not familiar with the Web design process, take the time to explain it. This has two benefits. When people are in unfamiliar territory they attempt to take control. This leads to micromanagement. By explaining your process you reassure them, giving them confidence. Second, explaining your process demonstrates you are the expert and puts you in the driver’s seat.
  • Pre-empt common issues
    We all know there are certain issues that always come up. Things like “make my logo bigger2“, “can we use comic sans?3” or “put everything above the fold4” have become standing jokes in the Web design community. Why then would we not pre-empt these issues? By talking about them upfront it makes it much harder for the client to mention them later. After all, none of us likes to be the person who is predictable, making the ‘dumb’ request.

WeeNudge.com5
WeeNudge6 is a superb site for pre-empting common issues and educating your clients about the Web.

Even once your project is up and running prevention can still be better than curing. For example, when you complete a design and show it to the client you can do a lot to prevent problems from coming up.

First, you should always present the design. This is your chance to justify your approach. Refer back to previously agreed upon work. If you have used moodboards, point out how the design draws on them. The same is true for wireframes, personas or any other elements the client has signed off on. It’s hard for the client to reject a design built on elements they have already agreed upon. You must never hand over a design without explanation.

Imaginary email asking the client to common on a design
Never simply send a design to a client asking them what they think. Take the time to present the design and ask for specific feedback.

Secondly, be aware the client may show the design around. This is problematic. Although you may have been careful to explain the decision making process to the client, others will not have this background information. This inevitably means the third parties will fallback on personal opinion and potentially sway the client in the wrong direction.

The solution to this problem is not to present your design as either a static image or as a final webpage. Instead, record a short video talking the client through the design. This video can then be passed on to whoever the client wishes to show. That way whoever views it will get all the information they require to provide educated feedback.

Finally, control the kind of feedback you receive. Never ask a client what they think of the design. Ask them instead how they believe their users will react to the design or whether it meets their business objectives. You can even go as far as asking them whether the design reflects the signed-off moodboards or wireframes. If you can get them saying yes to these questions they will realize that even if they personally dislike the design it is still the right solution.

Of course, when I was able to get the design signed-off on Leigh’s project, I hadn’t had a chance to lay down any of this groundwork. So what other factors came into play that made me successful where he had failed? One was my attitude going into the discussion.

Get Your Attitude Right

Leigh had been trying to get design sign-off for weeks. Both he and the client were frustrated. Battle lines had been drawn despite the fact both sides wanted the project completed.

This is a common problem. We start to see our clients as the enemy. In fact, there are many cases where bad past experience puts us on the defense from the outset. At every turn we start to build into our controls the limitations for the number of iterations and endeavors of the client’s influence. We even moan to one another how life would be better without clients.

Cartoon of an angry designer portrayed as a devil
Because of bad past experiences with clients we can often get off on the wrong foot with new clients.

It’s not surprising that design sign-off becomes a battle. We are looking for a fight even before we begin. It’s vitally important that we change this mindset and see every new client relationship as an exciting opportunity and not as a potential point of conflict.

When dealing with Leigh’s client, I had the advantage of not being on the defensive. My ego had not been bruised by rejection. You need to leave your ego at the door. Often it is worth picking your battles and letting the client win from time to time. This helps them feel their contribution is worthwhile and valued. It is when the client feels ignored or isolated from the process that conflict arises.

By getting your own attitude right, this goes a long way to establishing a good relationship with the client. This is key to successful design sign-off.

Get The Relationship Right

We would love to deny that the client is an intrinsic part of the Web design process. However, you can be the best Web designer in the world, but if the client isn’t on your side, you are wasting your time and ultimately the project will cost you money.

In theory we should all be experts in establishing good relationships with our clients. After all, we pride ourselves on empathizing with users and understanding their motivation and needs. We should then be able to apply these same skills to our clients. If we then understand their needs and motivations, it is much easier to establish a good relationship.

Working closely with them helps. The temptation is to hold the client at arm’s length and minimize their involvement in the project. However, if you want to get the client on board, you are better off working with them collaboratively. This means they will feel a sense of ownership over the design, and are more likely to sign off on it.

The team at Headscape in a wireframing session
We find wireframing with the client is an excellent way of involving them in the process and building a better working relationship.

The other advantage of collaboration is that it makes the client feel important. It provides them with a sense of purpose in the relationship rather than just being a spare part to rubber stamp your decisions. I tell clients that it is their site and their decision, I am simply there to give advice on the best practice. This allows them the sense of control that is so important.

“But what if they make silly decisions?” you may ask. Often they will listen to you simply because you aren’t arguing with them. However when they still pursue an unwise course of action, I do not allow things to descend into a fight. Instead I make my position clear and leave the decision over to them. I have also been known to use phrases like “that is a brave decision” or “that’s an unusual approach” which is a less confrontational way of telling them they are being dumb.

Giving the client a sense of control doesn’t mean you are a doormat. In fact, I don’t believe clients want that. They want you to control the process.

Take Control

Although clients want to feel involved and have a sense of control, they don’t want to run the show. Most clients only interfere in the process when they feel you are out of your depth. It is important that we always appear to be the authority in the project.

I think this is the primary reason I managed to get sign-off on Leigh’s project. On our conference call I took control. I was careful not to be arrogant or push the client out, but it was clear I was in charge of the process. I achieved this using the following techniques:

  • I was confident
    Sounding confident can often be half the battle. Listen to the client and make a recommendation. Know what you think and communicate it confidently. If you sound like an expert people will treat you as one. However, be careful not to come across as arrogant. Just know your mind.
  • I was willing to challenge
    When a client asks for something you disagree with, say so. That said, don’t immediately jump in with why it is wrong. Instead ask the client why they want to take a particular approach. Often the client hasn’t really thought things through and a few well placed questions will help them to conclude it isn’t sensible. Also by asking questions you demonstrate you have thought things through in a lot more depth than they have.
  • I referred to third party material
    A great way of demonstrating your expertise and control of the situation is by referring to third party material. Stats, quotes from other experts and references to case studies go a long way. Show that you know your stuff and that you have solved these problems before.
  • I kept us moving forward
    Design sign-off can be full of endless discussion and navel gazing. The more a client thinks about a design the more likely they are to second guess your decisions. Keep the momentum going by focusing on the deadline and the fact that design can always be tweaked once it goes live.

http://www.useit.com/alertbox/7
Clients will often take notice of research carried out by people like Jakob Nielsen over your own opinion.

By setting your ego aside, establishing a good relationship and taking control of the process you can usually get the client to sign-off on a design. However, like all things in life, no approach is full proof. In such cases I have a couple of fallback positions which have been known to work.

What To Do If A Client Digs In Their Heels?

Some clients can be very dogmatic and no amount of careful management can lead them down the right road. In such situations I use three techniques in the following order:

  • Suggest testing
    If the client wants one thing and you recommend another, suggest testing both approaches with real users. It’s hard to say no when services like verifyapp.com8 are so cheap. Often clients will give in at this point because they don’t wish to be proved wrong.
  • Ask to have your name removed from the project
    Often client’s don’t believe that a change they are suggesting is really that bad a thing. They just think we are being overly precious. One way to show how serious you are about your concerns is to say that if the clients’ changes are implemented you would like your involvement with the project to be kept secret. As designers are normally so keen to promote their work, this makes a client realize how unhappy you are.
  • Give the client what he or she wants
    It is important to remember at the end of the day that it is the client’s website, not yours. I know that some people advocate walking away from a project before compromising their ‘standards’. However, personally I think that is unprofessional in all but the most extreme cases. If a client is really insistent and unwilling to listen to reason I will deliver the site to the exact specifications they requested.

verifyapp.com9
Tools like verifyapp10 makes it very easy to quickly test design. This can be a great way of diffusing disagreements.

I imagine this post will generate mixed reactions. Some of what I have said here seems to be manipulative. I believe it is simply nudging the client in the right direction to give them what they ultimately want — a great website.

Other things won’t sit well with some designers. Suggesting you give the client what they want or letting them win even some battles might smack too much of compromise. Nevertheless, in my opinion this is what a collaborative relationship is about.

However, I am interested to hear your approaches. Where do you draw the line between what you believe is right and what the client wants? What techniques do you use for nudging the client in the right direction? Do you set limits on revisions or the client’s involvement in the process? Let me know in the comments.

(jvb) (il)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://boagworld.com/business-strategy/10-tips-for-ensuring-a-better-site-design/
  2. 2 http://www.makemylogobiggercream.com/
  3. 3 http://www.comicsanscriminal.com/
  4. 4 http://weenudge.com/thefold/
  5. 5 http://weenudge.com/
  6. 6 http://weenudge.com/
  7. 7 http://www.useit.com/alertbox/
  8. 8 http://verifyapp.com
  9. 9 http://verifyapp.com/
  10. 10 http://verifyapp.com

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Paul Boag has been working with the web since 1994. He is now co-founder of the web design agency Headscape, where he works closely with clients to establish their web strategy. Paul is a prolific writer having written the Website Owners Manual, Building Websites for Return on Investment, Client Centric Web Design, Digital Adaptation and numerous articles for publications such as .net magazine, Smashing Magazine and the Web Designers Depot. Paul also speaks extensively on various aspects of web design both at conferences across the world and on his award winning Web design podcast boagworld.

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  1. 1

    We all use consciously or unconsciously some or all of these technics.
    The problem mostly remains being in the mood for this kind of games. Hard sometimes not to loose it !
    Yet, you don’t talk about the possibility to fire a client.

    • 2
      • 3

        Very interesting… He removed this article. I’m not sure why. Perhaps he wanted to rewrite it. Will have to investigate.

        Also I realized (later on) that Edouard must have meant that Paul does not discuss firing the client. Paul, if you’re reading this, perhaps you could elaborate on that… I’ve read other designers take on firing the client but I think it’s still good to get as many perspectives on this as possible. Maybe you don’t even put yourself in the position to fire the client, but if you had to, why would you do it or what would you do to avoid it?

  2. 4

    Tomáš Kapler

    May 6, 2011 2:27 am

    For me the crucial part is “Give the client what he or she wants” – i do not. If a client is e.g. a carpenteer and I’m (or my employee) is a profesional graphic designer, the client will not tell him, that the graphic design must be different. I do not tell him, that he must redo his carpets too. My scenario
    1. i ask for the crucial things – who are their customers, what are their main products they want to promote, what are they corporate colors etc.
    2. i give them my opinion what should be on the web and why and then combine it with their opinions
    3. i create easy and fast wireframe, where they can discusse anything
    4. i create a first draft.
    5. They may want changes, but not against things negotiated in previous points. This they put on the list
    5. i do the changes, send it to them
    6. if they want anything else, they pay extra. If they do not want it? I do not care (it happens maybe 1 of 100)
    they are informed about on first meeting and on the agreement.

  3. 7

    Wow! This is really helpful. It is very important to educate your clients. I find that addressing the client’s role from the beginning is good practice and laying out the steps of the job process from the start reduces the stress on your work outside of the design process.

    Thanks!

  4. 8

    Great advice. Thanks.

  5. 9

    Tnx for this usefull blogpost!

  6. 10

    Creative people are usually in conflict with marketers / clients who’s primary concern is ROI. Clients usually cant see the long-term impact a design element might play, which is why I strongly agree with Paul on subjects of open communication and confidence in your proposed solution. Clients usually think their existing customers are going to be scared by the change and it will impact their revenue. Which might be the case… in the short-term.

    Solution, compromise: try to work in clients changes in the design, not all of them naturally, but stop and think. Maybe what they are proposing actually might bring value to a design if you implement it correctly. Ask them what are they trying to accomplish by the change they are requesting … (circle back to communication & explanations)

    My way of dealing with clients was to start working in an in-house team :)

  7. 11

    Some interesting advice, although making a video walk through does seem a bit like overkill. I mean who really has the time to do that when you have multiple projects.

    I think if the client really wants something and its not unreasonable then I see know problem with making them happy. They are paying after all. Only in extreme circumstances would you refuse to.

    • 12

      I’ve actually taken the video walk-through approach with a client of mine, and it turned out splendidly. Just used Jing and screenshots of my workflow while I talked through it, and the client loved it. Have also seen the difference it makes when the process is explained before unveiling the design, whether in a video or in a meeting.

  8. 13

    What a great post Paul! It’s good to see that some of the points you bring up have become a regular part of my project closing tool set but even better to see some techniques and approaches that I am unfamiliar with but agree with.

    I am on the same page with in some cases just giving the client what they want. I think designers who claim they never give into client demands that are driven by poor decisions come off as arrogant and must have plenty of money in savings. I have elaborated on this topic in recently (http://bit.ly/m7VJkq).

    I am curious as to how you approach the method you explained for pre-empting common issues such as placing everything above the fold. I have gone the route of educating clients through third party research before but always feel like I sound like an ass. Do you have a method for presenting this research to clients? What if it comes up after the beginning stages of a project?

  9. 14

    I have tried using Jacob Nielsen’s name many times – as soon as a client sees his site, they totally discredit whatever his stats say. They don’t want a site that looks like that, and won’t listen to his opinions. Useless.

  10. 15

    Chris Raymond

    May 6, 2011 6:05 am

    @Spinneret re: Nielsen. Right on!

    Paul, I agree with your arguments. I was esp. responding to your dissection of why clients micromanage: They are in unfamiliar territory and don’t want to feel out of control.

    I finally realized that was an issue with an “internal client” and once I brought her into the early brainstorming stage and delineated the design process, she has actually become the biggest promoter of the process and seeks out my judgments about design issues.

    • 16

      Chris, you make a great point about bringing the client into the design process. Have any of you ever read Dale Carnegie’s, How to Win Friends and Influence People? Well I can say that the techniques learned in that book can be applied and work wonders when dealing with clients, especially those who are stubborn. A couple of key lessons from that book include, Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain. Give people a feeling of importance. and Arouse in the other person an eager want. Even just following these three steps can be very helpful. It’s certainly worth a try in any case. I would encourage all designers to read that book as not only will it make client relations more easy but it will also make all relations with anyone easier. Personally, I’ve gained more friends, clients, and referrals in the past year by applying the tenets of that book then at any other time before that. I hope you find the same success. Cheers!

      • 17

        I have read this book. I give it a re read every couple months also and it has been a tremendous help for both my career and my personal life. Honestly I do not think I would even have my job that I have if I did not apply this book in my original meeting.

        When ever I talk to my clients through either email, in person, or over the phone I always follow the rules outlined in this book and it has helped tremendously.

        It usually works wonders with the result being I get to produce quality work and they receive quality work. There is the odd occasion where the client won’t see reason so I just give them what they want.

        I also recommend anyone who has to deal with people to read this book. At the very least there is a quite a few little interesting stories inside and it is a rather easy read =)

  11. 18

    Excellent advice. The bottom line is working with your clients is key to a successful business. I’m not a one-off designer. I like building relationships with my clients that remain over time, why? People are friends with people like themselves. A lot my clients have friends that also run small businesses or non-profits (my target markets). If I make my clients happy, they will be more likely to refer me.

    I love the idea of using video to present the design. Most of my clients are local and I present the design in a strategy meeting. I do however have a few clients that are not local and using video to present nips that issue in the bud (thanks for that piece of advice)!

    It’s not about compromising your design, it’s about compromising your ego (hard to do I know). My nature is to help my clients business succeed the suggestions in this article are great points to “nudge them in the right direction”.

  12. 19

    Thank you for sharing this article. I’ve always had problems getting sign-off for projects, I believe the advice and tips in this article will be a great asset to me for future projects. I don’t work with clients externally, but within my company, and I believe the advice is just as beneficial. Thanks again.

  13. 20

    Interesting article. I was actually hoping you would have a couple recommendations of online software to help with this issue (some type of online signoff or something).

  14. 21

    I really loved this article. Thanks so much for taking the time to write it and share your resources.
    I haven’t ever had a huge issue getting a client to sign off on a design. I’ve made a few revisions, but I’ve never had to scrap. I think it’s because I do spend the time going over everything with them, being direct and telling them the WHY behind the design. Most people are really receptive when you’re direct and explaining exactly what you did and why you did it. Not only does it validate your design choices, but it makes you a true expert in their eyes.
    If anyone says; “who has time to explain this stuff”, please don’t be in business. That’s absolutely ridiculous. Your customers are the reason you get to sit on your expensive laptop and design all day and have a gorgeous apartment and live the life you do. Without them, you’re an overqualified overeducated shirt folded at Macys. If you don’t treat them like gold, you don’t deserve to be working with them.
    Also, go out of your way to learn about marketing. Design is great, but useless if no one sees it and marketing is what is going to drive people to your gorgeous design. Design and marketing shouldn’t fight about anything – they should work together to make sure ALL the needs are met. People aren’t plunking down 5k on a website to let it sit there and be pretty. They need to make money off of it, or the investment is wasted.

    • 22

      Spot on Crystal!

      I think that the best designers are the ones that are able to speak the common language of the client and design. The client knows their company and business at best. Unlocking this info will provide you with a very valuable ally in your design process. Marketing is no rocket science and such is design.

  15. 23

    Great article!

    Esp like this “I always make the point of telling our clients to focus on problems, not solutions. I encourage them to avoid making design suggestions, but rather to point out why they feel a design is wrong. The job then falls onto us to come up with the right solution for their problem.”

    Making sure the client understands my role and their role is key.

  16. 24

    Great article, Paul!

    I am a Technical Illustrator, but I find I deal with much of the very same issues with my clients for sign-offs. It’s amazing what we can learn over a short period of time simply by dealing with a mixture of good and bad clients.

  17. 25

    Paul,

    This is a great article and I thank you for sharing it with all of us. It’s really common sense but often times in dealing with overbearing clients, the emotional factor can supersede common sense and create issues. An ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure. Thanks again!!

  18. 26

    Tnx for article i used some advices .. “Ask to have your name removed from the project” this helps moastly

  19. 27

    The big takeaway there for me is asking to have my name removed from the project. What I plan to do is quote the project and give a discount *at my discretion* for having my link in the footer. I’ll write that into my contracts immediately.

  20. 28

    amazing post, dealing with clients is not easy, I’ll use some of the tips detailed here. :)

  21. 29

    A collaboration implies both parties are bringing comparable expertise to the task at hand. That’s never the case.

    If I had heart surgery, I would not be ‘collaborating’ with the surgeon. If I had to fix my car engine, I would not be ‘collaborating’ with the mechanic. etc.

    You are the expert. Never de-value your mastery of your craft! That’s what they’re paying you for.

    Once you open that pandora’s box with the client. It will never close.

    • 30

      I don’t think collaboration should be misconstrued as teaching the client to become a designer, merely to combine the designers expertise in design with the clients subject matter expertise.

  22. 31

    Designers often make the mistake of comparing their profession to car mechanics, plumbing, dentistry, etc.
    When you need something fixed – you get someone who seems to have the proper expertise to do the job, you pay him/her to get it done and that’s it. If it’s fixed you’re happy and you probably won’t give the thing much thought after that.
    With anything that has to do with appearance, which all actually fall under the broad category of design – clothing, hairstyle, home decoration, website – things work very differently. As opposed to your new car radiator, your fixed leaky faucet, or the crown placed on one of your molars – your logo, website, furniture, hair style (including facial hair), and the pictures you choose to hang on your wall – are all statements you’re making about yourself. Whether it is true or not – the notion is that these things define who you are.
    That is the difference and that is the only reason why a designer-client relationship is much more complex than a plumber-client relationship.
    Ask any hair-stylist about having to satisfy picky clients….. I’m sure they will have lots to gripe about. And they in fact have an advantage over us web designers – cuz once the hair is cut, it’s cut :)

  23. 32

    Thanks, I found this refreshing and helpful. Good Work.

  24. 33

    Great post! Thanks

  25. 34

    Thanks so much, I deal with much of the very same issues with my clients for sign-offs

    Kumar

  26. 35

    Another great article Paul! I agree with all the points wholeheartedly, I think the main stumbling block to getting sign off is
    1. The designer’s ego
    2. Lack of personable communication skills

  27. 36

    @the Nielsen remark

    Yeah, it’s always crap when someone states what his scientifically backed research says, when it does not fit your subjective opinions :-)

  28. 37

    Great article, sometimes it’s really necessary for us designers to take control, sometimes clients have no idea what they want.

    Lately, we’ve also been using a nice tool to help us organize our designs and improve the draft-feedback-approval, some of you guys might want to check it out: http://designsvn.com, it’s helped us quite a bit over at my studio.

  29. 38

    Right thing at the right time!!
    Just been through a hectic client recently who’s buzzing with changes all the time.

    He gets on my nerves when he decides to change the tiny tidbits instead of focusing on completing the work (in this case, we’d already crossed the deadline, all credits to his energetic approach).

    When starting the project and after the preview of the suggested design, he insisted on sitting by my side and suggest me each and everything regarding the design. I coolly persuaded him that this would cause a hindrance in my designing process and he be patient about it. When I was still working on the changes he suggested, he sent me big bunch of screenshots captured from various sites similar to his, suggesting the site elements be made that way!

    And honestly that was enough for my head to go spinning, I don’t why but I gave up with him and designed with him sitting by my side and we completed the layout!!

    And as the development process started to came to a conclusion, he suddenly decided to dump all the things and just show the homepage with a big video and other video thumbnails!!

    And that was not enough, the next morning he calls me and says “the site looks dark, let’s use other colors like green, red and make it vibrant (the site is in white with blue and black header footer)

    May be this might be my lack of experience, but he is the most hectic client I’ve ever dealt with and had to give up to him! You know, I tried the “prevention is better than cure” but my man (client) was an exception!

    Anyways, we are still going through discussions, and this article has a lot of things that can be helpful (I’ve done most of them though). Thanks anyways!

    • 39

      Dear Kanchan, This is a typical example of being micromanaged by your client. I do not allow this and preempt this by explaining to my clients the left and right brain functions. Left brain is used during communication and information gathering. Right brain is creative and processes information. This is why it is impossible to design and problem solve with the client sitting next to you. It would require you to switch constantly from right to left brain, which is near impossible to do and causes a feeling of agitation. The powerful right brain’s intuitive creativity and solution finding function best when we are completely relaxed and “zoned out” from the rest of the world and are able to focus unencumbered on the process. Einstein had his “Eureka” (I have found it!) revelation whilst relaxing in the bath!

  30. 41

    Great Article!

  31. 42

    As a project manager in a web design studio, I wholeheartedly agree with this post! Both designers and clients can get precious about their projects, and it is our job (in the studio) to guide the customer to the best result but also give them what they want. We need to remember that they are paying us for a service, not a commissioned piece of art!

  32. 43

    I think through this article, you have given simple solutions to every day problems. I love the part wherein you talk about the right attitude and the right approach needed when engaging clients in conversations. Also, notable is the idea of “presenting” the creative to the client by giving them the rationale behind the design…

    I know following these rules may not be easy for most creative people, but rest assured, I know it will be worth it..:-)

    Thanks for the invaluable insights and tips.

  33. 44

    Very nice article :)

  34. 45

    These are similar principles I apply as an Interior Designer.
    My biggest lesson was to leave my ego at the door. Pay attention and identify the gaps in the information, then ask the right questions. Clients don’t always think of everything and as a result briefs are often incomplete. Your questions will demonstrate your experience and understanding and make your client more comfortable with you and part of the process. Talk to your clients, not at them, and be a great listener. This will enable you later to communicate the sound reasoning that went into your design.

    One of the biggest frustrations designers face is the often uninformed opinion of others our clients seek. I discourage this at first meeting by explaining that I pay full attention to all needs, from which a comprehensive and integrated solution is developed, with all aspects forming an integral part of the whole. Others who are not part of the process lack the thorough analysis of the client’s needs or the intricacies of the design solution and tend to give fragmented input with limited attention paid. I make sure that my clients know that only their opinions and mine matter.

  35. 46

    Really enjoyed your post … lots of good reminders. Sounds like you, Paul, have a quality that is not that easy to replicate. Back when I was in the printing industry, we used to have a guy that we called in to deal with the toughest of clients. We called him the “fireman”. He was a technical guy, not sales, and very knowledgeable. Sometimes he wasn’t all that personable, but he had an ineffable something. On more than one occasion, I heard clients after the meeting saying, “I don’t know why I agreed with him. I didn’t even like him.”

    But if one is not a “fireman” (I’m not), I find it helps to remind myself that while I’m in expert in my field, the client is an expert in theirs, and that has to be respected. There’s always a possibility that they might be right.

  36. 47

    Maria Malidaki

    May 9, 2011 5:40 am

    Wonderful pieces of advice! :)
    Not much of a feedback, I know, but I couldn’t add anything else than enthusiasm for this “client education” related article!

  37. 48

    Very relevant post, especially when dealing with larger projects/corporates. Having had a couple “nightmare” clients, I coulda done with this insight. Clients need to know how, why & when decisions are being made within the design and user experience. Yes, we may be the experts but – “at the end of the day that it is the client’s website, not yours. ” Agreed – Arrogant designers are the epitome of unprofessionalism. Meet the clients needs together with the users needs, then make it pretty.

  38. 49

    Great post.
    thanks

  39. 50

    I think using the video description is a brilliant idea. I’ll have to try that next time.

  40. 51

    Ha, I like how you use your own technique at the end of this article for the readers. I think if your readers pay attentions to your closing that they would not consider your post as manipulative, but rather as promoting self-awareness. I completely agree. This is some great advice that I will be adopting with my own clients. Thanks for the resources as well!

  41. 52

    Great post Paul. I recently had a client want to persue a navigation that was unwise. I let them know my concerns, but they were persistent in their vision. After the site went live there was very little buy-in and the company is now working with a different firm to get back on track. I often wonder if they had listened to our advice, if they would be in a different position with their site now. I will be taking these tips and applying them in future situations – very helpful! Thank you.

  42. 53

    Very much helpful for me , I will be taking these tips and applying them in future situations specially on “Get The Relationship Right” and “Take Control” ..

    Thanks Paul ..

  43. 54

    Foothill Web Design

    May 10, 2011 4:51 am

    Thanks for a great article. As a new Web designer, I thought it was just me. In an effort to please the client, we give the client too much control of the process. The phrase “enough rope to hang himself” comes to mind!

    Coming from the sales world I’d say the customer was poorly qualified. The customer doesn’t really know what he wants. I had one client who changed the name of his business twice during the development process. This is not a problem unless it happens after we’ve given the client a quote, and now must give the client the bad news: he’s over budget.

    One thing that clients fail to realize is that I’ve pretty much mapped out the process already. Although I do allow for changes (make that corrections) at the end, I don’t budget for major revisions. Unfortunately some clients feel that a new website is their personal cruise line, and they can just go around and around in circles at the developer’s expense.

  44. 55

    Great post, especially since clients vary greatly in experience in this process (of working with a design firm or agency). BTW, love your podcast, glad you’re back online with it.

  45. 56

    thanks. good article.
    I know and use some of your practice already. Clients are case by case.

  46. 57

    Hi Paul,

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge once again.

    Really liked the suggestion of video presentation instead of say a pdf file with a lengthy explanation, you got me thinking about adding video explanation into a pdf file now.

    Give the client what he or she wants? hmm I can see where you are coming, but is it true? Yes the client is paying the bills but is it their site or their customers/clients?

    If/when it comes to this situation I like to remind the client that its about users, the actual people who will visit the site, the people who we are building the site for, not personal preferences of what we think is “good”, so no, we cant have a photo of your pug dog in a bee suit sitting on the counter of your jewellery shop.

  47. 58

    I’d say I agree with you on all points really, including the “if all else fails, give the client what they want”. Emphasis on “If all else fails” though.

    I’ve learned that the very first thing you do, that makes ALL the difference in whether it ends up being a “give the client what they want” job, or “creating the perfect solution for their needs” job, is demanding respect from the very beginning, and keeping it. If the client respects your expertise, they will NOT question it. End of story really.

    Ways to demand respect lie mainly in the way you conduct your business with them; i.e. body language, spoken language, attitude, reliability and tardiness, and a solid portfolio that ensures they are aware of your capabilities as a designer. There cannot be any doubt in their mind that you know what you are doing.

    But, another big thing is the way you interpret what they want. Usually they will make a suggestion that is pretty bad, but if you read between the lines, you will find that when they, for instance, say “make my logo bigger” they really want to ensure their brand is easily distinguishable, and that it won’t get lost in the message of the project. There are ways to achieve this, other than literally making the logo bigger.

    Just my 2c :)

  48. 59

    As a veteran web dev of 15 years, I cannot disagree with a single thing you’ve said here. You told it like it is and anyone reading this post should take your excellent suggestions. This is how I run my business.

  49. 60

    Brilliantly articulated. Thanks for a wonderful article.

  50. 61

    Brilliant, brilliant post.

    Question for everybody:

    What about, client needs website, but doesnt have some corporate identity or even a logo?

    I see major problem there. Once you agree with this project and create some website, you still actually designing the company identity by the colors, style and design concept which can by used anywhere else.

    Very common with artists and start-up companies with limited budget.

    How to deal with this? Dont take the job or could there be another way?

  51. 62

    It’s not uncommon for a web designer/developer to be called upon for logo and content development. You either gain those skills or make sure you’ve got people you can call on to do so.

    I believe it was another Carnegie book that spoke of the ‘Master Mind’. You don’t have to know or do it all yourself, gather a group of experts around you and tap THEIR expertise.

  52. 63

    Great advice – I will definitely revisit your helpful info.

  53. 64

    Varun Sudhakar

    May 13, 2011 5:22 am

    really nice article Paul… thanks for sharing.. waiting for more posts :)

  54. 65

    I am currently a student and aspiring graphic designer and I would like to thank you for this insight; I will remember your advice and take it into action once my career takes off.

    Thanks

  55. 66

    Thanks Boag for the hard work of putting this together.

    I was not familiar with Moodboards and thanks a tonne for exposing the concept to people like me. Moodboards are an excellent resource specially when dealing with customers. You have made life easier.

    Continue the good work of sharing information.

  56. 67

    Hello there – I must say, I am happy with your website. I had no problems navigating via all of the tabs and the info was very simple to access. I discovered what I wanted in no time at all. Pretty awesome.

  57. 68

    Great article Paul; I, too have had to learn these things the hard way and I wish it could have been as easy as reading this article. On the other hand, lessons personally suffered through stick. I’m in a bit of an unlucky situation, trying to find work for my portfolio. Most of these clients really can’t pay anywhere near enough to warrant proper work, but I still try my best. It is terribly frustrating then to still run into people who can be very hard to sway. Taking my name off the project is obviously not a good idea, but carefully educating the client – which I’ve championed for quite a while now – seems overkill in the scope of these projects. Nevertheless, it has to absolutely be done and I thank you for reminding me to suck up and put in the extra effort.

  58. 69

    Who defines “the right road”?

  59. 70

    Well done Paul, you have definitely hit the nail on the head with all your points. I think the key to your article and something that I fully believe in is managing expectation. Most of the time clients expectations are founded on nothing more than assumptions. It is our job to educate them, lead them and empower them with the right skills to make thoughtful decisions. I have found the following steps to be crucial in delivering a successful project…

    1. Project plan (gant chart) with time scales (everyone working from the same page)
    2. Brief from client (gets them thinking about the end goal and business objectives)
    3. Site map creation with some stickies, coffee and both client and designer
    4. Wireframes drawings with client, with approval on digital wireframes afterwards
    5. Design stage

    etc etc

    The point is exactly the one you have made, you control the context in which information is presented and consumed – therefore you can guide clients through an engaging and successful process.

    Again well done, not enough designers understand what’s required to make a project more than just pretty. Top banana!

  60. 71

    Design by Wendy

    May 19, 2011 8:34 am

    I always say “What do you think?”. No longer. Thanks for the great information.

  61. 72

    Yes, I agree with your points, most of the client don’t understand the process of Website Design and feel that they are saying is best option. In case you suggest something then they offen think that we don’t want to do extra work so show a sample on what he has in mind.

    At times it does get difficult to work with clients who feel they know everything.

  62. 73

    Brilliant advice @boagworld . This is something that all designers/developers will come across and it can become very frustrating and make the project a nightmare to work on.

  63. 74

    Annie Anderson

    May 31, 2011 7:20 am

    Great article!

    One of the things I do right off the bat with a client is give them an outline of the process and “what’s expected” during each phase. It’s written right into my agreement contract.

    I also write the portion separately in an email when I send them the contract. That way, they know right up front exactly what is going to happen and when.

    My contract also limits things like revisions, major changes and additions not agreed upon from the outset. If they want those, there will be additional fees.

    And lastly, my contract also has a “kill fee” clause that not only states I will retain X amount of dollars of their deposit if the project derails before a certain timeframe, it also clearly states that if the project is basically complete before it derails, they DO owe the full amount regardless.

    I find that with these clauses in place, most clients are reluctant to overstep any boundaries and helps keep me in control of the design aspects of the project. I have few clients that are troublesome as a result. ;-)

  64. 75

    Hi Paul
    Thank you for this. I wish I’d read it earlier. You are so absolutely right. There is a fine line between remaining as the expert, but giving them what they want. In recent years, I’ve swayed too far on the side of giving them what they want (after many years of being a purist). Your article has helped me re-find the balance between the two, and my business and client relationships will be better for it. Thank you for taking the time to share.

  65. 76

    GREAT article! Positive and inspiring.

    Thank you.

  66. 77

    Good to know that im not the only one!!! greatstuff!!! baie baie dankies

  67. 78

    very good points. I try and do a lot of this (educating the client about the process from the word ‘go’, mostly because you can sense their fear a lot of the time. They really have no idea what to expect. And some have been burnt by previous experience.
    I hadn’t thought of this at all “Never ask a client what they think of the design. Ask them instead how they believe their users will react to the design or whether it meets their business objectives.” Priceless.

    Very good article.

  68. 79

    I also never thought of making a video about the design, so that the supporting info had to go with it for ‘passing around’. extremely smart!

  69. 80

    @smashingmag you ask us to rate the article, but I can’t see where you would do that. Perhaps internally linking it to the ‘rate’ bit in the comment instructions might be handy.

  70. 81

    Hi Paul,

    Fantastic article. I have found that shifting the focus from aesthetic to features makes sign-off much easier. Here is my process:

    I make sure the client sees and likes my past projects. If I hear them say anything negative about designs I would consider worth promoting I DO NOT work with them from the get-go no matter how much money they have.

    I have them define needed features per-page. Everything from the header to the footer. Everything is a feature.

    I then ask them to submit 3 sites for design inspiration.

    I prepare a proposal that bullet points out all the features per-page. This Proposal includes 1 paragraph describing the high-level design goals they presented. I stay general–no specifics color selections just dark or light.

    I then make them sign off on the features and the high level designs.

    I begin design process

    When I present I NEVER explain the designs from an aesthetic point of view. I focus only on features to start. This shows them I did my job and makes it difficult for them to get into the other details such as colors and textures in the beginning. If they do I work with them to a point. Since I communicated at the beginning they only get three rounds of revisions they generally don’t waist time on little aesthetic issues and focus again on the features.

    Sign-off happens much easier when they see that I did what they asked. 99% of my clients who know what they want leave happy. The ones that haven’t been happy either A) didn’t know what they really wanted or needed in the first place or B) didn’t like my style in the first place (which is ultimately my fault for excepting the project).

    I love your stuff– it’s super inspiring for designers to value their clients.

  71. 82

    Does anyone know of an app that manages the design sign off process?
    The client would be sent a link to a design or set of design then they have their chance to review them. Then if they approve it they need to click an approve button and then the approval is recorded in the system.
    Both parties could see a history of all past design signs offs

  72. 83

    I wish I read this article earlier. Great advice that I will use for my next project.

  73. 84

    Yop that’s what I meant !

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