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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 Link

After several years as a corporate slave and servant to the public Brian Haught 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 Link

This post is one of the finalists of our guest author contest1. 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.

Footnotes Link

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  1. 1

    Isn’t the client the user?

    That’s like asking “What are you eating?” – salmon or fish?

  2. 2

    I design for Users, not clients…
    Designing for users would end up in money for clients which is what they are paying me for in the 1st case.

  3. 3

    I design for both. Following Abhishek’s comment, if the client doesn’t like what you’re doing then they’re not going to pay you, regardless of how well you think you’ve designed for the user.

  4. 4

    @dm0: No, the client thinks they are the user, so gives inadequate or unrealistic requirements based on their own limited experience. It is the designer’s job to convince the client that they don’t know it all and there are other considerations to take into account, a task much akin to banging one’s head against a hard surface :-)

  5. 5

    I design for both ’cause that what it’s about. You need to think of your client and his target and do the job the best way possible (user-friendly, standards-compliant). Sometimes – I mean – SOMETIMES it can be about doing something totally uncommon, non-standards compliant even (like that fancy artistic portfolio sites, where at first sight you don’t know what the hell is going on).

    But if the client’s obviously wrong, I’m telling him why, explaining how it can be done better using all my knowledge. They usually follow my lecture and agree in the end, ’cause they also want the best for THEIR clients, so user experience and all that usability/accessibility stuff gains high-priority for them as well.

    However, sometimes you need to be pretty creative and both satisfy an odd client’s demand, and do it in an user-friendly way at the same time. In most cases it’s not impossible. It may not always be the best way, but at least acceptable. I had such a situation lately. In the end of the project making process (99% done) they suddenly decided that the way their page prints is CRITICAL to their marketing strategy and it just can’t be the way it is and demanded – as I thought first – impossible from me. This is actually a funny and interesting case, but to keep the long story short I sat down, thought it over and I found a way to manage this. Even though I wasn’t amused at all about breaking few wise and simple rules, I did that in the best way I could. I think someone, some day will tell them “wtf is this?” as I tried before, but it seems like they enjoy their solution and that “their clients are bunch of idiots” (c) The Company Director

    If such odd demand is impossible to do, or they’re obviously wrong in the general view, or totally have no taste, but they still think they’re smart and know better than you, then it’s the kind of client I don’t even meet (now, ’cause I used to years ago when I was kinda forced to making print stuff for my friend’s agency), otherwise I’d tell him to go to hell. They usually don’t wanna pay as much you’re worth too, so they’re mostly doomed to some low-quality designers.

  6. 6

    I think the difficulty lies in doing a good job, which means designing for the user obviously, but at the same time get the client to approve. Some clients understand these things or can be educated, with others you’ll probably end up compromising. Think that’s just part of the job at times.

  7. 7

    I think this article is about humanface design. I believe, that design for people may be better, than design for clients or users.

  8. 8

    Interesting article. I live in Serbia, and clients here are not very familiar with the advancing in web design, and like the author said – consider white space – wasted space, and always demand retarded 90’s effects on websites. Mostly due to the fault that there are a good number of bad designers who never question the client’s needs, and put bevel/glow/hard drop shadow and maybe stroke even on every damn element…if the clients says so. I wonder when will it come tho the time when people who hire freelance designers start to visit some showcase galleries first and see how it CAN be done… And my point of view is that we must keep the design close to both client and people who will visit/use it. That can be a pain, haha explaining the client why drop shadow isn’t everywhere :) haha.

  9. 9

    What I started to do a while back is tell clients that web design is divided into generally two parts – layout and graphic design – and that I am here to guide them on both levels.

    I tell them that I listen to clients’ requests and try to fulfill such requests, but that I am here as an advisor as on both the layout and design. From a technical/programming point-of-view, I’ll tell you what will work, what is possible, and what won’t work. From a graphic design point-of-view, I’ll tell you what ideas can work, what won’t, and what will look good.

    Once I tell them that, I tell them I am here to make them look good, and that may mean advising against some ideas they may have. Explicitly telling them my roles upfront seems to prepare them for when they make a suggestion, and I advise against it (or even tweak it).

    It seems clients think that a website for a developer is just programming, but they never really appreciate them as a graphic designer with the inherit knowledge of that field. This, even though they may say, “I want my site to look like“.

    Once I start the project, and the situation(s) props up, I make my suggestions and It’s almost like they remember, “Ah yes, he’s the web developer AND graphic artist. Let’s listen to him”.

    Of course I must stay within any parameters that may define the client, such as bad colour combos for the company colours, or a bad logo design to begin with. I do the best with what I have at that point.

    If anyone wants to see some of my work, let me know.

  10. 10

    I design for users and normally the client agrees to this. The client also wants to make something that sells and a quick glance at the customer reveals the inevitable truth: the customer is a user.

  11. 11

    bruno byington

    August 13, 2008 3:00 am

    Hey guys,

    @ h-a-r-v
    – I totally agree with you. If a customer is asking for more content since there is the whitespace you have “made” with decent thoughts on proportion and harmony, Id tell the customer the side effect that things are harder to read, the AD (or whatever else) looks cheep and that it might not represent the company, client whatsoever.

    Sometimes we, as creative professionals have to make our lines and cross them. We have to ask ourselves can we deal with a specific demand of the customer or can we give advice to the customer so that he sais carry on and do your job?

    clients can be c#?/! sometimes so… as said we have to ask ourselves can we live with this attitude and demand or will we be so completely fucked of the shit design we did just because we did what the client told us too.

    @ Youri
    – you cant generalize things (does that word even exist?). Communication in general is an important factor in our industry even if we primarily get taught how to establish art, design, webdesign, handle photoshop, illustrator etc. Communication between artist and audience, client, customer is definately important in our job since customers, audiences, clients have their asthetics on what design is. They transport a “this looks good”. We can only gently ask to manipulate in, and design it with our experience, thought, love, passion, whatsoever. We interfere!

    @ Chris
    – I agree with you that Graphic Design is divided. I would consider it though to have several levels. I mean you can be an illustrator, web designer, design websites, technically create websites, programm things (a user interface and environment), you can draw fine arts and only design posters, you can be fucking photoshop God and deal with colormanagement as a pro. You can do soo much. Its hard to say im a graphic design my opinion on. I tell customers what I do and if I cant to something even if the project sounds cool, I dont. Because Id rather go for something where I give 100% then something that i do give 50% and am unhappy of the fact that I just spoiled the universe with bad design of whatever ;)

    cheers mate(s)


  12. 12

    i totally agree. The design at my work has this problem with a client of ours. he wants blue, but we say black, because the blue is too bright, and doesn’t suit. The client wants a 1200px wide website, i say 900 because most users cannot view the site.

    clients…. pfft, they need to be educated before they start demanding design based on their ideas, especially when we are the designers !

  13. 13

    I would say we should consider both. First the business goals and then user goals. And design to achieve user goals which indirectly satisfy business goals.
    I also agree that sometimes client does not convey with our design, at that time we should justify our design and explain to client how this design will help to client’s business.

  14. 14

    We Are Designers, its our job, its what we know and we have rules just like any other profession.

    As i see it in todays world, people think they know what they want, and they are not afraid to tell people what they want, and as a designer that puts us in a tricky situation, clients will often come to us and saying what they want, without the knowledge and design rules applied to a design, and as a designer, we have to adhere to our clients requirements, most often spinning the general stages of our own design process into chaos, and not being able to make the clients requested layout or style look good.
    There are some cases where we can manipulate the design, but in order to do a great job, taking all of the design principles and being able to follow our design process and be comfortable with what we are designing, this is why people should be hiring us, not just to utilize our technical skills to create something from a horrible preliminary design, because i know in myself that any design that is done could have been so much better, stronger and something for the client and the designer can be proud of.

    anyway it made me think a little bit :D

  15. 15

    “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.”

    This is a situation for which it is necessary to cancel the results of education received (this episode) and the foundations of education itself.

  16. 16

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

    i am going to needlepoint that and put it above my desk.

  17. 17

    Matt Fontaine

    August 13, 2008 4:19 am

    I think it all comes down to how you “sell” it to the client. If you have a well thought out explanation about how you’ve designed to enhance the user experience then you can convince the client to make a smart decision.

  18. 18

    It should be “whom” not “who” :-)

  19. 19

    I’m sorry, The article poses the question who do you design for? and the conclusion is “I still feel there is no right answer” Why did I read this article? Please give me my 5 minutes back.

  20. 20

    Good article but would have been better if he provided some solutions to this eternal design dilemna!

  21. 21

    I design for the user, and I explain to the client why I do something a certain way. However, in the end, its the client’s money and their wishes trump mine.

    We’ve all done work that isn’t in our portfolios.

  22. 22

    Q5 Grafisch Webdesign

    August 13, 2008 5:45 am

    Allways for the viewer… so the one who visits and uses the site!

  23. 23

    I design for the user, on behalf of the client.

  24. 24

    I think that the article poses a question to the reader to make you think; not here is the answer. Good article, I get it, and design for the client and throw out what you know.

  25. 25

    I think that we work with the client for the users. We are suppose to provide the users an easy to use clean interface that fit the client branding and vision.

    As designer we have to deal unreasonable client’s request everyday and I think that if we notice something bad in the client’s request we should be be able to tell the client why this is so bad and if it’s logically presented I don’t know a client who wouldn’t agree with the designer he hired.

  26. 26

    offcourse you design for the end user. But thats not all you do!
    You must not forget the design is just a way of putting info in a suitable form.
    If the person that has put the information in the website doesn’t like the site or having problem with the layout, he will probably use it less. ofcourse this only the case with smaller companies.

  27. 27

    I was just asking a simple question. I am not Yoda. I think it depends on many factors, and my goal was to make you look at a problem every designer must deal with at one time or another. Thanks for the comments and feedback.

  28. 28

    TOTALLY agree with #19.

  29. 29

    It’s important to take our clients’ needs into consideration; after all it is their company we’re communicating. However, we do have a responsibility as industry professionals to guide them though the user experience process. After all the user will be ‘using’ the site, not our client.

  30. 30

    I don’t see this as a Catch-22 or a 800lbs. Gorilla. I design for users. In the end the job of a designer is to provide a method by which users can reach the client’s content. I think of myself as the gatekeeper or the guardian of the bridge. It is from this that my entire philosophy for design comes. My job is to make life easy for the user and to make them happy.

    Now, this is something I put forward the first time I meet a client every time. I make it quite clear to them that while I am working with them to create this website it must be understood that the purpose of doing everything is for the user and that is where I will focus the vast majority of my efforts. At first this usually throws them but once I explain how this almost always gets them what they want anyway as well as making the website useful to their prospective customers.

    Oh, and for the record I do believe there is a right answer. Your clients are important; they are the ones who pay you. But without users there is no point to making the website. Everything about a website is meant to be designed to attract and entice users to utilise the services of your client. Thus it is important to focus on the user and their needs and not the client which in turn benefits the client.

  31. 31

    ref17 – Working twofold: to convince the customer and convince society. double honorarium?

  32. 32

    Clients pay us to design for their users. Some of them realize that and some of them don’t. The ones that don’t will never be long-term clients anyways. Either your design will fail and it won’t get the results they want, or you will walk away in frustration.

  33. 33

    ref. 19/21 – the policy of this site seems to be “everything easy”, so the article was written without thinking about it a lot. just as workers below average.

  34. 34

    i could not agree more. this article was unresolved and not worth the time spent reading. when i clicked the link from the home page i instantly asked myself “that’s it?!”

    at least some sort of opinion from the author to complete the thought would have been nice to see. anyone can ask a question!

  35. 35


    The tricky task is convincing the client that happy users will make them a happier website owner. If a designer asks the right questions of the client about how he wants his website to perform then they should be able to offer up trustworhty, experienced advice in order to achieve this.

    Gaining this trust is easier said than done sometimes. In early meetings with clients I sometimes feel like a negotiator repeating quietly but firmly ‘Give me the gun.. give me the gun..give me the gun..’

  36. 36

    Its important to make the client understand that by designing for the potential users is going to be more worth while than designing to the exact taste of the client. The client has to understand that sometimes its hard to read the label when you’re inside the bottle…

  37. 37

    It is not a difficult question if you got over it. The duty of the professional designer to inform/educate the client of what is acceptable to the audience, be it visually or functionally. It will be the client’s final choice to employ his own ideas to unsell himself, and you have done your part.

    However, if you are afraid that the overall design is so bad that it will affect your reputation and unsell you, your contract would had allowed you at your discretion to cancel the project with professionally, strong, and valid reasons. It is especially important for illustrators where their style is sorted after.

  38. 38

    We should try to educate and inform them so they make the right decisions, but if came between end users and the client, just remember who pays your bills. Remember to speak in terms they understand {dollars and more dollars}.

  39. 39

    I design for clients.

    As much as I want to design for users, I don’t have a choice but to follow what my client wants, or else they will look for other designers that are willing to do all they want. That will leave me jobless.

  40. 40

    Great post!
    Its all about the right compromises.
    Try explaining a 9pt/12pt to a doctor.. and all he says is “Make it bigger”…
    Finding the right balance isn’t easy, but sometimes, maybe you deserve a client that understands aesthetics and design.


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