Web design business mistakes: Creating design boundaries

John Reeve | June 9th, 2009 | , ,

Part 3 in a 5 part series

Create design boundaries

While there is no limit to creativity, there does have to be a limit to the number of design iterations you produce for a client. From both the client side and the production side, this is one of the most common areas for projects to run over budget—and we all know why. Design is highly subjective, and often a very personal preference; it is often difficult to intuit what a client will like.

The same applies for site architecture and the HTML/CSS/javascript layer of a web site. Even if not quite as subjective as graphic design, your team still has to design and develop these layers for the web site to capture the interactive intentions of the designers. This process can also take multiple iterations depending on the client’s opinion, and the variety of browser compatibilities required, so make sure you build in safeguards against infinite tweaks during development.

There are a few things you can do to limit guesswork and keep the client constrained within your agreed upon time and budget:

  • Set a number on how many design rounds you will go through. A good starting point is to provide two or three unique comps with three to view revisions for the selected comp. While you may not always be able to stick to this, letting your client know there is a limit to the back and forth, or attaching a price tag to design round X through Y will require them to think more concretely about their design expectations.
  • Explain to your clients that the web site will look different depending on each users browser and settings. Unlike print design, type-related issues such as word wrap, leading, orphans, widows, typefaces, etc, all have their limitations. Explaining these nuances to a client will spare you from conversations that start with “Our CEO is seeing the text differently and we need that fixed… can force the wrap after the words ‘yada yada yada’ to get rid of that widow?”
  • Require constructive feedback. Clients often have a hard time speaking in design terms—“they just know what they like and don’t like.” But asking them to give specifics will not only make your job easier in providing the next round of designs, it will also help them identify what they are really looking for. If specifics are too much to ask, a great starting exercise is to ask them for examples of sites they like and don’t like. This will usually give you enough information to get inside their heads and extract their ideas into web site designs.
  • Listen to your client, not your personal preferences. While your company was most likely chosen for its design and development experience, ultimately your job is to provide the best possible design for your client. Ideally, your style will be noted in the design, in the same way a record producer lends his sound to an album. The end result is a truly collaborative and satisfactory effort from both you and the client, work that you are proud to include in your portfolio.

Be firm, but also know when to get out of the way of a disagreeable client. Not all clients are willing to share your creative vision, and may insist on micromanaging the design process. This happens more often than we’d like, and often the micromanager doesn’t reveal themselves until the project is later in the design phase. If this is the case, choose your battles wisely. Often times it is better to just get through a project, like a puppet gets through a show, and move on to the next project rather than dragging this one out over pride.

How Pelago learned this the hard way

Most designers I have ever met, including myself, graduate from design school with this naïve idea they are going to change the corporate landscape through good design. The reality is most clients won’t understand ‘good’ design, nor will they want to. They just want to ‘like’ how the site looks. After a few years of frustration trying to convince clients of the expertise driving the design, I’ve realized my goal as a designer is to compromise with clients when giving life to their vision. I learned to read between the lines when interacting about design and present to them a blend of their ideas filtered through a designers lens. The results may not be award-worthy, but nor is our audience a jury of our peers; we are designing for our client and their customers.

5 Responses to “Web design business mistakes: Creating design boundaries”

  1. Michael says:

    I liked it ;) when we used to do the design review exercise where you weren’t allowed to use the word “like”. The word like can be a crutch that can mean anything to anyone. Forcing further articulation along the lines of photography, layout, grid, colors, etc. can be very valuable.

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John Reeve
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John Reeve

John is a co-founder, web designer and developer at Pelago. His blog posts are inspired by everyday encounters with designers, developers, creatives and small businesses in general. John is an avid reader and road cyclist.
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Jennifer Payne
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Jennifer Payne

Jennifer is the Director of Quality and Efficiency at Pelago. Her blog posts are based largely on her experience working with teams to improve harmony and productivity. Jennifer is a cat person.
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Michael Payne
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Michael Payne

Michael is a co-founder and product architect at Pelago. His contributions stem from experiences managing the development process behind web sites and web-based applications such as Intervals. Michael drives a 1990 Volkswagen Carat with a rebuilt 2.4 liter engine from GoWesty.
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