Client vs. Designer: Four Lessons to Win the Battle

Client vs. Designer: Four Lessons to Win the Battle

Sometimes, the client/designer relationship is like an age-old matchup reminiscent of Ali vs. Frazier. Eagles vs. Cowboys. Yankees vs. Red Sox. Except in this game, the battle isn’t on the playing field — it’s in the boardroom, on the telephone, in an email. And this isn’t a game reliant on physical strength or technique; it’s about wits, expertise and political posturing. And unfortunately, there’s one team that wins 99% of the time. You guessed it: the client.

Yes, us "clients" — we’re the old-fashioned bloodsucking types who like to tear apart your work and sap out every inch of creativity from it until we’ve got something that meets our goals and, most importantly, is aesthetically pleasing to our wives. There’s many of our ilk out there who don’t care one bit about your usability expertise and Photoshop prowess. Unfortunately, our attitude often means that the work (and the designer) are bound to suffer.

So what’s a designer to do?

Having just completed an extensive (and quite successful) redesign of Two Leaves and a Bud Tea Company (my tea company) you see standing before you a client and a designer who somehow actually still like each other while producing a piece of work where we both ended up winning.

How did we do it? Here, designer (Chris Fernandez of 5to8design) and client (Phil Edelstein of two leaves and a bud tea company) reminisce on a successful site redesign, and how we managed to maintain a relationship while still producing a site that rocks.

Pre-Project: Build a Relationship and Set the Stage

Designer (Chris):

As most designers would profess, it’s our relationship and account management skills that are the least refined. This, however, is a dangerous notion to be comfortable with — you have to build a relationship if you want your project to succeed.

Before the two leaves and a bud project even presented itself, I engaged my prospective client and started to build a partnership. I saw a site that needed work, a potential client that was the right size, and I had known Phil from some previous work in Philadelphia. I approached him, and asked him to sit down with me and let me show him everything his site could be and more.

Our meeting went well, but I didn’t stop there. Even before the project went to RFP (request for proposal), I used Twitter to maintain a connection and begin sending Phil relevant articles with ecommerce best practices and examples, understanding visual hierarchy and user interface design, and the all-important, if not terribly sexy, checkout flow design. Happily, he seemed to accept them rapturously.

Client (Phil):

Not sure if I’d use the word "rapturously," but I certainly did appreciate that Chris added value, even when he wasn’t on contract. Chris’ efforts up front showed me that I had in him a potential partner who knew his stuff. That made all the difference when we put our project out to RFP — I fought for Chris and made sure people knew he was the guy we needed for the job. The project was quickly his — a Mortal Kombat-esque flawless victory. (Chris and I both happen to be videogame nerds, which helped his cause greatly in the RFP process.)

Lesson #1

Take the time and build a relationship off payroll. You’ll win more work, and you’ll have set the stage for better dialogue when the going gets tough and the project gets going.

Project Kickoff: Wait a Sec – The Client’s Opinion Matters?

Designer (Chris):

I won! Time for me to get on with the fun part: design. Or… not quite. This article is about better client relationships, no? Contrary to every instinct in my art-ridden brain, I avoided further discussions on design. Instead, I prepared an introductory discussion session with myself, Phil and his team.

The key here was to create a conversation, engage the team and get their opinions. Through a variety of questions (and there is plenty of advice on what to ask) I was able to get to know the group and scope of the company. I learned what two leaves and a bud was hoping for from their designer, what types of sites they liked and disliked, and what their ultimate vision was for the finished piece of work.

Not only did I have a better understanding of who I was working with, but I had built a relationship with the team — we were starting to like each other and develop a mutual respect.

Client (Phil):

What Chris isn’t saying I’ll say for him: the most important part of this segment of the project was that Chris made us feel like we were involved.

The reality is that this was Chris’s project, but it was our site. We couldn’t just have a designer who took the project and ran with it, even if he knew infinitely more about usability and design theory than any of us. We had to still feel like this was our project, too. Chris taking the time to engage us in a conversation and get us involved was one of the most critical pieces to allowing our team to easily accept his work later on when he presented it. We may not have been controlling the mouse that built the comps, but what Chris did was make us feel like the design was partially ours, and therefore was much more easy to swallow when presentation time came around.

Lesson #2

The client’s opinion matters. Take the time to listen early on, and they’ll listen to you later when your life’s work is on the line.

Architecture and Wireframing: Time for the Planning Phase the Client Never Understands

Designer (Chris):

Relationship established! Clearly, the next step in our process was site flow, architecture and wireframes. Unfortunately, as UI, UX and even web designers can attest, clients generally don’t care for or understand this step. Lets face it, hi-fi or low-fi, wireframes simply aren’t (and I apologize for using the word) sexy!

With timelines set and deadlines looming, how did I stress this stage? Remember those links I was sending Phil before the RFP was even released? The best practice articles? The importance of the checkout flow? Well now say hello to your friend – the foundation. Having established a foundation of knowledge and education, my client understood the importance of this critical step.

We looked at wireframes together and I was able to point out best practices, while Phil was able to break down larger analytics insights that we were able to apply to the wires.

Client (Phil):

Now, many of you might not trust the client so much as Chris did (thanks, Chris), but I have to tell you that the more you are asking the client their opinion, hearing what they think, and actually getting them engaged in the process, then the more they are going to care about the process. When it came time for Chris to present wires to the rest of our team, I was right there backing up the work, and able to talk about the logic behind it. The fact that this was my work too made me want to defend it, and protect its integrity.

A little bit of a pointer on where this part of the process could have gone better: When our broader team bought off on these wires, I don’t think they quite understood that they were really buying off on the entire skeleton of the site. Design phase rolled around, and there were organizational pieces that people suddenly wanted to change when they looked at the "skin" of the site. Make sure the client knows they are buying off on the organization of the site, and why this should not change during the design phase!

Lesson #3

Establish your client-side champion and get them involved whenever possible. Before you know it, you’ll be watching them fighting your battles for you. (And please, for god’s sake, make the client know that they are actually buying off on something important when they approve your wireframes!)

The Great Design Debate: Suddenly Things Get Dicey

Designer (Chris):

Finally, the joy of design, of creation, channeling color, typography, imagery and function into the immaculate and unblemished initial comp. And the agony of bringing said masterpiece in front of a room of personal opinions and favorite colors. People who inevitably just won’t "get it."

Client: "What is ‘Lorem ipsum’ anyway?"

Designer: Oh it is just fake, filler copy used while we wait to place the real content.

Client: "Yes, but what does it translate to?"

Designer: It’s jibberish.

Client: "So is it offensive?"

Designer: Not as much as this exchange…

Perhaps the conversation wasn’t so bad with the two leaves team, but this certainly was a tough part of the project. We ran into conflicts of opinion regarding aesthetics, and suddenly my beautiful masterpiece was under fire. What was a designer to do with all guns pointed directly at him, cocked, aimed, and ready to fire?

Unfortunately, the aesthetics battle is inevitable in every project. With the two leaves team, I simply had to have patience and keep in mind this wasn’t my project – it was theirs. I tried my best to have an open mind and listen to what they had to say. Most importantly, I made sure I was ready with explanations for my decisions. Why did I choose that highlight color? What font did I use in the header and why?

And when a few stinging comments came my way, I swallowed my pride and kept my mouth shut. No sense in ruining the relationship I had spent so many hours creating and maintaining. I now had to have faith in the foundation I had built – my client-side champion would have to go to bat for me.

Client (Phil):

I have to admit, I absolutely hated this stage. As a person who doesn’t really "do" aesthetics, what’s there to be done when there’s a clash of opinions between Chris and my team? The whole thing seemed entirely subjective to me – I mean, was the color purple really going to cause this whole project to crash and burn?

What I learned from this stage is that aesthetic opinions are personal – but aesthetic facts are purely business. Having Chris explain the actual theory behind his aesthetic decisions put everything into perspective for me and allowed me to go to bat for him. Why the color orange? Because that’s our action color throughout the site, and we should use it whenever we want a user to do something important.

And finally, I must say that Chris’ open mind helped a lot here. Just knowing that he would sway a little bit did worlds for us. My team could be happy knowing that they had been heard and their opinions had been integrated into the site, and Chris could still protect the overall integrity of his work. Everyone could be happy – not just him, not just us. Sure we all know that compromise sucks when it comes to design, but hey, at least it kept us all from hating each other!

Lesson #4

Back up your aesthetic choices with fact and theory – clients will have a much harder time arguing with you. And when push comes to shove, a little compromise never hurt anyone. You want to do work for this client again, don’t you?

Project Complete! But Still Work to Be Done

Designer (Chris):

Time to walk away, go on vacation, pat myself on the back for a job well done and add a shiny new example to my portfolio – right? Wrong.

Despite all of my best efforts, countless things were bound to go wrong during the first few weeks after going live – that’s a site launch for you. This was my opportunity to continue the dialogue as the nervous client questions every fluctuation in our week one analytics. Becoming a reliable and responsive sounding board allowed me to gradually shift the conversation to future projects and retainers.

So I know many people are already verbally assaulting their screens for not having locked in my retainer up front. And you belligerent few (or many) have a point. However knowing this was a small company pushing the limits of their budget from the get-go, I didn’t think it was wise to bake in a retainer and foster cold feet. Instead, I remained confident that I could earn my retainer, so I remained responsive and proactive in helping two leaves and a bud through the difficult first few weeks of site launch.

What did my "free" advice gain me? Well, I just signed off on two new projects for two leaves and a bud, and a retainer conversation is in the works, which hopefully will come through in the next couple weeks. I certainly hope it will…Phil?

Client (Phil):

Seriously? Putting me on the spot right in front of the entire world of Six Revisions?

Let’s continue that conversation and see what happens down the road … ah, how I love my standard client-side procrastination speak. It works wonders, it really does.

Two Leaves and a Bud Tea Company


Where does this whole article leave us? What’s that final big lesson we’re trying to communicate? The relationships is everything. The more you do to encourage and maintain a dialogue, the better the work in your portfolio, the more money in the door, and the less nerves and stress generated during each and every project.

Protect your relationship at all costs – you’re protecting your work and your business in the process.

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