I was pretty proud when I netted my first clients as a freelancer. Wow! Someone is actually willing to give me their money and have me design their site? I was ecstatic that someone had picked me out of all the talented designers out there.
But my joy didn’t last very long.
The projects were underfunded and the clients always asked for more, so I ended up designing and coding entire sites for about half the cost of what I currently make.
The logos were a mess, but I couldn’t change them because my clients liked them or already built an (unremarkable) brand around them.
And the products themselves were fairly boring and not innovative in any way. But it paid the bills (barely) at the time, and I didn’t have much experience in these things.
Don’t get me wrong, being flexible, open-minded, and being a "team player" is great.
But in retrospect, I wish I had taken a stand at some of the things I decided to tolerate. Here are 6 things I pledge not to accept anymore.
1. Client-Centered Design
User-centered design (UCD) means putting the user at the center of the design process (who would’ve guessed!) and designing the site around them.
But for some reason, a lot of clients seem to prefer what I call "client-centered design": designing the site around their own needs and preferences, and assume their users will like it just fine, thank you.
Warning signs of this attitude include arbitrary judgments ("I don’t like blue, please use fuschia for the background"), no basic market research (asking around on forums is the least you could do), no metrics-tracking (you should know who clicks on what), and no user feedback (a simple contact form can go a long way).
If you’re a good designer, fulfilling the users’ needs is probably pretty high on your list (just behind "using that cool new font I found"). This ultimately means that you’ll constantly clash with a "CCD"-type client, and it won’t make for a pleasant relationship.
2. Cheapskate Clients
I used to think there was nothing wrong with clients being cheap or asking for discounts. After all, we all love bargains. But when you ask for a discount on a car or a house, the seller usually keeps a nice margin. And no matter how good a discount you get, there’s very little chance that they’re taking a loss on the sale.
But it’s different for us. The complex nature of web design work means that pushy clients will always find a way to fit in more work in your agreement. And you run the very real risk of not making any profit on the project, or worse, not even breaking even and actually losing money while you work.
The only safe way to give out a discount, to me, is agreeing on a lower hourly rate that you’re able to renegotiate if needed. But never accept starting a project for less than usual, because the types of clients who ask for discounts are very often the same types who ask for more work than agreed upon, too.
3. Terrible Logos
In this era of cheap 99Designs.com logos, it can be hard to make people realize just how important a good professionally-designed logo is. The logo is their identity, and a bad logo will make the whole site look awful no matter how many hours you, as a web designer, put into it.
I’m guessing the rationale for neglecting logos is that if they provide a good service with a great user interface, people will use it anyway. But consumers are constantly being targeted by brands that shove their own logos in their face, and as a result, they’ve unconsciously learned to recognize what constitutes a good logo. And a prospective client’s logo better pass the test.
My rule of thumb is this: If I could’ve done a better job myself, the logo has to go.
And something else to consider: A site’s logo also often ends up being the most visible thing when you crop thumbnails for your portfolio.
4. Bad Names
I used to think that site names were a subjective matter — until I started getting request for proposals to work on sites and projects that have names such as GreatPremiumWordpressThemes4Free.com. No matter how you cut it — that name sucks.
Sure, it might be great for SEO, but on your portfolio, it will look like you designed one of those placeholder sites filled with spam links. A bad name is indicative of the type of people you will be working with.
Another bad sign is unpronounceable names like kxospkti.com; it sounds like someone rolled their head around their keyboard to come up with the domain name. Just because it’s short, doesn’t mean it’s good, and it’s hard telling future employers what you worked on if you can’t even say the name out loud.
5. Bad (Or No) Business Strategy
This is different from a weak idea. You can work with a weak idea if it’s brilliantly executed. And it can be very hard to judge the value of an idea if it’s not part of your own knowledge domain.
But please stay away from business plans that sound like the South Park Gnomes came up with them.
You might think the client’s business plan is not your problem. Who cares if the client ends up broke as long as you get paid, right? Wrong.
First, a project with no clear strategy is very hard to design for. What do you put forward? What’s the main goal of the home page? If the client can’t answer those questions, who else will?
Secondly, if the site fails then it won’t be around anymore, and you won’t be able to show it in your portfolio.
6. Bad Copy
It took me a long time to come to terms with bad copy on a client’s site. English is not my native language, so I wasn’t sure if I even had the authority to question my English-speaking clients’ writing.
And I also thought that it just wasn’t my job to care about content. After all, if you start correcting a client’s typos and grammar, where do you stop? Do you also help them close sales and do their taxes?
But the hard truth is that my job as the web designer is not that important. People don’t go to a site to admire the way I use color gradients or the web typography I composed — they go to consume content. If the content is bad, spending time on the design is like putting lipstick on a pig.
You’d be surprised how many people ignore even basic copywriting tenets: they use jargon and acronyms, assume people already know what their product does, or drone on about features without mentioning the benefits to the user.
I now accept the fact that it’s part of my job to call clients out on this.
Being successful as a web designer is all about creating things you can be proud of and building long-term relationships with clients.
Unfortunately, our eagerness to find work can lead us to make choices that are directly counter-productive to those two goals. We’re particularly vulnerable to these mistakes when starting out, but even with a few years of experience behind me, I still catch myself making them sometimes.
You might be thinking that if you follow these guidelines you’ll end up with no clients whatsoever. But I believe it’s our role to produce the best work possible and adhere to sound design principles, even if that means saying "no" and being unpopular sometimes.
So if you’re in this for the long term, pick your clients wisely and don’t tolerate these things.
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