How clients attempt to take over the design process (and what to do about it)

Throughout my career I’ve never had to fire a client, but looking back, there are several times I probably should have. And in every case, in one way or another, it’s because the client attempted to take over the design process.

Creating a website typically involves several steps: discovery, planning, design, development, testing, final revisions, and then launch. In my experience, the design phase is the toughest to get through, because it’s where problems with communication and expectations are most likely to arise. It’s when you find out whether you’ve got a good client or a bad one, and whether you have shortcomings of your own as a designer.

Early in my career, I was in discussions with a big city law firm to redesign their site. The client had access to my portfolio, but asked if they could see what I could do for them. So, I created one or two concepts, the client didn’t like them, and I didn’t win the account. I later realized that their request was another way of saying “Give us some free design work,” and the experience underscored why spec work is such a bad idea. The deck was stacked against me: I wasn’t being compensated for my efforts, I had little chance of creating a quality design for a client I didn’t know, and even if I had won the account, the client would have been entirely in control of the “relationship” going forward. In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t get their business.

More often than not, when a client attempts to take over the design process, it’s after a contract has been signed and work begins, and it results from key information not being shared by either the designer or the client. (Incidentally, if you don’t have a contract, stop reading this article and consult an attorney, or go download a free template if you have to.)

It’s common for clients to submit a simple mockup, often in the form of a Word document or hand-drawn sketches. There’s nothing wrong with this, and in fact it can be extremely helpful. In some cases, however, it can cross the line between providing information and doing your job for you, and the warning sign for this is usually when the client attempts to create a detailed concept using Photoshop or another graphics editor. This can be dangerous because it circumvents the process that you as the designer need to follow, it limits your ability to provide value to them, and it indicates the client’s willingness to step in and “correct” your work later on.

This can happen even if the client doesn’t attempt to create a design of their own. For example, consider it a red flag when someone insists on a particular design element that doesn’t make sense or contribute toward their goals (e.g., “I want a big picture of a [truck/airplane/attractive woman]” or “Make all the text bold and use Comic Sans”), and then seems particularly disinterested in your arguments against such a suggestion. This happened to me a couple years ago, and eventually the client decided to have his wife take over the project because our design concept wasn’t “killing it.” Speaking of nebulous feedback, beware of clients who tell you that a design doesn’t “pop” unless they can explain what that means.

Some clients are the opposite, and want to rely completely on your expertise with no useful input on their part. This is especially prevalent when dealing with sole proprietors who are too busy to give a project the attention it deserves. I once had a client get upset because the design we submitted was not to his liking, so I asked him what he didn’t like about the design, in order for us to make the necessary changes. His response was that I’m the expert and he wasn’t paying us to design the site himself. We ended up settling on a design that he liked, but the client would have been better off scrapping the project; his hands-off approach resulted in a website that got no attention or promotion, and as a result did not achieve the client’s objectives.

Working with groups can be a challenge too. Beware of situations where the client has a “website committee” that wants to meet with you repeatedly, or where you have more than one contact person at a company—especially if those people aren’t communicating with each other. You’re much more likely to spend your time talking instead of designing, and then when the designing begins, it doesn’t seem to end.

It’s almost impossible to avoid bad clients, but remember that not all bad clients are inherently that way. Sometimes there’s a problem with the process, or perhaps your communication style doesn’t mesh with theirs. As the designer, it’s your responsibility to give the relationship a chance to succeed by defining roles and expectations in advance.

With that in mind, here are a few suggestions on how to keep the design process on track:

  • Document it. In addition to having a signed contract, make sure your client knows what will happen and when. The best way to do this is through a project schedule, which should include a list of milestones, the date they’re due, and the responsible party.
  • Specify the number of concepts and revisions. My company typically offers two design concepts and up to two rounds of revisions to the selected concept. (In my experience, three concepts is too many, because it encourages the client to mix-and-match, resulting in an unbalanced or even ugly design.) Additional revisions cost extra, although there’s no need to nickel-and-dime people; the important thing is to be clear that when a design is approved, it’s time to move on to development.
  • Account for meetings. If you suspect a client might be high maintenance, or if there are many stakeholders involved, you’ll probably be meeting with them a lot. Take this into consideration when determining pricing, and if a client asks for a meeting, don’t be afraid to clarify the agenda (and duration) in advance. Another way to control the timing and frequency of meetings is to set them in advance by including them in the project schedule.
  • Insist on a single point of contact. Unless you need to be working with multiple people—for example, a marketing director who handles the vision, and an IT director who handles the infrastructure—it’s almost always best to have a single contact person for each client you work with. Ideally, this person should have decision-making authority, in order to avoid delays throughout the project; if not, be clear in advance about when feedback and approval will be required.
  • Ask questions. If a client attempts to do your job for you, by providing a detailed mockup or insisting on specific design elements, it can help to discuss their overall objectives for the project, and whether each element of the design contributes toward that objective. Instead of writing off their ideas as bad, ask them about their rationale, and help them focus on what their customers or target audiences want.
  • Evaluate yourself. Designers are human, too. If there’s a conflict or unmet expectations, put yourself in the client’s shoes. Are they getting the value and results they’re looking for? If not, what can you do to resolve the problem without being taken advantage of?

If all else fails, it might be time to evaluate whether you want to do business with a particular client. For this reason, it’s a good idea for your contract to cover situations where one party wants to terminate the relationship.

Nevertheless, most client relationships can be preserved and strengthened through planning and intentional communication, and in situations where conflict arises, it’s almost always worthwhile to go the extra mile to make things work.