How to work together

When running a web design studio, it’s important to remember that our clients are the heart and soul of our business. The type of clients that we choose to work with says a lot about us, and likewise, the fact that you've chosen to work with us says a lot about you. Maintaining a great relationship with clients is tricky though – and a lot of it revolves around our ability, as web designers, to educate our clients and set expectations so that both sides end up feeling satisfied at the end of a project.

False Expectations: How Problems Arise

Many web designers go out of their way to please their clients – we’ll make endless edits, add in features that were never discussed, or give in to every whim of a client. Usually, designers end up feeling snubbed or mistreated (which is why we have sites like Clients From Hell). To these kinds of web designers, all clients have a superiority complex and simply exist to get in the way of their creative masterpieces.

However, a closer look at the entire process might reveal what’s actually going on. Let’s look at what both sides of a web design project expect when they go into a project:

  • Client comes to us
  • Asks us to make his website
  • We make the website
  • He pays us
  • Off we go

Seems pretty simple right? Now, let’s take a look at what actually happens:

Client comes to us (after a period of hectic pitching)

  • Asks us to make his website (gives us the strange list of things he wants in his website)
  • We make the website (design rejection, bashing, re-designing, Rejection again, Personal favourites, Re-designing, Approval, Last minute changes, etc.)
  • He pays us (annoying negotiation, payment delays, tiring follow-ups and you end up getting underpaid)
  • Off you go (frustrated and jaded)

The simple fact is that on both sides of the project (us and the client), there are some unreasonable expectations for how quickly and smoothly the project will go. The moment these expectations are broken (with delays, bad designs, coding bugs, etc.), each side gets irritated.

Lesson #1: WebDesigners are Creative Professionals, Not Labourers

Webdesigners are creative professionals with the same talent, skills and experience that any other professional might have.

Most people don’t tell their doctors or electricians how to do their jobs… why? Because most people recognize that doctors and electricians know more about their respective trades than they do. This seems to change with web designers though – lots of clients think that simply surfing the web qualifies them to make design decisions… meaning that they usually treat web designers as extensions of their own minds.

Because of this false-perception, clients often take us creative professionals are labourers who were born to do their work, not experienced professionals that are an equal part of the design process.

This can especially be the case with freelance web designers, where most clients are of the mindset that – if you don’t have an office, it means that you don’t have any work hours. Even freelance designers have work hours that must be respected.

Lesson #2: We know the web!


it’s important to understand that professional web designers are experts and that our opinion is grounded in research and professional experience.

Why? Because many clients just assume that because they've opened up Photoshop, or made a flier with Microsoft Word, that they are designers in their own right. This is actually a common misconception though so we point this out so clients understand that there is more than just a “gut feeling” behind our decisions.

We try our best to demonstrate these points by:

  • Walking clients through each major decision. 
  • When it is available: show research or data that support our decisions.
  • Showing examples of other successful sites that are using a certain technique that we’re also using.
  • Cite usability books, design principles, or other academic sources in our discussions.

Lesson #3: Communication is Crucial

Lack of communication and miscommunications can often destroy an entire project. As designers, we don’t have a crystal ball to read our clients’ minds – so understanding the importance of your feedback and involvement at each step of the project is vital.

This is a unique problem for web designers: Many clients tend to be very involved and vocal at the start of a project, but can become distant and increasingly quiet during the middle stages of a project. This leads designers to believe that everything is going well, until the end of a project when the client shows up with a laundry list of edits.

So, please understand that we need regular communication from the client’s end during the entire design process. From an issue as large as payment or billings to a matter as small as colour combinations of the website, regular communication between us will help produce a better product within limited time.

Lesson #4: The Web is a Different Medium Than Print

Some clients, especially the ones who are going through the web designing process for the first time, are unable to differentiate between print medium and the web. We encounter this a lot with older clients who are familiar with print advertising but are just now venturing into the web. For us web designers, we take for granted that our entire lives have probably been spent surfing the web… but it’s important to remember that there is a very large segment of the population for which the web is still a strange and foreign place.

Lesson #5: Feedback is Invited, Impositions are Not


There is a difference between having an open line of communication with a client, and that client feeling as though their voice commands your mouse and keyboard. The moment a client begins micromanaging a design (see this awesome comic for an illustration of this), it’s probably worth asking yourself whether you just want to take over the project yourself.

We try our very best to understand your likes and desires for your site but ultimately if you have a very fixed and rigid idea of the site design and functionality and want to micromanage the design then its best to look for a different designer.

Lesson #6: There is no Such Thing as ‘One Small Final Change’


One of the worst habits of web design clients is to ask for last minute changes, no matter how major or minor they are. I have seen clients who, after making the designer go through a tiring design process, approve a final design, only to change their minds at the last minute.

To the client changing the colour from red to black might seem a minor job, however, what they don’t know is that we might have to go back to the source file, export all the slices, modify the style-sheet, modify some other details to complement the new colour, and the list goes on. We would like you to understand that there is no such a thing as ‘one small change’.

We try to make this clear with a strict "revision" policy in our proposals where lists of changes are all done at the same time and a limited number of "revisions" are done until the site is completed, this lets us deliver your site in a timely way as explained in the example above, changes that you may think are minor could lead to days of extra work for the designer.

Lesson #7: Set Reasonable Deadlines


Every client in the world wants their site done “as soon as possible”. That’s fine… when I order a cheeseburger, I want it done quickly too.

We try our very best to set realistic and achievable deadlines, most designers and design studios work on a few jobs in parallel (or we would have to charge 10 times more to run one job at a time) so its a complicated job to work out the timing and mix it with other commitments which is why we are sticklers for details and sometimes get annoyed at the "one small change" (see lesson #6) :)

We try to split the project into logical steps and milestones that can be "signed" off as we go and its important that this process is understood from the beginning and which phases of the project come in which order, we do our best to explain this but please feel free to grill us and question us if you arent sure.

Lesson #8: The Terms In Your Contract Are Meant To Be Followed

Our proposal and Terms & conditions may be long but having a detailed contract is the single most important thing to ensure a smooth project and understanding as long as it is read thoroughly and completely.
If a client just accepts a proposal without reading it properly (we've all got used to clicking the "accept terms and conditions boxes without actually reading them!) then the client is more likely to impose their own assumptions should any problems arise.
If there is one thing we would implore ALL our clients and potential clients to do is READ THE PROPOSAL AND TERMS & CONDITIONS THOROUGHLY, understand what's involved and check out our FAQs.
A business website is a big undertaking and is your shop-front to the world, its worth taking 10 minutes to read how it will be designed and the processes and rules involved.

How many “contracts” have you signed in your life that you've never read? Lots of them, I'm sure. That’s probably fine if you’re signing a cell phone contract and want to avoid reading 25 pages of legal mumbo jumbo, but this should never be the case with your web design contract.

The Conclusion

One of the main challenges for any service-oriented business is to learn to manage clients successfully. Educating clients to our working practices and procedures has always been the wisest way to maintain good working relationships. Web designing, being an integral part of the service industry, follows the same rules. If the steps and rules governing the designing of your website are understood we can turn the web designing process into a pleasant experience for us and for our clients.