Drawing the Line: 6 Things You Shouldn’t Tolerate in Projects

Jul 23 2010 by Sacha Greif | 39 Comments

Drawing the Line: 6 Things You Shouldn't Tolerate in Projects

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.

Cheapskate Clients

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.

Terrible Logos

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.

Bad Names

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.

Further Thoughts

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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About the Author

Sacha Greif is a web designer from Paris, France who specializes in user interfaces and theme design. Visit his personal site at sachagreif.com. He blogs about design at AttackOfDesign.com and his latest WordPress portfolio theme is Silverio. Follow him on Twitter: @SachaGreif

39 Comments

HotCustard

July 23rd, 2010

Good article, and all valid points. Bad Logos are my pet hate, sometimes the client insists on them and you know full well your going to have a hard time making the site look good with that amature jpg stuck on it. saying that, my last client had a quite nice logo, which certainly made the job easier.

appde

July 23rd, 2010

Hi Sacha
Hear hear to everything you’ve said… especially #2 – and small jobs can be the worst.

Marie

July 23rd, 2010

Bravo Sacha pour cet article intéressant qui va, je l’espère, encourager la profession à éduquer petit à petit les clients…

Jacob Gube

July 23rd, 2010

For those wondering what @Marie said, Google Translate translated it as such:

Sasha Bravo for a great article that will, hopefully, encourage the profession to educate customers gradually …

Sacha — though you can’t tell it by the way he skillfully writes — is from Paris, France.

James

July 23rd, 2010

Great points here – I particularly agree about the logo needing to be up to scratch. It’s so annoying when a client has a terrible logo and refuses to budge on it – It detracts from the overall design.

Is your opinion that 99Designs is just all round bad for logos then?

Anne

July 23rd, 2010

One of the best articles I’ve read in a while re. client issues. Really like your writing style too.

Laeti

July 23rd, 2010

Thanks for your article, very helpful, very humble, very funny! and very well written :-)

JayKhatri

July 23rd, 2010

Living in a small town, here all clients are like that. If I leave all, i will have no projects. But your post is really true. My several website don’t look gud due to their own forcybles and very bad logos. Cannot make brands in this case.

John

July 23rd, 2010

Brilliantly written. Thanks for your insight.

Zoe Feast

July 23rd, 2010

First of all let me say that from the quality of the copy on this post I would never have guessed that English wasn’t your native language, so bravo for you!
You have made some really great points here. A good solid contract will take care of the cheapskate client. One of my biggest gripes is the client who come to you without any business plan and then expect you to craft one for them.

Sacha

July 23rd, 2010

@All

Thanks for the praise! I wrote that article as a way to promise to myself that I wouldn’t compromise on those points. So I’m glad to see it’s helpful to others as well!

@James

To be fair, I don’t think 99Designs logos are necessarily bad. But what often happens is that clients end up choosing the logo that they like best, even if it has major flaws that a designer would’ve seen (this is exactly what happened with a client of mine, and the worst part is that there were other perfectly good logos among the contest results).

Cliff

July 23rd, 2010

Props to you for both sharing your experiences and writing better english than half of the people at my school.

As for #4, it’s hard to judge when a name is “bad”. I’m sure whoever thought Google would be a bad name surely doesn’t think so now. Or xkcd which is pretty popular now, or BCBGMAXAZRIA. But lol at “It’s about callaway golf clubs” I guess sometimes you know when there’s a bad name…but not always! Just cause I may think so doesn’t mean the rest of their market might if you know what I’m sayin?

Scott

July 23rd, 2010

I think the key issue with this is your first point, Client Centered Design. If your client is an OK person and you get along with them, it’s a lot easier to work around their poor logos and copy than if you don’t like them. Also I agree with the posts above about your writing style and use of the English language, well done!

Nathaniel

July 23rd, 2010

Dude, great thoughts. I really liked how you compared having a great website with terrible copy to a pig =p

I love that image though. So many people want something cool but aren’t cool themselves. What I mean by this is that people offer a product that is quite lackluster but want it packaged in such a way that makes it look great. “Hey! Yeah, it’s a pile of shit, but it sure does look great, doesn’t it?”

Sacha

July 23rd, 2010

@Cliff

Good point, and I bet a lot of people said that “flickr” was an awful name too because it was missing a vowel. So like you said, it’s hard to know for sure. Just use your best judgment!

Young

July 23rd, 2010

HAHA awesome article Sacha!
My current project is guilty of the first 3.
I should’ve really put my foot down on the contract I guess, but this article makes me laugh with regret.

Christi

July 23rd, 2010

Great Article!
And BEWARE of web design projects for FAMILY MEMBERS…never a good idea.

Kristin

July 23rd, 2010

This makes it sound like every site you design you must have on your own portfolio… many times my clients are non-profits or start up companies that can’t spend thousands of dollars having a slick brand made or a professional writer do all the copy. I often offer to go through and make copy edits/suggestions myself since I have experience in that realm, but often my client has a poorly designed logo and there’s really nothing much I can do about it. “But I already invested $XXX in this brand, had it printed everywhere etc and it’s too late.” Sucks but this is often the case. The best I can hope to do is alter it slightly (or a lot if their open to it), so it’s recognizable as the same brand, but less crappy.

Editha Fuentes

July 23rd, 2010

Excellent article!!! Thank you! :D

Anna

July 23rd, 2010

Great topic. I just ‘fired’ a client for switching out a font to Comic Sans, and not paying their bills on time. It’s all about creating our own ‘design boundaries’ isn’t it?

One helpful trick I’ve learned: offer two rates (production, only … leave your design rate where it is) to a client on the outset of a job or jobs. If they pay in a timely manner (like some of my government clients do), my rate slips to the lower fee. It’s an especially great way to secure clients for the long-term.

Anna

Federico Capoano

July 23rd, 2010

Hey, this is a GREAT article with very valuable insights. I didn’t see such a good article around for a while.

I completely agree with you and I have to say the truth, by applying this concepts I ended up working much less than I used before, but the gain in quality is unvaluable.

It’s a matter of choice. Quality over quantity.

Keep it up.
Fed

Heather Goff

July 23rd, 2010

great article. thank you!

Joanna @BOCOCreative

July 23rd, 2010

More often than not a prospective client/project falls into one of the above categories. While it’s important to seek that “perfect” match, we need to be realistic and understand that we’re not out there to build better businesses (re: no business strategy) but simply business websites. With each project we create, we learn & we get paid. That’s the goal, isn’t it?

Bratu Sebastian

July 23rd, 2010

Yes, very true, i’ve had all of this, and when I began refusing clients because they didn’t understand that he needs to trust me, I actually got more clients.

And it was worth it.

Great tutorial!

Sean

July 23rd, 2010

Great article, really enjoyed reading it! Point 6. struck a chord with me as I’ve seen the results of not having a good business strategy unfold first hand – rather disastrous! Thanks for the good read, I’ll be on the lookout for these.

Abid Omar

July 23rd, 2010

I think the most interesting point is finding like-minded clients. A good indicator is their mastery of the language (probably English). If they can’t communicate well their ideas, you’ll very unlikely understand their needs and provide what they want. The result is a dispute and a loss of time and money from the two parts.

Sacha

July 24th, 2010

Thanks for all the feedback! It’s true that in some cases we don’t have a choice. Maybe we need the money, or really want to work with a particular client, and so we accept the job even if it’s less than perfect.

However, I think that if you’re considering the long term then you definitely need a strategy for the type of projects you accept. Of course, I’m not saying that nobody should ever consider working for a client with a bad logo or bad business plan. Those are just my own personal criteria, and maybe yours will be different.

Enjel Ledona

July 24th, 2010

Whoah yeah! Great article.

Numbers 3, 4 and 6 nailed it!

Thanks for posting.

Singh

July 24th, 2010

Very nice post.

Luke

July 25th, 2010

Great post, brings back some memorys

ladz

July 25th, 2010

true words! great article, thanks!

WDK

July 26th, 2010

Great article Sacha, the hardest thing for me to learn when I setup on my own was how to be stronger willed, working in an agency you have people to do that for you

Jafar

July 26th, 2010

I’m using this in my next contract. They must pass this test or agree to work around this.

Great article.

David

July 27th, 2010

Nice article, whilst freelancing i found that i ended up doing more work than i should have done, for what i was paid, in some cases i did double the amount of work for not much extra money. Whilst working as a developer for creative agency’s i had people to deal with clients and pre-arrange all the financial details.
Thanks for posting.

komet

July 28th, 2010

I am just working on project for a client who fulfills 3 points from this list.

Terrible copy, logo….
The changes requested made the decent looking web disaster.
ehhh…

Ritika

August 9th, 2010

Gr8 Article…I still face most of the points you’ve listed here. I’ll definitely follow the rules next time :)

milly

April 17th, 2011

Yes, Client Centered Design! I understand when a client is a small business owner and they want the design to reflect their personality. When you own a small business, you are a major part of the brand and so it makes sense that you would want a website that represents you and your style.

However, you get a lot of clients who want you to make UI decisions based on their own preferences. I had one client who wanted some annoying UI features. I pushed back, but he insisted. Then when the users started complaining, his response was to explain to them that they were wrong about their UI preferences!

You also get clients who expect the site to only work in the browser they use, or with the add-ons they use, which drives me up the wall.

Cinthy Revilla

October 12th, 2011

jsajajajaja I am just so reflected by your article! That swan logo was the best of my day, I have seen so many like it… I am definetely going to write my own review inspired in your article but focused on my country perspective. Thanks for the best inspiration ever!

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