Letting Bad Design Decisions Happen

Apr 7 2011 by Jason Gross | 15 Comments

Letting Bad Design Decisions Happen

For a web designer — whether you work in a design agency, a design department of a large company, or as a freelancer — it’s a rare occasion that you embark on a project totally on your own. The creation and deployment of a new website is almost always a team activity comprised of clients, employers, other designers, and developers.

Our role as web designers is much more than just creating an aesthetically pleasing web design. It’s our job to be the experts on how web pages will feel and how people visiting the site will use them. Web designers should be responsible for asserting design best practices for accomplishing the project’s needs and objectives. This role should not be taken casually.

Establishing Your Role

Before any pixels are paved, website projects should start with a set of goals and a discussion of how to reach those goals. Timelines are laid out, work is divided, and paths are drawn out to drive the project towards the desired outcomes. It is here, during the planning stage, that a designer must first set their feet and establish his roles and responsibilities. Having an open discussion with your client or your boss about the direction you think a design should take is a critical step to ensuring that all project members arel on the same page.

Having an initial meeting with a client or employer will rarely result in a perfect conversation where both parties are in total agreement on every point of how a new web design should be carried out. However, for the designer, it can often be hard to speak up to the person who is signing her check. Designers who have a hard time telling the person they are working with that they are making a bad decision are putting themselves at an early disadvantage.

Even though this client works exclusively with people, they insisted that their new site include pictures of their horses.Even though this client works exclusively with people, they insisted that their new site include pictures of their horses.

Taking the Shot

For any designer who has done more than a few projects with a variety of people, it will start to become evident that there are patterns and warning signs in site design planning discussions that ultimately lead up to bad design decisions. Oftentimes these decisions fall along the lines of misuse of space, color, alignment, and the like. Years of experience and data analysis on various areas of web design most often provide the web designer with the knowledge and ample ammunition to make the right call in these situations.

This is the time in the process when, for example, you need to tell your client that you won’t condense all the content at the top of a web page simply because they believe the "above the fold" myth.

Despite the fact that better readability can be achieved with increased line-heights, the client assumed users would not scroll to read the text.

Confidently expressing your expert opinion will often go a long way towards helping clients realize that they employ web designers for a lot more than knowledge of design software, HTML and CSS.

If necessary, you may even want to dig into some facts and show clients the results of studies to back you up; there are plenty of usability studies and articles on the Web to help you make your case.

Working in a dialog with your clients will help you reach an ideal solution and allow you to execute a new design in the best way possible, ensuring that you are doing your part to bring this project into the light of great web design.

However, what happens when the client pushes back? People with predisposed opinions about how their website should look can often have a hard time playing the give-and-take game with their ideas.

How hard should a web designer fight for a good design decision before they throw in the towel and let a bad design decision happen?

When to Push Back

Some things should never be compromised. If a client tells you that this brand new site needs to be designed for an Internet Explorer 5.5 audience — unless their is just cause for designing specifically for this outdated browser (I doubt there is) — the informed designer needs to let the client know that they will walk out the door before even starting that project. Refusing to fold to huge design and development blunders will often pay off in the end. Generally, a professional conversation about why you, as a designer, refuse to implement a poor idea will win most battles.

Apart from the project at hand, drawing a line between where you can deviate from best practices and where you can’t has long term implications on your career. Working on projects that you have lost enthusiasm for because you know they could be better is a huge drain on creativity and can bleed over to your other work.

In addition, you are likely losing a potential portfolio piece when you have to dumb down that great design to IE 5.5 standards. When your portfolio is full of top-of-the-line work that follows best practices and web design standards, it will lead to better projects where clients care about the value of these things. So fighting to keep those portfolio pieces in tact can often be a good incentive for you to push back against bad ideas.

When to Throw in the Towel

On the other hand, we need to consider the amount of time it can take to demonstrate and argue the pros and cons of every bad idea. For any project that has a deadline attached to it — a.k.a. all of them — time can be a pretty huge factor, especially for individuals who just seem to be full of bad ideas for their website.

At the end of the day, we could have spent all afternoon fighting to inject our professional opinion all over the project, but if the work doesn’t get done, the bills don’t get paid.

For anyone who takes design seriously enough for it to be his or her primary source of income, the business side of things can be an important factor in helping them decide to let bad ideas happen.

If a client wants to put a video player on their home page that auto-plays even though your experience shows that website users hate this, you should spend some time to argue against it. But if the client still won’t budge, then maybe you should just let it slide.

After all, if it’s going to make our customer happy and it doesn’t cost us anything, then maybe this time we can let it go.

Keyword-stuffing will hurt your search engine rankings these days.

We all want every project to be a home run, but we also can’t afford to watch every pitch go by waiting for the right opportunity.

Defining Your Principles and Standards

I know what you’re going to say. By suggesting that designers throw in the towel and execute their clients’ terrible ideas, I’m promoting a bad mindset and practice. Marquees and animated GIFs are going to make a comeback if clients had their way all the time.

What’s important to keep in mind is that, as I’ve said earlier, every designer should draw up a line he or she won’t cross. A designer should define their personal standards of what is and isn’t acceptable, and what is and isn’t negotiable — and then the designer should stick to it firmly.

Not every project makes it into your portfolio or reaches the distinction of being design-gallery-worthy. We all have projects that we aren’t proud of; skeletons in the closet that we tend to hide from the rest of the world. Why do we still do those projects? Because they pay the mortgage.

It is a fact that, at the end of the day, our craft is also our source of income. We are all motivated by financial incentives, and plenty of people have done much worse in order to make a buck.

For designers that are new to the field or are thinking about getting involved on a more professional level, it is easy to get swept away in the plethora of fantastic designs made available to learn from. But what you see in design showcases and your favorite designer’s portfolio does not reflect most of the design work that brings home the bacon.

Don’t Take the Client’s Ideas for Granted

Don’t ignore your clients’ opinions on how their website should be designed. Any time you make a website for someone else, you can be assured that they know their target market better than you do (at least, at the start).

Making big decisions about the direction of a web design should be a dialog. Multiple parties come together to work on the project because they all have something to contribute. The best results come out of a professional collaboration where everyone involved respects the opinion of their colleagues.

With that said, it’s inevitable that there will be areas of conflict where one person’s suggestion will move forward, while the others are shot down.

For the designer who is looking to make a happy living doing what they love, it’s important that they learn to walk the line between building the perfect website and letting bad design decisions happen.

Do you sometimes execute a concept or change that you know could be better if you ignored the request of a client? What have you learned from being in situations where you disagree with other parties on a web design project?

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About the Author

Jason Gross is a freelance web designer focused on creating clean and user friendly websites. Jason currently lives in Indiana and can be found on Twitter as @JasonAGross or on the web at his personal blog and portfolio.

15 Comments

Michael

April 7th, 2011

Customers think they know what good design is, but unfortunately they rarely understand anything at all about design.
I guess, as a designer you also need to be a great salesperson in order to get the customer onside with your ideas. Otherwise it is a battle and you will never be happy with the work you produce.

Daniel

April 7th, 2011

Good post – as a fellow freelance designer I have experienced almost all of this. I am only just starting to learn when to speak up, or walk away. I used to let my designs get butchered by the client for the sake of getting the project finished (because I really wanted them to go away). I think the most important thing to remember when arguing a point against a client is to back up your argument with evidence, facts and expertise. Not simply say “I disagree” but explain reasons why. Usually they are unprepared to argue back, as they really wouldn’t have a clue what they are talking about in the first place.

ksin303

April 7th, 2011

So true, word by word. I’m on the phone right now, and I just let a few bad design decisions to be made. They pay.
Now I only take care for my own sites and services. I had to waste a few years to recognize this. Great article!

Michelle

April 7th, 2011

I agree that time is a huge factor in letting bad design decisions slide. However, those of us who work in inhouse web teams don’t really have the option of “walking out the door” for a project. Sometimes the CEO says that’s what he wants, you can’t do anything about it. Loss of enthusiasm and creativity indeed.

Luis

April 7th, 2011

Great article! I think the “line you shouldn’t” cross is that one that divides the work made with objective dialog and professional respect from the ones in which the client just want you to implement what he/she wants to be done.

ngw

April 7th, 2011

Wonderful article, really.
The only thing that probably is worth asking is: should a designer care more about his “customer” (the person who pays for the job) or about his customer’s customers (people who will generate a return) ?
If the designer lets some bad decisions go isn’t he mining the returns his customer will have from the work done, and the probability the customer will come back as a consequence ?
Would be very interested to know your opinion.

Tom

April 7th, 2011

LOL, great picture to start the article off!

Adrian

April 7th, 2011

First image is veru interesting, monkeys rocks :d

Jason Gross

April 7th, 2011

@ngw I would argue that a “customers customers” are the more important group. Ultimately a web design’s value and effectiveness are judged by how that group interacts with the site.

I will say that most clients I have had do have an understanding and an appreciation for that. Generally speaking anyone who owns or is an important part of a business understands the value of putting their customers first. A lot of times these clients will be pursuing a web site because they feel it is a convenience for their customer base. So we tend to generally be on the same page.

Kelvin Lee

April 7th, 2011

Great article! I too had these questions when I first started freelancing in the field. Like Jason said, IMHO defining your principles and standards, drawing the line of what you will do and what you will not is critical to being a successful freelance developer/designer, but you probably won’t know how to draw this line until after you’ve got your hands dirty on some bad designs for “nothing”. Hard lessons FTW.

Vladislavs Judins

April 8th, 2011

There is a great quote from Steve: Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations

Tom Auger

April 8th, 2011

Good article, though I personally would have liked to see more in the way of recommendations or best practices for helping an opinionated client see that she is recommending a bad design decision.

But let us not forget that we are in the business of _commercial_ design: that is to say, we are all prostitutes at some level or another. There are very few of us that can pull the Mad Men style of dictating to the client exactly what they need: clients are much more savvy about marketing than they were in the 60′s and the commercial design industry has lost some (possibly most) of the mystique that it had back then. So as Jason points out, compromise is usually the word of the [insert measurement of time here].

However, as designers, we are supposed to be the experts on what works, visually. We have been educated in basic design principles, and unlike most of our clients, we spend all day, every day, looking at, working on and considering visuals and their impact. It is therefore our responsibility to point out pitfalls, gaffes, mistakes and other blunders that a client might request.

Respectfully. And always remembering that our very expertise can also be a bias. We might think that a lot of whitespace, an open leading, and a sparse design is the most aesthetically pleasing (and can probably back it up with countless examples), but the client potentially has some good business reasons, or some insights into its target audience, their buying cycle, or the competitive space that gives their requests validity.

An approach that we use at Zeitguys is to:
- remind the client that we are the curators of their visual aesthetic
- let the client know that we WILL accommodate every request
- let the client know that we will focus on the SPIRIT of the request rather than the LETTER
- request clarification about the INTENT of a client’s request, in cases where the request is very specific (move that logo over to the right, center this block of text)

With the above points in mind, gently craft a boilerplate paragraph, which you can insert into your written communications, or that you can paraphrase in your phone conversations or meetings. You will have the framework for establishing a respectful relationship with your more opinionated customers.

CodeMyConcept

April 8th, 2011

You should be able to know your limits and if you realize too late, tell always the truth and give out a solution.

Carlton Barnette

April 9th, 2011

We’ve had several situations just like what you described in the article, and I can certainly admit that knowing where “that line” is isn’t an easy thing for us. I will say that running our own business, rather than working for a firm or agency, is more empowering and allows me to keep more of my creative spirit. I can decide when to let a project go or not, rather than being forced to complete something I no longer have any passion for.

One thing we’re trying to do more this year is use our blog to educate potential clients more about how we operate and what the standards and hot styles are right now. We hope that this will help to get potential clients in the mindset of truly viewing us as the experts we are. Anything we design is of course going to take their vision into consideration, but we’re going to put the spin on it that we think will take their company to the next level. Hopefully knowing this in advance will help to weed out the straight-laced clients or at least help them to come into a project with a more open mind.

We also encourage potential clients to view our portfolio, as it’s the best indication of how we visualize concepts. And we take the time to describe our work and concept designs so that others can get an idea of where we were coming from with certain designs. Again, this might help to solve problems before they come up if our potential clients can get an understanding of how we work before they sign contracts and pay for work.

Of course, there will still be problems that arise because we can’t account for everything. And when that happens, we still need to understand how to proceed professionally to do what’s best for both the client and ourselves. Your article has been a great help to this end! I think the main thing I’ve taken away is that when we get to the point where we no longer care how the project turns out, it’s time to respectfully throw in the towel. Otherwise, the client won’t get work they’ll be truly happy with, and we won’t be proud of what we’ve created because we did so out of haste and without caring.

Great read!

Roshni

July 7th, 2011

Great article thank you. :)

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