May 18, 2007

Freedom, Terrible Freedom

Last week I was lending an ear to an anonymous Californian designer friend who needed to vent about an uppity client. This client didn’t approve of what my friend was trying to achieve with a design, and for that, the client was lambasted for not “getting it”. It may just be my science-fiction addled brain, but this got me thinking about good and bad clients, and those designers (me among them at times) wishing for a client utopia, where every client understands and respects what design and designers can do for them. But, if the general populace “got” design, what would really change? Would it be more distopia than utopia?

Think about it, what if all clients were on the same page as us regarding design? Would the marketplace would be overrun by designers, or people merely peddling design as a commodity? Where the demand is high, and the supply can easily be high to match, prices plummet and quality usually follows. Additionally, with clients just accepting our words and work for what we tell them they mean, would we stop fighting battles for good design, and stop challenging ourselves to create it?

I’m a bit of a stalwart optimist and I’ve always considered that I need bad or, more appropriately, challenging clients. I’m not talking about clients that withhold respect, try to do my job, or undermine recommendations based on fear. No one wants those kinds. I mean clients that push us to create better things and to be better designers. Clients that want to learn, and want to question.

So, is “bad design” actually part of the “good design” equation? Can we qualify good design without bad design? Please, do tell.

Commentary (32):

1. Dan says… may 18, 2007 | 8:40 am

You make an excellent point. I very often find myself complaining about my clients and how their ideas are crappy, etc. Realistically, if I didn’t have the bad clients, I wouldn’t appreciate the jobs that go really well, where the clients are willing to let you take an idea and run with it. Like any job, designing has its ups and downs, and crappy clients is just one of the downs.

2. Garrett Dimon says… may 18, 2007 | 8:47 am

It’s a necessary evil, but in a kind of good way. It’s also important to distinguish, as you did, between a lack of respect and a lack of understanding on their part.

A lack of respect is a serious problem in any relationship, business or otherwise, but a lack of understanding, paired with an interest in learning, makes for a great challenge.

3. sho’fr says… may 18, 2007 | 9:15 am

everything in the world is relative:

sports cars are only fast compared to other cars
bill gates is only rich compared to other people

design is no different. good design only exists because it can be compared and deemed “better”.

since the nature of humans is to create then improve, there will always be a previous version for comparison. Thus, even if everyone agreed today, tomorrow would be unpredictable when someone shakes things up again.

4. Seth Aldridge says… may 18, 2007 | 9:38 am

I have always thought a great tool to educate people on design without giving them too much information would be to have a “Reality Show” about designers…kind of like the OC Choppers show.

Before that show came out there were tons of people who knew a lot about choppers and a lot of people that thought they were just motorcycles…there was no difference other than visually. It would be the same as the Miami Ink show. Now the general public can see exactly what it takes to create a tattoo.

Something like this would help educate the general public while not giving them the design skills to actually do it. :)

I do think it is a necessary evil however. It makes us as designers actually design. If every website were a walk in the park we would never grow or learn new techniques. I learn the most from clients that don’t like my work initially. It forces you to think differently about a piece from a different perspective…which can never be a bad thing.

5. Matt Wilcox says… may 18, 2007 | 9:54 am

I always think that it’s a designers responsibility to ensure that the client ‘gets it’. If the client doesn’t understand the intentions or explanation from the designer then it is the designers job to clarify this. On the other hand, if the client ‘gets it’ but doesn’t agree, that can be a pain in the ass - but it’s then up to the designer to find out what the client wants, and why.

Sure, there are clients that can be a real hard time to work with, but that’s only ever occurred when I’m trying to make the best possible design for users, but the client wants the best design for themselves. It’s an important distinction, and when it happens I think it’s best to just forget the end user, write off any aspirations of doing a good job you had, and do something to please the client. It’s near impossible to change their mindset in those situations.

Not all clients are good clients, some don’t understand what it’s all about - but I’m tempted to believe there’s no such thing as a bad client - just a designer that can’t adapt to a different set of requirements.

6. Rachel says… may 18, 2007 | 10:14 am

I tend to agree with Matt. Although it’s not always (er, never) fun to swallow an “ignorant” client’s feedback, 99.9% of the time there is some reality or truth behind it. They may not be presenting their feedback in the way that a good designer could critique it, and taken literally they could be very wrong. But as a designer, I try to understand why they have the response that they do and dig deeper to understand the real source of why they want to make the changes that they suggest. I have also found that asking objective questions to better understand their reasoning often makes the client rethink what they are asking for, and that can help bring them around too, without just going “design professor” on them, or getting defensive.

It never hurts to remind them that the audience you are trying to reach, and the client themselves are not one and the same. But before you respond, listen and think and try to understand - for as long as possible.

Believe me, it has definitely crossed my mind as I’m fuming over some bad feedback…if my client knew as much as I do about design, they wouldn’t be paying me to do this! :)

7. Wilson Miner says… may 18, 2007 | 11:38 am

Design is what gives a designer his power. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.

8. Nathan Borror says… may 18, 2007 | 11:39 am

I think clients need to start understanding that hiring a designer is a lot like hiring a lawyer. You need one because they save you. I think designers need to get more comfortable with that analogy and start charging appropriately.

9. Nate Cavanaugh says… may 18, 2007 | 11:54 am

It’s tempting to want to live in a world where we’re never challenged, and where the client always trusts us, but if that were the case, we would almost never improve.

The creative conflict we have with clients is one of the staples that drives good design.

It forces us to reach down deep, and find a solution that fills both parties needs.

Yes there are times when it’s just not possible to please both parties, but most of the time, there is some good compromise that can be reached.

The fact is, any group left to its own, without challenge will go bad.
It’s just the nature of humanity.

If designer’s had no real conflict from clients, then the entire design community would deteriorate, one bit at a time. We would stop seeing problems that need to be solved, and start just designing to our whims, and thereby become worse designers.
Design is about solving problems, and when we no longer think in those terms, we’re harming our clients.

Yes, there is an aspect of art to it, but in the end, designers with clients are trying to solve problems. A designer without a problem is an artist.
Which is fine.
If you want a sculpture of a car, ask an artist. If you want to sell the car, you’re going to need the designer.

And, just to qualify all of this, I am not saying that all client conflict is good.
We’ve all had those abrasive, rude clients, who feel the need to curse us out over nothing, who forget to sign the checks they mail out, and who call back over and over again, way after the projects been completed, trying to worm free work out of us.

I’m not talking about that kind of thing. I’m speaking about the times when we all do some sooper-wowzer-marific design for a client, and they tell us no.

We think it’s the coolest thing since sliced bread, and we think we know the customer better than they do.
Sometimes we do, but many times, they do as well.

I’m talking about those times where an educated client will still come back with a no.
The times when we have to reach down, and turn that blank PSD canvas into something they not only like, but their clients can use, and we’re happy enough to put into our portfolio.

And those moments, I believe, is when we are truly growing.

10. Colin Devroe says… may 18, 2007 | 12:29 pm

Agreed. You’ve got to have a bad steak once and awhile to know what a good steak is.

For a better comparison, look at anything I’ve ever designed to see what a bad steak looks like on screen.

Nice writeup.

11. Mickie C. says… may 18, 2007 | 12:52 pm

The comment about designers being akin to lawyers is incisive. We (counting myself) who do not understand design, or law, or car mechanics, rely on the professionals to help and guide us.

Not knowing what’s even possible, preferable, workable, and having a strong opinion about something can create a nasty monster with which to contend.

However, I think you might agree, there’s no good story without Darth Vader in it.

12. Simmy says… may 18, 2007 | 1:07 pm

Nice writeup indeed. The older I get the less I want to bitch and moan about this issue and instead, design my way out of the situation. At some point you’ve got to realize that if you don’t have tough skin and the mental capacity to take a less-than-ideal client situation as a challenge and not an affront to your ego, you shouldn’t be a designer… you should think about being an artist.

I’m speaking in generalizations here - the 9 times out of 10. Of course there is always that one client who deserves a good torturing; who can take the most exciting project and turn it into a shitstorm.

13. Tom says… may 18, 2007 | 2:07 pm

As an in-house web designer, I have perpetually “challenging” clients, but some are outright challenged.

I can recall some cases where I had what I thought was an excceptional design that was reeled back to accommodate sales copy or something. In direct mail (spam!) that sort of thing is inevitable.

The tough part is when someone makes an uninformed decision because of ego, or worse yet, the need to put a fingerprint on a project. Get a few of these people together and that type of project just won’t die.

The point is, there is delineation. Picky people with purpose are totally different animals than aimless people driven by a desire to be included where they’re not needed (or wanted). It’s most certainly an issue of usefulness vs. politics in my company.

My current existential crisis revolves around this and my personal need to participate in more meaningful (or socially responsible) design projects. Direct mail and marketing may pay the bills, but it’s not worth 3.5 hours a day in a car, nor an extra 15K. Is it? Perhaps that’s another topic for another day.

14. Greg says… may 18, 2007 | 2:43 pm

> Design is what gives a designer his power. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.

It also has this nasty habit of riding-up just as you’re about to meet with a client for a couple of hours.

15. Eric Strauss says… may 19, 2007 | 10:22 pm

Yea, I think being pushed is a good thing.

Designers and their clients see the world differently. They both add valuable insight to the project. If we all thought the same, it wouldn’t be that way.

But what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’? Design is subjective and open to interpretation. What’s ‘good’ now may be ‘bad’ later or vice versa. Maybe it’s not about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ but rather about what works. And more to the point, maybe it’s about what designers and their clients can agree on.

16. Jason Robb says… may 21, 2007 | 9:45 am

Nice thoughts Jas.

Sometimes I feel like I’m perched high on a cliff, and can see the whole thing so clearly. Design, to me, is putting all that into perspective for someone still making there way up the mountain.

Sometimes we just need them to believe us. Because we see it everyday, in everything.

17. Ryan says… may 21, 2007 | 10:04 am

This is an excellent point. I don’t think that we can qualify good design without bad design…

As much as I don’t like to admit, it is often the difficult clients that challenge us to do some of our best work.

18. Lucian says… may 21, 2007 | 12:32 pm

Clients seem to have to give their .02 because it makes them feel like they’re getting their money’s worth. I find it odd that this happens all the time in design - the client asserts power just because he/she holds the money. You don’t see many patients telling the doctor what to do.

Design is accessible to many; good design mastered by a few. Clients need to remember that the good designer serves their customers, not them. Pandering to clients is easy.

19. Breandán says… may 21, 2007 | 4:59 pm

The weird thing about design, as opposed to law, is that most clients harbour a secret deep-down feeling that they are, themselves, actually incredibly talented at design. Unlike programming, or law, or bridge-building, which all require obvious technical skills, clients tend to make the assumption that design is about “having a good eye.” Not noticing the technical craft of design, the skilled part, most clients say to themselves,

Sure, I can pick out a beautiful tie with my suit every day, and just look at the gold trim option on my Lexus/Volvo! Clearly I am a person of taste and refinement … so what can this designer-guy do that I can’t? I could obviously do better, if I just had time … look at my beautiful granite kitchen counters if you don’t believe me!

Basically, clients with taste assume themselves to be also creative, in the generative sense — they can’t separate taste from creative aesthetics, because they don’t have the technical skills and experience that make a design a skilled profession.

All of which makes these designer/client wrangles particularly bitter, in my opinion. Of course, the question of bad vs. good design (as referenced in the earlier MySpace thread) often comes down to sophisticated vs. unsophisticated taste, in the end .…

20. Taylor says… may 21, 2007 | 7:51 pm

What a great topic. I agree that we should always be working to do our best to solve the problems of both the client AND the user. When the client wants an option that we may disagree upon, it is up to us to give them a better option, and JUSTIFY the option, even if they don’t want to go with it. I think a lot of designers try to design things so they “look nice” and while everyone loves a pretty picture, designing in this way leaves nothing to back us up when we try to stand for our design.

And I also agree, you can’t appreciate good design (however you may define it) without a bad streak. Just as we can’t TRULY appreciate the great clients (they DO exist, i swear it) without putting up with a few bad apples.

All in all, I think the challenge and balance of good and evil is what makes being a designer worth it. Yay Graphic Design!!

21. Chris Coyier says… may 22, 2007 | 2:47 pm

If the world were filled with “perfect” clients who went along with any designer’s whim, I agree with your speculation, design would become a commodity and come free with any extra value meal purchase.

I think of it like I think of the lady who cut in front of me in line at the bank. Sure, I’ll call her a filthy bitch and stomp my feet, but if the world were filled with perfectly curtious and complacent chaps like myself the world would be a pretty boring place.

22. Rich says… may 23, 2007 | 12:02 pm
The weird thing about design […] is that most clients harbour a secret deep-down feeling that they are, themselves, actually incredibly talented at design.

Very well put. That to me can be one of the toughest things to deal with in working with a customer. When working for a client on a design, I really try to steer the conversation towards what the need in terms of the business (highlight a product or services) rather than what they want (Flash, animations, unnecessary icons). Also, it’s tough when the user sees a feature that works in the context of a successful page or application, then wants to apply that feature into their project regardless of whether or not it makes sense from a design perspective.

23. Respiro says… may 26, 2007 | 6:36 am

Jason, I see this complex issue a little bit different. Let’s say that in every case we, the designers, start working on a project after we have a detailed project description and our client’s detailed preferences.

I think that in such cases we have 3 strong elements:

1. we were chosen because our client likes our style - so, we already know something about his/her preferences
2. we know our client’s preferences regarding to the design style and regarding to any other design-related consideration by having our client’s answers to our questions
3. we know the project’s detailed description as we asked for all the details

Having these generous package of information we have no right to go wrong.

I think that the client has to understand that the intervention in the details can compromise an entire concept.

My very first concern is to understand my client’s needs. My second [or third?…] concern is to be respected and I believe that if I understood what my client is looking for I will meet his/her needs and the edgy situations will be avoided.

24. Respiro says… may 26, 2007 | 6:44 am

One more thing…

The budget’s size has a big influence on a project’s success or… even more: it is possible that it will determine it.

It is not the same if someone wants to hire me by paying $500 or $5,000. In the second case I’ll have financial freedom and time [!] to go wherever is needed [back and forth] for the expected solution and result.

25. Tanya says… may 28, 2007 | 11:08 am

honest point of view…not always what I want to hear but very true…
I was also looking for a tutorial or action that will give the look of authentic weathered edging to paper.
Your sites a plethora…gracias!

26. mr. bill says… may 29, 2007 | 12:04 pm

My clients are all retards. Goddamned it. Stupid monkeys. I hate them. And thats exactly why they are right about 50% of their design and usability ideas. Morons though.

I’m a “designer” sure and I know all the trends. I read designer blogs and spend all my free-time with design-ideas in my head. Thats exactly why I have such a terrible time communicating with people who aren’t “designers”. The worst part is of course that Im supposed to be designing stuff for people who aren’t fucking designers!

I wish I were dead.

27. Eric Toledo says… may 30, 2007 | 12:32 pm

Clients, clients…

I don’t believe in total freedom for the artist. Left on his own, free to do anything he likes, the artist ends up doing nothing at all. If there’s one thing that’s dangerous for an artist, it’s precisely this question of total freedom, waiting for inspiration and all the rest of it.

- Federico Fellini

I love this quote. I think it says it all about designers and clients. Think of how many things would never have been created if there was not someone pushing us to do better.

28. Dale Tan says… may 30, 2007 | 6:37 pm

Sorry if I am already mentioning something someone already said, but I believe that the “bad design” is apart of the “good design” process.

For one, it just weasels out the ideas you don’t want.

If your client has certain ideas of how they want the site designed, it’s the designers responsibility to steer the client away from the “bad design” and go towards the “good” side. This is really just an exercise for us being able to communicate our point and make the connection from the design to the client, as frustrating as that may be.

29. Joe Clay says… jun 2, 2007 | 11:34 pm

I didn’t read most of this, so pardon me if I’m repeating things here. I agree with Nathan (#8).

Why does one hire a lawyer? Because they don’t know the law.

Why does one hire a plumber? Because they don’t know plumbing.

Why does one hire a designer? Because they don’t know design!

Now, the only problem is, how do you say that exact same thing without becoming a pompous ass in the eyes of the client? Aye, there’s the rub.

30. Vernon says… jun 5, 2007 | 9:15 am

I’ve been designing sites since 2002 as my full-time gig and have came across my fair share (as most) of “difficult” clients. I’ve come to understand that even though I may offer logical design advice and counsel, there are some clients who just don’t care. They have an idea of what they want their site to look like and regardless of how I explain how they may miss out on certain “benefits” they want what they want.

This is when I choose to set my priority as:

1. Happy Client
2. My opinions

Will the work be featured on my site or in my portfolio. Probably not. But I think that those who want to be in it for the long haul there are going to be times where you need to swallow your pride and make the client happy.

This may prevent me from always “hitting a home run” with a site. But it also opens the door for the possibility of educating the client down the road when their site doesn’t perform like they wanted and they ask “why”.

Just my 2 cents.

31. Christopher Fahey says… jun 5, 2007 | 5:47 pm

When a client is smart but respectfully disagrees with me and my team a lot, I am usually fine with it. A good client/designer relationship is collaborative, and it’s just as incumbent upon the designer to respect the client’s opinions as it is for the client to respect the designer’s. If you don’t see your client as a collaborator, you have a sub-optimal client relationship. It’s discouraging to have our ideas shot down, but like a good marriage you have to make every decision together as a team.

We can’t always choose our clients, but we can treat them with respect and get respect in return, which helps make those clients more receptive to the ideas that come from our superior minds. ;-)

32. Christian Palmhøj says… jun 8, 2007 | 4:05 am

I am not a designer, I’m a programmer (or whatever you’d call one that does the back-end stuff for a website). I do however, work with designers at my current work.

A lot of the above stories I think are true (both for designers, but also for programmers), but from standing on the other side of the fence I must say that some designers often have an idea that is completely different from what the client asked and then THEY can be hard to influence once they’ve made up their mind, but I guess that is true for any industry. Because they (rightly) consider themses better designers (and sometimes marketing directors, PR, advertising, etc.) they feel that the client should adjust to them rather than the other way around.

In my opinion a good client is the one in between, where you have a lot of discussions but both parties respect the other and can see the value in cooperation.