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.
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.
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.
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?