What is the cost of compromising on good design?

Let’s face it, there are times when designers and their clients don’t see eye to eye over a project. When all else fails a designer may comply with client requests which are at odds with their own professional judgment, simply to make the client happy. But is this an ideal solution in the long run?

Collaboration can be a good thing

Some clients will have firm ideas on a design feature they want included in a project: anything from a particular colour to a complex layout. This can lead the way to a collaborative process between designer and client: a positive and constructive exchange of ideas.

However, most designers have also experienced requests for work which don’t represent good design practice. Common examples include changing the size of text or other elements of the design; filling up all of the white space; unattractive colour combinations; and copying other designs. It’s important to talk to the client about their request and provide some guidance about what will and won’t work for their design project.

What if the client disagrees?

If a disagreement brews, it can be very tempting to accede to what the client wants, in order to reach a resolution. This is understandable: it’s very tricky to successfully handle conflict with someone who’s doing business with you. But there may be a catch.

What if the client later realises (or has pointed out to them by someone else) that the design features they insisted upon are not as good as they initially thought? Will they come back to you acknowledging your previous advice and seeking to amend the design? In some cases, maybe. But the client may instead blame you for the less than stellar work, in which case you’re unlikely to get repeat business from them. At first glance this may seem like a good thing, but an unhappy former client has the potential to negatively impact your word-of-mouth client leads in the future.

Believe in what you do

It’s no good for your morale to commit to work you’re not happy with. On the other hand, when you take the time to stand up for good design practices, you present yourself as a professional operator whose expertise represents value for the client.

What do you think? Should designers go with what makes their clients happy, even if the final product is second-rate?

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  • Sean

    December 3, 2008 at 8:30 am

    Interesting topic that i personally come across a lot, dealing internally with “stake holders” and with external clients.

    One of the biggest things to help with these situations is to make sure both parties separate their personal preferences from what they are designing and focus on what is going to communicate with the target audience in the most effective way.

    Cool blog Tracey, keep up the good work!

  • Aaron Irizarry

    December 3, 2008 at 10:42 am

    Great read!
    I think there is a balance of finding where to compromise with clients.

    One thing that has helped me in the past is to educate them as to why something isn’t good practice, site some resources that back the idea, and find a way to translate it into a tangible solution that they can relate to / understand. The whole “Help me help you” dynamic.

    ~Aaron I

    Aaron Irizarry’s last blog post … Addicted to Mediocrity

  • Jon Norris

    December 3, 2008 at 11:12 am

    Great article. As one of our clients said in a meeting yesterday, you are only as good as your last project. If it turns out great, you’ll keep getting work. If it’s a flop, you’re going to have a tough time landing the next gig.

    To start with, be careful of the clients you choose to work with and the projects you choose to take on. Don’t take every single deal that comes along. Be about more than just making a quick buck. Have some standards.

    Next, in many cases, you have to educate your client. You have to teach them why white space is necessary or why they shouldn’t have a big heinous flash intro. Do your job and share your knowledge. In my experiences, many clients will back down once they understand your rationale for doing something.

    Yeah, there are times when clients are stubborn, but hopefully you can reach some sort of compromise. It may not be exactly what you had in mind, but hopefully it doesn’t suck too much. As a last resort, don’t be afraid to fire a client. It isn’t fun, but sometimes it’s necessary.

  • Ryan Nicholson

    December 3, 2008 at 11:17 am

    The age old story of designer vs. client seems to be the hardest situation I’ve ever come across. Most of my clients are large private preparatory schools that are very conservative and political committees. I run into this situation with many of them.

    I certainly agree with you. However with some clients and projects you can only stand up for good design practices for so long before the client completely loses trust and confidence in you…making the rest of the project torturous. This of course is an oxy-moron, because its our judgment and design skills they’re paying for in the first place!

    Sometimes I try to educate certain clients early in the process so they can better understand what I show them down the road. This seems to help minimize conflict and gain more trust right from the get go.

    Ryan Nicholson’s last blog post … 8 Truly Inspiring YouTube Videos

  • Jason Lengstorf

    December 3, 2008 at 2:49 pm

    I agree that it’s really tempting to just give in when a client has terrible ideas that they’re dead-set on. I was definitely guilty of it early in my freelance career, and I now have a couple sites floating around that I don’t want connected to me in any capacity.

    I think that it’s really important that we, as designers, learn how to effectively “teach” our clients about the fundamentals of good design, and that we learn how to word things in such a way that we can make our point without being condescending or pushy.

    It needs to be communicated, in effect, that we get paid to do this for a reason, and that the client is paying us for exactly that reason.

    We also need to be open to incorporate our clients’ bad ideas into designs in a less destructive/detrimental fashion. For instance, I have a client that wanted his site to look like Star Trek (“I’m a lifelong Trekkie!”). His site was for a construction company. Ouch. So our compromise was that I used the Star Trek font “Crillee” on a non-Trekkie layout, which made both of us happy.

    Great article!


    Jason Lengstorf’s last blog post … What I’ve Learned

  • Brian Hoff

    December 3, 2008 at 5:39 pm

    Great article! In response to the article, I couldn’t agree with you more about having confidence in your own work. Confidence helps “sell” your work and professionalism. Lack of confidence will show through to your clients thus causing them to listen thoroughly to your ideas and professional guidance.

    Thanks for the link back to on my article.


    Brian Hoff’s last blog post … Do your clients need to be educated?

  • Jennifer Wingard

    December 4, 2008 at 4:09 am

    I’m currently working with a client like this and am about to pull my hair out in frustration. I feel for everyone else that goes through this, but it’s nice to know that I’m not the only one with crotchety clients.

    What do you do when you’ve tried educating them and tried going along with their wishes only to be told that they don’t like their own idea once it’s been implemented after all? Bang head on wall repeatedly?

  • Tracey Grady

    December 4, 2008 at 6:29 am

    You make a good point about the need to put aside personal preferences when creating a design. Designers can have trouble with this from time to time, so imagine how difficult it may be for someone who isn’t trained in design. Thanks for your feedback – it’s great to hear from a former classmate on my blog!

    Very well put. If clients can relate directly to what you’re saying, there’s a much greater chance that they’ll feel comfortable to follow your lead.

    Very true – it’s good to remind yourself from time to time that clients and prospective clients will respect you for having standards and sticking by them. Those who don’t respect this aren’t worth working for.

    Understanding your clients and knowing what they expect shows you have a good handle on the designer/client relationship, no matter how frustrating your clients can sometimes be! And when it comes to identifying potential pitfalls in the relationship, it’s definitely better to do this early on if possible.

    Wow, Star Trek and construction – well done for handling that design brief to the client’s satisfaction!
    Educating the client without being pushy or condescending is about showing them the respect you want to be shown in return. It’s good to keep this in mind in discussions with all clients.

    No problem!

    It’s a shame to hear you’re going through such a stressful experience at the moment. Banging your head on a wall in frustration won’t help – take some action, preferably finding a way to resolve things if at all possible. Good luck.

  • Addi

    December 5, 2008 at 1:41 pm

    Design is about communication. The client probably knows the domain better than the designer and the designer probably knows better than the client how to communicate with design.

    Clients need designers to recognize the problems to be solved with design. Designers need clients to trust them to solve those problems.

    And when conflict arises, testing with users can melt those issues away.


    (respect doesn’t hurt)

    Addi’s last blog post … Music and operating systems

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  • Webdesign Meppel

    December 10, 2008 at 7:18 am

    I recognize this story 🙂
    Some clients come up with the most bizarre ideas. I always try to talk them away from it but sometimes that doesn’t work. I just won’t add them to my portfolio 😀 lol

  • Tracey Grady

    December 16, 2008 at 2:22 am

    Clients have their area of expertise, just like you said, and being mindful of this might be a good step in negotiating the way out of a difficult spot.

    I’m glad you keep trying to talk round clients when you feel the need to, and that you’ve still got your sense of humour about it all! That doesn’t hurt.

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