When Clients Take Too Much Design Control

When Clients Take Too Much Design Control

“Looks great. Let’s just move the main content down and change the font to a brighter red and Papyrus…”

Have you ever dealt with a client who suddenly flipped on “design mode” mid-project? The expectation is that you are an expert, and you act as a filter between the client and a (successful) finished product. Web design is more than just coding a client’s vision.

You’ve spent the time honing skills. Now let’s reclaim your artistic license while keeping professional.

Pixel-Pushing versus Design

To keep from going in too many directions at once, let’s assume two things:

  1. The project budget is not a concern
  2. The original designs you’ve submitted are undeniably more successful

Some of you may think that these two conditions are rare, but it allows us to focus on the real issue: clients who seize control of design.

This article is a discussion on keeping communication open at all points of a project. This helps prevent the dreaded “pixel-pushing” phase, where a client gains full control of revisions without any real reason behind the changes. This can lead to a poorly designed site with usability or visibility conflicts.

What’s the problem?

The designer in a “pixel-pusher” relationship is a tool and not expert. Think of it like a translator: I may not know Russian, but I can still communicate effectively through a translator. But in the case of web design, there is much more going on than just direct translation: actual design and internet background are needed to make educated decisions.

The biggest issue in this kind of relationship, the designer loses the ability to use their own judgement. They are left to scale down font sizes and column widths at request. Instead, it’s expected the designer convert the client’s ideas into a functioning website. All sense of artistic license is lost. You’re now the temporary employee of an apparent visionary.

This wouldn’t be a terrible situation if the client actually had design experience to base their decisions on. Unfortunately, this is usually not the case.

Who’s the Expert Here?

Clients who flip on designer mode halfway through a project have the potential to cause more problems than they realize. The Oatmeal captured the conundrum perfectly in a recent comic.

How A Web Design Goes Straight to Hell

One thing that makes this comic so accurate is how the client asks for the revisions. The language is passive. “It would be great if”, or “Please just…” don’t seem as threatening, and it’s this mitigated language that starts the communication conflicts. If you’re starting to hear revisions piling up, take some time to ask the client about their intentions. “What level of involvement did you want to have in the project’s design?” is a good start. This will allow you to plan moves accordingly.

As we’ve said before, designing for the internet is designing for other people. The actual audience is (usually) not the client themselves. Are you more in touch with the expected audience’s habits? Or is the client? The client is an expert in certain aspects of the website (e.g. topic), but not all of them.

Revisions Should Not be Arbitrary

Typically clients request a change because they assume it is for the better. By demanding changes, there is no discussion about the thought process. This is a problem for most successful client-designer communications.

Our philosophy at One Mighty Roar is that revisions which request a major design change should try to solve a problem. This isn’t an attempt to be difficult, but it does sometimes challenge clients to make decisions on more than just a whim. If you consistently make revisions without cause, you risk losing consistency of overall user experience and efficiency.


It’s not necessarily your fault. I know from personally experience that it’s easy to convince yourself that the design was inadequate to begin with. Stubborn is different from confident, just like collaboration is different from dictation. Limiting the number of revisions that can be made within a project’s budget is a great way of keeping the requests from going overboard.

Does it benefit the audience?

Treat personal taste carefully. It is ultimately the audience that has to appreciate and use most sites, and reasons like “I just like the way this looks” glosses over this point. How would the expected audience react to your changes? What problem(s) does the current design present?

Educating the client on your thought process is part of the job. Colors look different based on background contrast, certain fonts increase readability, etc. Bad design is commonplace. This leaves some people desensitized to components of good websites. That’s where you come in.

At the same time, we’re not always creating to impress fellow designers. This is a hard fact to swallow, especially when the latest round of revisions requests “more bright orange” and a primary font of Papyrus. Sometimes the interest of the client and the interest of prestigious portfolio piece don’t cooperate. Be professional for the right reasons.

Reader Response From Twitter

The question for Twitter

I asked our Twitter followers “What do you do if a client starts demanding design changes that would hurt the site?” Thanks to everyone who took time to respond. I’ve highlighted some of the big ideas below:

@LaserRedWeb: All you can do is offer advice and guidence, if the client still doesn’t listen then do as they say it’s their money

@Delltar: Clients are for designers like parents for a teenager,sometimes they are annoying,they don’t understand, but he needs them :D

@mindsmiledesign: I’d show them some options, including what they suggested in one option. Then, pray they see its inferior to other options.

@bornfamous: Sadly, I cave in and let the site go to hell. Then I drink.

@jctatme: I try to find stats, UX test results, anything concrete to convince client their design changes are hurting the site

@Phillysoul11: [I] kindly explain why the changes would hurt the site, and then offer alternatives. If they persist, give in or drop the client.

@doublelama: It’s their money so the final decision is up to them. (Of course you keep a copy of the ‘good’ version for your portfolio.)

@FWebDe: Educate them about why it’s a bad choice. After all, you probably know more about design than they do.

You Won’t Always Win

Ultimately, the client will have the final say. No amount of debate can change this.

On the same note, you’re not required to put all work into a portfolio. Sometimes it’s best to just let work fade into the background and move on. Even though it betrays what many designers stand for, the outcome may not always make you proud. The primary role of a web designer is to create a website that meets the clients goals. The client might not always agree with the approach, but the best you can have is intention.

What about you? Do you have a foolproof approach to dealing with clients with poor design eye? Share your expertise in the comments below.

Further Reading

  1. How To Explain To Clients That They Are Wrong
  2. Rules for Successful Client-Freelancer Working Relationships

Banner image photography found via el patojo on Flickr. All other photos used in post link to the pages of their respective authors.

Posted Tuesday, January 5th, 2010 · Back to Top


Add Comment

52 Comments 10 Mentions

  1. libeco Author Editor

    And if you want some more funny, but ow so true design expert comments, check out this video: http://www.makemylogobiggercream.com/


  2. Nina Author Editor

    Thanks for this article! It’s very practical advice and it helps me see the client-designer relationship from an angle I hadn’t thought of before. It’ll be very useful for future projects… :)


  3. jhoysi Author Editor

    Loved this article, and particularly liked that you included Twitter responses. It’s interesting that most of the responses you chose were similar (though I did like the guy said that he gives in and then drinks…gave me a much-needed EOD chuckle). =D


  4. Melody Author Editor

    I just had a similar experience with a client, but over a holiday themed logo design. He wanted to make changes that did nothing for the harmony/space, and would’ve made it look cluttered..unfortunately for him, his budget was a concern.

    Is all this crazy client control in design a result of spec work? I cringe putting out bad design that the client actually wants…


  5. Drew Author Editor

    “@bornfamous: Sadly, I cave in and let the site go to hell. Then I drink.”

    From my experience, this is the most common outcome.


  6. Tony Nguyen Author Editor

    I usually set the expectation up front, “hey look, i want to design a website, you can make your changes after I finish” usually this does the job.


  7. kittu Author Editor

    Great topic.. but at the end of the day happy client = happy us!!


  8. AlexT Author Editor

    Well, this is not really helping, I guess: “the client has always the final word, just try harder”. I will rather have a look at psycho and transactional relationship methods.


  9. Justin Moore-Brown Author Editor

    A FANTASTIC article and timely too! I’m currently experiencing the same troubles with a current client of mine and their identity design.

    Sadly as you said in the article “You won’t always win” and I think that may be the case here.

    Kudos to you brother. Well written and well done.


  10. Avudai Nayagam Author Editor

    Good article. Might be I feel t respond to the question here too. Its not only the matter of debate and win. As many rightly said its the clients money and their choice.

    I agree certain that they know more about the audience and content. But in a design, if the clients choice is going to hurt it, I’ll say them. But if there is a disagree, I’d drop the client, but will never do a bad design, because the product will be our portfolio and in turn seen by several other audiences who should not feel that such a designer has done such a bad design, which I’ll never compromise.


  11. Richard de Pijper Author Editor

    it’s so recognizable. I agree with @LaserRedWeb, you can only give advice and if they don’t take it you do what the client say. So frustrating


  12. Enk. Author Editor

    I really enjoyed reading the twitter response for your tweet. :D

    My response will be..
    We can’t do anything but tell them and show them the different between what we have in mind and what they want.. Most of the cases will go for your choice.
    My recent project had same issues I made something they demanded something but then I shown them the old (my design) again and they wanted to go back.
    That’s how its done ! ;)


  13. Mike Author Editor

    Its just these sort of interactions that have prompted us to launch clientfail.com (still in beta)

    We’ve been dealing with a client making some seriously arbitrary design revisions on a daily basis. Its a big dollar client so we end up feeling like we have to bend over a little more for them than a normal, smaller client, but really, this isn’t true.

    Stay strong folks.


  14. Jesse Author Editor

    Over the past 10 years of working as a web designer I’ve encountered these types of situations SO many times.

    I always tell the client why their suggestion may not be the best idea. But admittedly, I sometimes don’t always have the mental energy to really fight it. So I sometimes just give in and end up with an awful looking website.

    Part of the problem, as an freelance website designer, is that I may be juggling a number of clients at once. And if 2 or 3 of them are making the same types of suggestions, there’s only so much energy to put forth on these types of battles.

    (BTW, everyone should check out that Oatmeal comic that’s shown….it’s hysterical, and right on the money.)



  15. Casey Author Editor

    I used to work in broadcast news and in that industry there often was producer (read client) that thought they knew better — the way I looked at was two-fold. First I would take their “suggestions” and use it as the creative challenge. In this was the fun sometimes; sometimes the frustration. Second, I would let the work go. I tried never to let it bog me down and I learned to roll with it. However, a good design doesn’t happen once. If you are a good designer, you can make more than one good website/print piece/animation, etc.

    So, if you have to put in a star bg and lens flares — make them the best starfield and lens flares that anyone has ever seen. Also be honest with the client up front about the revision process. Often times the artists are too afraid to go back to the client and tell them that those changes are going to cost more time/money. If you are up front from the start — X amount of revisions then it’s going to start costing X amount of cash. That is very much appreciated and considered “professional”. In the long run you as the artist are seeking a relationship with the client not just the one job. If you make it clear that this sausage making process is a give and take, in the end it will be a benefit to all.

    Also I agree with the idea that not everything has to go into the portfolio, or every piece has to be “high art”. Working in news has taught me to balance the practical with the artistic.


  16. Casey Author Editor

    One other thing — sometimes I would take the comments, suggestions and not always use them. Sometimes leaving them out, not giving them EVERY thing they want works too. I would say, “I tried to incorporate your idea and it really didn’t work…” I feel justified as the designer to use or not use the “suggestions” from the clients. If they DEMAND something then put it in and make it work.


  17. Mikk Author Editor

    If they prefer their ideas, even after explaining why mine was better, I do what they ask for… but as some other said, keep my version for the portfolio :)


  18. JD Ross Author Editor

    Read the Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. The protagonist, an architect, refuses many commissions when his “clients” request changes he does not agree with. It comes down to whether you’re willing to sell your services as a designer or a coder. If you’re a designer, don’t follow their whims (design by committee always ends poorly). If you’re a coder, then do as they wish.

    Just don’t claim to be that which you’re not


  19. Stephen Orsini Author Editor

    Great post… based on the budget constraints, I’ll do my best to support my designs, but ultimately, the client wins.

    This being said, I now include verbiage in my contracts that state “any revisions to the design after client approval/once the coding has begun, will be billed for separately”… I just point that out to the client and it usually quells their ‘designer mode’ a bit…


  20. Tom – Airopia Author Editor

    I think I fall into the popular category of offering my expertise, but the clients makes the decision.


  21. Shawn Author Editor

    Nice article. I think some clients get terrified when they relinquish control on a project and need to put their mark on it in any way possible. Think about it – your website is your brand, your mark on the world. Do you really want to go around having to explain to people that you didn’t really have a part in its creation?

    But yeah, agreed on the drinking remark :P


  22. Angelo Beltran Author Editor

    Great article! I hope those who offer “unlimited revisions” realize that it can actually destroy a designer’s credibility.


  23. erik Author Editor

    kind of like this.


  24. Mark Shingleton Author Editor

    Some clients aren’t so bad. You can explain to them why things aren’t a good idea .. generally I find these are clients with a larger budget and ones who really want to get results out of their sites.

    However .. some are atrocious. I normally try to explain why things wont work the way they want and mostly I get one of two outcomes …

    Client 1. “Ok i understand what you are saying but I really think it would would better like this and here is why”


    Client 2. “I’m paying the bills so we’ll do it my way”.

    Either way I finish the job but I generally don’t work with client 2 again … I’m often ‘too busy’ :)


  25. Jasper Kennis Author Editor

    Nice article:)

    Personally I prevent this situation with a contract stating that solutions to any problem will only be used if both me and the client agree it’s fitting. If that’s not the case another solution has to be found.

    I also discuss this with my client before the project starts. Some clients don’t accept because they want to be keep absolute control, and than there’s just no deal, the client will need to find someone else to do the job.

    But most clients agree. If they happen to forget somewhere along the process, there’s a contract to remind them. This gives both parties the safety that no solutions will be used that they do not approve of.

    It’s a good method,I can really recommend it to anybody. Keep in mind, discussing this in advanced is very important.


  26. Danny Foo Author Editor

    Exactly! A client may not be always right. Just today I gave the client a metaphor of clear skies with clouds, a rainbow and hot air balloons.

    It was to make him imagine what would his website be like if there were just too many colors.


  27. Chris Sharp Author Editor

    All too familiar this situation!

    We make it clear in the original quote that design revisions beyond the estimated time frame stated for the design phase will increase costs for the client.

    If the client asks for alterations that i believe would be harmful to the design and usability of the site i try to explain my reasoning and often provide visuals to illustrate this reasoning. Most of the time this has the effect of helping the client realise they could be making a mistake. Providing visuals is crucial (if not too time consuming).

    Unfortunately some of the time this advice will be ignored, in which case, there’s very little choice than to finish the job to their requirements.


  28. Alan Author Editor

    Ultimately don’t loose the fact that they are the client and your the designer.

    Keep reiterating to the client that you are being paid by them as the designer and any unnecessary additional changes that they may request will input time which will equal additional costs and may not benefit the site in the end.

    Stick to your guns and be persistent but if the client chooses not to see your point of view then finish the job as best you can with what you have to work with and move on. Always best to end on a good note.


  29. Tony Lav Author Editor

    I have taken to telling a customer if they are wrong. They have to accept the fact that they have paid you to do the job for a reason, because they can’t. I wouldnt dream of telling a solicitor how to carry out thier work, even if I was paying them. I would choose the one who knows how to do the job.

    Once the customer gets the idea they can tell you how to carry out the work, they will be under the impression that they can go anywhere and get the same job done. After all, if they are ‘doing all the work’ what do they need us for?

    Its unnprofessional to allow a customer to nitpick. we are in the business to create good web content. I love my customers and want the best for them. they have to understand that.

    Just to mention though. We first have to learn that we too can be wrong.


  30. Tim Author Editor

    I hate being a party pooper, but I am getting fed up with the constant ragging of oh-so-stupid clients by my peers.

    From my experience, whenever the approval process turned out to be difficult/unpleasant/dragged out it was primarily my fault because I lacked experience in properly communicating, firstly, how many revisions are included in the service I offer, secondly, why I some changes might turn out to be detrimental to the delivered product. As a designer, you must be able to speak with authority about your work.

    All of this is part of a learning process that every junior designer experiences, and it’s important. But you can’t blame the client for being ignorant. If he really was ignorant, he wouldn’t have hired a designer in the first place. Clients are looking for guidance, but if you fail to speak with knowledge and authority, well, suck it up, of course he is going to interfere because it’s his money.


  31. Dan Redding Author Editor

    “Choose a designer you trust, then trust that designer.”

    1. It’s good to be open-minded. Sometimes when a client is uninterested an idea you were hoping they’d love, it can send you in a direction you wind up liking even more.

    2. Choose your battles.

    3. Speak in an active and friendly voice, not a passive one. Present the client with your expertise and your positive attitude, and they will listen and trust. Not always, but most of the time.


  32. James Costa Author Editor

    “we’re not always creating to impress fellow designers… Sometimes the interest of the client and the interest of prestigious portfolio piece don’t cooperate. Be professional for the right reasons.”

    This is all to true. Excellent article – there are a lot of people talking about the same topic and it seems all too familiar to designers. Since my company’s name is on every website we push out, I don’t want my company’s name on something that isn’t up to “par” with our other stuff. Of course, this is when you would remove any part of yourself that is trackable from that site.

    I’ve had some times, however, where the client was actually RIGHT and the minor changes ended up in me having to readjust everything and it being a beautiful change. It just depends on the client, I think – haha.


  33. pk Author Editor

    Unfortunately, I’m going through exactly this situation right now. After signing my contract and handing me a deposit, I was presented with a ‘design’ created by said client’s assistant who ‘knows Photoshop’ and everything pretty much went right to hell after that. The biggest issue really was that the client and assistant became extremely rigid about how their static Photoshop files, didn’t look the same once they were translated into live web pages. I explained that designing a site is a collaborative process and there is always going to be some level of compromise when you consider that multitude of platforms and hardware issues you’re site is going to need to be compatible with. Of course, they wanted to hear none of this.

    I’m very nearly done with the site now but I should have handed them their deposit back in the second they sent me those files. Be mindful of the red flags.


  34. Darryl Author Editor

    Artistic expression, or as the author writes, “…reclaim your artistic license”, has absolutely no place in the world of interactive design. To make such a claim is to suggest the designer has a right to perhaps ignore certain aspects of a project and express one’s self through client work at their discretion -this is absurd.
    In terms of the client / designer relationship becoming problematic resembling a ‘pixel-pusher’ scenario, this can be effectively eliminated by demonstrating confidence in the design decisions you’ve made on behalf of the client (e.g. what colour to use, size of logo, typography, etc). If you can clearly communicate your rationale to the client, the integrity of the design will remain more or less intact.


  35. Tutorijali HDonWEB Author Editor

    Great tips :-) bookmarked


  36. Angelo Beltran Author Editor

    Erik! lol I had a good laugh at the video you posted. Thanks! http://www.todaysbigthing.com/2008/07/23


  37. jhoysi Author Editor

    @Darryl – More or less, but there are times when there is something the client isn’t communicating, or doesn’t know how to communicate, that is a problem and has not be resolved in your solutions. When clients start pixel-pushing on me, I simply ask them “Why?” If a color, photo, typeface, ANYTHING gets rejected, or the client starts trying to take control of the design, I ask what specifically about those decisions are not working. Steering the conversation out of design will often help the client communicate things they didn’t initially think of, or simply don’t know how to communicate and get to the base of the problem.


  38. Don Rogers @creativelydone Author Editor

    Enjoyed the article. I have run into this dealing with some clients. I have also run into the problem where a client shows friends the design after launch and comes back with friends revisions. Then I wondered if the friend was a designer, then why hire me, because the friend wasn’t. The changes messed up the site’s look and the image we were going for.


  39. Adam Hermsdorfer Author Editor

    I liked your point that major design changes should solve a problem. Revision quotas in the scope of work are a must as well.


  40. Creative Ideas Author Editor

    Agree with articles author. Client and designer is like paient and doctor


  41. Fredmac Author Editor


    Most clients said “I paid, so i decided” or worst “I assumed this changes than i request for”.

    This situation look like an ego war…


  42. Scott Kellum Author Editor

    Good contracts can solve most of these problems. I divide my projects into design, development, and implementation and as soon as we enter a new stage there is a penalty for making revisions in earlier stages. I also add revision caps so I can charge more if a client makes far too many changes. If they want to make more changes, then they have to pay up.
    I also write lines to protect the client from me being a flake or unresponsive (just to re-assure them).
    Good contracts make good relationships!


  43. Victoria Author Editor

    I´m currently involved in web and graphic design, but am really an industrial designer… I´m glad this sort of thing happens to us all!!!
    I had a real good laugh: “@bornfamous: Sadly, I cave in and let the site go to hell. Then I drink.” It´s happening to me nowadays, but I´m trying to put my foot down. At the end of the day, it is my responsibility for things to work out and even though I do believe we musn´t just design for “people like us”, I like to think things turn out to be usefull for the client, in more than one way.


  44. Carl Author Editor

    Great article, but had to point out a bit of irony.

    At the bottom of the post was a google add for one of those “Fully Custom Websites in Minutes with No Experience Required” web services.

    The irony of that after reading through the post put a smile on my face for a few moments, and then I realized that companies like that are actually making money and devaluing real designers and developers and the smile went away.


  45. Aidan Author Editor

    Intriguing read! I guess in the end it boils down to choosing money vs sticking to self principles.


  46. kenduret Author Editor

    I have one time when I actually refused a requested change. They asked for it week after week and I just never made the change. Get ready for this… they wanted bold flashing red text that said “take our FREE workshop now!!!

    One of the huge downfalls to the ease of publishing with a modern CMS is that the client can very quickly destroy many hours of your hard work. Such is life.


  47. Formulis @LasVegasWebsiteDesign Author Editor

    Sadly, this happens quite often. When you hire my firm, you hire us for our experience, knowledge and skill.


  48. Ravikumar V. Author Editor

    its true that sometimes we need to work for a single guy rather than customers!!!


  49. Tyler Dahl Author Editor

    I had to deal with this just today. My design was far superior to what the client actually wanted done. I presented the “clients” version thinking they would see what I had been trying to say all along. It went half way… Although I was not able to convince them why my design was the better, they did see that it needed some of what I was saying.

    I think a lot of clients have a hard time visualizing what we are so good at seeing in our own head, that maybe taking the little extra time to show them exactly what they want is a way to give them the sense that they are in control so they feel they have come to the conclusion themselves is worth it compared to the energy used to explain the details that have taken us years to master. Sometimes clients “just dont get it” so let them see it!

    Hopefully they come to some realization that our reasoning is usually accurate and in their best interest.


  50. Bill Hz Author Editor

    If the client is respectful, kind, not imperious or condescending, I don’t mind polishing their turd or rearranging the turds to be 3 pixels from each other with rollover effects in lime green with magenta accents. That’s entertainment in a dry heaving kind of way. I love this work and I love respectful folks, but being trashed is where I draw the line. I will not be a trashed ho. It’s a sad day to fire a client sometimes, but it cleanses the universe and begs for a Corona.


  51. Justin @ Pulse Web Designs Author Editor

    There’s definitely a fine line between making a client happy by giving them what they ask for, and refusing to help them kick their website in the face aesthetically. I think it all comes down to a judgment call. If the client still insists on specific changes to the design even after receiving a reason why it’s a bad idea… you go with what pays the bills. If nothing else… they’ll see the consequences of their choice down the road. Caveat Emptor.


  52. Brent Author Editor

    For me, the biggest threat I can make is taking my name off of the site. If a client insists on a change that I strongly disagree with, I explain that I take great pride in my work and, with this change, their site will no longer meet my criteria, so I will need to take my name off of the copyright section of their site if they want me to proceed. This has worked all but one time…



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