A topic of conversation here at jeffcroft.com in recent weeks has been the need to educate the consumers of our services — the clients — on exactly what it is we do, and how they can get the most for their money.
So, as part one of what will probably be an ongoing series of posts, I assert that if there’s one thing a client can do to help a web designer help them, it’s bring problems, not solutions.
It seems to me that a lot of clients don’t understand exactly what they’re paying for when they hire us web designers. In their head, they’re paying for technical services — the construction of web sites for their companies. But that’s not really the job of a designer. The job of a web designer, as I see it, is to craft solutions to problems and systems that will help achieve goals the client has set.
I liken the difference between what clients often think they’re paying for and what we really do to the difference between architects and construction workers. Architects plan and design new buildings, and construction workers implement those plans. Likewise, there are two tasks in creation of a new website: the planning and design, and the implementation. In some cases, they are both done by the same person — but it seems that many clients are expecting their web designer to be far more concerned with the implementation than with the design. That is to say, they sometimes see us as web monkeys who simply carry out whatever they ask of us. And to be sure, if they’re paying us enough money, sometimes we’ll do that to placate them. But the reality is they’re losing out on half of our skill set when they do this — and it really should be our responsibility to educate them as such.
Let me give you a simple example from a recent real-world project (which will remain anonymous for the time being). For a site I am working on, the client came to me and said, “the logo needs to be bigger.” In my estimation, the logo was already pretty large, and I could have articulated several reasons why I didn’t think making it any bigger was the best direction for the site. So, I asked, “Why do you want the logo bigger?” After a bit of talking back and forth, the client expressed their concern that the brand of the site wasn’t prominent enough. They didn’t feel like, when you first hit the home page, you would immediately know and understand you were at whatever.com. A-ha! Now we have a problem. See, “make the logo bigger” is a solution. “The brand isn’t prominent enough” is a problem. In an ideal world, it’s clients job to bring problems, and the designers job to find solutions. I didn’t end up making the logo bigger. I did put more whitespace around it and add a subtle (but effective) watermark of the brand icon in a very prominent position on the page. The point is this: making the logo bigger was only one possible solution to the problem. As clients are very often non-designers (and sometimes non-creative in general — although that’s definitely not the case in my example), it’s common for them to only see — and therefore suggest — the obvious solution. Once an experienced designer understands a problem, on the other hand, they’ll immediately conjure up about 15 different potential solutions.
Note: Just for the record, this is a great client who is very creative in nature and generally has been more than happy to let me run with my ideas without getting in the way. I just wanted to say that in case they happen to read this. :)
I recently had someone approach me with this proposal: “I’m working on a web application and I need a designer to help me. I want it to be very web 2.0 with gradients and drop shadows and other light effects. I’ve already mocked up the layout — I just don’t know how to create these effects in Illustrator and I need someone who will do it for me.” I know it sounds like a joke, but it was a serious proposal — I swear. When I said, “Okay, let’s take a step back — what kind of web app is it? What does it do?,” he got defensive and informed me that if he was going to hire me, I’d have to do what he wanted without asking so many questions. I talked with the guy for about 30 minutes and eventually told him I didn’t think it was “a fit” — and suggested that if he did hire a designer, he should probably back off a bit and let them design. On the flip side, if he just wanted someone to carry out his vision, there are several services that do that sort of thing.
This guy didn’t want a designer. He wanted an Illustrator guru to carry out what he’d already decided upon. He didn’t want me to architect a site for him — he just wanted me to be his construction worker. That’s not to say construction work isn’t important, of course — but it’s only a small part of what I, as a web designer, do. This was an extreme case, but it illustrates (no pun intended) my point — hiring a web designer and having them act as a web monkey is not only a waste of money, but also shortchanges your site from the benefits an experienced web designer’s perspective can add.
So if there is one thing I would love to be able to make clients understand, it’s that its in their best interest to bring the problems, and let the designer work on the solutions. Oh sure, they are more than welcome to make suggestions — most designers would love to hear them. But clients who insist on art directing every step of the way usually lose out — and frustrate the hell out of a designer.
Before you meet with a potential designer for your site, put together a list of problems you’re looking to solve or goals you’re setting out to achieve. They might look something like this:
- We want to engage our customers more in the experience of our site.
- We want to make our site easier to use.
- We want a look and feel for our site that is suited to our company’s mission and brand image.
This list clearly outlines goals for the site. You should probably be concerned if your list looks more like this:
- Add blogs to our site.
- Make the navigation use drop down menus.
- We really like the look of whatever.com, make our site look like that.
This list, on the other hand, lists several solutions, without defining the problems or goals. If you want to make a solution suggestion, that’s fine — but be sure to outline the problem you’re trying to address and be open to other possible solutions the designer may have for the same problem.
What this boils down to, really, is understanding that when you hire a web designer, you’re getting a creative mind who is in the business of solving problems like the ones you almost certainly have. You’re not just getting a computer nerd who can write code in his or her sleep. I have no doubt clients who embrace this will get far more out of their designer than those who don’t.