How much creative direction should you have?

Published on April 18, 2011 under Customer Education

How a Web Design Goes Straight to Hell - The Oatmeal

When I and many other designers were shown this now infamous comic from, we all more or less rolled our eyes and affirmed at how much truth was depicted.  Like it or not, literally every designer has fallen into this scenario.  What starts off as a simple gig with a good pay can and will turn into a royal drama where we as professionals end up having to protect the client from himself.

How much creative control should you have as a client?  At what point should you step back and contemplate on if your suggestions are helping or hurting the bottom line?  The goal here today isn't to insult you or make you feel small, but to build a real understanding on giving and taking creative direction.  On how to become a team player with your hired designer as opposed to their worst nightmare.

Let's look at the process again.

If you haven't read it yet, I would suggest taking a look at the article I wrote on the procedure on building a web site.  I laid out in the article the start-to-finish process of conceptualizing, designing, and building a web site in a "perfect world".  Usually in many cases, designers will get to the point where wireframes were made and mockup layouts are produced, but then change requests come that sound unusual to our ears.

Change requests are ok.  Believe me, we want your feedback and your industry expertise when designing pieces for you.  However, skepticism will set in when we believe the changes being asked will more hurt your bottom line than help it.  The comic on more or less showed the client pulling out loads of "buzz words" as an effort to sound like he knows what he's talking about, and then asking for some rather ridiculous things that made no sense to what the client's business is all about.

I remember back in the dotcom years, I ran into a similar problem.  I had a boss with a dream of making money first and foremost, but not a lot of true focused vision on what exactly his business was supposed to do.  Every day I would be literally redesigning the web site and losing a lot of motivation because he would come in with some new ideas that were totally contradictory to what we had yesterday.  It's like today the sky is blue, but tomorrow he wanted it red.

You have a say, but don't give in to panic

In the case of my former boss, and many other clients I've encountered, I can tell when change requests are less about logic and more about panic.  I can't blame you.  You don't get a second chance to make a first impression.  You're paying me a lot of money to build your web presence, and while you trust my expertise, you also have those paranoid fears about that very important customer you value highly being turned off your company because of the web site.

I've run into numerous occasions where the clients started off in the project not knowing what they wanted, but they wanted something modern and contemporary.  As time passed, the client kept flip-flopping and changing his mind.  One day they wanted a contemporary minimal kind of design that stood out from the competition, then the next they wanted the site full of color and loads of information crammed into the viewable area.  With every change my mind did ask "why the complete 180?" but I could tell it was panic setting in.

You as a client need to make sure that you maintain a clear vision of your business and of this design piece you want created.  If you look at most big success stories out there, it was clear vision that drove them, not worry.  Steve Jobs and Bill Gates both pushed to build their products the way they felt they should be, rather than feared someone might not understand them.  When building a marketing department for your business, be it a building full of people or just one person, you need to make sure you have clear branding, ideas, and especially vision.  This is what will make it easier on you when you view a design and have changes in mind.

Test, test, and test some more

Testing is the key, even if you're just a small mom and pop shop.  Have your designer/developer put the web site online in a separate spot where you can privately show it to people.  Even if it's not a website, get a mockup you can show to trusted people.  These people should either be friends/family/colleagues who have a real deep knowledge of the business you're in, or they are directly part of the demographic of your typical customer.

So let's say you own a surf and skate shop and want a website in the hopes of reaching out not only to local consumers, but possibly long distance sales on the internet.  You meet a designer you like, both of you brainstorm, come up with a concept, wireframes, and mockup.  You might offer some changes based on your expertise in the industry and they are made.

This is one point where you should do some testing.  Take printouts or images of the site and show them to friends, colleagues, and trusted customers.  Now the way you avoid the "mother" incident in comic is you have a small list of things you want addressed.  Things you wonder about.  Have the person look at the layouts, take it all in, and then ask questions like:

  • What would you do first here on this site?
  • Do you think you would be able to navigate around?
  • What do you think of the design?  Does it look like it belongs in the surf/skate scene?
  • What would drive you to buy something off the site?
  • Would you come back to this site regularly?
  • Do you think anything is missing?

At this point, take down all the feedback and look it over.  You first decide what you think is realistic and what is ridiculous.  So if one guy says you should post images of big-chested girls in bikinis, maybe you'll laugh but not bother.  However, if you suddenly get that suggestion many times from different people, you might want to think about it and even ask your designer what he thinks.  Perhaps there is a marketing need.  It might be raunchy, but it might also bring you regular visitors and thus more possible sales.

Now if your designer is grumbling about new changes brought about by this, then he should grow up and realize you're testing this layout on the direct market.  It's also why you did not sign off on the layouts yet.  When changes are made and you feel the layouts do not need any more testing, then you sign off on them and the site goes into production.

Bear in mind though you can't spend too much time on testing.  Generally designers will give a week for feedback, and will not appreciate if this part of the process gets dragged out.  So you might test for five days, and then in the last two days come up with a small list of changes.  This should be your final list more or less, and thus when these changes are done (and they look good to you), then you move forward.

Also bear in mind if the changes involve expanding the scope of the site, be prepared to possibly shell out more money for the added work.  So if the "hot girls" section is going to become a reality, the designer needs to put that together and even think about how it will be built.  That takes on more time, and thus costs more money.  This is why you generally agree to the scope early on and set it in stone as much as possible.

When the site is built and working, take that week for feedback to go over it and make sure the links and forms work.  Have some of your most trusted colleagues who saw the layout before take another look now and play around with the site.  Ask them more questions like before and take down the answers.  You're not looking for small ideas to add on, but more or less bigger bugs you might miss.  So if everyone believes Tony Hawk boards should get their own section, then it's something to bring up, but if one guy says a photo of R2-D2 on a surfboard would rock, ignore it.

Now you don't have to test if you think you are solid on your vision and the direction of the site, but it is a good rule of thumb especially if you're feeling panic and uncertainty setting in.  I know when I am stuck on a design and not sure what to do, I'll show ideas I have to fresh eyes and get feedback.  Even the client.  They will appreciate that you want their ideas and thus are part of the process.

A message to designers – don't take it personally

Angry designer

The other end of the spectrum of this deal is the designer, and I've seen many walk through the world with fragile egos.  I never understood why.  It's just a job.  I understand when it's your passion, but just because you might envision a used car web site looking like an ad campaign for Ferrari, it doesn't mean the client or his customers will want to see that.

I once had a Creative Director I got along with really well, which surprised some higher-ups because they kept getting complaints from other designers about him.  I didn't get why at all until I had talked to another designer about an unrelated subject.  He talked of how that Creative Director looked at his layouts, asked for some changes, and yet the designer was insulted by it all.  Maybe it could have been in the delivery, but I tend to think many designers forget that these people above us have their own expertise to give.

I've had no formal design training, but it's nice to learn about something such as negative space from someone who has.  I just think that when a designer gets that feedback from the client or even a higher-up, even if it seems ridiculous to you, don't be quick to dismiss it as lunacy because you think your opinion alone is the correct one.  I don't know a lot about surf/skate culture, or used cars, or even the dental industry.  I had to let my client educate me in these matters so the two of us can come up with the ideal plan to market those businesses.  That's how it's supposed to work.

It's just a job.  Don't take it personally.

Have any of you ever dealt with an crazy client or insane designer?  Do share your stories.

Tags: website, client, design, development, feedback

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