Today I received this email by Shawn, who asked my opinion. I let you first read, then I share my reaction. Your comments are more than welcome.

I’m been involved with design for many years but am quite new to the professional field and clientele. I place a strong focus on web standards, usability guidelines, and basic typography/design principles (i.e. no comic sans!). I do my best to persuade clients to follow these principles and justify them by presenting advantages to SEO, usability, and general aesthetics while still trying to cater to their needs as a unique client with independent customer needs. Walking that fine is a difficult dance!

I acknowledge the need to prioritize customers but, being an active designer myself, I seek to impress designers as well. As I mentioned, I’ve recently dealt with some difficult clients that had a unique but valid approach to designing. They’ve openly asked me to ignore many simple design principles that we all regard as a sin. Here are some examples:

One client was very stuck on having a giant background image and was very adamant about having the ability to horizontally scroll to the see the entire image. I told him “horizontal scroll bars are not a good idea! It’s a designer no-no.” He responded with “Well, very few of my visitors will be designers, so that isn’t an issue.” While I thought the scroll bar was a terrible idea, I couldn’t present clear evidence to avoid it from a visitors perspective. When I published the site, I felt embarrassed to show any other designers or publish it in my portfolio.

In another case, I was making a logo/identity and was experimenting with some logo shapes. My client asked that I try one of those “built-in photoshop shapes.” I tried it out and they loved it. For days I kept experimenting with new ideas, making figures, lines, and shapes but they were stuck on that generic build-in icon they saw in photoshop. I explained to them “You want an identity that is unique, all your own, something that truly represents YOUR business, it’s a bad idea to use something this generic and well known.” Again, they responded with a comment such as “Wwell I’ve never seen it before and I think it looks cool. I’m only a medium sized business and normal people won’t have any idea it’s built into photoshop.”

As a final example, another client I was working with wanted a “bubble navigation”. You would mouse over a bubble in the center and navigation buttons would extend out from the center. It wasn’t intuitive and, from a user-interface perspective, was a navigational nightmare. It was quite difficult to operate but the client felt it “looked cool”. They were far more concerned with look and feel than they were with ease of navigation.

As I said, customers are what sustain businesses and are crucial to the success of a website but what do you do when a clients priorities override all design principles? Have you dealt with situations such as these in the past? A lot of times the clients used the argument that “my customers aren’t designers, they’re stupid people and they’ll never know a good design or bad so I want a flashy rainbow gif dancing in the corner – that’ll catch and keep their attention”.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these issues. I’m struggling with requests to throw all my experience and insight out the window to instead strictly cater to a these unusual (though sometimes valid) customer requests. These are topics that I think other designers struggle with and I’m sure they would love to read your answers or discussion as well.

Obviously, the specific examples Shawn gives are familiar to most freelance designers. What I try to do in this kind of situation is to first congratulate the client for his interest in my part of the work. That’s the polite way to explain him that he is out of his role. Then I try to point out all the defaults of his idea and show him how it could be done better.

If the client sticks to his idea despite being showed wrong, you get three solutions:

  1. You tell him that you are the designer and that you don’t want the client to interfere in your work, then tell him to accept your way of seeing things or you will not do the job. This will give you the satisfaction of being an ethical designer, but you will not have anything to show in your portfolio and no money in your wallet.
  2. You do the work your way, not taking the client’s comments into account. This is risky, the client could be offended and not willing to pay you. However, if this works you will be a happy designer.
  3. You compromise and do the work as the client wants it. This means some work you will not show in your portfolio, but some cash in your wallet.

I did all these in the past. The first solution is good when you already have too much work and want to get rid of an annoying client. The second one can be done when you have a long term relationship with the client and think that you can take that bet. The third one will be used when you are desperate for money, with no more beers in the fridge.