Don’t Design for your Client, or Yourself

I recently did a presentation called “It doesn’t matter if you like it…” in which I talked to marketing professionals about how their is a fundamental flaw in the way many people go about designing, or having something design.

I often talk about how a large part of design is communication. With so many CSS Galleries it is easy to get stuck in a mindset where you simply want to create the “coolest” looking website rather than “the most effective” website.

The truth is that even beautiful design can be damaging to a site/brand/company if it is not “correct” design. Studies have shown that you have 10 – 15 seconds before a user has an impression about your website. Ten to fifteen seconds is not enough time for them to fully read and understand the history of your company, it is long enough for them to make some very detailed conclusions based on what your design communicates.

Why Our Approval and Design Processes are Often Wrong

What I am ultimately leading up too is that in most cases the design / approval process that we go through leads to work that does not communicate what it should to the end users.

This is a typical creative process of a sizable firm:

  • Creative director to graphic designer: “It should say this”
  • Graphic Designer: “Hmmm, I like it when it looks like this”
  • Manager: “This looks off, why don’t you tweak that?”
  • Creative director: “I don’t like this portion, fix it”
  • Client: “I like the color red, use red”
  • User: “I am looking for something high end, this looks cheesy. Goodbye.”

We often have people who are a part of the design process that alter the end work based on their own personal preference, and guess what… as designers we are one of them.

Now let’s look at it from a smaller firm / freelancer

  • “Lets make a great looking interface!”
  • “How do you like it?”
  • “Lets make it POP!”
  • “There we go, it looks really cool!”
  • “Aghhh, I don’t want to go to a coffee shop that is this nutty”

Ultimately it doesn’t matter if you like the design, if you are serious about your profession than you shouldn’t be creating sites so that you can have another great looking portfolio piece.

As a client or website owner it doesn’t matter if you like design. If you are serious about your company or website then you should have the site created so the users like it, not so that you can brag to your friends about how cool your site is.

How can you change this?

There really are a few approaches to the process that can greatly alter the outcome in a positive way. The first step is our great friend… research.


Anything you can do to get into the minds of the end users will result in a much more successful design. This can take the shape of client interviews, researching competitors, attending events that users may attend, or other forms of traditional market research (surveys, demographics, etc)

Research should be compiled and decimated into a few deliverables such as a competitive analysis, user personas, and a creative brief.

These deliverables will be key in the design approval process, especially if someone on the design committee says “Why don’t we make it blue?” With the documents you can now say “our research shows that red will make users feel how we want them.”


Actually testing designs can be a great way to find out what works best for different users. A lot of projects don’t have the budget for this, but it doesn’t have to be incredibly high cost.

I will go into ways to test in future blog posts, but for now consider showing a user a design and asking 3 – 4 questions about how they would describe that design. You are not looking for feedback in terms of “use a different picture, color, etc” rather it is important to understand what messages does the design give off. Does it feel affordable? high price? exciting? calming? interesting? sturdy?

Additionally you can show a user a design for 3 – 5 seconds, then ask them to tell you what they remember from it. It will give you a clear idea as to what are the most prominent items on the page.


This is currently being done with the Drupal project. Designer Mark Boulton is getting feedback from a community of tens of thousands. What he has found is that over the personal preferences trends emerge, and those trends provide a huge amount of insight and value that can be worked into the next design iteration.


Yes it doesn’t matter. Some of my most effective and successful designs from an analytics/statistics standpoint are not ones that I particularly like. That is because I am not the user, and I think and interpret visuals differently than psychology scholars (or any other given user base)