Is the Designer Always Right?

Due to a few interesting posts on and some interesting client interactions, I have been contemplating the designers ideal role in website creation. It was not long ago that I found myself constantly frustrated because, as the designer I had made informed decisions that people chose to ignore. Much of my energy was being spent justifying why as the designer, I was correct.

When I was a novice designer, my primary motivation was to create something that appealed to the client and myself. My reasoning being that the client was paying the bill, choosing to recommend me to others and if we both liked what we saw then others would too. As a result my designs were very detailed, I took every opportunity to incorporate CSS or Javascript tricks as a way to show off my knowledge while also making the website look impressive. The approach in some ways, was successful. I often impressed clients, they happily paid my bills and I was proud of the work that I had done.

The Maturing Designer

As I matured as a designer I began to realize that I knew a lot more about what would look best than the client. Articles reenforced this concept by discussing the subjectivity of design and that you should target the audience not the stakeholders. At this point I became more invested in the critique process,  asked fewer questions about what the client liked and more about who the users were. Rather than deliver two different concepts for the client to pick from, I delivered them only one. The thinking being that I knew which concept was the strongest, why should the client be confused by an inferior design? This resulted in fewer revisions and reduced deviance from my initial vision. In many ways this approach was also successful, the end product was still visually pleasing, the client pretty happy and I got my way. It took significantly more energy however on both my part and the clients.

The Evolved Designer

In the past few years my design research has led me to the conclusion that design is hardly about aesthetics, to my dismay I was confused about the purpose of my profession for the first decade of my career. Making a website pretty is an aspect of design but only a portion of it. Design by definition is the intentional creation of something to serve a specific purpose. All along I was creating art, not design. This changed my entire process.

Rather than focus on how the website looked, I immediately shifted discussions towards what users wanted to do on the site. How was the site going to improve their lives? How will the site improve the client’s business? Is the site easy to use?

My designs reflected this new utilitarian approach. Nothing on the page was decoration, everything was intentional. I disliked the idea of any aesthetically driven change, after all I had planned out every element so that it would contributed to the success of the site. I continually reminded my students that any critique of a design concept that started off with “I like…” or “I dislike…” had no value. Design was a science and statistics prove that some designs outperform others… what you like has nothing to do with design, it’s how well the design performs that matters. I was the designer and I was correct.

This approach was endlessly frustrating. It seemed that no one understand the true purpose of design, even other designers. All my energy went into trying to persuade people into seeing design from my viewpoint with no avail.

The Enlightened Designer

At some point I realized that I was looking at design from the wrong lenses. I justified my thought process because I never questioned the collaborative process of design, and always welcomed suggestions based on logic and reason. However I was missing the point. Not all clients are hiring my company because they expect their website to revolutionize their business (although it can, and some do). Many clients use the website for an internal marketing tool as much as an external one. They derive a sense of pride from their website and so do their partners, employees and colleges. Many of these types of clients have just as much a vision for their site as I do and they are paying me to deliver it, not alter it.

While I continue to give my clients my best holistically focused advice, I now realize that their motivations for the site ultimately drive how the website is created. I am delighted when someone approaches us because they appreciate design in the same form that we do, but I also respect the other reasons that people care about design… including aesthetic reasons. My current approach is a hybrid of all three, depending on the situation and the client. It is the closest thing I have found to win/win/win.