Who is design for?

12 February 2018 | 4 min read

Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Many years ago, as a design student, I was taught there is a clear distinction between art and design. Art is created to speak to peoples’ emotions. Design is based on strategic objectives and business goals. Art and design can intersect at a defined point, but they don’t have to.

Clients come to us for expertise. They come looking for solutions to their challenges. They hire us to design and develop a tool that helps to do something more effectively or sell more things or get more enquiries.

After nearly fifteen years in this business, it puzzles me that as designers we often allow clients to overwrite our decisions because they “feel like it,” when they themselves lack professional design knowledge.

The final deliverable of a design phase in a tangible visual artefact to which humans can attach biases, feelings, and personal opinions. This leads to the problem however because we say “design”, and our clients hear “art”. Everyone is uncomfortable.

The designer is not always right, far from it. Any good professional designer questions their decisions all the time. But the completed design is a result of a process involving the designer and the client. A designer makes decisions based on required user flows, usability tests and a client’s specific business goals. The design is about getting from A to B.

The client’s personal preferences will not help his business sell more or generate more enquiries. It is the responsibility of the designer to use his design skillset to help the client achieve his goals.

I always found it amusing that after people pay significant sums for the designer to create a solution matching the given brief, plus all of the additional research invested, suddenly everyone has an opinion about the amount of white space on the page or the size of the logo.

I think the quote below summaries it perfectly:

“No client assumes they know anything about web design until they’re looking at a mockup they’ve paid for, which was designed by a professional. At that point, they have a very strong opinion about what works online and what doesn’t, what shade of blue is the best, how to correctly make something ‘pop’ or how to cram more information ‘above the fold’.”

As they are our clients, we allow them to make design changes to the work we, the professional they hired, created. The designer’s job is about helping the client achieve a business goal, not about making the client like the design. The design is not art, it is not meant to be hung on the wall and admired.

While we cannot stop people from adhering their personal tastes and preferences to our designs, we must stop allowing people to blindly change the design because they feel like it and have paid a lot of money. The client is not always right.

If I pay thousands of dollars for a custom-designed website, I should at least trust that the designer would employ all of his knowledge and experience to satisfy my goals. If I don’t trust my designer, well, that is a completely different and bigger issue all together.

There is a difference between discussing design direction which does not meet project objectives and overwriting the decision of the designer.

For this same reason, we do not allow clients to tinker with the developer’s code. We do not allow them to influence how the login controller should be written. We do not tell plumbers how wide the pipes in our homes should be. We do not tell the doctors who treat our illnesses the size or color of the pill they should prescribe us.

“Liking” something is not feedback. Your personal taste though is incredible. Design decisions are also not made on the personal preferences of the designer, but made based on the goals of the project. You may love the color green; your users might hate it.

And when all is said and done, and the website or app does not function properly, you’d be mistaken to think that it is the fault of anyone beside the designer (despite the negative impact of the client’s micro decisions on the product). They do not see that when they asked for the logo to be made bigger, the contributed negatively to the unprofessional-looking result.

This explains why websites go through full redesigns every two years. Personal tastes and trends change quickly.

Every time we allow clients to overwrite a designer’s decisions, we need a proper discussion around “why”. Simply because they are clients and “the client is always right”, does not mean we should undermine the role of the designer and reduce it to a position of a kid with crayons.

Every professional is open to feedback and welcomes the ideas of others. But a good designer is not an order taker. Client feedback and opinions are incredibly important, but that is why we design in a framework which allows the client to voice their opinions early on.

Succumbing to client orders will produce a final product lacking the ability to address the business objective we sought out to solve in the first place.

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