10 Ways To Get Design Approval

One of the most challenging parts of the web design process is getting design sign off. It can prove time consuming, demoralizing and if you are not careful can lead to a dissatisfied client. What is more you can end up with a design that you are ashamed to include in your portfolio.

How then can you ensure that the design you produce is the one that gets built? How can you get the client to sign off on your design? Below are 10 tips learnt from years of bitter experience.

1. Define the role of the client and designer

Many of the clients you work with will not have been involved in a web project before. Even if they have they may have worked in a very different way to what you would expect. Take the time at the beginning of the project to explain their role in the design of the site.

The best approach is to emphasis that their job is to focus on the needs of their users and business. They should concentrate on the broad issues, while you worry about the details of layout, typography and colour scheme.

By clarifying what you expect from the client, you help them to provide the right kind of input throughout the process.

2. Understand the business

Before you open up Photoshop or put pen to paper, take the time to make sure you properly understand not only the brief but the organization behind the site. By understanding their business objectives, organizational structure and marketing strategy your design decisions will be better informed.

You cannot rely upon the brief to provide all of the information you need. It is important to dig deeper and get as good an understanding of their business as possible. This information will prove invaluable when justifying your design decisions.

3. Understand the users

We all like to think of ourselves as user centric designers, but exactly how much effort do you put into knowing your users before beginning the design process?

Take the time to really understand them the best you can. Try to meet with some real prospective users and get to know their needs. Failing that work with the client to produce user personas to help picture exactly what kind of people they are.

Understanding your users not only improves the quality of your work, but also helps move the discussion away from the personal preferences of the client, to the people who’s opinion really matters.

4. Avoid multiple concepts

Many clients like the idea of having the option to choose between multiple design concepts. However, although on the surface this might appear to be a good idea it can ultimately be counterproductive for design sign off.

In a world of limited budgets it is unwise to waste money on producing designs that are ultimately going to be thrown away. The resources would be better spent refining a single design through multiple iterations.

What is more, multiple concepts often cause confusion rather than clarity. It is common for a client to request one element from one design and another from the second. As any designer knows this seldom works.

5. Use mood boards

Clients are often better at expressing what they don’t like than what they do. This is one of the reasons why they favour producing multiple design concepts. An alternative less costly approach is to create a series of mood boards. These boards contain a collection of colours, typography and imagery which represent different “moods” or directions, which the design could take.

Mood boards are quick and easy to produce allowing you to try out various design approaches with the client without investing the time needed to produce complete design concepts. This means that by the time you develop a concept the client and designer have already established an understanding about the direction of the design.

6. Say what you like

It is not uncommon for a client to ask for a design that looks similar to another site they like. The problem is that it can often be hard to establish exactly what it is about the site that attracts them. Also in many cases the sites they like are not something you are keen to emulate!

A better approach that was suggested to me by Andy Budd is to show them sites that you think the design should emulate. Keep a collection of screen captures from well designed sites and pick out a few that are relevant to that particular client. Explain why you feel these designs might suit their project and ask for their feedback. If they don’t like your choices then expose them to more of your collection and see what they pick out.

7. Wireframe the homepage

Often clients find it hard to distinguish between design and content and so sometimes reject a design on the basis that the content is not right. This is particularly true when signing off the homepage.

You may therefore find it useful to establish the homepage content before producing the design. That way once they see the design they will not be distracted by the content. One of the best ways to do this is by producing a basic wireframe consisting of a series of content boxes. Once this has been approved you will find the sign off of design much easier.

8. Present your designs

Although it is true that a good design should speak for itself it still needs presenting to the client. The client needs to understand why you have made the design decisions you have, otherwise they will judge the design purely on personal preference.

Talk them through the design explaining how it meets the needs of their users and business objectives. Refer to the mood boards and preferred sites the client approved and explain how the design is a continuation of those. Never simply email the design through and hope the client interprets your work correctly!

9. Provide written supporting material

Unfortunately, no matter how well you justify the design to the client he is almost certain to want to show it to others. He may need his bosses approval or require internal buy in. At the very least he is going to want to get a second opinion from a friend or colleague.

The problem with this is that you are not going to be there to present to these people in the same way you did for the client. You cannot expect the client to present your ideas as well as you did. The reality is that you have lost control of how the design is perceived.

One way to minimize this problem is to provide written documentation supporting the design. This can be a summary of the presentation you gave to the client and allows him to distribute this along with the design. By putting a written explanation with the design you ensure that everybody who sees it gets the same message.

10. Control the feedback

My final piece of advice for managing design sign off is to control the way you receive feedback. A clients natural inclination will be to give you his personal opinion on the design. This is reinforced because you ask them what they think of the design. Instead ask them what their users will think of the design. Encourage them to think from the users perspective.

Also encourage them to keep that overarching focus I talked about in my first tip. Their tendency will be to try to improve the design, however that should be your problem not theirs. The role of a client should be to defend the needs of their users and business not do the design. Encourage the client to make comments such as “I am not sure that my female users will like the masculine colours” rather than “can we make the whole design pink.” It is down to them to identify the problems and for you as the designer to find the most appropriate solution.

So there you have it. My 10 tips to improve design sign off. Will this ensure design approval every time? Unfortunately not. However it should certainly help smooth the way.

About the author

Paul Boag is a user experience consultant based in Dorset, England. He’s the founder of Headscape, a successful web design agency and hosts the longest running web design podcast at boagworld.com. He also writes for web design publications and speaks at various conferences and workshops.

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