“You ruined the project!”

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February 25, 2013
“You ruined the project!”.

Who said that? Both parties often do. Both the client and the designer often accuse each other of ruining a web project. Why? What is it both parties expect that the other can’t or won’t fulfill. Is it a breakdown in communications, and if it is, what can be done to prevent it?

You know all of the funny horror stories. The client doesn’t know what they’ll like until they see it, they have an eight year-old niece who won a finger painting contest when she was only five and is a creative genius, they thought the whole site wouldn’t cost so much to design because their great-great grandfather had an entire web site designed for a nickel in 1903, blah-blah-blah. Well they have their stories and complaints about us, too, only they aren’t creative enough to publish sites like clientsfromhell.net and call it something like artsyfartsycrybabies.com.

Such a separation of understanding and thinking between creative and customer makes one wonder who is ultimately to blame for the complaints we all have. The truth, if we all would care to admit it, is that we are all to blame.

Communication is the key and in all cases, except for the ones where the client or designer is a stark raving lunatic, communication can be handled by both parties so there is an understanding of the process, the cost for that process and the results expected and delivered. As with the moon landing of 1969, the faking of that mission took huge planning and communication from hundreds of people to keep the truth from emerging to the public, which was already the subject of CIA mind control experiments. If they could do it, then certainly a client and designer, or design firm can create a fake web site that specializes in mind control, or a real one that solves the marketing needs of the client.

What is the first thing you do after a client contacts you about creating a web site for them or any creative project? I mean after the numerous drinks and marijuana cigarette consumption. You meet with them and talk about the project.

Mistake #1 – starting off with confusion

You talk about what you will do for their project. Most successful companies have sell sheets they provide the client before initial meetings. It talks about the company, what it does, how it does it, the support team, past project successes and how the company works on a project. It's basically a printed version of the "about me" section of your web site. Successful designers and design firms, know to get the point across of how they handle a project up front. Designers who fail are the ones who believe design is a magical unicorn that farts rainbows and pisses glitter, that cannot be tamed and the process is, as someone I tried to kill once said, that design should be “enigmatic wizardry” to a client. In other words, what “Dumbledork” believed was that a client should just hire a designer, hand over the money and BAM! Here’s your web site. “Aren’t I a wizard of the magical realm and make creative things appear?”

Unfortunately, there are too many designers out there that believe it’s the way business is done. That’s why we should allow Darwinism to reign unfettered, without warning labels on everything.

  • Sell yourself to the client so they have trust in your established results for others.
  • Let them know how you work so any disagreements on the process are negotiated up front.
  • Set your standards so those clients who want it cheap and fast are pushed aside BEFORE you begin and you won't have to face problems at the end of the project.
  • Show you're a professional so the client knows you have professional standards.

Mistake #2 – who said what?

The spoken word can be forgotten, misinterpreted and ignored, but why chance the first two factors? Everything should be backed up in writing. When a phone conversation takes place, the points discussed should be followed up with an email outlining those points and the clear question of “are these the points to which we agreed?” at the end. Every meeting should follow the same procedure. Leave nothing to chance or memory. If the client AND the designer are honest and professional, then transparent and constant communication will be a welcomed part of any project.

When projects are left to mere spoken communications, you will hear:

  • But I thought you said…
  • I remember it quite differently.
  • I seem to remember…
  • I was under the impression…
  • I forgot to mention before we started that...

Mistake #3 – no written information

For the sake of a smooth start to any project, a creative brief should be written up at a preliminary meeting. This action plan will spell out all creative needs, desires and requirements. It will include:

  • What are the client’s needs?
  • What are the client’s desires?
  • How will it build the client’s brand?
  • What exactly does the client want included?
  • What is the client’s personal preferences for the design?
  • When does the client need to have the project in place?
  • What is the client expected to pay?

The creative brief also lets the client know, in no uncertain terms, how the designer will achieve these goals, including any milestone payments, charges for changes and rights being transferred.

As with a sell sheet, which is a written form of communication, and the passages included in the creative brief, having a contract, purchase order, designer engagement or letter of intent is necessary for a smooth and enforceable project. Surprisingly, 39% of designers, according to a recent survey, don’t require or ask for a contract of any kind. I suspect that number is higher due to embarrassment of answering that question truthfully on a survey. A contract spells everything out. If a client or the designer stray from contractual terms and both parties remain silent, well, that’s one thing but when one party chooses to ignore contract terms, the other party can gently steer them back because the written word is undeniable.

Mistake #4 – keep up the communication

Transparency is another key word in any project. Keeping the client and the designer apprised of changes or simply where the project stands at any time is a professional courtesy. Clients feel better that their money is being spent wisely and see the progress and designers aren’t thrown for loops when the client has changed the deadline dates or needs.

As a designer, each email should include a status update, almost as a footer, noting progress, the fee so far (if hourly), any charges for extras, such as stock photos, domain registration, etc. and upcoming milestone payments. The client should immediately bring up any discrepancies or questions that arise from anything that notice has listed.

Mistake #5 – an unhappy ending

When all is said and done, the site has been approved by the client, the designer has uploaded and debugged the site, every party should be smiling. Naturally, every party, specifically the designer, should be paid. This is when most problems between designer and client arise.

Common complaints after a web projects are:

  • I didn't expect the designer to charge that much!
  • The client wanted to pay only half the agreed upon fee!
  • My site isn't getting any traffic!
  • The client doesn't understand how this works!
  • Designers are too sensitive about making changes!
  • Clients don't want to pay for changes.
  • I own everything because I paid for it!
  • The client wants to own everything but not pay for it!
  • Designers are overpaid!
  • Clients don't want to pay!

These complaints are the result of projects with no creative brief, contract or constant communications. It starts off wrong and finishes with disaster. If all of the listed mistakes are not allowed by either party, there is a 99% chance the project will work smoothly and be successful for everyone. The remaining 1%? Well, there will always be some misunderstanding because people can't read, don't want to read or just don't like sticking to the rules of a contract. Keep in mind, that while some people say "contracts are made to be broken," the actual saying is that "rules are made to be broken." "A contract is made to be broken" no judge said, ever.

Do you think these rules would help your project? Do you disagree with these tips? Why? What would you do differently? Let us know in the comments.

Images ©GL Stock Images

Speider Schneider

Speider Schneider is a former member of The Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine and has designed products for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, ESPN, Mattel, DC and Marvel Comics, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon among other notable companies. Speider is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild, co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee and a former board member of the Society of Illustrators. Follow him on Twitter @speider or add him on Google+

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