Can clients make good design suggestions?

If the Matrix teaches us one thing its that sometimes the client can make better design suggestions than the professional web designer.

One of the principles in my upcoming book “Client Centric Web Design” (gratuitous plug) is that clients should focus on identifying problems and the designer on solving them.

Generally speaking this works well. It means that instead of a client asking a web designer to change the blue to pink, they instead express a concern that their pre-teen girl audience won’t like the blue.

The advantage of this approach is that it allows the designer to understand the underlying problem and maybe suggest alternative solutions. For example the web designer might suggest keeping the blue but adding more unicorns, ponies or other things pre-teen girls like!

The problem with limiting the clients contribution to design

When Marcus was editing the book he was worried that this implied that a client can never make a good design suggestion. That they were in some way incapable of providing solutions.

After initially dismissing this as Marcus being bitter about not being a designer (I like to judge him whenever possible!), it occurred to me that he has a point.

Many web designers take the attitude that clients cannot make valuable design suggestions. However, this is an arrogant point of view.

What the matrix teaches us about clients and design

I remember when I first watched the Matrix. It was an awesome film and I was blown away with the creativity and imagination of the film makers. When Matrix 2 came out I was less impressed but I was excited about them bringing everything together in the third film and once again blowing my mind.

The web was abuzz with ideas about what would happen in the third film. We all had a theory. We all had ideas about a cool ending. None of us were professional film makers, but we had ideas and some of those ideas where damn good. In fact, as it turned out, some of the ideas I read online were considerably better than the rather poor showing of the final film.

My point here is that a group of enthusiastic amateurs were capable of coming up with a more creative and more imaginative ending than the professional film maker. I was first in line to complain that they should have listened to their fans and taken their ideas on board.

How hypocritical then for me to suggest that our amateur clients cannot bring value to the design process. Marcus was right, you don’t need to be an expert designer to make a good design suggestion.

Sure, a professional designer will have a higher success rate and be able to spot problems a client might not see. However, that doesn’t mean the designer shouldn’t encourage, listen to and value the contributions clients make.

I guess this means I will need to start listening to Marcus’ design suggestions from now on.

So what about you? Have you had situations where your client has suggested a good idea? Did you embrace it wholeheartedly or feel a bit pissed off you didn’t think of it? What has your experience been of allowing the client to make design suggestions? Let me know in the comments below.

  • Thanks for the great advice, I thought it is easy to get client but it would be very difficult to maintain them for business purpose.

  • Really interesting post, and one that resonates with me.  Generally I agree that the client should articulate as clearly as possible what the problem is and allow the designer to think of the solution.

    That said we have had clients make good suggestions and when they do I like to think we embrace the idea, who cares where it came from – what matters is that the end result is better.  However this is not the norm generally clients to tend to focus on small design tweaks that do not improve the design and end up diluting it.

    The default should be “tell us the problem and let us solve it”, but we are open to any suggestions you might have.

  • Paul Peterson

    Even though I am a designer, I would love being one of your clients!

  • JayKaushal

    Yes, clients can sure make valuable suggestion and many times when I was just staring at my computer screen while designing a website and waiting for an idea to come, a small input or inspiration from client immediately helped me move ahead and finding a complete solution which was good for both of us. No doubt, constructive suggestion of any kind is always welcome and it helps in enhancing the design. We designers are busy in creating design for the clients while many clients explore lot of sites and provide valuable feedback and suggestions that help in making a great site. It saves my time. And as the suggestions comes from the client there are less revisions.

    But, at the same time, once the color theory of a website was purely dictated by my client’s wife though I kept on saying to my client that this is not good. But ultimately my client’s wife won ( it had to be as she was his wife ) and that resulted in a mediocre website which I never put into my portfolio :)

    So, constructive inputs, feedback, suggestions from the clients should always be entertained and where client is wrong we must correct them.

  • KhandisMum

    Yes, client feedback and guidance should be welcomed, and in most cases accommodated in some way or another. If they tell you something that doesn’t fit with your own understanding then you need to question them more; like Paul suggests, to find out what’s behind it.

    If you challenge their request because you don’t agree with it you need to be explicit about why it’s an unsuitable idea… perhaps educating them a bit in the process. For example, telling them it’s not good to have yellow text on a white background because yellow bleeds into white making it difficult to read in some conditions. Are they creating an ambiguity for their colour blind audience with lots of red and green text? Etc, etc. 

    Present the facts intelligently and they will understand. Paramount though, is the need to do excellent audience analysis when conducting requirements in the early stages of development. Who will be the primary audience? Who will be the secondary audience? If the primary audience is made up of some pre-teen girls then identify this and ask the client what steps they want to take to retain their presence on the site.

    My special interest is audience analysis because by trade I’m a technical author. My golden rule will always be, “don’t write too soon”. Whenever I’ve failed at some aspect of my deliverable it’s because I rushed ahead against my better judgment and some fairly important details was overlooked.


    ^that…is when client “feedback” is unappreciated. I don’t know any designers who instantly write off any suggestion. It’s when we no longer feel like artists, but instead feel like robots. Just doing what we’re told. There’s a problem when you wouldn’t put your own work in your portfolio because it’s embarrassing.

    • When discussing design it should be a conversation between equals where both parties opinions are equally valid. If they disagree then the answer is to test.