A new client/designer relationship

Paul Boag

Realign your website rather than sporadically redesigning it.

I write many posts for this site, but this one marks a turning point in how I approach web design. It started with an article on the List Apart website about realigning your website rather than sporadically redesigning it. This catalyst has made me completely rethink the way I interact with my clients. It has also forced me to rethink how I sell web design services.

I believe there is a fundamental flaw at the heart of the client / web design agency relationship that needs to be addressed.

The current development model

An average web project runs something like this:

  1. Client identifies the need to redesign their website in someway
  2. Client issues an invitation to tender outlining what they want
  3. Design agency responds to tender with a fixed price proposal
  4. Client agrees to proposal and commissions agency
  5. Agency builds the site and makes it live
  6. Client may make some limited adjustments to the site but basically, it just sits there until…
  7. Client identifies new requirement and then we return to step one.

This all sounds logical enough, but the reality is that it has some deep-seated flaws.

The one thing I have learnt from both the List Apart article and from working long term on websites such as boagworld is that they need to evolve. This cycle of redesign is ultimately counter productive and very expensive. Each time you are almost starting from scratch and reinventing many of the same things. A more sensible approach is to tweak the site continually so it remains fresh and is always improving.

The boagworld.com website is a good example of this process of evolution. I add new functionality to this site on a weekly basis. I look at the site constantly and ask myself what could be improved. Small tweaks keep the site moving forward and ensure people return to it regularly.

To some extent, we have already adopted this approach with content. Most web companies provide clients with content management systems that allow them to update the content themselves and keep it fresh. However, we don’t apply this principle of evolution to site design and functionality.

A better model

A better model for the way clients and web design agencies should work together can be found in the advertising industry. In that industry, the relationship between agency and client is very different. Instead of huge one off expenditures every few years, a client will establish an annual advertising budget, which the advertising agency utilises to generate the best return on investment. The client and agency work together to agree how best that money is spent over the course of the year and plan the long-term marketing strategy. It is a much more cooperative relationship where the client benefits from the agencies expertise on a regular basis rather than for one off projects. This allows the advertising strategy to be much more integrated into the overall business plan.

If this model of “continual relationship” is so good compared to one off project, why has it not already been widely adopted? Well I believe there are a number of reasons:


There is a perception that this is just another way for web designers to squeeze more revenue out of clients. However, the reality is that in the end this is a much more economical approach to managing your website (not to mention the cash flow benefits). As I have already said, with the old model you were starting over every few years and throwing out what you had before. With this new approach, you are constantly building on the previous investment you have made by evolving the site rather than rebuilding it.


Until recently it was actually very hard to evolve a website over time. Because content, design, and functionality were all mixed up, it was a headache to make the simplest change throughout an entire site. However, with the new generation of sites built using web standards this is no longer a problem. Global changes can be made across a whole site in a matter of minutes.

Of course, it is possible that your current site is not built using this new methodology. In such cases, the number one priority would be to make this transition. Once this is achieved, site evolution or even total redesign will be considerably easier.


The web is still very young and until relatively recently I do not believe clients really understood the potential of the web. For a long time, the attitude was that you just put up a website and then walked away. I think we have all moved beyond that now and realise that a website is a valuable marketing tool, which needs to be at the heart of our business strategy. The need for long term planning is now much more apparent.

In house skills

Many companies have in-house web design staff, who are perceived as responsible for the evolution of the website. However, the reality is that in my experience these staff are almost exclusively engaged in the day to day maintenance of the site rather than considering how the site should evolve in the future. If I may return to the advertising agency analogy for a moment, you would not consider the need for an ad agency redundant, just because you had marketing staff internally. Internal marketing staff cannot hope to provide the breadth and depth of service that an ad agency can.


I believe that it is time we moved away from the fixed price, single job model to something that allows for a deeper partnership between web agency and client. We need a model that allows the agency to evolve the client’s site over the long term rather than in intermittent jumps.