When the designer/client relationship should begin

Paul Boag

In short I am coming to the conclusion that wherever possible the designer should be involved in the writing of a development brief.

In the last couple of posts I have looked at the role of the website owner. This has also started me thinking about the relationship between designer and client. In particular I have been considering the point at which this relationship starts and wondering whether the designer should actually be engaged earlier in the development cycle.

Think about how the average web design project runs. Presuming the client doesn’t have an incumbent web design agency or an internal team, it almost always starts with the client writing a brief. Depending on the client, this brief may be based on a varying level of upfront planning. A really switched on client may well have thought through the areas I outlined in my last post:

  • the business objectives that underpin the project
  • the success criteria against which the project will be judged
  • the pros and cons of the existing site (if it exists)
  • lessons to be learnt from reviewing the competitions websites
  • a clear understanding of who the target audience is and what they want from the site

However, not many clients are experts in the web design process. After all that is not their job. They are marketing people or IT managers, they are not web designers. They may well think of the issues listed above but that does not necessarily mean they are best placed to work out how they apply to the website.

Many decisions made without the web designer

Before the web design agency ever sees a brief, a considerable amount of decision making has already taken place. Clients have often decided who their target audience is, what functionality they want built, how much this is likely to cost, when it needs to be delivered, the list goes on. In many cases the client alone is not the best person to make these kinds of judgments. It should be the web design agency and client working together that defines the scope of the project.

Even when there is a more informed client working through this definition stage, I would still argue that the designer should be sitting down beside them. In order to produce the best site possible the designer needs to understand all of this background information and the best way to do that is to help form it in the first place.

In short i am coming to the conclusion that wherever possible the designer should be involved in the writing of a development brief.

Practical application

So how would this work in practice. Well, instead of the client issuing a normal invitation to tender (ITT) outlining all of the work that needs to be completed, they would instead issue an ITT for an initial consultancy stage. This mini project would help to define the scope of the actual development work.

The beauty of this approach is that not only does it mean the agency is involved in defining scope, it also allows the client to ascertain whether they like working with the designer. So instead of committing a sizable amount of spending with a company they hardly know, they invest a small amount in a consultancy phase that allows the client to see exactly what the designer is made of.

As far as I can see it everybody would win. The client gets to know the designer better and is guided through the difficult definition phase. The designer on the other hand gets a better defined brief that reads like an actual specification instead of a wish list of “nice to haves”.