Pain free design sign off

Getting design sign off for a website can be a painful process for both the client and designer.

This year at SXSW I spoke about the challenges of design sign off. I shared how at Headscape we have changed our working relationship with clients from one of confrontation to true collaboration.

Too busy to watch?

The nice people at SXSW have compressed my entire talk into a 5 minute summary. Perfect if you are a hyper busy and important executive.

Talk description

Getting design approval can be like pulling teeth. Clients seem to make irrational decisions based on personal opinion. They ignore our expertise, reducing us to pixel pushers. However, it does not need to be this way. With good communication and a sound methodology, design sign off can be pain free.

What you will learn

  • Why your clients do not trust you
  • Why clients micro manage
  • Why you need to involve clients earlier in the design process
  • Why designers are their own worst enemy
  • How mood boards and wireframes can ease design sign off
  • How to build your clients’ confidence in your abilities
  • How to handle client feedback
  • How to avoid design by committee
  • How to make a client feel invested in your design
  • Why it is important never to say no to a client

  • AJ

    Are those illustrations from the Google Chrome comic created by Scott McCloud?

    • They are indeed. I credit them at the end.

  • Paul, you will never cease to be awesome.

    • Puzzlehead

      I really enjoyed your presentation, even at 9:30 in the morning. Cheers!

  • Pablo Alejo

    Hey Paul
    I was lucky enough to see you in person, but being able to have access to this is great!

  • But I DID go to art college :-)

    I love the transparency of this process – thanks for sharing it so err.. transparently.

    We probably do an aggregate 60% of the things you suggest already providing it is a client who values the ‘upfront’ investment of budget and their own time. Otherwise we are stuck with the scenario where we are expected to read minds, generate content etc.

    You can guess which projects are more successful in the long term.

    I would be interested to hear about ways you record & note feedback from the various parts of your methodology and then ensure it remains present throughout the design and development processes; Real people keeping an overview, a basecamp type app or another method…?

  • Nice video, hope the talk went well also.

    I don’t really have any problems with getting sign-off on design. My question is more to do with the methodology your using at Headscape.

    I would be interested to know how long then is your average design phase?
    I mean with the multiple sessions with the client, iterrations and phases it must add up to quite a lot.

    I think the biggest problem with adopting the approach you suggest, in to my own company would be the added time factor. Most clients aren’t able to meet more than once a week (they have to take time off from their work, it has to fit into my schedule etc).
    So if your having to meet the client on each part of the design phase it would be eating away at weeks of the build.

    That added time, would also mean added cost to the client. And this would be before development has even started. So i would be very worried if i did decide to use the approach how long it would take me to finish the project.

    Currently my design work flow is as follows:
    – Kick-off meeting
    – Company Research (target audience, branding etc)
    – Logo design (if the company is new or wants a new logo creating)
    – Meet client here
    – Site Research (competitors, user research, current site stats etc)
    – Wireframing
    – Meet client here
    – Design
    – Get sign-off

    And as mentioned earlier, i personally dont have a problem getting the sign-off, because the research and communication between me and the client is usually constant and clear.

    So would you suggest every agency adopt the work flow? Or is it something specific that works for you?

  • i really liked your presentation…awesome

  • Hey Paul,

    I’m just starting out with projects, where i have to deal with clients all on my own. Your talk gave me some great ideas on how to deal with them and will surely help me in the future.

    Thanks a lot!

  • wonderful presentation…

  • Designer in Defense

    This is a fascinating outlook which I think covers a lot of good points that as designers we do avoid client feedback many times, you try to implement them as best we can, however don’t always take the clients 100% mind set for what they want in a website.

    I felt though, whilst in many ways I do agree, I wanted to paint somewhat of a designer’s standpoint on this. Perhaps some additional food for thought.

    Often as designers we spend hours and hours each week (or at least I do) outside of their own work, researching design ideas, concepts, looking at what other sites do, how they work and don’t work. We become experts in our field by researching, doing and enjoying.

    Clients often come to you with an idea in mind. They have what they like and how wonderful it shall look. However, what they don’t understand is our job as a designer is not to appeal to only what they like. It’s to appeal to their client base. So many customers can only see beyond the four walls surrounding them. They want the opinion of their mum, the brother, their significant other; they want all the opinions, which will back up theirs. And more then anything, that if they like it, so will their customers.

    However often this causes the attempt to fit a square box in a round hole. They don’t understand that the blue text will hurt eyes on a yellow background. Or those having animated gif’s everywhere looks great to them, but makes their customers click away and increase their bounce rate.

    Often designers become frustrating and ‘give up’ as you say in the project because all of their experience and knowledge has shown them why they do things the way they do, and when you get to a point that you say again and again this will not work and are resisted you do give up. You feel as thought your knowledge and experience means very little to this client.

    Often designers are in the position of being in an industry where everybody feels that they know what you do they could do it, they just don’t have the time, or they don’t know the coding behind it. I’ve heard so many people say to me ‘it won’t take long right, I’d do it but I don’t have much time’.

    When is the last time you walked down to the mechanic down the road and told him. ‘Ohh.. No I’m sorry. I just don’t think that’s how you should do it. Do it like this, and I think it’ll be just right for my passengers and me’. (Insert flaming shell of a car rolling down the street here).

    I believe in a lot of ways the ‘defensiveness’ of designers come from the fact that many clients themselves are defensive of their own ideas and opinions and these designers are put into a position of feeling like their experience and knowledge means nothing.

    Anybody, in any job, would take offense to this. We do not sit in the client’s office, and tell them how they should do their job.

    Clients come to you for your skills and knowledge. To let you get them onto the web and make a success out of it.

    The saddest part of all is if you did everything a client asked you to do, more often then not the site will fail. Then the first person looked at will not be the brother, or partner, or even the client himself or herself. The first person to blame is you. You made a bad website, you ‘didn’t do what I asked’. The reality however is the square simply did not fit in the round hole.

    • To Designer in Defense..

      I think that’s why collaboration instead of confrontation was stressed. What I got from the presentation was to ask why and have a dialogue on the pros and cons of decisions. If their wrong it can be proven in a way that at least makes them realize the consequences of their choice. I doubt a client would insist you do something that drives away traffic and hurts their brand. Or, maybe there’s a solution to their problem that can be done another way than what they suggested? There’s many variables.

      As for getting family/others involved I’ve gone into the cost of revision if we want to try what so and so suggested. They usually aren’t willing to put money behind what their brother, sister, cousin, grandma, etc suggests.

      I do a lot of what’s in the presentation. However, I get clients that don’t want to be involved but want you to whip up something they’ll love. They insist I know what they like (or mean) and refuse to really elaborate. They’ll say words that mean nothing in the context of graphic design. A word like “stylish” which depends on your perspective. I’ll go back and forth through different fonts and colors – feeling frustrated.

      I think the presentation assumes clients want to be involved when most just want something fast. Most look at your portfolio, see a commonality between you and them and think you’ll read their mind. Showing the process will sometimes make you look unprepared or make it seem like you don’t understand the project. I’ve explained and shown parts of the process and I can’t say I get a good response most of the time. The client will feel like you’re making them work and do your job. STILL.

      Design a highly interpretive job. I got most of my techniques with clients from paying attention to customer service reps. That in itself is a pain.

  • Blake

    Is John the client secretly David Gest?

  • Paul Boag, you are brilliant. You are absolutely a role model for me. In everything concerning web business. Thank you very much for confirming what I already thought before you launched this pearl.

  • This is a really good insight into a different way to approach working with clients.

    I really enjoyed it.


  • seb

    Great presentation, gutted in not ad sxsw

  • Wow, I realy loved your presentation! I have now committed myself to never do it wrong (just starting of, so no real bad customer-experience)

    Thank you! Briliant!

  • jonathan

    hi paul. every point you touch on is sooooo true, and i really appreciate your solutions-oriented approach — you make such complicated things seem so simple and easy to implement. i enjoy everything you do and thank you so much for continuing to share your knowledge with all of us. great job!!!

  • Paul.

    Brilliant presentation. I, like others, was a touch blurry that morning but hands down your session was the best I saw at sxsw this year. I’ve made this mandatory listening for my whole department. Thanks again for a clear, objective look at things.

    Also – love the analogy of designers to “precious little flowers” in the Q&A.


  • Very inspiring presentation! Loved it.

  • I listened to this on the podcast and I’m tempted to listen again. I really enjoyed this and got a lot out of it. Very insightful.

    Paul, do you have an outline or slides that you can post online? I’d really like to pick through them and make some lists for myself for my next project.

  • Blake

    I know this is a bit off subject, but the quality of the actual youtube is fab – im watching this full screen and its prob the best ive ever seen.

    • This was definitely my favorite session from sxsw, thanks for archiving it!!!

  • This is absolutely brilliant. Thanks for all the good tips. You should write a book about this!

  • @ designer in defense,

    well said. Couldn’t have put it better myself. I am beginning to really loathe graphic design. I have been drawing and painting and designing in some form or another since I was about 3 yrs old (I am now 34) and all of that experience often goes out the window when dealing with some talentless stooge of a client who is just a control freak. I hate the way this industry is so squeaky clean and client friendly, it’s sickening. It’s always the “designers fault”, it’s never the client is a total pain in the ass and quite simply WRONG. No other industry has it’s employees so gleefully rear ended by the general public, they don’t stand for it and neither should we. Sadly though things will never change, as too many designers swank about with rose coloured glasses on.

    Websites like “Hi I’m Justin/Charlie/Josh and I am here to make you, the client feel happy” Should read “hello nervous little stooge, you are about to hire a complex service that takes just as long to learn and perfect as any other complex service such as plumping, electrician, car mechanic, lawyer or doctor. So be prepared to take our professional advice, or fail – cos guess what? You haven’t studied this, or worked at this or even thought about it till this morning…you just like “pwetty cowours”

  • Really helpful stuff! I’m a ‘client’ rather than a designer and hope that this mentality will catch on. It will certanly change my approach when briefing and signing off.