Joey Rabbitt, a web designer and frontend developer currently working for Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, shares some techniques to keep the client sign-off process smooth
I've worked as an in-house designer, a freelancer, and in a creative studio. The role of the client can change depending on the job, but the sign-off process is always the same. After you've dedicated your time and creative energy to a project, it can be demoralising if the client doesn't like it in the way that you hoped. On top of a deflated ego, redrafting your work can cost time and money. I'd like to share some of the techniques I've learnt to keep the process as efficient as possible.
1. Step back and wait before sending
It's tempting to act on the euphoria that comes with completing a draft design by sending it to the client straight away. You're proud of it and you can't wait to see if they approve. However you might benefit from taking a step back and waiting. You've had your head buried in that same project for some time and by taking a break and revisiting it later you might spot something that you missed in the haze of the creative process. This is a good time to spot silly mistakes that could end up embarrassing you.
2. Get a second opinion
Before the client has a chance to give their feedback, send your draft to a selection of trusted peers for a constructive second opinion. If you trust their opinion, their feedback will likely improve the design and create a stronger initial draft. It might also help to get feedback from someone in the target audience to correct any oversights.
3. Prevent extra work by predicting obvious questions
Maybe you're a design renegade and you just came up with something wild and unconventional. Be aware that your risky design choices might require you to do a little more to convince the client that it's such a great idea. Don't be afraid to go with your instincts, but prepare answers to counteract the obvious questions from the client. If you feel like an idea isn't going to be approved easily, create alternate drafts to illustrate how the obvious method doesn't work as well as your idea.
Usually when the client has strong feelings about their ideas you need to humour them with another draft, "just to see how it looks". By putting alternate ideas side-by-side at the proposal stage, you can prevent costly redrafting time and hopefully steer them in the right direction first time round. Every draft you have to create sparks a further potential debate, and subsequently eats in to the project time.
4. Don't assume the client will get it
Remember you've been staring at your work for a lot longer than the client has and not everyone knows it inside out like you do. Think about how your pitch will look on first glance with a fresh pair of eyes, perhaps by putting it aside and coming back to it later. This is particularly applicable when presenting work that requires the client to use their imagination. Start from the beginning and cover every little detail. It's easy to jump in to a pitch and enthusiastically show off the awesome parts first, forgetting to explain the core features and intricacies.
If you present every detail in a logical order, saving the best for last, the client is more likely to have their questions answered before they get a chance. When you have to retroactively explain core functionality or present things in the wrong order you risk confusing the client, and that's not conducive to a happy sign-off process. The client should feel on board with the design every step of the way, and not made to feel inferior or stupid for not understanding something you've clearly got your head wrapped around. Time invested in extra diagrams or prototypes to illustrate how even basic concepts will work is time well spent.
5. Sell your work to the client
Make the client think they're dealing with something exciting. Without creeping into arrogant designer mode (because nobody wants to be that guy), if you present your work positively and with pride the client will feed off your mood and hopefully go along with your ideas. Always explain your thought process, but try not to accompany the design with detailed reams of explanation for every decision you made. They probably won't read it. Instead carefully break down the advantages of the design to promote your ideas without losing their attention. Oh and always remember to kiss with the client. What? Of course I'm referring to that cheesy acronym "Keep It Simple, Stupid". It's an old one but it still works.
6. Present drafts using the optimal medium
I know a few designers who bought an iPad just to showcase their work to clients. This might sound like the height of douchebaggery to some, but the concept is worth remembering. The more impressive something looks the more the client wants it, and the easier it is to get approval. Don't think of it as using smoke and mirrors, it's about adding that new car smell. When a company I worked for outsourced a logo revamp, we saw concepts from two designers; one designer sent a link to a screen grab of their opened Illustrator document (toolbars and all) hosted on an image sharing service, the other designer compiled a PDF with headed pages and a bespoke layout for the concept logos. They both produced a similar amount of work but one was much more to impressive to receive than the other. (The PDF guy got the gig.) Sometimes when I need to present something that requires a little more explanation I sit face to face with the client and showcase it on an iPad or big screen, when other times it feels perfectly acceptable to send a JPG in an email with a small written summary.
7. Learn how to take criticism
I hate to say it but although you're an awesome designer you might also get things wrong. Most of the time you probably won't, because you're awesome, but nobody's perfect.
When you invest a lot of creative energy into something it's natural to feel proud and protective of your work. However, when you show this work to other people they see it through a different pair of eyes. Their view is not clouded by the investment of time and energy that went into creating the product, and unfortunately they might not appreciate exactly how difficult it was to arrive at that point. It can be hard to swallow feedback that may come across as thoughtless, but the way you react will not only determine how easy it is to continue working on the product, it may also improve it. You might not always have it right first time, but by acting professionally and acknowledging feedback constructively you're more likely to refine your creations.
8. Let the client think they got their way
The client might not always offer you pearls of wisdom. After all, you're the expert. But if the client thinks they got their way they're more likely to sign off on a design. By acknowledging their feedback you can be clever about how you incorporate it in to your design. Avoid saying "no" by offering a variation on their suggestion that's closer to your ideas. By compromising or offering constructive reasoning to your direction, the client will feel like they're involved in the process instead of being ignored.
9. Avoid being defensive or confrontational
By staying calm and swallowing your rage into a tiny repressed ball you'll communicate better with the client and avoid getting their back up. Take your time before replying to their feedback; it's easy to react quickly without thinking. When you come across as negative or confrontational towards any feedback you receive your client is going to react defensively. If this happens they're more likely to dig their heels in and push for what they want. By avoiding any struggle, you continue moving in the right direction.
10. Never present unfinished work
Whenever I'm developing prototype functionality for a website I notice there's always a “crazy inventor” period. Like in Honey I Shrunk The Kids or Flubber, it's when you've created something awesome and you can't wait to show everyone but haven't quite worked out all the bugs. As the inventor you can look past the impurities because you know they're easy to fix later. Unfortunately if you present the project at this stage to anyone outside the development process they just see a semi-functional mess, and your big bang becomes an anticlimactic fizz. Likewise with a draft design. If you try and pitch it to the client during the crazy inventor period they won't look past the messy, unfinished parts.
The above steps weren't written to prevent you from redrafting your work. Refining your ideas is an integral aspect to design, and this article assumes you're ready to get finished work approved by the client. These steps have helped me to manage my time more efficiently and keep projects from piling up and tumbling over like some metaphorical game of work Jenga. Hopefully they will benefit your designs and allow you to refine ideas by avoiding irrelevant criticism and requests. If you have tips of your own for efficiently getting your ideas put into motion I'd love to hear your feedback.