A List Apart


The Client Did It: A WWW Whodunit

This morning was much like any other. I stumbled into the office perilously close to 9 am, wondering how on earth I manage to get here on time day in, day out. A ridiculously strong coffee, the reading of my overnight email, and I’m well on my way to another ordinary day in the life of your typical webgeek.

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My diary reminds me that I have a 10:00 appointment with my favourite client (at least that’s what I tell them and every other one of my clients). But the reality is that every one of my clients is exactly the same, in that they all have the same name. Weird, I know, but true: the client’s name is always IKE. It stands for “I Know Everything.”

Well, today, IKE is the patient and I am the cure for IKE’s Disease.

For the love of IKE

IKE is always 15 minutes late for their appointment. That’s okay, as it gives me time to make another coffee. IKE arrives on time (15 minutes late) and mutters a poorly conceived apology, but I shrug it off as I reach out to shake their hand in a warm and open embrace of friendship. The forces of economic physics demand that I make IKE my pal no matter what happens.

But not today. Today’s meeting will prove different. Today is the day that I set IKE straight.

Comp city blues

The meeting begins as I show IKE the comps I’ve made according to the guidelines they gave me in the previous meeting. I’m pretty sure that I’ve given IKE what they asked for. IKE said “Robbie, I want you to go all out on this one. Be as creative as you like. Create a new design paradigm.”

I should have known I had a live one here the moment they said the word “paradigm,” but I went with it. So I got “creative.” I pushed myself to do something I’d never attempted before, and was quietly proud of the results.

IKE looks at the comps and says, “Robbie, I like it a lot. But it’s a little way out. Can you make some changes?”

“Sure thing!” I say, not wanting to appear stubbornly inflexible. “What would you like changed?”

IKE says, “Well, I think this beige thing (the background) here is a bit soft. I want us to have a stronger look and feel. Can you change it to navy blue? And I want our logo over here, and larger. The logo has to be much larger. And these words here?” (It’s called typography, by the way.) “Get rid of ‘em. I don’t like it. Put a photo of a guy in a suit there. Or a closeup of a computer – like they do on Microsoft’s site.”

In one foul breath, IKE has destroyed my design and reduced it to something resembling the demon-spawn of a generic FrontPage template. And that’s when I say to IKE…

Let ‘im have it

“IKE - what are you paying me for?” IKE looks at me, wide-eyed and slack-jawed as I continue: “Am I not the designer here? Am I not the PROFESSIONAL web developer here? You’ve just told me how to design your site to a tee, and I can tell you now, it will look like something your 10-year-old has thrown together with a freeware WYSIWYG editor.”

I draw another breath and continue my rant. “...If I came to your business and asked you to make me an XYZ, and then came back later and told you that it had to look like an ABC, you wouldn’t be happy about it if you knew that the ABC would be a second-rate product, would you, IKE? Because that’s what you’re doing to me here. You must realise I’m the one with the knowledge of colour schemes, cross-browser platform issues, typography, navigation, and usability, not you. So why don’t you KEEP QUIET, sign me a blank cheque, and learn to appreciate my years of experience and the blood, sweat, and tears I’ve spent in perfecting my skills – just so I can create a ‘new design paradigm’ for you.”

Of course, IKE goes on to humbly apologise and promises to remember their place the next time we meet to discuss the project. I warmly shake IKE’s hand as they leave, knowing that the creative direction of the project is now firmly in my control…

Of course, the above story is completely false and a flight of pure fantasy for most of us. We allow ourselves to be controlled by clients because they’ve got the cash and it’s a competitive world out there.

I wrote this sad fantasy because so often when my peers and I critique each other’s work, the first thing we say defensively is, “I know it’s ugly, but at least it’s what the client wanted.”

In other words: “The Client did it.”

Why clients do it

So why is it that we allow ourselves to be put in this compromising position where the client tells us how to be web designers? Maybe it’s because the perception among the wider public is that “anyone” can make a website. And they’re right.  Anyone can make a website – but not everyone can make an emotionally engaging interactive experience that will live in the visitor’s memory. (Similarly, anyone with access to a photocopier and a stapler can “make a book,” but good books are scarce.)

Branding creates value, but most clients seek quantifiable results, and few sites (aside from successful e-commerce sites) deliver measurable bottom-line results. Our work is aesthetic, but most clients are not trained in aesthetics. What I consider ugly, they may view as perfectly acceptable. When commissioned to deliver a branding site, I’m asking my client to have faith that my team and I understand branding, aesthetics, content, communications, and user flow – most of which are subjective and beyond the client’s realm of expertise.

Getting past palookaville

Now, I don’t claim to have an answer for the above dilemma, but I suspect that most of us will remain in this position until our industry is accorded the same level of professional status enjoyed by fields like advertising and graphic design.

What will make clients view us with the same respect they accord media buyers, commercial directors, creative directors, and similar professionals? Perhaps it will come with industry-wide competency standards. Perhaps it is simply a matter of increasing our own professionalism as individuals.

My guess is that it pays to brush up on our sales, marketing, and interpersonal skills, so that we have the confidence and ability to look IKE in the eye and say: “I hear what you’re saying, but perhaps we’d be better off doing it this way instead, because…” (cut to demographic profile or field study written in language the client understands–the language of marketing).

Until we can tell IKE to take a hike, we’ll continue to suffer at the hands of clients who think a cutting edge site is one that has a spinning logo and blinking text – leaving us with a bad feeling in our guts, and a commercial portfolio we’re embarrassed to show anyone. But one day, IKE, one day, you’re gonna get it. And who knows? If we brush up on our buzzwords and marketing skills, you may even like what you get.

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