I'm the solo designer at a 7-person web agency. The other employees are programmers and the owner (whose background is in IT). Our clients are mostly small to mid-sized businesses.

While I do have the chops to "make things pretty," my background is UX. I spent a lot of time studying the psychology of usability and designing interfaces backed by user research. I LOVE that stuff.

My problem is that, since working for this agency 3 years ago, I'd only put less than half of the projects I've worked on in my portfolio. I do my best to sell my design decisions to clients (like what I did to benefit the user), but as too many clients do, they end up turning me into a Photoshop puppet. This is because my boss's philosophy is to make clients happy. I've asked for his advice, but I've been told several times, "It's the client's website. We need to give them what they want."

At a recent "potential business" meeting, the potential client showed me and my boss sites he liked and hated. Awkwardly enough, one of the sites he hated was one I designed. (We just didn't have it up on our company portfolio yet.) My boss admitted that we designed it and said, "Well, we gave the client what they wanted." ...Naturally, that added insult to injury for me.

What I'd like is advice on how to better convince clients that I do know what I'm doing, and designing for their users (i.e., their customers) will ultimately benefit their business.

Also, what are the best interview/briefing questions you ask new clients?

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    The question you ask is a bit too broad for the scope of this site. But your boss is right, ultimately the client should get what they want. Don't take it personally, just do your best to try and convince them that what you're saying is best for their business. If they don't end up agreeing so be it, it's not on you at that point. We can't approach all of our work like portfolio work, ultimately we have to please other people because they pay the bills – Zach Saucier Nov 12 '15 at 22:59


This is where the language of design comes in. One of the things I learned in design school was how to articulate a design's strength's and weaknesses in a way to instill confidence and certainty in the way a project is viewed and ultimately decided upon.

This could be as easy as looking to create a unified vision of the design a company presents, for example: "Everything Apple does follows a design ethic, maybe we should develop this for your company before we begin on a single part of your marketing endeavor". Then you sell them on the idea of generating a style guide with color, font, logo, and element guidelines that then feed into the design you want to build.

Get them to buy a small block of design work, maybe an hour or two, to develop out an official Style Guide that then determines the look and feel of the remainder of the designs the company goes forward with. This way when you present the design that works within the parameters for the website they can also visualize design parameters for business cards, post cards, and other marketing materials. Who knows you may end up selling them more than just the web design.

Go macro on the problem, expand the view to include more of what they are asking for. The fastest way to get a client to "switch off" is to pigeon hole them into a singular style format. If you have the Style Guide (either made by you or supplied by the client) you can use the decisions already made in that resource to quickly generate two or three options from that and narrow the focus into a series of "yes, I like that" or "no that stinks" discussions that help get you to the place you want to be while showing the client the best way for them to be presented.

This is not an easy get so I wish you well, but with practice you may find it more effective than trying to get them to agree to the final end product of your decision making, especially since they do not have much input on that design decision making.


I think its the past experience of your boss. Avoid any argument and finish the projects. If you not satisfied with this culture maybe you can try freelance and show your capabilities there. It more worth it.


It's very hard to change the culture of a company. Especially if you're the only one who wants this. It's also totally normal if you can only use half your designs in your portfolio depending on the market you are working for. Do personal projects if you want to add a bit more content to it in your own way.

Even if you are right, it's possible there's nothing you can do about it and you'll need to find a way to work around the requests you find ugly. But eh, that's one part of the challenges of being designer; make the ugly looks nice.

You said you know about usability psychology and love it; now you need to work on your 'neuro programming" skills.

You don't convince business owners you're right, you SHOW them. You demonstrate the usability with facts, with real examples, with demos. You compare the requested design (let's call it the "ugly") with your suggestions. The ugly design will serve as a sidekick. You don't tell clients how it's bad and bash it, you tell clients how it compares in performance and usability to the nice one, and especially focus on the positive features of each of them.... obviously you need to demonstrate pragmatically that the nice design has bonuses the ugly one doesn't have besides "just looking nice". Looking nice is very subjective.

Bashing an ugly concept that a client suggested is as insulting to them as for you when you're being told you know nothing in UX or that your designs suck or your inputs don't matter. It's like saying their personal preferences are irrelevant. You can't win by using that method and actually that's your job to find a meeting point between what they ask and how you can use these ideas and improve them with your own personal touch & knowledge. The analogy I like for this is to compare a design challenge to surfing; you don't fight the wave, you'll never win over the elements but you can skillfully use what's given to you and ride that wave the best you can. It,s always about doing your best and not what you want or think is better. You too can be missing some data your client has that motivates his priorities.

If you show 2 different concepts or even 3, and the ugly one as sidekick, there will most likely be a compromise in the middle. Then you keep doing this at every step. It's very hard to fight to get YOUR entire concept accepted if the client and the boss don't support you, but you can at least be satisfied by accepting the challenge for what it is and transforming their ideas into something more usable and nicer. It's like having to use comic sans and making the best out of it; it's a matter of mindset first. That doesn't mean you do 100% what the boss and client asked for; be a bit rebellious and present better ideas at the same time within the ugly idea, and prepare something in-between too to create a bridge. That's something that will help you earn trust and respect from your boss and colleagues too.

Another thing you need to really keep in mind when you are hired for a design job within a company: You are not your design. Learn to detach and remember that the ugly design was made upon request. It's not "yours", it's "a" design. Look, some people have no taste, they love ugly, they just want a duplicate of what they've seen 1000 times because they associate success with this. If you watch shows like Shark Tank, a good example of this is seeing how 95% of the people presenting their ideas will all do the same idiotic sales speech concept of talking at the same time, even though its obvious all sharks roll their eyes when they see that! With people who want ugly, you serve them a better ugly and look at the project as a challenge, not like a piece of art defining your skills.

You're 1 designer for 6 dev (?); that seems to indicate the budgets for the projects are low or the style isn't a priority. Your boss knows too if it's worth sitting for hours in a meeting room and doing 50 phone calls to "convince" a client. People get what they paid for, that's just fair. Your boss does what works for him. You deal with these variables. What you can do if you are exceptional (and want to put energy in this) is to go above and beyond by producing more convincing drafts... within the scope and budget. You can't spend 200hr on something if the budget allows 100hr obviously. That's where you need to let go.

Questions you asked to clients are probably the same as you do now. It's the way you'll talk to the client that counts. That's why I said you need to improve neuro programming skills. It's like dealing with a stubborn child about to run in the traffic. You don't tell the child he'll die if he runs on the road, you charm him instead to go the other way because it's fun. Don't be forceful as some "in-house" suggest; open paths instead, welcome the client's inputs and see yourself as a translator of their bad ideas into better ones. A good designer has an "extended vocabulary" in the shape of visual communication; maybe your clients and boss have a limited "vocabulary" and you're there to help them bring precision to their message, not to change the meaning.

Some tricks and examples of dos and don'ts:

  • Be careful when using the "you should"; it's forceful to some people & authoritative. There's also precise situations when to use this. You might be dealing with very successful people who have seen tons of designers with an ego or you might even be compared to stubborn one-track mind designers. Use formulas such as "you might want to this ABC because XYZ..." and your XYZ should show a perception if you have absolutely no way to back up your claims. Make it clear you want to help, not impose. If you can't back up your claims, you could be perceived as someone with a personal agenda.
  • Don't talk about what you find nicer or better. Talk about how their own clients might perceive the layout or what kind of mistakes they might do while using the app/website. And split the talk with clear visual examples, eg. "this takes 5 clicks and doesn't get as much emphasis as it deserves, this takes 2 clicks and see how it's also very easy to find."
  • Say your thoughts in a neutral way and ask what the client thinks about it, and how he feels about it. Open the dialog. You want to understand, not win.
  • Ask questions the "WHYs" in a friendly, opened & emotionally detached way, the same way you'd like a physician to investigate your issues without sounding elitist, judging you or making you feel like an ignorant
  • Push your ideas by rebelliously integrating them within the requirements of the project. People don't always know what they want until they see it. Show it to them by subverting their own ideas with yours.
  • Don't push your own ego designer's agenda of "beauty"; if a client wants to buy a car with green and brown stripes, that's his choice ultimately, especially for low-med budget projects. His target market might actually like it too and you don't know. Again, ask questions about the motivations. Don't negotiate on their personal preferences, talk about sales, money, time saving actions, etc. Concrete measurable benefits. It's very hard to prove that blue sells more than gray, but it's easy to prove a 1-2 steps checkout gets more sales than a 3 steps one OR that a red banner does bring attention to one side of a layout.
  • A lot of time we forget the whole process is a teamwork effort with the client. It's good to try some clients suggestions objectively and with passion; sometimes you might end up realizing it wasn't such a bad move after all! For example, you prefer small texts for the body. Your client hates it and wants bigger and bigger because he has bad vision. Consider this as a very reasonable request and make the damn text bigger and in the best way you can, or change fonts. And take the freedom to balance everything else around.
  • "Troll" your client by making awesome things out of bad suggestions. Don't start with the mindset like "this is ugly, I hate this, here's your ugly layout as you asked". Instead, embrace the challenge with fun, and think "what can I do with this s***, how can I tone down the ugly/unfriendly layout and make it awesome (or semi-awesome)?"
  • Try to avoid the "But you don't understand" kind of formula. That sounds very teenager. Explain your ideas & benefits differently if the client doesn't get it, in 10 different ways if you need to. Sometime the person perfectly understands but doesn't agree, sometimes the explanation is not convincing, sometimes it's confusing, and sometimes it's simply wrong or ignoring some variables.

There's more but if you apply a few of these tricks in your way of dealing with requests, you will be remembered as someone resilient, flexible, welcoming, constructive, positive and a good team player. If you impose your beautiful layout and get frustrated about not being able to do what YOU want, you might be remembered as a designer with a little ego, inflexible, selfish, misunderstanding clients' requests, difficult, even stubborn or worse, that you don't know what you're doing! Exactly what you want to avoid. And you might also end up becoming like this, not only being perceived this way.

What you think is good usability, no matter how genius your ideas are will still be judged based on your attitude and how you skillfully use social skills. Lot of crappy designers do the opposite actually and are very successful too! People like working with them and obviously become more opened to any suggestion from these designers, no matter how bad they are. So this goes both ways and that shows how the mindset is important, sometimes more than the skills unfortunately!

somekind of TLDR:

  • Learn sales neuro-programming tricks
  • Don't push your own personal agenda on clients. Your designs are not you. Be opened to criticisms, detach from our designs
  • Keep the budget of the projects in mind and realize if it's worth fighting for your suggestions or not. Some designers say it is, well that works when you got support, not when being alone or a freelancer and/or working on low budgets. It's dumb to fight when there's no gain and only pain. An "ego gain" is very ephemeral.
  • Open the dialog, and welcome clients' feedback even if you think they're totally off the track. Then work with their perception to subvert their ideas with your own "better ideas". Create bridges, use sidekick concepts, demonstrate with facts. You're not dealing with morons if they are successful business owners, treat them as successful people who know what they want.
  • See yourself as a translator of ideas, not as an artist or "the One". Design is communication, you do the best you can with the words that are given to you, but you can improve the message by using your skills!
  • Enjoy the challenge of bad concepts! Doing design and layouts with bad concepts is like creating a delicious recipe when all you've been given as ingredients is ketchup, a lemon and flour! There's fun in that and appreciate that you can accomplish something good enough or awesome with so little! See it as a game, don't take things personally.
  • Don't forget to include the "variables" that cannot be modified when judging your designs and re-adjust yourself around these, don't fight them.
  • Put yourself in your client's situation. How would you like another professional to serve you the best he/she can while still respecting your own preferences and not treating you like an ignorant? You can't push on a cheesecake when all the client can afford is jell-o. But you can always serve that cheap ordinary jell-o in a beautiful plate with an amazing customer service. That does count for a lot when being a service provider. You're not only a designer.

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