“Here's the truth: the majority of work being shared online is not client-centred design.”

Take a virtual stroll through the online design galleries–the ‘inspirational’ curated showcases and the user-generated ‘portfolio’ sites–and you’ll see as vast amount of creative output. It will wow you, tire you, inspire you and frustrate you, but, what else will it do?

When I see trends emerge I ask myself: what triggered the sudden influx of identical clients? What factor has suddenly required that every piece of client work requires highly grained and textured backgrounds? What scientific or technical phenomenon has meant that every “icon” must be so highly detailed that it cannot be legibility rendered below one thousands pixels?

Here’s the truth: the majority of work being shared online is not client-centred design. And as pretty and as guiltily-pleasurable as we may find it, it doesn’t serve much purpose outside of the design community. If you understand that then you can enjoy it, but I have a worrying feeling that this novelty design is slipping out of our realm, and that can be dangerous. A large portion of work that’s shared online is design for design’s sake. It’s design for designers.

Design Strategy

Every client is unique, every customer of that client is unique within a demographic range. A design must reflect a client’s brand, serve their services and appeal to their target audience. This design strategy is a complex beast but it is the single most important factor to a successful design project, why? Because it defines the most important factor; the client’s business and audience.

Design serves a purpose for which it should be appropriate. It should not exist for its own vanity. Many have said that good design should be “invisible”.

“Designers should take pride in the purpose & effectiveness of their design, not the skill in which they can apply Photoshop effects.”

I tweeted that yesterday and it started trending within hours. I’m glad I’m not the only one that understands the point. Though alternatively, if design has no client, then is its purpose to show off the fundamental knowledge and technical skills of the designer? I believe the latter is what we do in our own time, the former is what pays the bills and keeps us employed.

Client or no client; there is a massive difference, but one that is often left unanswered by the work we see online. To avoid being influenced in the wrong direction it’s important to focus on the task at hand. Enough preaching. If designing for clients requires some kind of deeper thinking—what is it? Here are the prerequisites:

Clear your Mind

Clear your head of any particular design style, technique or trend. You should never shape client work to justify a preconceived idea. You should always identify the style post-strategy to ensure it serves the right purpose.

Switch of the Projector

Never project your own opinions on business management. The client has run their business for years. They know things you don’t and they’re only sharing what they believe is relevant. You don’t know what’s best, but you do know what questions to ask.

Never put yourself into the shoes of the target audience. As a lonesome, highly opinionated designer you are insignificant in respect to the client’s customer base. Even if you’ve already invested into the brand their is no excuse to design for your own tastes.

Reiterate the Purpose

You may have spent many a late night in researching the client but it’s for nothing if you don’t stay focused on the objectives. When presenting design don’t describe what you’ve done—clients can see that—describe why you’ve done it.

When clients make requests don’t express your opinion based on aesthetics, express an opinion relating to the goals that have been set.

When applying a particular style ask yourself what purpose does it serve? Does it deliver the unique brand aesthetic, does it aid usability or readability, does it make the content & layout more flexible, or, does it simply exist for your own satisfaction?

Instil Confidence

Clients are hiring your design services because they do not have the skills themselves. Tell them, show them and convince them that you can do it. Respect the client and they’ll respect your decisions. Ignore the client and go off on a tangent of your own agenda and expect only frustration.

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There’s a website called Clients from Hell, I’m sure you’ve seen it. Some of these situations are innocent, comical misunderstandings that we can all enjoy. The majority, however, reflect the sheer ignorance and arrogance of designers. Designers that have failed to achieve client-centred design (they’re easy to spot).

The client—with concern for their investment—feel the need to intervene. Despite lack of understanding they direct the project towards a mediocre finale. How many designers at this point take responsibility for their failure?

Here’s a call to action: when posting work online please tell us about the client and their brief. Allow us to put your design work into a relevant context.

Design for clients, not yourself.