Axe the revisions, not the design

By Jarrod Drysdale


My design projects tend to earn client signoff without any revisions whatsoever. When I do revisions, they are always minor.

You probably don’t believe me.

Tell me if this sounds familiar: you spend days and weeks on revisions. I used to do that too. I used to present designs and have them rejected so harshly that the list of revisions was basically a complete redesign. I’d beat my head on the desk, think “Well, I have to get paid”, then gnash my teeth as I watched the Photoshop loading splash screen. (Oh man, I have no time to gripe now that Sketch opens so quickly, amirite?)

I didn’t always know this, but those seemingly endless revision cycles were a huge drain on my income. Not to mention my morale.

The revisions will continue until morale improves.

Clients (but not mine)

You’ve probably read articles that say your job as a designer is to sell the work. The standard advice is that if your client isn’t happy, you didn’t explain well enough.

Explaining design is an important skill, and it’s one every designer should work to improve. (Maybe I’ll write about that another time.) But, not explaining design well is only one small part of why clients can react so strongly to our designs—and end up requesting so many heartbreaking revisions.

It’s not enough to explain and sell to your clients. You have to train them.

The vast majority of clients do not understand any of these things:

  • Who the design is for
  • What design can accomplish
  • How design is made
  • What designers do

This ignorance causes problems right from the beginning of the project, and they snowball causing the extreme reactions we all fear when presenting the design.

So, if you want to avoid those reactions and endless revision cycles, train your clients so that they understand each of the misconceptions above.

Your design is for customers, not you.

Clients do not understand: who the design is for.

Possibly the most redeeming quality of the UX boom is that designers are thinking a lot more about users. We do it in a very self-righteous way—”I’m a user advocate! I make people’s lives better! I’m basically Mother Teresa!”—but the outcome is still remarkably good. This focus on users in our industry is positive because it connects our work to data and real outcomes. It steers design away from subjectivity.

However, the whole UX-persona-user-story-experience-buzzword-key-party thing is a just an indirect way of saying this:

Your website is for customers, not you. It’s a waste of money to design a website for 1 person.

And, you can just come out and say that, and in much less time than it takes to do a user study.

If you end up designing a purple and yellow site because your medical industry client is a big Lakers basketball fan, it’s your own fault. You didn’t teach the client that the site isn’t for him, but for his customers.

And, when you present that purple mutant for the first time, the client won’t like it. Even if it’s exactly what he asked for. He’ll see the design and realize he couldn’t possibly sell medical products on a purple website.

I fully realize that I just casually dismissed the entire UX field. Don’t get me wrong. I completely understand how valuable it is. I just think we get so lost in our terminology and technique that we neglect to explain it to the client in plain English.

It only takes 1 minute to teach the client to focus on customers and users. That one minute of teaching will save you hours of work later. And if you do that teaching up front, you can remind your client later, like this: “Remember that conversation we had about focusing on customers? That’s why we shouldn’t change the design.”

Design makes money.

Clients do not understand: what design can accomplish.

Most clients approach a designer with something specific in mind that they want. Often, if you ask them why, they’ll just say “We need to update the brand” or “This design is getting old” or “We want something more modern”.

They want a nice design—and most of them know it’s important to the business in a general sense—but if you challenge them to be specific, many clients will be unable to relate design directly to a metric.

But, if we’re really honest, every metric is about money.

As a designer, every conversation you have with your client is about money. Every single meeting—from the very first “Nice to meet you” call to the day you deliver the design—is about money. You are working to earn the client money. The client is comparing the profit the design earns to your fee. If you don’t make that number positive, you will be the first to get fired when the marketing budget starts running low.

Further, if you teach your client that your work is about making them money, they are pretty much guaranteed to listen to you.

Think about it. Who would you listen to? The gal who says she can earn you more money or the dope who just holds out his hand expectantly?

Goals and results drive every decision.

Clients do not understand: how design is made.

Even designers who are really great at explaining design use a stupid phrase that devastates projects. It sounds like this:

This style is clean, fresh, and modern. It will establish your brand in the marketplace and differentiate you from competitors.

Most designers use some variation of that phrase to explain their work.

And it’s a horrible, inaccurate, garbage thing to say.

Why? Because style accomplishes nothing. Establishing a brand in the marketplace means nothing. Neither of these are measurable, and they are completely subjective.

By explaining your designs this way, you are implying that you just picked whatever you thought might look cool. And, if picking and making design is only about individual opinions and perceptions, your client will certainly have their own to share.

Cue the revisions. Or the redesign.

Instead of talking about how the design looks good, explain how you chose that exact aesthetic to appeal to your client’s customers. Demonstrate all of the critical thinking you used to arrive at this conclusion, and, how specific aspects of the design are planned to achieve the project goals.

When a client realizes that you made the design with goals and results in mind, they’ll be much more careful about asking for changes. They want those results—and they’ll know that any change could affect the likelihood of achieving those results.

Of course, this also means that when you start a design project, you need to do research and create your solution with goals in mind. Never agree to work on a concept with nothing to go on. If you do, the design will fail because it has no foundation, and you’ll have no basis for persuading the client to use it.

No surprises. Ever.

Clients do not understand: what designers do.

No matter how well you train them, most people just won’t understand what designers do. This is why it is immensely important that during a design project, you never disappear. You should always give the client a head’s up about what you’re working on right now and what they should expect to see from you next. That way, when you’re close to delivering the final concept, they know it’s coming, and they know what it’s going to be like.

If my client is surprised when I deliver a design, I messed up. I never want a client to be surprised by the work—not even if it’s a positive surprise.

I want the design I deliver to be exactly what my client wanted. The solution they were hoping for—and that they helped me to create. Not an unexpectedly beautiful object—which is also a relief because they had to pay for it sight unseen. I want my designs to be calculated, expected, and on the mark every. single. time.

Because I really hate taking an axe to a wonderful design. Don’t you?

You have to do more work to make sure your client isn’t surprised. You have to plan out your projects, get your work done when you say you will, and be organized enough to know what’s coming next and when you can finish it.

For junior designers, this is nearly impossible. It was for me.

If you find that you struggle to plan out your work well because creativity can be fickle, the answer is simple: pad all your deadlines. Give yourself extra time, and hey, if you end up not needing it, deliver early or work on something else.

Setting expectations is your responsibility. Here are some important points that you should bring up during a project to help guide conversations and set expectations:

  • What to discuss on the upcoming kickoff call
  • When to expect the proposal
  • When to expect the contract
  • What work you do first after the contract is signed
  • What the client needs to send to you and when
  • What is the first thing the client will see and when
  • What info do you want from the client when they see that first thing
  • “Quick update on your design. It’s going great! I’m planning on _____ direction because…”
  • When the design will be ready to view
  • Why you made the design this way
  • What this design will accomplish for the business
  • How the client’s customer’s will react to this design
  • How long the design would take to build (and how much it would cost)

If you bill at or over $100/hr, you should be doing all of these things. You are not worth that rate unless you do.

I know that list contains a lot of information. The crazy thing is that many designers leave out almost all of it. This is why clients can seem so difficult. The truth is that their reactions are completely reasonable given that they have almost no information.

When you train your client and set all of these lessons as the context for your work, you won’t even need to explain your design as much. That skill of “selling the work,” while important, becomes somewhat less so. Your client will see the design for the first time and connect the dots between everything you have taught them and that amazing piece of work.

All they’ll have to say is: “Looks great, let’s build it.”


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