Design Devolution, part 1
When a design changes behind your back
What’s the ethical thing to do when a client is messing up a design you made for them?
Sometimes you will notice that a client will change a design after you deliver it. Perhaps a month or two later you check back in on the client to see how they’re doing, or just want to return to a previous work to re-admire it, only to find the design has changed for the worse.
For many designers, sometimes myself included, the initial reaction is outrage. You worked so hard on that design, got the client to approve it, and then they went and changed it behind your back.
While we designers need to take ownership over our work, the design ultimately belongs to the client, and they have every right to do what they want with it. And, sometimes, changes to our designs happen for good reason, even if they don’t satisfy our high standards as designers.
However, even if you can accept that, it’s still disappointing to see cases where a client isn’t getting the full value from your work.
Designs always evolve. But when they devolve, it can be worth speaking up. There is a difference between design changes that we designers personally don’t like and those that actually do affect the client’s success. When you see the latter happening, what’s the right thing to do?
I think that notifying past clients of potential consequences of changing a design is ethical and even a tiny bit noble. I personally always try to avoid sounding like a petty designer who is angry about changes to my work, because it is a little bit petty and certainly doesn’t win back clients. So if I see a client who made changes I don’t like, I only reach out to them if I believe there are serious consequences beyond sacrificing a little bit of aesthetic polish.
However, in the handful of cases where I’ve made a good faith effort to help the client and gently warn them of consequences, the client’s reply has been something like this:
“Thanks so much for looking out for us! We’re still working on it, and if we need help we’ll reach out to you again.”
And then I never hear from them again.
What’s happening is that after you deliver a design to a client, they know it rightfully belongs to them, and they will change it as they see fit. Sometimes, a client is more concerned with satisfying their own ideas and ambitions, and either doesn’t care about the results or believes they know better.
I’ve learned that when a client changes a design after I deliver it, especially when I worked very hard to educate that client about why the design should perform well and how to monitor that performance, this is usually evidence that the client wasn’t a great fit in the first place.
So instead of trying in vain to rescue an old project that’s seen better days, I review the project and client, and try to learn from the experience.
(I still make an attempt at least once each time. I feel it’s the right thing to do and hope it might lead to an opportunity for both me and the client to fix the design. But it hasn’t worked yet.)
I personally don’t feel great about taking money from clients who aren’t going to realize the full value of my work. Also, when a project doesn’t turn out well, I can’t use it in my portfolio, and I probably won’t earn referrals from it.
So when that happens, I make notes about why the project didn’t go as well as I’d hoped and try to understand why the client wasn’t a good fit. And I use that knowledge to qualify future clients.
I’d rather work for clients who I can really help and who are receptive to my advice.
I also try to establish long-term relationships with my clients to avoid this. Design requires constant maintenance and testing to deliver its best value, and a long-term client relationship with regular design updates is more budget-efficient than infrequent redesigns. Designs do naturally evolve, and guiding those changes ensures better results. Long-term support also selfishly helps me earn more referrals and keeps my portfolio pieces intact. So, this kind of arrangement is really better for both designers and their clients. (See my article on retainers for more.)
However, as designers we can only do our best work and hope clients will follow our advice faithfully. In cases where they don’t, we can just look for future clients who will.