The gentle art of persuasion

10 January 2005

34 comments

A Blue Perspective: The gentle art of persuasion

The customer is always right ... sometimes.

It's an inescapable fact that when you're designing for money, it's always subject to someone else's approval. If they don't give your design the go ahead, then you're not going to get paid. (Or if you have a half decent contract you might get paid but your design won't get used; and at the end of the day isn't half of why you do this job to see your design in action?)

On the other hand, clients pay you for your expertise – presumably because they don't have it themselves and they trust your judgement and experience. Therefore, I'd like to think that it's the duty of a designer to sometimes persuade a recalcitrant client into approving a design. If you didn't believe it was the best option, why did you present it to them?

When you just spent days figuring out the right layout, colours and images for a design – spent hours finding the perfect font – and the first words out of a client's mouth aren't "I love it", then it can be heartbreaking. But obviously you made those decisions for some well thought out reasons, and it behooves you to explain – not argue, never argue – those reasons to your client. Persuade them that this is a good design, but keep an ear open to what they have to say.

If someone simply says they don't like a design it's hard to discuss it with them, let alone improve upon it, so I like to take a few deep breaths and ask "what exactly don't you like about it?" When armed with an exact list of perceived problems with a design you can tackle each of them individually – it's far easier to get agreement on a lot of small problems than on one big one.

Most often a response of distate is based purely on aesthetic pretiness, which in the field of web design makes up only one of many parts that determine a design's success. Aesthetics are also highly subjective. Some people love graffiti, others hate it, but I don't think any one person has the objectivity to declare it either good or bad. Although it may seem vital that the client has to like the aesthetics of a design, most of the time it's not essential, particularly if they themselves aren't part of the design's target group.

Ultimately, I think that when explaining a point of design you want to stray away from aesthetics and frame it in more of a logical and definable framework. Therefore, before the aesthetics of a design element are questioned, I like to explain how it meets both business goals and usability requirements. By pointing at an element and explaining the process behind the choices that make it up – by establishing a strong basis for that element's existence and appearance – it decreases the emotional blinkers that aesthetics often introduce.

Them: "I don't like reversed text."

Me: "Well, these studies show that readability is unaffected by the light/dark combinations of foreground and background, and is instead affected more by absolute contrast. I have of course ensured that the contrast is of optimum readability by running it through a contrast checker. Additionally, the background colour on this section reinforces the branding of the company and recedes from the brightness of the main section, lessening its visual demand upon the user."

You see how it goes.

Of course, if you have a bad design, all the persuasion in the world isn't going to do any good, but I've found that a reasoned and logical approach helps you deliver some understanding when everyone's not quite on the same wavelength.

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Comments

  1. 1/34

    Malarkey commented on 10 January 2005 @ 06:41

    When working on a project for a local council some years ago, I spent weeks presenting design after design, only to hear each time "I don't like it"...

    Then the solution to the problem dawned on me...in each design there was 'something' that they did not like, so were rejecting the whole thing. So I started to break the elements down (logo, colour schemes, layout etc.) getting approval at each stage until we had a final conclusion.

    The problem was that the client did not understand that design was a process and could not see past the element which jarred. I learned a lot from this job and it helped me formulate ways of working that I still use today.

  2. 2/34

    Mike D. commented on 10 January 2005 @ 10:02

    Even worse than disagreements from clients are disagreements from other supply-side groups which are "supposed" to be experts and yet... aren't.

    For instance, if you as the principal designer put together a page which makes great use of showable/hidable divs and the "information architecture" or "usability" department comes back and prescribes using a popup window instead. It is *so* important that all groups working on the production of a site are up to date on technological developments and design trends. Try telling your own usability department that they are wrong. At least a client has a chance of stepping back and realizing that you are the expert.

  3. 3/34

    Justine commented on 10 January 2005 @ 12:46

    Coming from the client side I'd have to agree about explaining the process/decisions behind the design you are presenting. As a purchaser of your expertise I am saying to you, "I have certain requirements" and you are (hopefully) responding with a design which meets those requirements. Some of us are more visually and/or web literate than others. Sometimes explaining how your design meets my requirements is the only way that I am going to understand (ie it won't necessarily be immediately apparent to me just from looking at your design).

    As a purchaser of design, I have to say that I don't usually give my aesthetic response much credence. I try to come at it from the perspective of my requirements and my expectations about the usage of the design. But then again, I did do some training in art and visual design and I understand web technologies (at least at a base level) so perhaps my response is not indicative of most :-)

  4. 4/34

    Andy Budd commented on 10 January 2005 @ 23:42

    Justine, can I just say that you sound like a perfect client. You'd be amazed at the number of clients who based design decisions on subjection opinions rather than objective reasoning.

    However it's not always easy for designers to articulate why a design does a certain thing, especially to a client who doesn't understand the visual vocabulary. For instance, how do you explain why one typeface looks more modern and professional than another without that person having a sound understanding of typography.

  5. 5/34

    Sharaf Atakhanov commented on 11 January 2005 @ 03:44

    Great post!

    I always face this issue with clients. Most of the clients have no clue of what "web esthetics" is or why the page should be laid out one way or another.

    Most of the time what they really want is to have the design and look and feel of their site to do all the work to bring in business, phone calls or whatever is their business goals from the site.

    The most important aspect is a good content, which tends to be forgotten in the design process.

    I guess a way to deal with this design dillemma could be by breaking it down by numbers $$. By that I mean to explain to them in terms of ROI and business objectives behind a certain element, type of design or colors, type and etc...

    Another, method is a rule of three. Design 3 different version of the site, one of the designs is your real favorite one, but you show at the end. First, you show the other two version, which you can tone down the design somewhat, make it weaker or less shiny as the third, the final and the ideal choice. This method is used by graphics studios all the time.

  6. 6/34

    Unearthed Ruminator commented on 11 January 2005 @ 22:31

    Mike D. - I wholeheartedly agree with you. It is a royal pain when you come up with a nice, flexible design and have so called experts come in an provide a layout using sliced graphics in tables.

  7. 7/34

    Chris Bloom commented on 12 January 2005 @ 00:11

    "Contrast Checker" - hahaha. Very slick

    Awww crap, i just googled for "contrast checker" and found one. I'm such an arse sometimes...

    I like your thoughts on this subject though. I hate walking into a meeting with a client and hearing simply "I don't like it. I like Nike.com. Can you do something like Nike.com?" It's often like that joke about the tire-swing that is constantly photocopied and disseminated around the office. A sort of "What the client asked for" vs. "What development built" vs. "What the manager envisioned" kind of thing. Dear sweet Moses, I'm rambling. That;s the last time I come off a post-holiday diet and slide right into a medium coffee with milk and sugar. I wish my legs would stop shaking. Is it hot in here?

  8. 8/34

    Steve Rose commented on 12 January 2005 @ 06:34

    I have a client who thinks she is a designer, because she creates flyers using many fonts, bolding, italics, underlines and centered text. She doesn't disagree with my design, per se; she gives me instructions. She has quotations on some pages and she wants the credited names to be bold, thereby giving the most emphasis to least important text. She can write articles, but not web text, so she has great long passages that no one will read, and she won't let me tell her otherwise. She's making the classic mistake of designing for her own preferences, rather than the user. I'm doing the job for free, to get experience, but I have no intention of arguing or debating with her. I am getting experience with users though.

  9. 9/34

    Designer commented on 13 January 2005 @ 07:13

    How do you go about talking out a client from splash pages and background sound? They all seem to want that stuff...

    Also a neat trick about approving the design as follows. Many clients need to change something in your design, just because they feel that they need some input of their own. You can make an obvious mistake in your design on purpose, your client will notice it and will ask to change it. His needs are satisfied and your design stays the way it is.

  10. 10/34

    Unearthed Ruminator commented on 13 January 2005 @ 22:27

    "How do you go about talking out a client from splash pages and background sound? They all seem to want that stuff..."

    Make them have to open the page over a 14.4k modem connection. ;)

  11. 11/34

    The Man in Blue commented on 13 January 2005 @ 22:58

    ... while listening to their favourite Celine Dion album.

    (Unless, of course, the music that is playing in the background is a MIDI version of the theme from Titanic)

  12. 12/34

    Richard commented on 15 January 2005 @ 01:07

    I'm curious where you read that reversed text isn't the issue, it's contrast. I've always believed that, but our usability folks always say "white on black is the most readable, make it white on black". If you have a link to that document, I'd be interested to have it as ammunition next time the issue arises.

  13. 13/34

    The Man in Blue commented on 18 January 2005 @ 03:04

    Here's that study:

    http://www.aprompt.ca/WebPageColors.html

  14. 14/34

    Nate Cavanaugh commented on 26 January 2005 @ 07:27

    One simple rule:

    As soon as you hear the words "Im a bit of an artist myself", hand them their money back and RUN.

    Without fail, you are going to be forced to create designs that fit the ideas of someone who couldnt quite make it in the creative field, and is instead using you as a talent puppet to bring whatever warped visions of lavender and mint green color combinations to the screen, or some other God-awful combination of colors/hues.

    While bringing someones vision to the screen is fine, any good client will have the foresight to let you ply your trade with minimal interference.

    I mean, imagine if it was any other industry.

    "Jim, you build barbeques, right?"

    "Yes, Mr. Customer."

    "Okay, Jim, I want a barbecue with the lid on the bottom, the handle to not actually connect to it, but to just kind of sit there, and I want it to burn cattle droppings".

    "But, um, Mr. Customer, Im not sure this will work."

    "Hey, hey, Im a bit of an engineer myself, I know what sells.
    I'd also like some embossed purple buttons on the lid with a rainbow background, as well as my address, website address, the gas mileage of my car, and my wifes picture to scroll across the top of the barbeque."

    "Um, sir, why would it need to do that?"

    "That's how all great barbeques are built nowadays. I mean, you should be paying me with all the stuff Im teaching you..."

    One other point though, and one I think web designers always forget, is that certain aesthetic elements are not obvious to the untrained eye.
    Diagonal lines, and grids are l33t, but most people dont see them as such.

    Anyways, thanks for the chance to rant on your page :)

  15. 15/34

    Athyrius commented on 10 February 2005 @ 19:11

    First, I cannot believe you fingers to keys without already having deposited at least %50 up front. And having a rock solid contract.
    Secondly- I always have clients send me examples of at least 4 sites that they like- or would like to emulate. That takes 80% of the guesswork out of the equation insofar as styling, colors, etc. That alone can give you a good idea of where their head is at.
    Thirdly- Designers realy need to get a handle on the idea that soon- very soon- most people are going to be 'watching' thier websites on television. At which time the 'corporate gray squares'  look of most business sites are going to look completely washed out and DULL.

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