Building someone else’s vision

I had an interesting issue come up with a client recently. The client had already chosen one of the mockups I’d given them for their new e-commerce site, and we were ready to meet to discuss minor changes before coding started.

The day before that meeting, they sent me a layout they’d drawn up and wanted to know if they could use that instead. I told them we should meet to talk about it and they agreed.

What they had come up with was something they really liked. They felt it suited them perfectly and I could respect that.We discussed the idea and our mutual feelings about it, and it became clear that they were really into this idea and definitely wanted to use it.

Awkward moment – I felt odd about it, being the contracted designer. And they recognized that; it was clear that this kind of just happened and was definitely not planned from the beginning, but it was what they wanted. They asked if I wanted to continue with the project given that.

I’m not a programmer and don’t really have any interest in taking someone else’s idea and building the backend for it – that removes all the fun from the work for me. My enjoyment comes from putting together a well-crafted site from beginning to end that reflects the personality of the client, respects the audience they want to attract and then functions without too many glitches to deliver the promised results to the customer.

Web design isn’t primarily about money for me – I love the front-end work, and if you take that away, then, well, it does become much more about money. I tried to explain this and that I would have to apply an additional fee to make up for the lack of exposure, since I wouldn’t be able to show this site in my portfolio or have my link at the bottom of it.

So they thought about it and decided to go elsewhere and seek someone who would just code their idea. I think that was the right decision, and certainly better for me. I would be bored out of my mind doing something like that, honestly.

So in this case I’m okay that it worked out this way – but I’m interested to know if other designers have encountered something like this, and how you dealt with it?


  1. I understand your predicament completely. The client has an idea stuck in their head and just will not relinquish. I cannot blame them given I have been on their position before, but what I found interesting was that you were comfortable with turning them away. Could you not have farmed out the programming and kept a small percentage of the job to yourself? Just curious and intersted on your take how you approach those options.


  2. Hi Mike –

    Last spring I had a prospective client come to me needing a website. We had a number of conversations until it came out one day, just before signing the contract, that she didn’t want any layouts from me, she already knew what she wanted it to look like.

    I didn’t take on that client, because if I can’t do the design work I don’t really see the point. I mean, it’s money, but it’s not fun. I don’t enjoy coding for it’s own sake, but I love seeing something I’ve sketched out on a piece of paper go from that to a functioning, well-designed website.

    I’m busy enough that I don’t need to take on projects that don’t hold a lot of interest for me. That may not always be the case but for right now that’s how I work.

    I could have farmed out the programming as you suggest, but I guess at that point I was a bit disappointed and wanted to walk away. I didn’t really consider that. But I will in the future, it’s an excellent point.

  3. I run into this a lot and I admit that I’m a bit flustered when clients do this to me, too. With that said, I always try to make it work for the client and usually once I start putting the client’s content into the design, the design is barely recognizable from the original – but the client is happy.

  4. I’m with you… it does take all the fun out of it to build from someone else’s design. And, yes, you can farm that part out, but you likely still would have to charge more for the coding if you did.

    I hope you were paid for the design work you did on the project. Not to mention the non-billables like meetings or research… the things that we usually build into the whole fee.

    Have you considered putting a clause in your contract that clearly states the parameters you are willing to work within in regard to using someone elses design? This would state your position on this matter from the beginning so you aren’t wasting time designing for someone who is going to micromanage your project to this level.

    You could even state that there will be an extra charge when this type of thing happens to cover those non-billables.

  5. Let’s look at it this way. If it wasn’t about money then you would have done the whole job for free in the first place. Just because they didn’t like your design you felt hurt and wanted to dump the project. I have had this come up a lot in my years of designing, but I have learned that it is all about business. What I like you may not, no big deal. In the end I get paid for it. And even if it’s not your design, you are getting paid to sharpen your backend skills; which is something you wouldn’t do for free anyway. So do the job, get the money and keep a client. They may not have liked this design but what about the next site, or when this site fails because of poor UI? You think they will come back to the person that dumped them over a design? You may be able to walk away from a client, but to me that one client could bring in 10 more in customer referrals because I catered to their needs. For those that WANT to do this for a living, keep the future picture in mind. Right now this is just one small client; but two years from now that one client could turn into 10 BIG clients if you treat them right and provide the service they need. Just food for thought.

  6. Scott – thank you for the food for thought, I get it. In this case, though, I didn’t walk away. The client dumped me, not the other way around. I was willing to continue on the project for just the reason you state – it would have been good backend experience building a store on a cart I hadn’t used before and that was more than fine. And yeah, I’m not happy about losing any client. I’m working about 95% on a referral basis so I put a lot of effort into keeping my clients extremely happy. I will keep your comments in mind in the future.

  7. Beckie,

    Yes, I did get paid for the design work. I kind of felt bad about this whole situation – and the client was apologetic when this matter came up, they didn’t plan on it, it just sort of happened. There’s no blame and no troubles with payment, it’s just that I’m a designer and more interested in that part of it than the backend development work on its own.

    I have considering amending my contract to include something about that but I’m not sure how to word it yet.

  8. As a client, I do not understand why you would not want your clients input into the design of their site. If you design a site to their specifications, what would keep you from using it as a link from your site. None.

    It might not be all your idea, but you design it. It may have been made using a format designed by someone else, but you have redesigned, enhanced it, tweeked it, and made your clients happy.

    Not everyone will like your designs, and everybody has their opinions. You must adapt to be successful in business.

  9. I love having clients make input into the design of their site. In fact this is an essential basis for how I work with all of my clients. However, in this case, it was my input that wasn’t wanted.

    I can’t share the layout they wanted to use, but frankly, it was not something that I would want potential clients to think that I designed. It was far removed from anything I would conceivably do, and I’d be uncomfortable being tagged as its designer.

  10. The way that I work is that I meet with a client as a pre-consultation for an hour and a half and we discuss their business, their audience, their budget, look at websites they like and dislike and generally get a good feel for each other.

    After this I write up a communication brief to make sure that we’re on the same page. They approve it, then I write up a quote detailing everything we’ve discussed – if they approve that, they sign a contract.

    Then I prepare 3-4 layouts based on all of their input. In this case we had another 1.5 hour meeting before I did this to go over likes and dislikes. They sent me links to websites they liked and disliked too and I used all of this information to put together four very different layouts that ’emulated walking into their brick-and-mortar store’ in one way or another.

    I don’t what more I could do to make sure that I understand what a client wants. What they decided to go with was very different than my understanding of what they wanted, and it didn’t meet the criteria they specified all along the way, at least not to my mind.

  11. I find in my experience that the client is “always” the boss. I am his or her servant. I must say however, that as we know, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” What you and I think as a web designer is not often the same as what the non techy business owner thinks. Thus, like you I start with a pre-design conference, gather the materials they want used, even suggest a small focus group to help conceptulaize their site and then build three templates to choose from as a starting point. The client almost always makes changs significantly once the site starts to take shape. But to me, thats not an offense but an opportunity to make him or her happier with me as a vendor.

    As I hold their hands, answer their redundant and often elementary ideas, I find that once they trust my judgement, then I can guide them back to a better design or add tools they really need but may not want. The bottom line is that from the outset we have a scope of a job and budget established. In the agreement, I carefully outline that any substantive changes are cause for additional charges because the new work is outside the original job scope.

    In most cases, this is a reason why some of my sites get higher and higher costs. Not because of charging high fees, but because of the many changes they expect me to work around.

    My perspective in such cases is always “the customer knows best” what he or she wants. My job is to make the web site look like they think it should look. Too many designers design for their portfolio vs what the client wants or needs.

    I think my approach is why many of my clients have been with me for 6 – 10 years, with each having gone through a number of site changes and design changes along the way. Each change means money in my bank account.

  12. Ken – don’t you think that as web designers we have a responsibility to tell the client when something may be a problem?

    In this situation, it was not that the changes they wanted weren’t aesthetic enough for my portfolio. It was that they hired me to help them get their retail business going online, and as a successful online retailer since 1998, in my opinion what they wanted was going to work against them.

    I think my responsibility was to try to convey that, as gently as possible. I want my clients to be successful.

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