Dealing with design changes

I kept moving and turning as I laid awake in bed that night. As much as I wanted to I just couldn’t force myself to go to sleep, it was past midnight on an otherwise regular Tuesday. I looked up at the ceiling and it felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders – I was stressed and nervous and I wondered to myself if I was ‘good enough’. Why was all it so hard, what would my team and the people at work think, it was just a freaking small client on our roster but my ego was bruised. My work had been rejected by the client. Not once but TWICE. After 2 major rounds of revisions I didn’t know where to go from here, I was getting grilled by the client and couldn’t come up with a design that they ‘liked’. I was out of ideas. We had the kickoff meeting and they’d shown me examples of sites that they liked and it was terrible in my opinion, I was so sure then that I would ‘wow’ them with my work. Well that didn’t happen...

This was me 6 years ago. At that point I hated failing, I fucking hated design changes and when I got feedback it felt like it was a personal attack on me and my abilities. The project managers also didn’t like it when the client disliked the work. So it was double the pressure. In the office we’d celebrate when things would get sign off from the client immediately, and most of the time they would. The mentality at work during this time was that we as an agency would get a brief disappear for 2 weeks and present a magic reveal to the client. I’d sit in the office waiting for the good or bad news, most of the time the client would love it. I’d gotten used to this, I’d become complacent. But sometimes they didn’t and when that happened I felt like a failure and I was ashamed. By the time the second major change comes around nearly all clients would be happy. But this was the first time that I had done 2 major revisions and the client still didn’t like it. I felt lost and stressed. Looking back things are never as bad as they seem, and it’s funny when I think about it now.

When you are faced with challenges that feel insurmountable and your overcome them that is when you learn the most. In the end I never managed to create a piece of work that the client liked, one of the designers on our team took over and created something the client was happy with. But through that experience I’d learnt some lessons and I learnt a ton more over the last 6 years regarding design changes. 

1. The client is not the enemy. A number of designers have this us vs. them mentality with clients. This is the wrong mindset.  You are on the same team with aligned goals. You should be asking as many questions as possible and make the client feel like they are co-designers and included in the design process. It builds trust and open communication. The problem with the above job was I didn’t dig deep enough. I didn’t communicate well enough to build trust and involvement with the client. I didn’t look to the root of the problem and more importantly I wasn’t educating the client on how to be objective. I didn’t want to show them work that was incomplete and only wanted to show them something after a week. Instead the attention turned to subjective things like I don’t like the blue, it needs more details etc. I wasn’t even thinking about users at that point or being objective with my decision making, I was struggling to get the job ‘done’. Once I got the feedback that was subjective and open ended I’d vanish and hope the next reveal would be different. The right way would’ve been to ask more questions and to get client buy in on the Art Direction early on. Communicate something hi-fidelity as quickly as possible and step them through the process with the client. Help them look at the big picture – what are the goals we are trying to achieve? Less about what they personally like and more about what’s good for their users and what will drive the results that they want. 

2. Design changes are not bad, they are opportunities to do something even better.  I use to really struggle with design changes. I could create full concepts from scratch just fine, but when it was time to do changes it would take me just as long as creating a fresh concept. Or that I really struggle to make the clients changes look good. I realised I was being too literal with the changes that were asked. Clients aren’t designers so what they’re suggesting is not always what they really want.  In the end it was just my incapability to think beyond what I had created. These days I find the more iterations I do the better the work becomes. You train your mind to always think about evolving and improving. How many of us have created something and looked back on it and realised how we would’ve done things differently. When changes appear it is your opportunity to refine things even more. Even though it may not be immediately evident to you, it pushes you to think outside of your original comfort zone and to expand your thinking, techniques and execution. Iterating based on user and client feedback are opportunities not hindrances. 

3. Leave your ego at the door. When you get feedback it is not a personal attack on you or your abilities. They are paying you to do the work and you are a professional – take yourself out of the equation. Look towards creating success for your clients and their users and not just for your own gratification. If you are truly great you can learn to balance it all – but don’t think about your folio or trying to look good to your design friends, the priority is doing whats right for your client and their users first and foremost. 

4. Quick iterations are much better than vanishing and doing a magic reveal. I love presenting moodboards and styleboards early in the process and really stepping the client through the design process. All the research that will be conducted and the user insights that we’ll uncover together. Be open and work towards collaborating. Go wide and narrow down with iterations. Try to love the process and not the first thing that comes to mind that you polish for ages. 

Note: Of course it always feels great when clients love your work immediately. And don’t get me wrong I still have uncertainty when clients move in different directions or tell me I’m off the mark, but I’ve learnt to deal with it much better and much more objectively as I’ve grown. Design changes are an opportunity for growth and improvement if you allow it to be. Embrace the challenge and keep trying to make something great no matter how difficult it seems.