Making compromises


Sometimes clients can be adamant.
This is a story of how I had to do work I wasn’t happy with, and knew was wrong - because of the client.

I used to work as a freelancer before.
I made a portfolio website for a company with a lot of text on it.
The website needed to be optimized to make all the text easy to road.
Good serif fonts, contrasting backgrounds were the way to go.
But the client wanted some colors because he believed they were lucky.
He even picked out some patterned backgrounds because “he liked them”, and was not willing to compromise.
That made the text very difficult to read. The menu items were barely visible.

I just couldn’t push the idea of usability to him because of his beliefs.
I wonder if this happens in companies too. One person in power could push his ideas and beliefs on a product used by many other people.

Have you had such experiences where you compromised and worked against user data?


Clients are notoriously picky, but as a freelance designer, you’re constantly subject to their changing whims and hair-brained idea. That’s not to say that every piece of customer feedback is useless, but as freelancers you’re usually left feeling something like Dogbert.

So what can you do if a client is insisting on a terrible design? There are a few things you can do to move things back into the realm of good design in these situations. What tactics you pick depend largely on your understanding of the customer. Choose wisely, my friends.

1.) Remind the client that they hired you because they were happy with what they saw of your previous work. By hiring you, they were admitting that they needed help, and that they were not skilled at creating good design. You are-- it’s what you do. Therefor, a little trust is in order. Saying this with a smile on your face and a laugh in your voice helps soften the blow, and lets them know that you’re being good-natured about their request.

Best for: Designers who have built a good rapport with their clients.
Worst for: Clients you have not worked with before, or with whom you’ve have had only a short relationship.

2.) Respectfully offer to withdraw from the project. I’ve only had to do this a couple of times when clients were insisting on changes that went against everything I held dear as a designer (think Comic Sans and 90’s textured backgrounds). I always gently explain that creative differences are common, but that you take great pride in your work and wouldn’t want to put your name on a design you didn’t believe in.

This tactic is really a semi-bluff. Of course you’d like the money they’re offering for the project (or you wouldn’t have taken the work in the first place), but reputation is a huge part of your success as a freelancer. If you lose the client, you may have lost some money, but your reputation stays intact and you may have fewer headaches from dealing with a client who is obviously going to be difficult to please.

Best for: Designers who don’t need the money from THIS client to be successful.
Worst for: Designers who can’t afford to have their bluff called, and customers who would take great offense to being snubbed.

3.) Ask the client to sign a waiver stating that the design they’ve requested goes against your suggestions, and that they understand that by accepting the new design they’re pushing they’re waiving their rights to pursue any compensation or reparations from you if they change their mind in the future. You’re protected from them trying to sue you if another trusted source convinces them their design was crap while also sending a message that you have very serious reservations about their designers.

In reality, you should have something along these lines in your standard freelance contract, along with an agreement that you will be paid for work completed (as either a lump sum or at a per-hour rate) whether or not the client accepts your final design or not. Pointing out this point in the contract is an acceptable alternative.

Best for: Designers who don’t want to lose face in the design community, but can’t afford to lose THIS customer.
Worst for: Clients easily put off by legal waivers.

4.) Offer to change the design free-of-charge if user testing determines that it was a dud. This is a good opportunity to do some early A/B testing with your mockup vs. the customer’s requested choice, and to get objective data backing up your position. Use this option only if you 100% believe your design is where it needs to be, and if you’re willing to work for free if your design loses out.

Best for: Designers who create solid designs and are confident in their testing methods.
Worst for: Clients not easily swayed by statistical information.

5.) Just do it. Look, we know that you don’t want to just bite the bullet and complete work you believe is crap. Keep in mind, however, that especially early in your career, when you’re hurting for money or experience, being a “Yes man” can be a good way to get some money in your pocket and generate a few referrals. Chalk it up to a learning experience, and resolve to get to a place in your career where you can back down from these situations in the future. Use this only when all other methods of recourse have been exhausted.

Best for: Designers who have no other choice.
Worst for: Designers who have no other choice.

I hope this helps give you some ideas about how to combat this in the future. I’m curious what the rest of the community thinks about this as well!


Yes! It does happen in companies too, and it’s equally frustrating. Some of the issues are the same (work goes up that you’re not proud of and ultimately reflects on you) and some are different (you have to be very careful about how you communicate because you have to have an ongoing relationship with the other person).

I frequently feel like I have to make compromises (especially around copy choices). It is usually the result of different end goals – e.g. marketers want persuasive copy while I want intuitive copy

I usually state my rationale, present evidence if I can, suggest A/B testing, and ultimately if I still can’t convince, I make sure that my recommendations are noted as being ignored.

I guess as a freelancer a lot of it comes down to $. If you really feel like you’re compromising your standards and perhaps damaging your reputation, it would be ideal if you could walk away, but sometimes that’s just not realistic.

Doug’s advice is awesome, as always.


That reminds me of this gem from The Oatmeal:


For a lot of designers coming into corporate culture for the first time, learning to make compromises is a really difficult skill to pick up. The biggest things to balance is the amount of stakeholders and agendas. As a freelance designer, you may only be working with one or two contacts with a client. In my current corporate America job, I need to get feedback and buy-in from business planners, back-end architects, front-end developers, marketing, product managers, developers, and QA before I can move forward with a design.

Each and every individual and department is coming with their own agenda and spin on a particular topic. This means that things like gathering business requirements, whiteboarding, basic mockups, A/B testing, front-end review, and architectural review are all done well before my design is assigned to a developer. All of this changes my role from coming up with the best-possible design to coming up with the best-possible feasible design that meets the desires and agendas of all of the different stakeholders.

In my opinion, this is really the difference between understanding UX design concepts and applying them in the real world. To be successful as a UX designer in the corporate world, you need a fair amount of soft skills. The great news is that there are so many jobs out there that allow to build these. It’s one of the reasons why great UX engineers come from all walks of life.


@dougcollins I like how you gave solutions and then mentioned the ‘best for’ and ‘worst for.’ Handy. I bookmarked it. Thanks for sharing.


Thank you! I’m always happy I can be helpful :slight_smile:


I couldn’t agree more. Even in an academic setting, whenever theres a group project, we need soft skills.
After a certain point it becomes more about managing egos more than the project.
I imagine with stakeholders there’s no good way to say “sorry, your ideas are misguided and heres why”. But maybe putting it well cushions the blow.


SOOOO true.


This is very tricky and sometimes requires lots of patience.
Despite our best efforts there would still be people who just don’t want to work with you.
I got threatened with a court case simply because I told a teammate to upload his work.

Follow up questions for Joe Natoli

Wow, that’s rough. Did you still work with him?


No, the fact that he said that was the last straw for me.
It also scared me a little bit because I was new to the US, and I thought he could really do that. :slight_smile:


I hear ya! The laws in the US confound and scare me also.
The fact that every shop in LA has a sign outside it saying that if you get hurt inside you can’t sue them, blows my mind.


It really all depends on who you’re working with. Personally, I wouldn’t mind someone telling me that. As a designer and developer, closing down to criticism is counter-productive. If someone, in the spirit or making our product better were to say this to me, I’d listen to what they had to say. Did I miss something? Can I help inform them about something they may have missed? Even if I don’t take action everything that they have to say, are there any bits and pieces that I can take and improve?

Some people, however, will NOT be okay with this. Whether it’s a personality or hierarchy issue, outright disagreement feels like a slap in the face to many in the corporate world.

The best approach I’ve found is the “positivity sandwich” method of giving feedback. It’s two positives, with a kindly-worded criticism wrapped between them. This usually goes something along the lines of “I really like your suggestions for color choices! They really make the design pop. I was wondering, though, whether it’s a good idea to use a small, light gray icon for the indicator that North Elbonia has launched nuclear missiles at us. I think you’re on the right track as a whole, and if we work together we can hammer out these last few details!”

Not that we have much to worry about from North Elbonia, but you get the point.

The reason why this works so well is that it allows you to get your partner’s attention with a compliment, to politely bring up a point of improvement, and get their buy-in to help you improve the design by showing that you’re willing to to work with them in a spirit of positive improvement to make the design as best as you possibly can.

What’s more, this really serves as your foothold towards getting into larger discussions for areas of improvement. Once you’ve established and agreed that there’s room for improvement, people are usually a lot more likely to work with you to revise ideas and concepts, even ones that they’re quite passionate about. It really is a tremendous icebreaker.