In many spheres of design, it’s not unusual for a prospective client to ask the designer to produce some designs speculatively, as part of the pitch to win the business.

I’ve long resisted the temptation to do this, for several reasons:

  • I think it’s immoral. If you produce work, you should be paid for it, plain and simple. I would never ask a prospective supplier to do a trial job for free, and I won’t do the same for a prospective customer. Quite honestly, I want my customers to value (and pay for) what we do – and you don’t value what you get for nothing.
  • I have a strong portfolio. I have a portfolio of work spanning over twenty years, and websites going back well over a decade. If that’s not enough to demonstrate the quality of my work, then a freebie design isn’t going to add that much weight.
  • Paying clients should get my best attention. If I’m diverting resources to win a new customer prospectively, it’s an insult to my paying clients.
  • It’s a puppy-dog. Any good salesperson will tell you that to win a sale, you sometimes need to leave the product with a customer for a week. You might not initially want a puppy-dog, but after a week of it bounding cutely around, you’ll not have the heart to return it. I’d like my clients to want my work on its merits, not because they’ve got used to having it around.
  • It creates an unfair emotional obligation. Once you’ve got the freebie, it’s harder to say no to the potential supplier, because you feel obligated. I want to be chosen on merit.

But it’s not just that we refuse to do work speculatively. We also refuse to start a project by coming up with a design.

The design does not come first

But surely the design comes first? Nope. Our experience is that when the design is created as the first stage of a website project, it is almost certainly going to be wrong. Perhaps 20% wrong, more likely at least 50% wrong and possibly almost 100% wrong – but wrong nonetheless.

Producing a design early on may get your foot in the door, or get the client emotionally committed to working with you, but it will almost certainly end in tears.

Understanding: the basis of a great website design

Any design that’s created without an understanding of the client’s needs, and the needs of the client’s customers, is based on assumptions. Unless you have vast prior experience of the client and the client’s industry, those assumptions will be wrong.

So, when a design is created up-front, the next stage of the project will be a haphazard one – fitting in the things which the client needs/wants to a design that was never created to accommodate it. And everyone ends up being unhappy. The designer is unhappy because the original masterpiece has been compromised by add-ons; the client is unhappy because even with lots of changes to the design, people still keep coming up with great ideas that are increasingly difficult to accommodate.

The resulting website will prove to be a disappointment – and the next version of the site, usually created within 6 months to 2 years after the first, will not be produced by the original designer.

It’s a simple – but hard – lesson. If your foundations are wrong, the only way to fix them is to tear down the whole building.

Form follows function

The design of a website should not dictate how that site works, but vice versa. So, step 1 is not to decide what a site should look like, but what a site should do. This is achieved in an early planning session (or sessions, for a large site). What’s more, for us this is a chargeable activity – because at this stage we deliver more value (in terms of ideas, knowledge and experience) than at any other stage of development.

The process should be collaborative: involving key stakeholders from the client’s organisation. Key stakeholders don’t always have to be senior people, either – people from the lower ranks (the sharp end of the business) often have a more realistic idea of what customers want. Speaking of customers, it can also be a good idea to involve customers too – they know better than you what they want.

A reality check against both the available budget and resources helps us to prune back functionality that may seem wonderful, but in reality is going to be too expensive or time-consuming to maintain.

The shakedown from this is a specification – a written document with no design whatsoever, that outlines how the site will work and the kinds of features it has. Only when this is agreed should the designer start work.

The resulting design will stand a far, far better chance of being what the client really needs – and should stand the test of time. Buyer beware: free website designs can actually cost you more than money.