Designing for the Empty-Handed Client

I’m in the midst of a drafting a long post titled “Making the Most of Mediocre Content”. As you could guess, it’s about molding client-submitted materials into something more organized, focused and attractive. But what happens when a client has nothing to submit — no photos, no taglines, no logos, no text, no identity?

This begs the larger question of what defines content. Zeldman posted awhile back (citing his own tweet, no less) that,

Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.

Obviously a project can begin without all the materials, but it’s far from ideal. In the absence of photos and text, you can help the process along by quizzing the client about their industry, business philosophy or desired audience. In this sense, you’re getting a feel for “content” even without materials. Or as Zeldman says,

‘Content’ doesn’t mean ‘having all the copy.’ It means knowing what the site is about, what kinds of information it will present; it also means knowing something about the intended users and what they might want to be able to do on such a website.

So in this quest for content, you’ve researched an industry and analyzed an audience, yet the client has no prior business identity and no input when asked about basic look & feel. You’re the designer, he insists. Design something.

You stare at a blank canvas in Photoshop, wondering how to proceed.

  1. Do you freeze the project until the client can provide materials?
  2. Do you refer the content-less client to a branding firm that can provide a logo, tagline and copywriting?
  3. Do you recommend the client to a photographer? Do you research stock photography? Do you ask the client to do it?
  4. If the client is on a budget, do you improvise a basic logo or typeface yourself?
  5. Do you write copy and improvise marketing blurbs and taglines? Do you charge a different rate? Do you already consider this part of your role as designer?
  6. Do you take baby-steps with the process and present one element at a time (palette, typeface)? Do you use wireframes and moodboards?
  7. Do you improvise a rough mockup just to get preliminary feedback or do you jump straight to a polished mockup?

Every designer has a different strategy, so I’m interested to hear how you guys handle the empty-handed client dilemma.

  • http://www.inspirationbit.com inspirationbit

    No, I never freeze a project due to lack of content from the client. No photos — I use stock photos, no text — Lipsum generator is the best friend. I always start with researching the client’s marketplace, target audience, competition, the site needs. Then put together a contract, follow it with the Information Architecture for the site. Proceed with the colour scheme, get the feel of the client’s taste&style (asking for samples of the sites/logos they like), put wireframes together, then design mockups. Each step is completed with the client’s sign off.

    For my CMS projects, the clients are responsible for populating the content afterwards, for others the content usually comes at the latest phase of the project.

    Of course, sometimes I get lucky and get ideal clients who give me all the info/data right at the beginning.

  • http://www.lawlessmedia.com lawless

    The old adage applies “Content is king”. Especially in the world of blogs I hear so much emphasis on SEO this and that, but most of those same people tend to disregard their content as having the biggest overall impact on their site. If your content sucks, no matter what field you are in, people aren’t coming back to your site. The most beautifully designed layout is nothing without compelling content to pull the reader back time and time again.

    With that said, I agree with inspirationbit’s comment. Proceed with stock photos and lipsum text. If you know what info they want to display you can work around the lack of content. It helps to have an understanding of the clients market so you can anticipate what sort of content and features they will expect. I used to do a lot of real estate site and had a stock site with about 10 pages that covered 90% of our new clients needs. I’d just build a new template for each client and add the extra 10% that they required. Made for a quick and profitable turn-around. It helps to target a niche market and understand that market well.

  • Darren

    Proceed with stock photos and lipsum text

    I’ve got no problem with small bits of placeholder content, it’s often necessary. I’m thinking more of fundamental brand issues.

    For example, 90% of my clients have established businesses which have been around for, say, 20 years. In that time, they have already paid for previous identity work in the form of logos, color palettes, textures, typeface, brochures. That content is usually my direct guide for designing something interactive.

    But, if this client’s business is brand new, or if they’re very old school and have never invested much in branding, how do you proceed?

  • http://www.StudioSR.com Sylvia Rankin

    An ever-present chicken/egg content/site issue! Argh! I usually am able to develop a good site structure and blah-blah content place holders to show clients — after asking a lot of Qs about their business. And I find that, when they see the structure and flow of the site, they can generally come up with fairly good content that requires only minimal editing. I am still waiting for The Client who will hand me great content up front. Sigh…

  • blankH

    “Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.”

    I think he got it all wrong. Decorate to me means “to embellish or make more attractive” (the content in this case). So design when you have the content is closer to decoration. Still design should be many other things as again decoration implies not changing the shape of the product.

    What to do if the client has no pictures, has no logo? Wait aren’t you suppose to deliver his complete brand image including the above things? So if not a designer who did his logo in the first place?

    Design is so much regarded these days as changing colors in a template that we even come to ask what a designer should do if the client doesn’t already have everything.

    Clients are not trained like designers they don’t know what colors to use and usually they pick the wrong pictures and besides that any designer should be able to do a layout with place-holder text.

  • Darren

    What to do if the client has no pictures, has no logo? Wait aren’t you suppose to deliver his complete brand image including the above things?

    Complete brand delivery? Honestly, never. Designing interactivity and creating a brand (vector logo, letterhead, brochures, style guide) are, to me, two very different disciplines that should be left to two different parties. Unless of course your design firm is large enough to accomodate both teams or if the web designer also has an extensive background in illustration and print design.

    So if not a designer who did his logo in the first place?

    As I mentioned, when clients meet with our web design firm (not generalized “design firm”), they are 90% of the time seeking a web presence that incorporates their existing print materials. Those materials were usually created by branding experts who might have designed them decades earlier.

    Design is so much regarded these days as changing colors in a template

    Depends on who you talk with. Design process for our team usually involves a lot of information design and talk of hierarchy. Then we meet with the dev team to discuss interface design for whatever dynamic features will be included. This all happens before any look and feel is discussed.

    If client are paying pro designers to simply have “a few colors changed around in a template”, they’re getting really mediocre service.

    any designer should be able to do a layout with place-holder text.

    It’s not simple layout that’s the problem. It’s how to scope a realistic design budget that accounts for lack of prior branding.

  • blankH

    Yes, designing interactivity and creating a brand are two very different disciplines, but don’t see a reason why a design firm cannot or shouldn’t deliver both, of course not within the same budget.

    Your comment is particular for your design firm while the article is not. And of course I was not talking about your firm or team. Having clients that already most of the time have a strong and even established brand is a very good thing ;)

    How to scope a realistic design budget that accounts for lack of prior branding? Well, a realistic budget from the designers perspective would be to ask for a branding budget also.

    As for question 7 – usually clients don’t handle very well rough mockups, they are most of the time unable to understand how the final work will look.

  • Darren

    Yeah, I’m batting about .500 on giving clients a rough mockup. I’ve found that when presented with extensive notes on why we’re taking small iterative steps, they’re usually pretty patient. Then other times they don’t feel comfortable because, as you said, they’re not able to put it all together mentally and envision the finished product.

  • http://bernadot.com Scott Bernadot

    Great post. Just found your site. Thought I would jump in and ramble a bit ;-)

    For me there is no fixed answer.
    It varies from client to client. I tend to get a feel for a client and make the call on the fly. Why? Because one-size does not fit all. Each business is made of people and they are all different. When building a site say for a start-up or sole proprietor who does not have any marketing experience or materials, I am more inclined to help them establish a presence and brand (even donate a logo), so that their website looks professional. Even the most beautiful website can be taken down a few notches with a hideous logo.

    I have had client sites I have started and did not complete for over a year, because they were unable to provide me with content (thankfully I have a contract to protect my business interests during such instances). When this happens it is less than optimal as the whole creative process and energy flow for the project can become jaded.

    In my opinion, nobody knows a client’s business better than the client, so it is imperative they provide input for their website. Most of my clients do not have budgets to hire copywriters. And even if they do have the budget, they still have to find the time to be interviewed and moderate what is being said. Some times business owners/clients do not have the time.

    So it really boils down to the client’s urgency/need for the website. Until the pain of not having a site is greater than the pain of having to compile content, the site will not get built.

    The clients I worked with who took over a year to provide content simply got too busy after we got started – sales were booming. They were busy running their business, so when money is coming in, people tend not to worry about their advertising as much (the opposite of how it is suppose to be – but that’s the reality). Once business slows down, they are then scrambling for new ways to generate business, and then the idea of finishing the website becomes a higher priority.

    Thanks again for the question. You made me think and I enjoyed the other responses as well.

  • Darren

    Thanks for stopping by, Scott, and good comments.

    I am more inclined to help them establish a presence and brand (even donate a logo), so that their website looks professional. Even the most beautiful website can be taken down a few notches with a hideous logo.

    I think if I was freelance, I’d take the same route. Working with a team of managers with contracts, nearly everything is a line item, so budgeting extra time for basic branding can be tricky. This is partially because I’ve always urged we seek that help elsewhere. I have respect for experienced print designers who can put together an entire brand package + style guide, though that cost can be prohibitive too. I’ve seen it anywhere from $5000 to $50,0000 just for small businesses.

    And no kidding about trying to design around an ugly logo, as it has a ripple effect on the rest of the design. You end up fighting your perfectionist tendencies, knowing the final product will have weak spots you can’t do anything about.

  • http://www.headsetoptions.org/ Sunny

    1. No
    2. Sometimes, most clients have it in some form or the other
    3. Yes most times.
    4. I try, but I a 2 (or at best a 3) at graphic design, so I rely on my my wife who runs her own site or in rare cases, friends.
    5. Not often, I suggest, but never write copy, again, only because I am not good at it.
    6. Yes, yes, and no.
    7. Rough mockup and sometime rough coding to show a demo.

  • Anne

    My rule? I don’t start work until I have a significant chunk of the site content in hand. Period. I have more work than I can handle, already. If a client can’t get it together enough to pony up at least some portion of the content for their own site, I’d just as soon let them be someone else’s problem.

  • Tony

    Anne, that’s my rule as well. Nothing annoys me more than someone who calls and says “I want a website, how much does one cost?” When I ask what kind of content they want to be on the site, it’s often I hear “I don’t know… how much will a website cost?” If people aren’t serious about the project, there’s no way I’m wasting my time with them.

  • http://www.puttingblogsfirst.com Muhammad Siyab

    Anne, Tony: I think you’re right.

    But then, we’re caught between the urge to be client friendly(being flexible with the client) and the frustration of being treated as a second class by the client.

    ah well…

  • http://www.emanio.com KG

    From the client’s perspective, I have truly appreciated the times someone has taken me by the hand and provided good guidance. As a client, I have no knowledge of anything on the web (I do now, of course, but it took several years), much less have concrete ideas about suitable design. When I started, I didn’t even know what functions the website should have. And form follows function…

    The most valuable web designer is someone who provides good guidance, visual examples and takes the time to elucidate the actual needs that I have. Then he will help me prioritize the goals so that he can provide me with a good result.

  • Darren

    The most valuable web designer is someone who provides good guidance, visual examples and takes the time to elucidate the actual needs that I have. Then he will help me prioritize the goals so that he can provide me with a good result.

    No disagreement there. They should expect guidance and visual examples, but sometimes it’s hard for them to see the problem of starting a project with no branding or identity. Certainly you can still improvise something, especially if the client’s on a tight budget.

    Realistically though (to me), designing identity and designing interaction should be treated as distinct design phases, probably even billed differently. Communicating that can be tricky.

  • http://pinoytech.org Teejay

    For me, actual content may not be provided but at least the idea of what the content maybe should be provided. ‘Lorem ipsum’ has provided me ‘content’ if I ever need some ‘text’.

    Communication is the best thing we have with the client for every project.

  • http://more404.com Root

    The way I visualise this question is this:
    Content is marked up in html.
    The CSS is then applied to the markup.
    Did I mention design anywhere?
    Latin text merely perpetuates and facilitates the ass backwards photoshop first approach. A site is a site of content. Without content there is no site and no starting point. Maybe we need to drop the word *design* altogether and talk about a proper process for building, constructing or developing successful web sites.
    Furthermore IMHO once you go with my model – it seems madness to leave the mission critical task – the content – in the hands of a client. Are these people suddenly experts in writing hypertext? Have none of us ever seen the Zen Garden and really absorbed its message? Style is just that. Style. And don’t get me started on semantic markup, usability, accessibility, SE friendliness, scripts and servers. What use is photoshop in all that?

  • Pingback: Why Clients Needs Goals | Outlaw Design Blog - A Graphic Design Blog

  • Pingback: Proxilog, le blog ! » Blog Archive » Comment ‘designer’ si votre client n’a aucun ‘contenu’ ?

  • http://www.live7n.com live7n

    I just want to say You have done a great job as one of the best designed in the industry.You have enough scope for earning by your excellent visualization capability. but by releasing this kind of work you have gifted some other who are poor in programming logic and designing.

    Thanks

  • http://www.danlindop.co.uk DanL

    I think that most clients in these situations will tend to be small businesses who either don’t have the time to get the content together, or the budget to pay someone else to do it for them.

    Another issue might be that the client doesn’t understand what they need for their website or what is expected from them. This is probably more true for non-technical clients.

    In this situation, it’s part of your job as designer to help the client to understand the best way to present their business online. Offer advice on how to best present the client’s services or products and show them examples of how you’ve solved similar problems before.

  • http://www.krubner.com/ Lawrence

    If my client is empty-handed, unsure even of the idea of their site, then I feel the best option is to talk to them, to help them clarify their thoughts. Sometimes I feel like a therapist, listening as the client pours out their hopes and dreams and fears and worries.

    We’ve acquired 3 new clients this summer. In all 3 cases, I was brought in at an extremely early phase, before the basic idea of the site was decided. I do not mind sitting in on brainstorming sessions. So long as the client can pay me for the time I spend at meetings, I enjoy helping them avoid mistakes. At this point in my career I’ve seen enough disasters and failures that I feel like I have something to contribute, in terms of warning clients away from mistakes I’ve seen made before.

    Two of the new clients suffer from a particular problem: they are in a hurry to get the project started, but they have not yet decided what the project will be. In the world of computer programming, this would be called an “anti-pattern”, a known pattern of self-destructive behavior. It is related to (though not the same as) another anti-pattern: the endless brainstorm. If I’m in meeting with the client for the 3rd time and the meeting is still a pure brainstorming session, I warn the client that they are at risk of wasting a lot of money on simply trying to figure out what they should do. I once saw a substantial fortune wasted on what turned out to be a 2 year long brainstorming session.

    All the same, the opposite is also true: it is crazy to risk a vast fortune on an idea that you have not thought about carefully, so a prolonged period of testing the permutations of an idea can certainly be justified if the project seems likely to be huge. So, as I said, I don’t mind sitting in on the brainstorming sessions, so long as the client can pay me. I feel especially helpful when the client suggests something that I know, from previous experience, is a terrible idea. Certain thought patterns are traps, they always fail, yet they are quite common among clients considering their first web project. Among those traps:

    1.) If I (the client) build it they will come (also know as, “If I have a clever idea, I won’t need a marketing budget, because the site will get mentioned on TechCrunch/Newsweek/The New York Times”).

    2.) Feature-itis: “If I add in all the good features from all the popular sites, then my site will be as popular as all those other sites combined.”

    3.) I can/should be all things to all people.

    4.) If one person offers a single piece of off-hand, poorly thought-out, casual feedback, we will immediately re-design the entire site to comply with their feedback. And then tomorrow, when someone else offers some casual, poorly thought-out feedback, we will do the same. And then the next day…

    5.) Flash is more dazzling than anything that HTML can offer, therefore our whole site should be built in Flash.

    6.) Things that move or blink grab my attention, therefore if everything on the page moves or blinks, we will have a truly attention getting site.

    7.) Text is boring.

    8.) Images are always better than text.

    9.) I (the client) am over the age of 35/40/45/50 therefore people will think I’m out-of-date and too old to be starting a web business. I will prove my youthfulness by only using the most bleeding-edge technologies.

    10.) Bleeding edge technologies are always more interesting than older technologies such as text.

    11.) Users prefer cutting-edge technologies over older technologies such as text.

    12.) The more creative/unusual the interface, the more interested people will be.

    13.) If my site starts off with a narrow focus, then its prospects for growth will be limited. People will pigeon-hole it and I won’t be able to add new content channels later.

    14.) I can spend my money at an unsustainable rate because 6 months from now my site will be bringing in a profit.

    I could go on. I’ve seen many mistakes, and I’ve seen a few successes, or, at least, glimpses of successes. When a client comes at me empty-handed, I talk to them until an idea takes shape and seems concrete enough that construction can begin.

    I do think it is wise to try to get to something concrete as fast possible (as per 37Signals). It might be impossible to get the whole idea mapped out quickly, but sometimes small parts of it can be made solid. I think it is wise to have the graphic designer try to put visuals on anything that can be agreed upon as unlikely to change.

    I also liked an earlier post that you (Darren) wrote, over at Sitepoint, about working toward a single mockup for the front page (rather than offering 3 different versions of the front page). I do think that getting the front page into a concrete form greatly helps getting the whole project solid.

  • http://www.krubner.com/ Lawrence

    Oh, wait, one more for my list of common client mistakes:

    15.) I have a lot of money right now, therefore I am a genius web entrepreneur (the money may have come from inheritance, good luck selling a house at the peak of the housing boom, or perhaps thrift at a younger age – none of which confers the business skills needed to run a business, online or off).

  • http://bionic-creative.com Vicki

    I would have sussed out during the initial contact if the prospect has got his materials on hand, or at least what stage his content development is at. If nothing has been done yet, I wouldn’t take on the project. I would direct the client to the correct people like photographers, copywriters etc to help him along. I’d advise him to get in touch again when a first draft, at least is ready.

    The time I spend on a project with no content is going to be tougher and take more time, and it just doesn’t make sense to make the client pay for that. It’s our job to advise accordingly to get the show on the road. Hooking client/prospect to a contact takes a few minutes, and creates a great impression of you. Higher chances of the prospect coming back to you when he’s all set.

    Vicki

  • Darren

    Two of the new clients suffer from a particular problem: they are in a hurry to get the project started, but they have not yet decided what the project will be.

    I would direct the client to the correct people like photographers, copywriters etc to help him along.

    These days I’m definitely leaning toward recommending outside help for the client to get their materials straight – print specialists, copywriters, whatever.

    And for clients who don’t even know what their project should be yet, there’s little choice but to tell them to come back when more prepared. Once it’s explained in monetary terms, they understand quickly.

  • Pingback: Closer To The Ideal » Blog Archive » Classic problems that clients make

  • http://www.erinhamilton.com Erin Hamilton

    Hi there,
    I just found this discussion. I just finished a website for a client who had no logo/ID, so I came up with something nice-looking and now they want to use that as their logo. So, now they have a nice new logo without having to pay my usual logo development fee. It’s a pretty slick way to get a logo without actually hiring me to design it for them, it’s just the by-product of the web project. My question for you all is, how do designers usually handle this, should I charge an extra fee for clients who have no ID system? The fee could be the same amount that I usually charge to design an ID system.
    Thanks!

  • Darren

    My question for you all is, how do designers usually handle this, should I charge an extra fee for clients who have no ID system?

    In general it should be billed as a separate line item, and possibly at a different rate. In your case, it sounds like it may be too late to go back and characterize what you’ve done as a proper branding phase, so probably best to cut your losses.

    Clients who come in without any branding these days are usually pointed toward one of our local print design contacts, who helps them develop a mark, a logo, sometimes a color palette and style guide. By the time they’re ready for a website, they come back to us and we help them convert it all into something interactive.

  • http://www.unfinitydesign.com/ Nathan Kleyn

    A conversation with the client can clarify everything. Whether or not they come to the table empty handed, they have come to represent an idea, not necessarily a tangible creation, and that is all that matters.

    I generally prefer, if anything, to get started right away, why waste time waiting for something that might end up needing more attention when handed to you (copyrighter’s anyone)?

    If they can at least confer the basic idea behind their project, and what they wish for me as the designer to create, then all is good and well in my eyes; it’s when they have no sense of direction, and they have nothing to show me even in terms of a basic idea or concept, then I have no hesitation in tuning a project down, or waiting for action on their side of the fence.

    It’s always important to remember that time taken by a client to produce content can reflect on you as designer at the project’s completion, and as such, I make it my goal to get started ASAP, so I can get on with what needs to be done when things progress.

  • Darren

    I make it my goal to get started ASAP, so I can get on with what needs to be done when things progress.

    I’ve seen this work a couple different ways. You get started immediately, you blow out 3/4 of the design budget, only to have the client finally come around with content — and the content clashes with what you’ve already done. You have to backtrack, trying to make it all work together, and the project goes way over budget in the end.

    Or, you wait months to get the final content and by that time you’ve lost focus on the project and are neck-deep in other projects that demand your attention. Where I work, we state in the contract that content must be delivered within 2 weeks of the contract signing, or else you lose your place in the project queue. When that happens, clients suddenly realize the need for staying on top of things.

  • http://www.unfinitydesign.com/ Nathan Kleyn

    Where I work, we state in the contract that content must be delivered within 2 weeks of the contract signing, or else you lose your place in the project queue. When that happens, clients suddenly realize the need for staying on top of things.

    Absolutely, and that’s a key point that I most definitely missed!

    That said, most contracts also vaguely specify a time frame which needs to be adhered to day for day, and that’s where things generally tend to fall head first. I guess it all depends on how geared up and professional your client is on the other end and how much bureaucracy they have to wade through to get things going, which is sadly the way things are heading these days.

    It’s always difficult to explain the importance of content before design to clients and why they should be considered completely separate phases of the development phase, and that to me is the reason why it is often difficult to draw an ultimatum that unless they cough up the information, the project has to sit and simmer.

  • Prashanth

    Here goes my process which I have adopted over years of experience with several kinds of clients..

    Listen to your client, understand his business, his target geographical area, his prospective customers and than take time to advice. Also know the reason why he contacted you – some people think they can start selling their products and services from the day their website is launched.
    You also need to access the client’s budget. No client would tell you his budget – even if he does, he’ll be on the lower end. Study his lifestyle, his business, his motivation etc.,

    Create a tentative sitemap for the client – here is where you advise him (keeping in mind the amount of time and effort you can spend for your suggestions!). If you are busy with other projects’ and the client demands more time from you – advice him to take the project in phases.
    Once the sitemap / features are finalized – provide him the quotation. Usually two quotations one lower end and another on the higher end is advised – as it can help the client make comfortable financial decision. Let him know his annual recurring costs – hosting, domain name, maintenance etc.,

    When it comes to empty handed clients: you need to tie-up with three professionals – A Graphic Designer, a Photographer and a Copy Writer. You’ll help the client to get his corporate ID designed, photos to be taken and content to be written. Never tell the client that you’ll take care of them all! – Just introduce / pass on the contact details to him – later advice them as to what you expect for the website.

    It’s a mutual business scenario – you get them work, you get paid commission for doing so, it eases your web design process, in-turn you would also expect other web designing work from them.
    I usually mention in my terms that the work order should be given along with 50% advance and the site contents like images, logos, text etc.,

    Next stage will be to lock the client to a layout and color scheme. I usually spend around half an hour to finalise the site layout – depending on the sitemap. Colors can always be altered using CSS at any stage. I advice him to go for a set of harmonic colors used in his logo.

    Let me know your views on this..
    Thanks
    anidentity@gmail.com

  • http://www.darrenhoyt.com Darren

    Your approach sounds a lot like mine, Prashanth. Thanks for weighing in.