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.