The client-less design project

A live design project with no client sign-off? It’s a dream come true for many designers. But it brings its own challenges.


The most satisfying design project I’ve ever worked on, is drawing to a close. One of the unique things about it, was there was never a client to sign off my work. This post explores how that changed my approach and attitude to the project.

Now, as we work on turning Contributoria from a live, collaborative journalism service, to an archive of its 21 issues, I’ve been reflecting on what I enjoyed about the project, and what made it special. It started pretty inauspiciously — Dan Catt asked me if I was available, to do some design work on a prototype he’d been working on for The Guardian. I’ve parachuted into jobs plenty of times — understand the product’s aims, suggest some UX quick-wins, offer some advice on longer-term aims for improving the product, redesign the front-end, send an invoice, and move on. However, the aim of this piece of work was to get the project noticed within The Guardian. With the hard work of its founders — Dan, Sarah and Matt, an agreement was made to fund the project over a longer period, to launch, scale and improve it.

Go for it

Great! Any freelancer likes a retainer, particularly for a high-profile client. But as we prepared to start the project proper (rebuilding the early prototype from scratch), what stuck in my mind was something Dan said to me:

“Any design stuff — where things should be, what shade of green gets used — that’s your decision. I’ll take care of the back-end, you take care of design.”

“OK,” I said at the time, being happy that I’m being afforded some freedom, but expecting at some point still to be having layout discussions with Guardian stakeholders, or the other founders (who I hadn’t met properly at that point). However, it was true — there was no stakeholder. At all.

ZOMG NO CLIENT

So at first, it felt like I was living every designer’s ultimate dream at once. A real, live, actual project, with actual people using it, and no one telling me to change anything. How many projects has any designer worked on, where, on reflection, you say, “Yeah, it could’ve been great, but the client insisted we did ‘x’, so it turned out rubbish.” This felt special.

But…

After the elation, came The Fear. What if it still turned out rubbish? I’d have no one to blame! As designers, we have to be confident in our decision-making, and I think a lot of that comes from the (good) tension you get in the designer-client relationship. A good client pushes you to do your best, to question every recommendation, in order to ensure the best outcome. A good client won’t say, “I hate the orange you’ve used,” but they might say, “are you sure this meets the project’s objectives?” And you have to be confident in saying, ‘yes it does.’ All of a sudden, for this Important Project for an Important Client, I was on my own. Argh!

Make your own boundaries

A good way to stifle impostor syndrome, is to define some goals for the project, so you have something to measure. We were starting from scratch, with only a prototype based on some understanding of the journalism and digital industries. We had no research to go on, so I did what I always do in this situation, and drew up some personas. Some imaginary people with specific needs, who will use the service in different ways. Phew, that feels better. I now have a framework within which I can make decisions.

We had a maxim that ran through the entire project: writers first. Everything we did had to benefit writers somehow, even if it wasn’t a directly beneficial feature. Product direction, business decisions, prioritisation of our huge to-do list — everything had to benefit the writers, as without writers, there was no Contributoria. Make it easy for them to pitch, satisfying to write, and get paid at the end.

Contributoria was a complex service, with different types of people coming to it, to do different things. The service also ran under a three-month production process, where articles were pitched (and had to gain community funding) in the first month, go into production in the second month, to be published in the third. So at any one time we had journalists pitching and writing, other members browsing, backing and reading, and in the latter stages of the service, third-party organisations commissioning articles on the service. That’s a lot of intertwined user journeys, and overlapping tasks!

Contributoria’s rolling, 3-month production cycle. We published every month, so all three stages ran concurrently. Busy!

We worked hard for a couple of months, untangling these threads, then knitting them back together neatly (well, mostly neatly). We couldn’t really do early user testing, even on parts of the service, as it really depended on all of it working at once. We trusted our instincts and experience, up until we could start monitoring usage and gauging feedback.

I developed a design system that helped communicate the three-month production cycle. From a brand point of view, I wanted to present Contributoria as a welcoming, inclusive community, but one with an editorial voice. We were serious about journalism. We cared as a team about the product, the work people were making on it, and the people themselves. Sarah, co-founder and brilliant editor, liaised directly with our writers, offering feedback and guidance on content, which was especially welcomed by journalism students and less experienced writers. More experienced writers started helping the n00bs. It really started to work. CONTRIBUTORIA IS PEOPLE!

But… but…

I still had that nagging feeling about my work on the project. We were live, people were using it, the stats were great… but no one had yet said “OK, this is signed off”. It still took a long time to get used to that. To be honest, it was never really signed off, as we rolled out big and little changes each month. But I knew the site would be judged against the very highest standards (as that’s just a natural thing people do). We weren’t as crisp and minimal as Medium, at least in the early days. We didn’t look as bold and excitable as Kickstarter. We could console ourselves that they probably have entire teams dedicated to things we had assigned as a single JIRA ticket, but the public weren’t to know that.

Sounding board

We were lucky to bring the most excellent Tom Armitage onto the project for a few months, and it was great to have a fellow designer to bounce ideas off for a while. Having no ‘client’ is all well and good, but sharing and discussing ideas is still important, even if the final call is still your responsibility.

After the service had bedded in for a few months, Tom moved on, and we were equally lucky to hire the equally excellent Nat Buckley. I had enough of an idea by that point of where the design and user experience of Contributoria should be headed, so we got to work on launching some major improvements. Despite working in different counties, Slack allowed us to work closely and and share ideas. Nat was chiefly responsible for the front-end development, but is also a talented designer in their own right, so again it was great to have someone as a sounding board.

We finally got time to run some user testing in The Guardian’s fantastic testing lab, and chat with writers about their thoughts of the service. Unsurprisingly, this turned some of our assumptions on their heads, and gave us a hugely useful shift in focus, to ensure our ‘writers first’ maxim was still being observed.

No overlaps

So, we had a good product, a stable team, and a clear understanding of responsibilities. But here’s what I found interesting about the project:

There were no overlaps in responsibility

Matt — Business

Sarah — Editorial

Dan — Tech

Nat — Front-end development

Robert — Partnersh

Me — Design

Everyone trusted everyone else to cover their role, and trust that they would deliver what they needed on-time, so as not to hold anyone else up. We worked asynchronously, and entirely distributed. Slack kept us chatting, and allowed us to catch up when we’d been away. But no software could replace the trust and respect within the team. Everyone had already worked with at least two other members before, so there was no real on-boarding required for new team-mates. Likewise, if an existing team member vouched for someone else, we all knew they could be trusted to get on with their work. We met in person once a month, to discuss the previous month’s work, and clarify our aims for the next.

I’ve been lucky to work with some incredible teams on hugely exciting projects over the years. But Contributoria is the one where it felt like the stars were all in alignment. I don’t think the fact there was no client is the reason for that — a lack of client meant a lack of boundaries, which meant I had to make my own. But a trustworthy team, clear roles, an agreed direction, and — crucially — time to grow and understand the product, resulted in a fantastic working environment.

I’m sad Contributoria is closing. There was so much I still wanted to do with the service, and I’ll miss designing the front covers. I’ve learned much about journalism, and I still think there’s potential for new ways of funding and making journalism, that the web can facilitate. But I’m proud of what we achieved, and how we achieved it.

…and no one told me to change the green!