5 Common Design Projects Challenges & Simple Ways to Deal with Them

Here are 5 quick ways designers can deal with common problems when working with a client, and if you’re a client: how to prevent them.

Based on my experience as a professional designer and advisor to design students on their first branding project with real clients, I identified 5 common problems designers face. Unless you’re prepared, it can be difficult to deal with these challenges in the moment, especially during a design presentation. Here are quick ways designers can solve them, and if you’re a client: how to prevent them.

A snippet from a consultancy session with my design students at Stenden University.

1. You’re not working with a decision maker

If your client seems particularly indecisive, you may not be dealing with a decision maker. He or she may say things like “I’m not sure what we need. I don’t know what to choose here,” or more explicitly, “I personally like this, but I need to talk to my boss to confirm whether we can use it.”

Ideally, ask to work with key decision makers from the beginning, especially the people who decide whether your design will get used. Explain to clients that it’s more efficient — taking less time and little to no revisions to complete the project if all decision makers are involved from the beginning.

If you find out you’re not working with decision makers in the mid-project, ask if you can include them. Clearly state how much involvement and feedback they’re expected to provide. They may have sent a middleman because they thought it would take more time and effort than it actually would.

If you’re a client:

Involve stakeholders from the start, i.e. people who can approve the design and give designers key information. You’d save the time it takes a middle person to communicate back and forth and lose important information in translation. Designers can directly explain reasonings behind their design to you and ensure that you’re on the same page.

2. Clients want everything

“Maybe we could just use everything!” — said the lovely client as my students finished presenting 3 different design directions. I could almost hear their internal screams.

Many clients have the “shiny object syndrome” leading to a feature bloat, i.e. when a product is packed with better, faster, stronger features but has poor user experience (because the product is unfocused, has features users don’t actually care about or don’t function together as a whole).

How do you deal with this?

  • Tell them the benefits of having a focused product: Target users can quickly identify what the brand stands for and why they should use the product, and it’s a wiser use of resources.
  • Refocus on the objectives: Remind clients of what they want to accomplish through this project and the design decisions already made in previous stages towards these goals.
  • Help clients prioritize goals: Ask clients to list their business goals that may involve raising brand awareness, increasing revenue, and production efficiency.
  • Focus on the MVP (Minimum Viable Product): If you’re working on a new product (especially for a startup), it is in your client’s interest to quickly release a version with the least amount of features to make the product functional first. The goal is to test product-market fit and get feedback from real users, so that you can improve and add features that are actually wanted by users in later iterations.

If you’re a client:

Focus on the objectives of the project. What business goals do you aim to accomplish through this project? Decisions made with goals in mind will naturally be more focused.
If you have multiple goals, prioritize them. List your goals and rank them based on their impact (on your business), urgency, and difficulty (to accomplish). You and your designer can spend your resources much more efficiently after a quick prioritization exercise.

3. Clients don’t know what to do next

This is mainly the designer’s fault. If your client is stuck on what to do next or doesn’t know what to expect, you haven’t done your job right. You, as the design professional, are in charge of explaining your process to your client. Before you even start working on the project, the client should fully understand each stage of the process: the tactics, the deliverables, why you’re doing them, and what you need from the client. Retouch on these points along the way to make sure you’re and your client are aligned throughout the process.

Perhaps you’re not communicating with your client enough. Give them regular updates on your progress, especially if there is a delay. If they have to follow up on your progress, it’s a sign that you’re not communicating enough.

If you’re a client:

Look for a solid design process before you hire. As I mentioned in my previous article: Are You Working with a Good Designer? Here are 5 Easy Ways to Tell, one important quality of a great designer is involving you in the process from the start. If your designer didn’t walk you through their process from the very beginning, chances are that they haven’t put a lot of thoughts into it.

4. Clients can’t clearly explain what they want

Many clients aren’t familiar with design vocabulary to allow them to tell you exactly what they want, which is a good thing. If a client can say “I want my logo to be a dog in geometric shapes, with slab-serif typeface for the name, and color C:80 M:40 Y:0 K:3,” they wouldn’t need to hire a designer, would they?

Also, visual preference is subjective and abstract. The word “elegant” can mean 5 different things to 5 different people. As a designer, you need to clarify what clients actually mean by showing concrete examples. Look for other brands or designers’ work that might represent things your clients described, and ask whether it’s what they had in mind.

If you’re a client:

Give your designer some references. Think of competitors and other brands that you like and dislike. Compile 3 — 5 links or screenshots of each, explain to your designer what you like and dislike about each one and why. You can also find inspirations on design portfolio websites like Behance and Awwwards.

5. Clients can’t visualize how rough drafts will become the final product

The majority of clients are not visual thinkers, especially if they’re business or marketing people. Many are also not familiar with the design process (i.e. how mood boards or wireframes will be translated into a polished design).

The key is to adapt your deliverables to the client’s expectation and level of understanding of design. If they’re a startup expecting an MVP, delivering a hand-drawn rough prototype they can test quickly would make sense. But if you’re working on a corporate software, the client might expect something more polished he or she can show the team, and high fidelity wireframes would be better suited. If you don’t adapt, clients might think you can’t give them what they want.

Clarify the goals of each tactic or deliverable. Let clients know that rough wireframes are used to plan the layout and the user flow. Don’t be concerned about how they look at this stage.

If you’re a client:

Ask what each deliverable should accomplish and trust the process. If you’ve done your job well with selecting a good designer, and your designer did his or her job well by explaining the design process, this won’t be a big issue because it can be easily clarified in a few sentences.

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