Sam Brown

The importance of teaching your clients and being the boss

What I have come to realise over the last few years is that too many people are trying their best to please the client over the visitor. The client is not the primary aim, the visitor is. Of course the client has to like and approve the site but you should not be letting one persons clouded judgement determine the outcome of the entire project – design is personal and subjective – the sooner you realise that and the sooner you teach your client that, the better off you will be.

I am a designer, not a construction worker

Clients hire you to design the site, they have hired you hopefully based on a combination of talent and experience. You are the designer, you are not a simple construction worker piecing something together from the clients Ikea-like instruction manual – some clients need to be told this up front and be constantly reminded of it. Potential clients that already know exactly what they want and simply need a lackey to build it for them are always going to be hard work and ones I tend to avoid at all costs.

My sites always consist of progressive enhancement techniques that might not work in every browser and I often hear people complaining that: “I have clearly never had to build a site for a corporation with 40,000+ employees working on company-owned machines standardised on IE6.” – You’d be right, I haven’t and why in the world would I want to? This is an unenviable job that someone has to do, but flooding great articles on progressive enhancement and the latest and greatest techniques talking down their worthiness is really not helping. It is at this point you need to ask yourself if you are enjoying what you are doing, and if not get out now before it completely consumes you.

Be the boss, not the bitch

Standing up to your client or boss is easily one of the hardest things you will ever have to do but believe me it is something you should be doing on a regular basis. I am often challenging my clients decisions and in turn getting my decisions challenged right back, this is a wonderful situation to be in where every change or idea is getting discussed and pushed to be as good as it can be. Great two way communication with your client is absolutely key to the success of your project.

I hate to harp on about it but it really does not matter if the site looks the same in every single browser and if that is what your client is asking of you, you need to either teach them otherwise sharpish or get the heck out of dodge. We may check the browser in a dozen browser and operating configurations but the visitors don’t, and never will, we can not forget that. They simply wont notice if a rounded corner or drop shadow is missing.

Teaching clients that the site will not look the same in every browser should be a day one task. We aren’t working in the print industry where the final product can not be altered and it’s not a DVD or Blu-Ray disc that has just gone to press – it’s a living breathing website that will continue to progress, be altered and evolve.

Blah blah rounded corners blah blah

That damned border-radius property has really brought the worst out in some people which is a real shame but it has become a superb example of exactly what will happen on the web if we continue to use these properties at such early stages. The more we use these subtle properties (that might at first be vendor specific) the more traction they will possess and the more likely others will be to pick them up and before long they could be spec bound.

I feel really sorry for people complaining about the use of advanced CSS properties on current websites because their “clients might notice it looks a bit different and wonder why or expect it to be broken.” If they are doing this, you are doing your job wrong! It is absolutely, unequivocally your job to be teaching your clients how the web works in a fashion that they can understand. Not all browsers render websites the same, this is ingrained in us and we can not forget to teach our clients this.

Now, go out there and build some awesome websites with the latest techniques, make them the best sites they can possibly be and to all of those people that are incessant on complaining about progressive enhancement I can only really explain it one way:

“I want my sites to look Safari in Safari, and IE6 in IE6. I most definitely do not want my sites to look like IE6 in Safari.” – Sam Brown

Post a link to this on Twitter ↩


Robbie 20 January 2010, 04:02 #1

It’s all too easy to obey the specific requests of a client (especially towards the end of a long project you’d like to see go live), but in my experience, educating the client by providing solid justification of my design decisions has always been the sure-fire way to guarantee their trust and respect, the result of which will always be a better website. If my client doesn’t come away from the job with a higher regard for web designers, I do feel like I’ve failed somewhat.

Another great article, Sam. Your passion for the topic is obvious, but you’ve managed to steer clear of rant territory.

Gordon 20 January 2010, 05:37 #2

Michael Bierut: —Never talk about “educating the client.”

Ian P. Hines 20 January 2010, 05:40 #3

Well said. I’m more of a web-design hobbyist than anything else, but always try to keep this in mind when putting a site together.

Generally my method is to stick to make sure the layout renders satisfactorily in various browsers and tailor the aesthetics to Webkit. If it looks good in IE6, great, but if you’re still using IE6 my only concern is that it’s legible.

Of course, I can get away with that on my own blog because I’m not trying to please everyone. Only 3% of my visitors use IE6, anyway.

Rondal 20 January 2010, 05:51 #4

I’d have to disagree with you, Gordon. While I do agree with many of Bierut’s points on the client-designer relationship, I feel its important for a designer to fulfill that role same as any other service-based industry.

Take an oil change for example. I take my car somewhere because A) I don’t know how to do it and B) I don’t mind paying a professional to do it for me. I don’t need to ask him if bearing C really belongs in socket F, his training and experience should already tell him that. And, if a problem does exist, I am open to being educated and curious to why and how it can be fixed because in the end I’ll have to pay for it.

For a lack of a better analogy, design (should) work the same way.

Malarkey 20 January 2010, 06:33 #5

What rubbish! You have clearly never had to build a site for a corporation with 40,000+ employees working on company-owned machines standardised on IE6! ;)

Steven Grant 20 January 2010, 06:40 #6

Agree with Rondal’s sentiments entirely. This only ever seems to be an issue on the web and not in any other service industry.

lance 20 January 2010, 06:44 #7

I have to agree. +1 to Andy (Malarkey)

Erwin Heiser 20 January 2010, 06:44 #8

+1 for Rondal. To our clients: we are pros, please let us do our job like pros without constantly second-guessing us.

Gemma 20 January 2010, 06:49 #9

Truer words have ne’er been spoken. However, as a developer working in an agency, I rarely get to a) communicate with the client or b) get any input on design. Usually its just handed down from above and I have to make their wild dreams come true because the client has already paid for it. I’d hate to think that all agencies work this way, but its just been my experience…

Preston 20 January 2010, 06:58 #11

This is a great article! I recently wrote on a similar topic discussing how to deal with clients that simply don’t get this concept. I think your readers would also be interested in it. It’s titled:

The BIGGEST myth in graphic and web design – & I have linked to in my name.

Thanks for a great article. Really enjoyed it.

Adam 20 January 2010, 07:03 #12

Why any company would force its employees to use IE6 in 2010 is beyond me. The cost of upgrading is practically zero and it can only do good things for security.

Yaili 20 January 2010, 07:18 #13

Lovely — yesterday a friend told me I should have a separate area on the comments’ section of my blog titled “And now all the people whining about how this technique will not work on IE”. Sadly, on some of my articles, that section would have dozens of comments :(

I don’t think people that make those kind of comments are seriously committed to their jobs or should at least be a bit more open minded.


Kevin Holesh 20 January 2010, 07:34 #14

I agree with you, Sam.

I’ve personally used money as a motivator for clients. I tell them that I don’t really care what it looks like in IE6 as long as the layout isn’t broken and the branding is still there. I design for the best possible experience and make sure lesser browsers have a decent time too. I tell them that I can definitely make it IE6 look like Safari, but it’s going to cost them extra hours. Oh, and my hourly rate is doubled for that work.

You’d be surprised how many clients instantly stop caring about those subtle browser differences when their money is at stake.

John 20 January 2010, 07:58 #15

“I have clearly never had to build a site for a corporation with 40,000+ employees working on company-owned machines standardised on IE6.”

I have. Actually, I am right now. It’s a pain. And progressive enhancements are the only way to future-proof the site, once they decide to upgrade to IE7.

media designer 20 January 2010, 08:08 #16

If I didn’t educate my clients, I would be charging $10/hr (because they wouldn’t see the value in my services), building for IE6 (yes, it is still out there), using Eurostile for ENTIRE sites (including copy), stealing images from other sites and working 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Your clients don’t understand the web because it isn’t their JOB to know. That’s the web developer’s job. Until everyone knows what everyone knows, then clients need to be educated. Respected and listened to, yes, but still educated.

Neri 20 January 2010, 08:08 #17

Thank you for this great article!

prisca 20 January 2010, 08:15 #18

Excellent post, Sam :-) will have to pass this on :)
I do agree – it’s part and parcel, being a webdesigner, to try and give your clients a little more insight into the ‘www’, as it were. Personally, this is one of my favourite parts of the job :) I really enjoy showing my clients aspects of the web they might not have been aware of before & the CSS3 goodness is usually all I need to convince my clients to switch away from IE… what is better than that? :)

As far as the ‘Do websites need to look exactly the same in every browser?’ is concerned ~ if you love incorporating those little extra touches – your client should be swept up by your enthusiasm and be with you all the way :)
(or maybe I’ve just been lucky so far….)

Catherine Azzarello 20 January 2010, 08:39 #20

Bravo, Sam! I sure as hell don’t want my sites in Safari to look like IE6, either!

Don’t forget to mention to clients that progressive enhancements not only cost less (in terms of design time creating image corners/shadows/etc.) but that effects delivered by CSS also: speed up loading time, enhance branding (w/fonts), and are less expensive to maintain/edit later.

Saving time/money is always a great incentive to clients! ;-)

kevadamson 20 January 2010, 09:14 #21

Sam, spot on. Absolutely spot on.

Let the dog wag the tail, not the tail wag the dog.

Julian Schrader 20 January 2010, 09:15 #22

Well put, Sam!

I don’t want my sites to look IE6 in Safari. That’s all there’s to say.

Dan 20 January 2010, 09:46 #23

I think you just became my hero. I’m just setting out on a big project where I can tell that I’m going to have to forcably teach people how the web works and that totall visual consistency across all browsers will harm the project. Far from stressing about this fact, though, I’m looking forward to it.

You see I get a kick out of changing peoples’ perception of this glorious medium and I can tell by this article that you do too. This was a great read, Sam.

P.S. Are you going to DIBI?


Luke Lux 20 January 2010, 10:25 #24

To hell bad browsers! I design for the latest one and I try to show my design smooth in IE6,7,8,9,10,11,2050 that’s all. I say that to my clients at first meeting… well nicely :) Great post. Thanks.

Rafael Minuesa 20 January 2010, 11:19 #25

“It is absolutely, unequivocally your job to be teaching your clients how the web works in a fashion that they can understand”
I couldn’t agree more.

Sally Carson 20 January 2010, 11:39 #26

Love it, dude. Thanks for having the cojones to just rant for a minute. I think a lot of us stay too hush-hush on these matters, for fear of our clients reading our blog posts. Somebody had to say it, I’m glad you did.

Kevin Cannon 20 January 2010, 15:28 #27

I have to admit, I find this discussion a little bit too religious. We want like web standards, we like css3, we like open source browsers, and so there’s part of us that wants to optimize the web for that audience, even if that is a relatively small % of our clients.

If this was truly a logical argument, then we would have been using .eot fonts for IE, and IEs (quite powerful) css filters for years. If the argument you present was really true that would have happened, but the very same people would have complained, quite vociferously, that sites need to look the same in all browsers.

I think it’s ok if sites don’t look the exact same in every browser. But I think as a rational argument it’s less convincing. We have to admit our own, quite obvious, bias on the matter.

Damien Buckley 20 January 2010, 17:38 #28

Nicely said Sam – I react poorly to ignorant clients telling me how to do my job – ‘because their nephew is a web designer’ or ‘because our I.T. guy has done some web design’. Luckily I work for myself so I can tell them where to step off if it happens…

Anyone designers who have a problem with progressive enhancement and backwards compatibility should read ‘Handcrafted CSS’ by Dan Cederholm and then take a look at:

At the end of the day, if you can’t apply a few appropriate and tasteful enhancements while still providing a readable and acceptable presentation in IE6 you either need to read more, up-skill or get a different trade… The limitations in IE6 should really be no biggie to deal with for a professional web designer who takes the time to keep up with current techniques.

Peter 20 January 2010, 20:22 #29

“I most definitely do not want my sites to look like IE6 in Safari.”

That’s not the problem. The problem is that they want their sites to look like Safari in IE6.

Gabriel 20 January 2010, 20:35 #30

thanks for your insight. Empowering the designers is something i use to recall to my client before, and during the project.

Ben 20 January 2010, 23:23 #31

While I totally agree with the sentiment of this article, and the belief that sites can’t and shouldn’t look exactly the same, there are some elements of your argument that, for 99% of the web development population, are not relevant.

It must be fantastic working as an individual or for a small shop in which you have the right to make these decisions. However, if you are not ‘so fortunate’, and you work for an agency or in the IT dept. of a larger organisation, it’s very difficult to get access to the client, yet alone get these views across.

The current fashionable cry of ‘people other than nerds only use one browser’ isn’t totally true, in that anyone who think they are a nerd, (project or account managers for example) will also check sites in two or more browsers, and bitch and moan when something is off. It’s the same half-way house of knowledge that led to every client requesting AJAX and the WEB 2.0 look, they know they need to check it but don’t know what they are looking for or what the result means. And with the aforementioned lack of access to clients or even internal members of your organisation to argue the case with, do you suggest that, instead of dumping the client, one should resign?

I would love to know how many people would honestly, honestly quit their job or dump a 6 digit client because they weren’t able to use specific properties or couldn’t ‘educate the client’.

Mark McCorkell 21 January 2010, 01:20 #32

Love this post – thanks for the inspiration! I tell my boss to tell this stuff to clients all the time!

Sarah Parmenter 21 January 2010, 03:41 #33

Well said Sam, not enough people take charge of client projects, they are happy to be pixel monkeys in return for a few quid in their back pocket rather than educating what their visitors would be expecting to see at their site.

3Easy 21 January 2010, 04:14 #34

Great sentiment, let’s all stick to Sam’s guns.
And look at the site ma, no jQuery teh awesome!

Nicola Jones 21 January 2010, 07:10 #35

I’m currently reading Dan’s Handcrafted CSS book and this article just confirms the points he communicates so well. Educating the client about progressive enhancement is definitely something I hope to achieve wherever possible.

Rob Flaherty 21 January 2010, 10:46 #36

The “sites don’t have to look the same in all browsers” argument can be something of a red herring. Sites looking the same may not be important, but they should look as good as possible in all browsers. And I think progressive enhancement enthusiasts often use the former to justify being lazy about the latter.

When did design elements like rounded corners, gradients, and transparency become optional? When a shortcut for achieving them arrived. My point is that we’re now making design decisions not based on what’s best for the design, client, or user, but on what’s most convenient for our workflow.

One of the reasons this topic stirs heated debate is that it’s always presented in a polarizing fashion. Instead of saying, “Hey, here’s what I’m doing. Here’s what works for my clients and me.” it’s always a dogmatic “This is the right and only way to do things. The other way is wrong”.

I think our web community will be better off when we realize that just like it’s OK for sites to look different in different browsers, it’s OK for people to have different priorities and different workflows. =)

Ian Patrick Buss 21 January 2010, 20:06 #37

Great article, love the quote at the very end and the analogy “your a designer, not a construction worker” I constantly refuse to be bossed around (I actually tell my clients, hey, you want that to look like a piece of junk, your going to have to seriously bribe me with a massive financial incentive…”

Hugo 22 January 2010, 06:31 #38

Rob Flaherty, you are absolutely right. There aren’t any right and wrong ways, it depends in what conditions you work.
As Gemma and Ben said, having the possibility of educating your clients is a luck. Some people don’t have it.

Finally, I think the construction worker analogy is a bit dangerous. He, too is a professional and knows better than his client about some things. From here you realise why clients think they know better than you…

Paul 22 January 2010, 11:06 #39

Standing up to clients about design decisions is one thing but when 20% of their users are still in IE6, border-radius is not an option. You’re selling your clients a specific design and unless they’re OK with only 4/5 users seeing the design they signed off on, you should be spending the extra time to make the site look the same in all browsers.

If it wasn’t possible to get all browsers to render identical sites then explaining away differences would be your only option but currently, there are well documented ways to fix browser specific quirks and it typically takes less than 5% of the time that you’re spending on the project anyway.

Kerwin 22 January 2010, 12:45 #40

Very well said Sam & Great article!

Darren 22 January 2010, 12:50 #41

Eeek – I really hope you’re not overlooking the importance of cross-browser compatibility Sam.

I do agree, Internet Explorer 6 – it’s a tricky one, but it’s still around 10% of the market share (Dec 2009) – if you owned a shop, would you turn away one in every 10 of your customers just because you didn’t like the shoes they wear?

If you’re using bleeding edge techniques as opposed to cutting edge, it’sa dangerous game… and are you paid to fulfil your own whims, or the needs of the client and our customers.

Maye I’ve misunderstood your direction – I think it’s slightly misguided.

MaakBow 22 January 2010, 21:32 #42

I think this is more about which audience you are designing for. Last week googles browser stats say 67% of the market are using some version of IE. If I decide a design will work better with rounded corners why would I want the greatest number of users to not see them? Especially when cross browser methods exist that aren’t that dificult to use. I think css3 corners etc are an awsome thing and can’t wait till that mehod will serve the widest audience.

CarbonXP 23 January 2010, 05:14 #43

People who go to designers go to them for their expertise, not just their ability to pump out a request. The designers knows how to make stuff, not the people hiring them. So, yes, the designer is going to guide the client a bit. I’m willing to bet that most people who think designer should shut up and do as they’re told are clueless, cold-hearted business people who’ve had to hire them and “put up” with their creative license. Go checkout clientsfromhell on tumblr.

Foaly* 23 January 2010, 18:48 #44

I don’t really understand, why you’re condemning rounded corners done with CSS in this article, but then still give instructions on how to do it in another article.

Maak Bow 24 January 2010, 03:52 #45

Hi Sam.. Nice of you to acknowledge comments to your blog via email.

As i mentioned above… Its all about your audience and how well you serve them. The Audience for this blog for instance is most probably not an IE user but the audience to much of the work my company does for our clients are pretty much in line with google’s stats.

If my attitude to design was…“Here it is but i can throw rounded corners, drop shadow, text shadow etc on it for a select few”, then I would have to question whether my design needed those elements in the first place. If the design does need those things for it to work at its best then I have ‘broken’ my own design (and my clients) to only give those elements to the few.

The fact that IE6 is ‘broken’ is not the issue and most of the css3 effect we are talking about don’t work in ANY IE browser. If 60+% of my clients users get a lesser experience because of a browser they use it will not encourage them to upgrade…it will simply piss them off. And if we have educated our clients as to browser differences and stats for HIS audience we would be pissing him off too.

I totally agree that designers should educate their clients as to the differences in browsers and how we the professionals, need to design for the users and not the whim of some executive. I’m not saying designs need to be pixel perfect or exactly the same in all browsers. I’m also not telling you to design or code in a particular way as your clients audience may well differ.
What I am saying is designers need to know what is more important for THEIR audience. As for me I will strive to deliver the best experience I can to the widest audience I can as efficiently as possible NOW.

Korpus 25 January 2010, 06:19 #46

Very valid points, Sam. Designers often jump quickly over the initial phases of communication/planning with the client — maybe because it often is kind of a drag? However, one must a agree that clearly laid out lines from the beginning will make the design process easier for all.

Trevor Harmon 25 January 2010, 22:02 #47

Great article. Helps me realize sometimes I need to tell clients who’s in certain cases.

Leah 26 January 2010, 06:42 #48

Excellent piece. Out of frustration, I had often thought of showing clients to the famous Graphic Designer vs. Client video on Youtube, but A) the language is far too crude (although very funny) B) Antagonism and hostility make for bad business (usually) C) The type of client to whom that video was directed wouldn’t ‘get it’ anyway. Referring to points made in this article is a much better solution.

Duncan Michael-MacGregor 2 February 2010, 06:36 #49

Inspiring stuff! its nice to see a down to earth article on this. Educating a client in non-jargen non-techspeak on browser compatibility and SEO will save you so much grief in the long run.

Remember, they will likely have all kinds of bitty info from unreliable sources that until they met you thought to be truths – e.g. I still get new clients talking about keywords in the Meta like its the most important thing in SEO ever created! all because their old IT guy did a bit of web design & called himself a ‘webmaster’

David Becerra 6 February 2010, 01:48 #50

Wow, I’m relatively new to freelancing and I’m glad I read it. Thanks Sam!!

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Sam Brown co-founded Iterate, and was previously VP of Design at Foursquare. Based in NYC.