The Case of the Vanishing Designer

Have you ever been jilted by a designer?

It sets of alarm bells when one of the first questions a prospective client asks me as a designer is, “How do I know that you won’t vanish in the middle of this job?” When I was first starting out, this was a very puzzling question, and couldn’t think why this was such a common occurrence. It took me a little time to unravel the two main underlying problems that caused this phenomenon.

The first I identified was that when I asked who their previous designer was, there was usually a relationship dilemma at the root of it. The answer was something like, “My daughter’s boyfriend, but now they’ve split up,” or “My neighbor’s kid because he’s really good at tech things, but he got on the track team”. Often as a neutral party I could reach the lost designer and get access to the site and help finish the project, but on several occasions the ex-designer simply wouldn’t respond, so gaining control of the project was so much more complicated. In a couple of instances we had to start over because we simply couldn’t get the previous designer to release access to the back end of the site or the hosting. The friend or neighbor ex-designer often meant the person involved had started the work as a favor, and then lost interest in the project and moved on. When I was able to get access to those sites they were either seriously incomplete, or so screwed up that the only option was to start over.

The second reason for jilted clients took me a little longer to fully understand, but once I had got it, realized that it was a valuable information! In these cases the designer had simply got so frustrated with the client they opted to walk away unpaid rather than continue to work with that client. If a found that a potential client had been jilted by several former clients, alarm bells immediately went off in my head and my gut shouted “don’t work with them!” I devised some ways to find out why this potential client had such a poor track record. Designers are very often self-employed, and when they accept a new design project they look at the scope of the project the client has outlined, and work out how long it should take to build the site and when they can expect payments to arrive. It is unfortunate that some clients try to take advantage of this and requesting changes and additions far beyond their original request, and then delay payment based on the lack of completion of these extra requests. While there will always be small changes to make to any project, some clients just won’t make a decision and stick with it. You will notice in many design contracts that the number of changes are clearly defined to prevent this “job creep” phenomenon!

Another problem is that the client feels insecure and are afraid of launching their site. They will say what it is they want and the site will be built, but then mysteriously just as the project is coming to a close, they suddenly involve others in the process. “My friend says” is the first sentence is the email we all hate to receive. While inwardly we know the client is acting from a place of fear, we still have to deal with the information they have provided. The “friend” is seldom a designer and probably has no particular interest in the site, but their opinion still has to be evaluated and either acted on or politely rebuffed. If this situation escalates, this too can be the point at which a designer decides enough is enough, and opts to fire the client because the project has completely changed in scope and they need to move onto the next project.

So how do you prevent being jilted by a designer? Firstly, hire a designer without any emotional or family connections. It is so much easier to work with a professional where the relationship is clear, than with someone who is doing the work as a favor or for a cut rate or barter. Secondly, look at the testimonials others have left about working with this designer. Does the designer sound to be fair and reliable – or are there no testimonials? Are there comments about their speed and efficiency, and do they resonate with you and your expectations? Thirdly, look through the contract the designer sends you as it will reveal the way that designer works and the workflow they have. Does it sound fair and reasonable, and do you feel you can provide what is needed on the schedule you see? If everything passes your gut check, you can feel confident you have found a designer who won’t jilt you and that you will enjoy working with – as well as loving the end result!