Ask just about any designer and they’ll tell you—building a website for a client takes as much interpersonal skill as it does design skill.
So how do you collaborate in a way that saves you the headache of constant revision and back-and-forth, and ensures the client will be happy with the end result? We went direct to the source—and spoke with working designers. Here, creative director Jacob Murphy and director of operations Jenn Bahm of Chicago-based design and strategy firm Act One Media explain how they avoid the agony of endless back-and-forth and build a client-designer relationship that actually works.
Along with their client Rebecca Kling, principal and co-founder of equity consulting firm Better World Collaborative, the group offers sage advice on expectation setting, developing a web design process that works for everyone, and the three tenants of a great designer-client relationship.
How did you and Better World Collaborative work together to shape their website’s look and feel?
Jacob Murphy: A lot of the brief development process centered around taking their rough idea of what they needed to say, and walking through how we can use the [Editor X] platform to do things, like create a case study gallery, service menu, and blog tools, which crystallized what they were looking for. They needed something that shows off their services, and they had a budget to keep in mind, so we kept it simple. We designed using parts of the Editor X interface that would make managing it on their own really easy.
Rebecca Kling: Jenn and Jacob were incredibly helpful in honing in on who the audience was for this website and for the work that we’re doing. So where did we want to focus? Where was the greatest need? Jacob and Jenn consistently helped us craft and refine what we wanted the website to look like, and in turn what we wanted our business to look like.
JM: One of the fun things about this site was that the decision-making process was really collaborative. Becca and [Better World Collaborative co-founder] Crispin Torres wanted a site that was rooted in LGBTQ values and could be familiar as a classic queer identity system, but they didn’t want it to be cliché in an overly rainbow-y sort of way, and look like a lot of other websites that share the same touchpoints.
The goal was to bring something loud and proud and demanding equity and involvement and make sure that when it came to a corporate reader, they would also be struck by the professionalism and intention of the digital experience.
What excited you most about launching this project and bringing on a design team?
RK: It felt very much like a partnership and a team effort rather than, on the one extreme, a contractor who only does exactly what you say, and there’s no initiative and no back and forth, and on the other extreme, takes the little bit you give and goes in a totally weird or wild direction. So knowing we were entering into this partnership was really exciting.
How did you make the process more collaborative, so it felt like a partnership?
JM: As a design team, we try to work in a really agile fashion. So we don’t give clients big chunks of work to review. It’s inefficient for our time and it doesn’t keep your client involved in the process. You want to send them things on an ongoing basis so they can evaluate progress, and so changes are small, ongoing, and get locked in, and people feel comfortable with direction.
Jenn Bahm: Part of the collaboration, and doing this piecemeal, is helping our clients build an understanding of how they need to grow and what they need to communicate about their growth.
Break that down for us.
JM: We work in a classic design sprint cadence. It depends on the project and budget, but you want to start with wireframes, mood boards, color palettes. Once those are approved, you design proposals for a home page. Your home page is the bedrock of everything. That’s a big moment, where you establish the look and feel. From there, we wireframe the primary landing pages and subpages. Once those wireframes are approved, you apply the design that you’ve established on the home page everywhere.
When we’re working with Editor X, everything that I’ve described so far happens externally in Figma or Adobe XD, so you’re not standing things up or worrying about responsiveness yet. Once all our designs are approved externally, we use Editor X in a classical sense, where you have a development process where you stand the designs up in the visual editor, and from there we start working on responsiveness and breakpoints. Content gets developed throughout that process.
How do you find the right working rhythm for you and your client?
JM: The best way to approach managing a design process is to have some