Common Mistakes When Presenting Design Ideas to Clients, and How to Avoid Them

You’ve spent weeks working on a client design, churned through the requisite nine terrible designs to get to that lone good one, tested iterations with the team and with your friends as willing (or maybe unwilling) guinea pigs, and you’ve got the perfect web design solution for the brief. Then you present it to the client, and you screw up. Sound familiar?

You’re not alone. Presenting designs to clients is one of the toughest skills to master in the designer’s toolkit, and more than a few newbies struggle. Clients and designers come into presentation meeting with different perspectives, expectations, and languages – it’s no surprise that miscommunications and misunderstandings arise.

That’s why strong design presentation skills are essential to the success of a client design project; there’s no point in creating stellar designs if they never get approval because your presenting skills are off fleek.

While hard-earned experience is probably the best teacher of good design presentation skills, some of the most common mistakes can be avoided with a little preparation and a bit more confidence. Here are three common mistakes made by rookie designer-presenters, and how to avoid them

Common Mistakes When Presenting Design Ideas to Clients and How to Avoid Them

Mistake 1: Giving Aesthetics Priority over Performance

This is an easy trap to fall into – after all, you sweated over those pixels to get just the right mix of gradient, texture and all round brilliance into the interface, plus that new color scheme complements the information architecture to perfection. You should point all of that out, right? Wrong.

The biggest mistake designers make is walking their client through every visual feature of the interface. For a start, they can already see what’s on the screen, no need to point it all out and waste their time; second, they’re not a designer and the aesthetic, for them, is secondary. The client cares about performance; they care about whether this design will help them meet their business goals.

The Solution

If you find yourself going on a walk through each pixel, stop and think. Your aim is to explain why this design is the best solution for the project brief, not what the design contains. Explain how the design fits in with business objectives. Make sure to have actual data to back up your assertions by split testing different prototyped designs and collecting the results – once a client sees numbers justifying why you’ve chosen a certain feature they’ll be much more likely to buy into the project.

And you’ll feel more confident presenting if you walk in there with objectively collected data and a reason for every decision made, rather than a script about how pretty you made the interface.

Mistake 2: Presenting Without a High Fidelity Prototype

A prototype is worth 1000 words. It’s also worth at least 1000 client meetings where you try to explain the design concept with nothing more than words and post-it notes. For clients with little or no experience in web design, understanding rough wireframes or paper prototype walkthroughs is difficult – they won’t be versed in the interface vocabulary you’re be used to, and their ability to mentally map out architecture and navigation patterns will be limited. And the last thing you want to do is put a client in the position of feeling dumb.

The Solution

High fidelity prototypes are a great way to bridge the gap between designer and client. Going in with a dynamic prototype means you’ll have an interactive interface solution with which you can painlessly demonstrate the context and functionality of the design.

If this is the first time working with a client, it’s often a good idea to produce a content-first prototype so you can start to get feedback on brand voice and feel early on, as well as avoiding confusion over generic lorem ipsum. Whatever prototyping method you go for, presenting a flawless prototype will get your clients excited about the project and boost your credibility as a designer.

If you’re not sure which prototyping tool is best for your particular project, check out Cooper’s interactive list of the top tools or this smaller, indepth selection.

Mistake 3: Only Presenting One Design

We get it – time and resources are tight, and who wants to create a ton of designs just to have them junked at first sight by the client? The thing is, as Design and Brand Strategist Dave Holston points out, only design legends have the luxury of presenting one design idea; the rest of us mortals should adhere to the ‘Rule of Three.’

The Solution

The Rule of Three is pretty simple. Instead of presenting one design at a time and having the client shoot it down, you present three in one client meeting. You need to bring to the table, according to Dave:

  • Client orientated design: the one that follows the brief to the letter but is pretty boring, to be honest.
  • Designer orientated design: the one you love and know is the better solution to the business problem wrapped up in the brief.
  • ‘Wow!’ design: something completely out of leftfield that, for whatever reason, just works.

The client will probably reject this option, but having the wow design in there makes it more likely they’ll go for the middle choice, which of course is the designer orientated design. Good presenting is about making basic psychology work for you.

Presenting Designs to Clients – the Takeaway

A strong design presentation meeting can make the difference between a project that fails and a project that succeeds. The client is paying you to be an expert, so don’t be afraid to be your most professional – leverage data, evidence, prototypes and a little bit of psychology to establish your authority and advocate for your best design. The client will thank you for it in the long run.

Just in case you’re wondering… Wireframing, Prototyping, Mockuping – What’s the Difference?


  • xvcaa

    Presenting 3 designs instead of 1? Sorry, but it’s bad idea. You should make a design that fits the client business the best, not making “alternatives” with logos on right side and comic sans – plus instead of focusing on 3 different versions you can use all that time to make 1 perfect design. This rule of 3 can be viable for wireframe and pre-photoshop stages (but why would you do that, if you can just simply sit down with client and ask/discuss options and opinions), but I doubt that somebody even not that experienced would waste time crafting 3 different UI styles just to trash them later. This is maybe viable on 99designs and other “amateur” sites where you are competing agains thousands of Indians with pirated PS, but in real life you usually do what you are paid for. Of course I will make 3 designs so you can choose, but i will charge extra money for it. And i’m not even mentioning, how badly could “choose 1 from 3” situation go wrong (client choosing that useless WOW option or wanting to fuse them all together – presonal experience). Ofcourse it’s possible to make terrible designs and become a photoshop puppet, just to make quick bucks, but in the long run you will end up with awfull portfolio of crappy websites. I’m not trying to be offensive right here, but it really grinds my gear, when something sounds good on paper but in reality is impossible to achieve.

  • I agree with Xvcaa. Making 3 designs mean you have to make 3 different creative ideas … making the very best effort makes it almost impossible to get around to.
    How I work with design, I struggle to get those ideas that I love myself. Having that, I cannot see how to make one more design that is honest and good. If I make that, the first one was not that good.

    Sometimes I do prepare some other ideas on specific elements – saving them as a backup, just in case. But I hardly ever have the problem with presenting my ideas.
    To me it sounds a bit like you dont really work with design but more with prototyping. To me that is two very different things.

    The design is the core structure and business model for the company. It not secondly a matter of colour, logo and wow effects.
    Normally I have a close contact with the client during the design so we both know and agree on the direction.

  • Noah Fernandes

    I disagree. I think 3 might be too many (leave out the WOW option), but two is the minimum if you really want to score the client. Of course, they will want to combine somethings from both designs, but that’s normal. It should be a give and take relationship between you and the client.

  • roger belveal

    Pretty good advice, though I saw nothing about going in with UX data, even from a quick usability test or other UX research to support or explain why this design creates an experience that will achieve the business purpose. This puts all at the whims of the client’s personal taste, forcing them to make a judgement without the information needed to do so. Wowing them with a hi fidelity prototype may win them over, but is still no guarantee this is the optimal design.