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Navigating Design Politics

on Freelance Design

Freelance web designers often work with a variety of clients. Over time, it provides for many interesting experiences. You get a behind-the-scenes look at how decisions are made – something that can vary greatly from place to place.

For instance, you may find that one organization has a very clear power structure. Others may be a complete mess in that area. It is often those who lack structure that are the greatest source of trouble. While these situations may not always be fun, they are almost always a learning opportunity.

Seeing where your clients excel and where they struggle will give you insight. Good thing, because the web design process is often an example of office politics at their worst. Everybody wants to have their say and get their ideas implemented. It will test your patience. And, if you’re not careful, your project can go up in flames.

Web Designer in the Middle

As an organizational outsider, web designers are often the ones left in the middle of a power struggle. And all too often, we are expected to act as mediators. This is especially so when a client’s nominal “leader” allows for too many cooks in the kitchen. That leads to being inundated by multiple people who aren’t on the same page.

The challenge is that, as the hired help, we can’t necessarily ignore everyone but the boss. Therefore, we get pulled in multiple directions and are left to sift through competing suggestions. Sometimes, the ideas can clash and contradict each other.

For a designer, it can feel both frustrating and a bit pointless. You’re there to build a great website, not play staff psychiatrist.

So, how are you supposed to effectively deal with such a free-for-all?

Doll stuck between rocks

Take a Leadership Role

At some point, it may become obvious that a client doesn’t have their stuff together. You can often tell very early on in the process. In meetings, people tend to eschew a productive debate. Instead, they’ll take the conversation into several different directions without any clear answers.

In these cases, you might be the only one who can put out the fire. Therefore, you’ll need to speak up and assert yourself as someone who knows what they’re doing.

This is not the easiest thing to do, especially if it’s not your personality. But you don’t have to be mean or forceful – just honest. Here’s how it works:

Explain the Process
Team members often crave strong leadership and struggle when it’s missing. You can be the person who they will rally around.

It starts with a mention of how, in order to succeed, the project needs a clear plan of attack. Explain your process for getting things done and what you need from everyone in order to carry it out.

At the very least, this provides everyone in the room with a bit of a reset. Understanding what makes for a successful outcome will (hopefully) create a higher level of cooperation.

Ideas Are Welcome
Too many ideas can indeed drive you crazy. But a client still has a right to express their thoughts. So, the goal is to better organize them.

This can be accomplished by either writing it all down or, better yet, using a shared document. Here, everyone can add their own voice, but in a less chaotic way. Just make sure to create a basic template and try to have everyone follow the same format.

From there, you can go over the pros and cons of each suggestion. It may take a little while to get through. But the hope is that people will start to see a clearer path forward. As a result, that list should become much smaller.

See it Through
If you’re seeing a more productive environment for getting things done – great! But don’t rest on your laurels. There could still be roadblocks on the way to getting the website launched.

Look for opportunities to re-establish your message. Again, this doesn’t require you to turn into some sort of dictator. It’s more about sending gentle reminders for items that still need taken care of or processes that could use a boost. And it’s also not a bad idea to celebrate milestones as you pass them.

These little forms of motivation can add up and keep the momentum moving in the right direction.

Man playing chess

Learn to Adapt

No two clients will work in exactly the same way. That can be hard to deal with, since we can be creatures of habit (especially this designer). But, it’s unlikely that your client is going to completely change the way they do things just for you.

Thus, it’s up to us to adapt to them. Sometimes, the design and build processes will go smoothly. Other situations may call for a firmer grip on the reigns. The key is in diagnosing the dynamics in the room (physical or virtual) and adjusting your strategy to match.

They say that it “takes all kinds” to make the world. Web designers get to experience this firsthand. Ultimately, it enables us to navigate even the most difficult projects.