How to Navigate Design Politics


Freelance web designers often work with a variety of clients. It provides many interesting experiences. For example, you get a behind-the-scenes look at how decisions are made. And it’s something that can vary significantly from place to place.

For instance, you may find that an organization has a very clear power structure. Others may be a complete mess in that area. Those without structure are often the most difficult to work with. And even though these situations aren’t typically enjoyable, they are almost always a learning opportunity.

Seeing where your clients excel and where they struggle provides insight. That’s a good thing because the web design process can demonstrate office politics at its 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.

Design politics can seem insurmountable. But a savvy web designer may be able to save the day. Let’s look at some ideas to help you get things back on track.

Web Designer in the Middle

As organizational outsiders, 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 we can’t necessarily ignore everyone but the boss. Thus, we get pulled in multiple directions and are left to sift through competing suggestions. Sometimes, 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 to play staff psychiatrist.

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

 Web designers often end up acting as mediators.

Take a Leadership Role

At some point during the process, it may become obvious that a client has trouble making decisions. You can usually tell very early on.

In meetings, people tend to eschew a productive debate. Instead, they’ll take the conversation in different directions without any clear answers.

In these situations, 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 doesn’t fit your personality. But you don’t have to be mean or forceful – just honest. Here’s how it works:

1. Explain the Design and Development Processes

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

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

2. Welcome Client Ideas

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

This can be accomplished by cataloging ideas in a shared document. Here, everyone can add their voice, but in a less chaotic way. Be sure to use 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.

3. See it Through

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

Look for opportunities to re-establish your message. There’s no need to be aggressive. It’s more about sending gentle reminders for items that still need to be done. 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.

 Taking a leadership role can help keep a project on track.

Learn to Adapt

No two clients will work the same way. That can be hard to deal with since we tend to be creatures of habit. But it’s unlikely that your client is going to 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.

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