Dealing With Negative Nelly Web Designers

Several times a week, I walk past a commercial office furniture warehouse. There is signage–a series of photos and text–running the length of one side of the building. If you get close to the building, you notice that several panels of the signs look noticeably ‘jaggy’ or low resolution. Other panels look normal. Here’s an example (and here’s another):

Somebody–the sign designer, and maybe the printer–failed at their job. They delivered an obviously substandard result. The owner of the furniture business probably:

  1. Hasn’t noticed
  2. Has noticed and doesn’t care
  3. Doesn’t understand that a better result is possible.

Understanding the How and Why

The third scenario is the one we encounter all the time when we teach web marketing workshops. The attendees are almost always non-technical marketing executives and small business owners. At some point during nearly every session, we hear this complaint from at least one of our students:

I asked my web designer to make a change to our site, and they said ‘no’. They explained why they couldn’t make the change, but I didn’t understand their explanation.

Sometimes the designer’s decision is the right one. But all too often, their answer doesn’t make a lot of sense. A few actual examples:

  • “You can’t install WordPress on a Windows server. Launching a blog on a third-party site like is just as good.”
  • “It’s impossible to add Google Analytics tracking code to your site.”
  • “Drupal is the right solution for your small, simple site.”

I feel for our students. They lack the web designer’s vocabulary to fully understand the conversation. More importantly, they don’t have the technical acumen or experience to properly assess and question their designer’s decision.

In response, I’ll often try to simplify their explanation and provide the student with supporting evidence to counter the designer’s argument. Here, for example, is how you install WordPress on a Windows server. Or here are some reasons for running your blog locally instead of on a hosted service. Occasionally we’ll actually act as a student’s (or more often, a client’s) proxy and negotiate with the web designer directly.

Creatures of Habit

Why don’t these designers give their clients better advice? I’m not sure. Maybe they have out-of-date information. Maybe they don’t know how to deliver what the client asks for. Maybe they’re just lazy. Most often, though, they’re creatures of habit.

Much like web marketers, most web designers are self-taught. And, like any profession, only a smallish subset of them are eager to learn new technologies or keep abreast of industry trends. Just like humanity as a whole, they’re most comfortable with The Way I’ve Always Done It. This phenomenon is exacerbated, I think, by so many web designers being self-employed owner-operators. They’re not surrounded daily by fellow workers who might be sources of industry knowledge or alternative approaches. It also doesn’t help that the world of web design changes rapidly.

I find that a lot of designers’ reluctance comes where their skills brush up against related professions: search engine optimization, copy-writing, eCommerce and so forth. Often the client’s request isn’t directly related to the aesthetics or functionality of their website, but rather one of these other topics.

Web designers don’t have to be experts in these subjects, but they’re often the only web ‘expert’ a small business owner or marketing manager comes in contact with. It behooves them to understand some common best practices, so that they can make good decisions on their client’s behalf.

In writing this post, I’d hoped to write up a bunch of tips to help non-technical people with Negative Nelly designers. Unfortunately, “get yourself a better web designer” is the best advice I could come up with. What suggestions do you have?

Footnote: I should emphasize that this is not some passive-aggressive attack on any of the half-dozen web designers with which we regularly work. They’re all awesome.


  1. I so agree, Darren. I have a similar post written in draft form, that I’ve sat on so that I can make sure it doesn’t feel that I’m bashing web/graphic designers.

    The thing is, my small business clients can’t afford for them to be out of date or lazy about the current tools. I’d go so far as to say that almost every small business setting up their first website should be on WordPress. It’s tragic when their designers give them sites they can’t update or edit themselves, especially because the SEO essentials seem to rarely get done.

    I tell my clients to build a structurally-sound site first, with good SEO and content components.

    Then, if they want to invest further in the appearance of the site, find a good web/graphic designer who understands WordPress sites. They should never have to start from scratch to change design elements.

  2. In my experience, the client is chiefly at fault – and I’d venture to guess that most designers worth their salt know all too well what I’m referring to and why it happens.

    It’s why clients like to low ball designers by claiming “their secretary has software that’ll do the same thing…”. At which point any self respecting designer says, “Thank You and have a nice day.” Problem is, self respecting designers cost more than minimum wage.
    (Quick aside: Good designers spend 3/4 of their time doing great design and 1/4 lamenting the state of design and the clients of it. Crappy designers are too busy finding the crack necessary for CS5 and prepping for their drivers license to really care much)

    For example, that signage was most likely the result of the client supplying a far too low-res image.
    At *minimum*, assuming the printer of the signage ever wants work from the designer (or their client) again, someone in the print shop is going to call the designer (ie: the bosses secretary during her lunch hour) and call their attention to the obvious issue here and, if necessary, ask for a higher res file. The designer , if they ever want work from the client again, relates the ppi issue to the customer. Now, somehow, invariably, it’s time to cue the “it’s all we have to work with” excuse.
    At any stage here it’s entirely possible that the designer (using rudimentary multiplication and division to calculate the desired end resolution required) said, “Hey – this signage won’t work” – while the customer simply repeats – it’s all we have to work with.
    Regardless of which scenario is played out – that sign is the fault of its purchaser – it simply does not jive to lay this shoddy work on the printer or the designer.
    No printer worth their salt would let that sign out the door until the designer or their client signed off on it. Full stop.

    I encourage you to make a clear distinction here between print and web based design. With print based work more often than not being locally produced, I’m confident the end producer (the printer) provides much more feedback to potentially ignorant designers on what they need to produce the job properly, because the printer is on the hook for material costs. Printers technicians are usually quite experienced at explaining to novice designers what the problems are. Any large format printer will have material available on their web site or at their place of business explaining quite clearly the formats and specifics of what they need. There’s simply no excuse for the designer or the printer to screw up. None.

    Print based media does not lend itself to “blowing smoke” – the proof is right in front of your eyes. And it’s damned expensive.
    Web based media on the other hand, can often function at less than maximum efficiency because everything’s hidden “under the hood” so to speak. Customers needn’t appreciate Ajax tools if a crappy little PHP script does the job…

    That sign is the clients fault for accepting that they weren’t prepared to market themselves effectively.

    1. Take a look at those photos. They’re stock photography. It seems unlikely that this would be a case of “it’s all we have to work with”, as any responsible designer could recommend cheap, alternative high-res stock photography.

      More importantly, whether the client knows this, a designer or printer understands that delivering these results is essentially sabotaging the clients’ marketing efforts. What self-respecting professional designer or printer would knowingly produce such shoddy work? It’s another case where they’re better off walking away from the client.

      Having said that, note that I offered three reasons for the shoddy work, and one is that the client knows it’s shoddy, and doesn’t care. In truth, that seems to be the likeliest option.

      1. Darren, I’m sure you appreciate we’re not having an argument, but rather a discussion about what best serves the product; which is why I suggest that you and I agree that neither producer ought to bear as much responsibility as the end user.

        I take umbrage (and only moderate umbrage at that) when you state:
        “Somebody–the sign designer, and maybe the printer–failed at their job.”

        I suggest that that is *not* the case and I think, based on your final paragraph, we’re of like mind in that regard.

        The printer; from my perspective, can only reasonably be expected to deliver what the customer is willing to accept. I tend to believe printers *will* make their customers aware that the product will be an inferior one, when they see what’s available…

        Ultimately though, from their perspective, it’s the customers name that goes on the sign – not theirs – and that acceptance of substandard marketing is as much a reflection of the clients diligence as it is their means.
        Old adage that’s still true: Good, cheap, fast – pick any two.

        I think we’re agreed.
        Bad client. Bad.

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