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How to Defend Your Design Decisions Without Sounding Defensive

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At the beginning of any project, you’re seen as the expert. Everyone is excited and eager to begin work. But when it comes time to present your beautiful, hand-crafted masterpiece, your skills and experience are suddenly forgotten.

It’s the design review meeting – your most formidable opponent.

You take a deep breath, roll your eyes, and lean back in your chair as you muster up the confidence to overcome that slight churn in your stomach in the final moments before the meeting begins.

You wonder if you’ll get off easy with minimal revisions or be totally defeated by the client’s design requests. You’re at the mercy of the client’s opinion.

Everyone Has Opinions

When you put a design in front of a client, they’re inevitably going to have an opinion on it. It’s almost as if they feel obligated to critique it. After seeing the finished product, most clients feel as if they understand what you’ve done, how you’ve done it, and that they could have even done it themselves.

This is often the result of a preconceived vision they had in their mind before the project started. Design is something clients think they understand, but don’t know how to execute. So they hire a designer, give them direction, then ask them to tweak it to their liking.

Occasionally client feedback is constructive and prompts you to make improvements, but many times the feedback is painfully subjective.

  • Can you make the logo bigger?
  • Make that background a little darker?
  • Remove that border?
  • Make the font larger?
  • Move that text a little to the left?

Sound familiar? This is probably the least favorite part of your design career.

It leaves you wondering why they hired you in the first place. After all, you’re the expert, right? What are they paying you for?

No one wants to feel like a hired set of hands executing the client’s vision for them. It’s frustrating, discouraging, and forces you to be defensive.

Designers Get Defensive

As designers, our natural reaction is to defend ourselves and our decisions. But why is it that we almost always lose arguments grounded in our expertise and experience?

You might say the logo is an appropriate size based on industry standards. You might say that darkening the background will throw the contrast off. Maybe the font size is already larger than you think it needs to be.

Clients typically override this logic. It’s just not good enough for them. They’re paying you and expect that you’ll implement their feedback.

Faced with the option to bite the hand that feeds us or concede, we often choose to concede and leave review meetings feeling depressed and deflated.

What’s worse is that we use the few small wins we do get to justify the other requests not being quite as bad.

It can sometimes feel impossible to convince the client that you know best, but there’s a better way to manage these conversations for both you and the client.

Anchor the Conversation

Design reviews can quickly drift into subjectivity if you don’t anchor the conversation. To maintain control of these meetings and prevent defensive arguments, practice these four important strategies:

  1. Have clearly defined business goals for the work you’re presenting.
  2. Ask the client to restate those goals at the beginning of the meeting.
  3. Present your work to the client (virtually or in person).
  4. Defend the project goals, not your designs.

These strategies move the conversation away from who is right or wrong and re-focus both sides on the business goals the project aims to achieve.

These steps will not only make you sound like a genius, but you’ll never have to justify your decisions using your experience and expertise again.

Anchoring design reviews with the business goals of the project will allow you to move the conversation away from who’s right or wrong and re-focus both sides on the business goals the project aims to achieve.

Design-centric feedback results in tension.
Business-centric feedback results in mutual benefit.

So how exactly do you convince clients that you’ve made the right design choices on behalf of their business? Let’s break each of these steps down in more detail.

1. Clearly Define the Business Goals

Before the project begins, work with the client to understand their business goals. For example, I was contracted to design a home page for a client with the goal of getting more customers to sign up for their service. If the client says the page is outdated and could be better, dig deeper. Ask more “why” questions.

No one spends money on a website unless there’s a business motivation behind it.

“Why do you think the page is outdated?” or “I agree with you, but why does that matter for your business?”. Eventually, they will say something like, “we’re not getting enough users to sign up for our services or buy our products.”

Don’t give up too easily or this strategy won’t work.

2. State the Goals at the Beginning of Each Meeting

When it’s time to review your designs, re-state the business goals at the start of the meeting. This is your anchor. You can say, “Just as a reminder, the goal of the pages we’re reviewing today is [insert project goals here]”.

Then, present your work and your decisions in the most objective way possible.

3. Always Present Your Work

It’s important to present your work to the client, especially the first time they see it. This is less important for follow-up reviews, which can be handled via email or a cloud-based prototyping tool. If you attach your files to an email and ask your clients to “let you know what they think”, you’re setting yourself up for failure and a laundry list of subjective revisions.

4. Defend the Project Goals, Not Your Expertise

With the conversation anchored by the business goals, you’ll always have the upper hand when managing feedback. When the client asks you to make the logo bigger, you can ask, “Why do you think that will help us reach the goal of [insert project goals here]?“. Most of the time, the client won’t have a good answer. When that happens, you can politely ask them to trust your expertise.

If you’ve already had contentious conversations with your client during the project, you can even say something like this at the beginning of your next review meeting:

“I’m on your team and want what’s best for the business so my feedback isn’t coming from a place of pride or ego, but rather from a desire to help the business succeed.”

This is a simple statement that every client will respect and appreciate.

At the end of the project, you’ll not only be seen as an expert designer, but also a valuable business partner. That will set you up to get better testimonials and more referrals. Your work will remain beautiful and be more effective. When you’re able to meet real business goals for your clients, you’re setting yourself up for long-term freelancing success.

Last updated on June 12th, 2023

About Matt Olpinski
I've been freelancing since 2009 and have worked with over 100+ clients including some of the biggest brands in the world. I later started my own company Matthew’s Design Co. and now teaches 50,000+ freelancers each year how to succeed through his personal blog, newsletter, and community for freelancers.