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Professionals Don’t Show Clients Wireframes

Quality. It’s essentially the antithesis of compromise. It’s what clients want, but often not something they’re willing to follow procedure to get. It certainly doesn’t help that designers make compromise far too easy for them either.

When potential clients approach us, they are looking to hire us because they are interested in the high caliber work we display in our portfolio. They want to have this type of quality design and attention invested in their own project.

While this is a common desire, many are unwilling to submit to what is required for producing this level of an effective project. As mentioned in “Being Selective About Choosing Clients” (Part 2 of the Enabling Successful Projects series), “The ability to produce these effective final products is strictly dependent on a refined and time-tested process that is strictly adhered to. The client agreement should contain terms that reflect your policy. Your policy is an important part of your process. All of these are interrelated and necessary to produce the desired outcome.”

Part of our policy is that we do not show clients wireframes. This will be explained in further detail below, but first let’s examine what enables a successful project. We’ll then look more closely at why professionals don’t show clients wireframes and the detrimental effects experienced by those who ignore this sentiment.

What Enables a Successful Project?

A successful project results when every involved party possessing responsibility is able to do their job effectively and unhindered. It sounds simple enough, but so much goes wrong when this stage is not properly set.

What is the Client responsible for?

The client is responsible for providing two things: Content & Goals. It is the job of the professional to ask the right questions in order to collect this information prior to starting the design.

It is imperative that both the content and goals provided be exhaustive. If content or goals are allowed to change mid-way through (without a renegotiation), the effectiveness of the final product will be compromised and the quality will decrease.

If content or goals change in the middle of the project, a renegotiation of the agreement is mandatory, and a redesign is required. Anything less compromises the quality of the design as a whole.

“Compromise begets compromise and that is a poor characteristic for design work. So…don’t.”

Andy Rutledge, Design Professionalism Author

What is the Design Professional responsible for?

The design professional is responsible for making design decisions. This cannot be stressed enough. Design decisions should only ever be made by a design professional. At no point should anyone who is unqualified be making design decisions.

The client knows their customers and the designer knows design. This is why the client should be held as the expert on their customers when it comes to defining who their target audience is and goals for reaching them. It is then the designer’s responsibility to execute these goals through the design. If the design is allowed to be dictated by someone other than a design professional, the goals will not be accomplished.

It does not matter if a client “likes” a particular color, or “prefers” a certain layout. Design is not subjective, it is objective. A design professional does not design for the client, but for the client’s customers. This is why the designer was hired. It is of utmost importance that the design professional not subject the client to such decisions.

Let’s Talk Wireframes

No doubt, wireframes are an extremely handy tool. They are beneficial for visualizing user experience flow. Wireframing provides the means to get ideas that are confined to our heads out on paper in a tangible way. In the wireframing stage, focus is placed on hierarchy and structure rather than aesthetics. Constructing layouts on paper gives us the flexibility to make changes with dexterity and focus on the prominence of each individual element.

To reiterate, wireframes are helpful for collaboration and planning amongst professionals within a firm. They are a useful tool for internal use. The reasons for this requirement are very important:

  • Wireframes are stylistically subjective to interpretational discrepancies. Every designer has their own style of wireframing and unless another has worked together with the wireframer for an extended period of time (such as another professional collaborating within the same firm), external conjecture will be erroneous.
  • Wireframes simply play a part in a sequential series of steps within the design process. Comprehending an undeveloped blueprint or using it to adjudicate design decisions is no more the client’s job than determining what the proper amount of pixels the margins or type leading should be set at.

“Good ideas are often rejected for what is perceived as inadequate execution of the prototype. As a result, many engineers conceal their more provocative prototypes from senior management until they have been appropriately polished. ‘If you show them the plywood first,’ says IDEO’s Kelley, ‘they can’t make the conceptual jump.’”

— Michael Schrage, Serious Play, pg 88


Don’t force clients to make design decisions. Always focus your clients on goals. It is the client’s job to define goals. It is your job as the design professional to make all design decisions in order to achieve these goals.

Professionals have responsibility. If you are pawning off responsibility, then you are, in essence, pawning off your professionalism. You are forcing the client to do your job. Do not expect the client to know what his role is. If you present something to him, he will assume that it is his responsibility to make a decision. After all, you are the professional, and if you ask him to make a design decision, he will oblige.

There is a “Group Think” mentality that not only hindering innovative creativity, but poisoning the endowment of responsibility. It has begun to infiltrate the design industry and professional-to-client relationships. Collaboration—in and of itself—is not an evil thing, but when taken to the extreme where everyone’s opinion has equal weight, leadership is diluted. When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.

It bears saying again, the client is not the designer. Therefore, they should not be making design decisions of any kind. This is not just in relation to wireframes, but extends even to the number of concepts you provide as well. In presenting 10 concepts, you are causing the client to make a design decision. You should be culling that selection in the exploration and refinement phase of your design process. Present only the most effective of the group. Anything less sends the message that you as a professional are incapable of determining the most effective route. In other words, is sends the message that you are not very professional.

Walk the Client through the Design

“If we’re not allowed to show clients wireframes,” asks the confused designer, “how will they see what’s behind the design when I show them its completion?”

They will see it when you present the completed design, of course. The key being present. Never “show” your design. That’s irresponsible.

Users are meant to experience the design, not clients. Clients are entitled to an explanation as to how the design accomplishes their goals through a very detailed presentation.

This presentation should reiterate the client’s goals and walk the them through, step-by-step, how the finished design accomplishes each and every one of their goals. The reason for any attribute of every aspect of the design should be readily defendable and explained. No design decision should be made arbitrarily. Make sure you cite elements from the original brief in your presentation to show how you responsibly achieved their execution.

If you merely exhibit the design without presenting the clients with “what’s next”, they will get hung up on “what’s now” instead of proceeding as necessary. Walk them through the design decisions and then provide the next step in the process.


The design industry has been operating under harmful practices so consistently for such an extended period of time that most have difficulty accepting true professionalism because it seems to counter existing “standards” or “traditions.”

If what has been discussed here sounds like a foreign concept, you would do yourself a great disservice not to read Design Professionalism. Written by Andy Rutledge, the treatise does an exceptional job of repudiating the all-to-common disillusionments new designers frequently encounter.

If after reading the treatise, you still have questions or topics you would like to converse about, feel free to engage in discussion on Google+.

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