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The new meaning behind 'design sign-off'

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Design sign off is a safety net that is supposed to serve and protect both designer and client, but in practice we've often found traditional hard design sign-off to be damaging in the context of web design.

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The horror... oh the horror!

Design sign off is that horror scenario we've all dealt with; an endless nightmare of to and fro where little is accomplished and much time is spent because everyone involved is frightened that once the deal is done there is simply no turning back. Okay, so that's a bit over-dramatic but that was pretty much my scenario a year ago when I was still a print designer because once I'd sent the colour separations to plate there really was no turning back... at least not without substantial cost being involved.

The world of web design is a world apart from print design and this is why I find it so peculiar that this traditional sign off process has continued with little to no change. Everything in design has evolved since the inception of the web. The trends are different. Everything is interactive. People consume design on different devices with different screen sizes and orientations. People don't just look at design anymore. So why shouldn't the process of arriving at these designs be different too? Why is this stale old dinosaur still plaguing both designer and client?

Don't get me wrong, sometimes the old way works. It goes smoothly. The design is great and everyone is happy with it and that sign off seals the deal and then it's all plain-sailing from there. It happens enough, and is worth mentioning because there's a lot of doom and gloom surrounding this topic so I reckon its always worth throwing the positives out there too! But in a lot of cases the process can break down what was or could have been a great relationship between designer and client. So surely there must be a better way?

A pair of balancing scales. One one arm sits a clock signifying time and on the other piles of coins signifying money

The pros and cons of being militant

The good news is, there is a better way, but it’s not infallible. Conflicts occur when people are under pressure, or when their views or values are challenged - fact. Conflict is always bad… erm - actually, not a fact. If all parties are passionate and driven, then this can lead to natural friction and tension during a design sign off process - and this is actually a positive thing. It means everyone is engaged with the project and wants it to succeed, and this is from where we build. Disengagement and indifference are much, much more difficult monsters to deal with.

If John Lennon were alive today he'd say 'imagine a world where there was no design sign off period and instead the design just evolved with the project'. Okay, he probably wouldn't say that but I'm saying it. I know it sounds crazy but I've weighed up the pros and cons of traditional sign off and equally the pros and cons of not having a sign off altogether and building solely on the pros of both methods I've had my 'Eureka!' moment! We implement this method here at Real Life Design and so far it's been very positive!

So... some context. What are the pros of the traditional sign off? The most obvious argument for a traditional sign off is the prevention of destructive and costly last-minute changes. Another is that the process pretty much forces the client in to a scenario where they have to engage with and commit to a design within a particular time frame. There's also the “too many cooks” risk whereby more and more people become involved as the project evolves and all the ideas jumble and the original sentiment behind the design is lost.

And then there's the cons. As previously mentioned the client/designer trust relationship can be damaged by a predicament that feels a bit 'legal'. But furthermore to this I feel that you are actually restricting yourself and the project. By placing pressure on the client to sign off you are essentially saying your designs are perfection and will not need to change but as you begin working with developers or indeed start coding the site yourself you will find that some aspects don't work in practice and need to be rethought. With a sign off in place it places you in an embarrassing position. The client has been forced to sign off on a design that you haven't stuck to and now everyone is unhappy! As the project is built and grows and evolves the goal posts move. It doesn't matter whether these changes are 'in scope' or not. Clients needs can change and you have to be flexible about this. Maybe the client is happy to pay for some extra functionality or features that weren't discussed early on but this impacts the way that other areas of the site should operate. The design sign off is now redundant – again. So in thinking about these problems I came to the decision that some degree of sign off is necessary but also needs to be flexible. So how can we tackle this?

A lady with brown hair and a big smile is giving the "thumbs-up" to the camera.

The 'loose' approval system

My proposition to our clients at Real Life Design is that we ask for 'general approval' on designs in stages. Everything is based on user stories and personas - so designs must be fit for purpose, and we bear that in mind before we start. When we have our first design ideas ready, we present some style tiles which give an overview of what we're thinking. We will discuss the ideas together, and refine them accordingly. Once the client has agreed (verbally) to the general design concepts then that's enough for us to get going on the basic site build. Once the most basic areas of the site are in place we then start to theme. We code in SCSS (SASS) which allows us to have the flexibility to address any colour, font or general issues which may arise later.

Once we're far enough along with development to open things up, we then present the site in its 'in progress' state to ensure that the client is still on board with the ideas. This time, they can interact with the elements and see how they play off of one another on screen. Again, discussion is encouraged at this stage, and we decide together if we need to refine anything further or proceed as we are. We still sign no paperwork. We place trust in, and involve our clients at each stage which creates a strong feeling of investment in the design from both parties. We work in agile 'iterations' so that we can demo like this at intervals, so the client isn't 'shut outside' in the dark while we work, wondering what will be delivered and whether it'll meet their requirements. So you see - it's a team effort.

And, once the site is completed and ready to go live, we review again and carry out user acceptance testing. We invite fresh eyes to the table who have not seen the site yet and we discuss what is working and what isn't and from here we make the tweaks necessary to push the site live. This time we need to literally forget EVERYTHING that has gone before, and concentrate on putting ourselves in the mind of the person or people who are going to use this site. Does it work? The most important thing is involvement from both sides throughout, and to continue moving forward. Don't dwell on paddings and margins and shades of colour. Get the thing to the final stages because these are things that aren't costly to change at the end, or even after launch so you get your site out there as a 'minimum viable product', returning on investment asap (that's providing you've written your code efficiently and via a pre-processor as opposed to in CSS directly of course - but that's just for the geeks among you!).

Sounds great doesn't it? It is. Though it's not without its pitfalls. Discussion sometimes means challenge, conflict, and disagreement. And that's healthy and nothing to be scared of. But to avoid being walked all over (on either side!) - always discuss the process up front with the client so they're ready for this. Be sure to talk about the benefits of having this open relationship and working as a team - but remember you can still set boundaries. It's okay to discuss the kinds of changes that are in scope and those that aren't. Be honest about which changes will take more effort, and those which will take less. Discuss and challenge the impact of every change, and whether it's key to fulfilling the 'minimum viable product' brief. And though it seems informal, there are important decisions to be made at every juncture, so if you want an efficient and cost effective project, these shouldn't be taken lightly. A complete re-design last minute is not going to be in anyone's interests, but changing a couple of images or a colour isn't going to be the end of the world.

A creative team sitting in a relaxed meeting setting, discussing ideas and collaborating

And now for my final thought

Be confident. You are the expert and you'll only be treated as such if you come across as confident. Your attitude will impact on everyone involved so be positive; challenge through positive questioning – not negative criticism.

Use examples of where your ideas have worked. Ask for examples of where your clients ideas have worked. Look at the competitors in the market. Disrupt. Test everything. Ask you gran, your uncle and your dog to give your designs a once over and try them out.

Make notes on reactions and bring them to the table, and conclude whether they matter or not. Work together, and you shall not fight to the death nor require these nonsense sign offs. And if the site goes live and something isn't right you can just go ahead and put it right. That's both the beauty and the curse of web design. Nothing is final. Everything is possible.

Darren Fisher - Designer & Frontend Dev

Written by

Darren Fisher

Designer & Frontend Dev

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