Our firm makes websites. We also design websites. But sometimes our client brings his/her own design. This is often made by an in-house designer, or it is the same design they used for something else. However, sometimes these designs look awful. And I am talking really unprofessional, unbalanced, uncool. But the client really wants this design. I really do not like working with a design that is so awful. It takes away all pleasure in coding. You code. You check the demo. Works great. Looks awful. It's just not fun.

And ultimately the client might be happy, but 1) I do not feel proud of the final product and 2) the community sees you 'develop' ugly websites, which is bad for your image.

Anybody experiencing this kind of stuff? What do you recommend?

I've been thinking:

  • Blocking these clients. If somebody has an 'own' design, ask to see it first. Then somehow politely decline. Drawback: you lose a client.
  • Create a new design. Have our in-house designers work one something really cool. Drawbacks: client would need to pay for this (without asking for it), or it will be declined and the company loses time = money. And it might come as an insult if you propose a new design out of the blue. THEIR designer won't like it for sure.
  • Put a clear disclaimer at the bottom of the site: Website design by XXXXX, Website development by US. Helps for the community-impact (if people pay attention), but not for the uneasy feeling.

10 Answers 10


Think of advertising agencies. It's about MONEY.

Art and purity is for artists.

If you are in business to make money then you have to do some things you might not always like. Now if that were a moral decision, such as doing as a client wished and drowning puppies, this would be an easy NO decision to make.

However, aesthetic taste is in the eye of the beholder. If the client has a look they love, who are you to tell them its awful? Yours is only another opinion, just like theirs.

So, if you are not drowning puppies to use their style and look, take their money and do the work. Only reject the work if you can afford to lose a client (and all their friends).

[Remember the marketing story: A DELIGHTED customers tells 2 people. An unhappy customer tells at least 10, or everyone they know, loudly and for years. In addition, they will never come back. Which do you want?]

  • +1 for "eye of the beholder". Although I do want to add that professional design isn't 100% about opinion. There are tried and tested techniques involved to make sure the design is usable and meets certain criteria. There is more to it than just creativity.
    – jmort253
    Feb 27, 2011 at 0:57
  • @jmort253 - very true. There are plenty of web sites out there which are usable, but where the aesthetic is horrible - it might be crowding, choice of colours, etc. Finally, just to be perverse - remember MySpace? I found it awful - badly organised, junk all over the place, terrible colours. And that was only following a link that ended up there by accident. It was train smash. Which had millions of users. What can I say?! [And OK they are gone now but was that bad design or the next big thing?] Feb 27, 2011 at 1:13
  • 1
    lol that (MySpace) was definitely bad design. I'm not disagreeing with you on the opinion point though. I'm glad someone mentioned that it's possible that two designers can disagree on something and that it's important not to get cocky as a designer. I just wanted to add that most designers do get some kind of professional education that teaches them some fundamental basics that the layperson might not necessarily understand or agree with, and if a designer tells a non-designer that their design is bad, it might be worth getting a second or third opinion before moving forward.
    – jmort253
    Feb 27, 2011 at 1:19

If you haven't seen the CSS Zen Garden, I recommend you check it out. The underlying HTML is all the same, the only thing that changes for each of the submitted designs is the CSS file.

I don't know anything about your web design business, but you should be able to structure your HTML output in such a way that you could present a number of different standard ideas to your client by having a collection of CSS files that you can select from as sample ideas.

If, after seeing a number of your designs, the client still demands that you create their site to their bad design specifications you could either decline to take the job, present them with an overly high estimate to discourage them from hiring you, or just not put your 'brand' on the site.


Cry, but cry all the way to the bank.


You decide whether you can work with the people; whether they are open-minded enough to accept suggested changes or they are completely closed to alterations. You also decide whether you can afford to turn down the work. If the indicators are favourable, then accept their design at the start of the project. Then as you work on it for a day or two, you start suggesting 'improvements', gradually working the design around to one that you could be proud of, or at least would not want to disown completely.

You can also decide whether you're willing to put your name on their site as the implementor of their design.


The person paying for it is the boss. Also, aesthetic sense is very subjective. What is awful for X might be stunningly beautiful for Y.
What can you do? It depends on how much you are willing to put at stake.

  • If you are okay with losing a client, then you can tell him/her, "Either i work with a better looking design or you go look for some other firm?"
  • If you are not willing to lose a client, show different designs that you think look better. If he agrees to your suggestions, well and good. Otherwise, you just use the design given to you and change the credits.
  • If you keep the client and the look, and hate the look, just make sure you don't put your own name / credit anywhere on the site. That way you keep your reputation attached only to the sites you like. (Remembering what you like is subjective). Feb 26, 2011 at 5:27
  • Actually, aesthetics aren't nearly all that subjective. There are actually lots of features that are quite universally liked (balance being one of them).
    – Inca
    Feb 26, 2011 at 13:22
  • The person paying for it is the boss, but we're not talking about a burger and some fries here. It's up to us as professionals to make the best possible decisions for our clients, and if they don't want to let us do our job, then we should look for better clients.
    – jmort253
    Feb 28, 2011 at 5:43

How about "Wow, that's a very interesting design you've got there, and I've got a few ideas that might make it even better. How about if we moved this widget over to the other side, or changed that color just a bit..."

Why look for an overnight revolution/all or nothing approach? Go for a 'gradual takeover'...


I live your situation daily with some customers. There are some who hire inexperienced self-called designers who don't know anything about design, which results in awful, unprofessional work, but it is not unusual for the customer to like the result.

First, ask yourself why is the customer liking this horror. You may think that it's because the customer is a moron. It's not. You find the real explanation when you look at how do they work, this customer and the in-house designer.

The how vs. what rule

  1. The customer starts to tell what must be designed and how.
  2. The designer does the job.
  3. The customer asks to change a few things, because they really suck, and tells to the designer how those things must be done.
  4. The designer does the changes.

The worst part is that every time, the customer tells to the designer how to do things, and since the designer is inexperienced, he doesn't know that this is not the way to work professionally.

Moreover, the customer has strong chances to like the design. It's psychological: you can't really tell yourself that the design sucks when you've explained continuously how to do it, because it would mean that you were wrong yourself.

A week ago, the customer submitted a requirement for a new project:

The passwords of the users of the website are encrypted.

If I were a beginner, I would rather follow all the requirements and use a symmetric encryption algorithm to store passwords instead of SHA-256. Then having to read a story about me in DailyWTF if one day some other developer would use my source code.

Of course in my case this requirement was rejected, since the customer doesn't have to tell me how to do things. I could replace it by "Only the hash is stored for every password of every user of the website" or "The passwords of the users of the website are stored in a secure way.", but it makes no sense either, since the requirement repeats what must already be done by default.

So what?

So you may ask yourself, what can you do now? The customer is not a moron, but has a design which sucks. You came with two solutions: refusing the work or create your own design.

  • Refusing the work may even be illegal. In some countries, you can't just refuse an order of a customer, case by case, while accepting orders from other customers. And even if it would be legal, you lose the customer, which is quite sad.

  • Creating your own design may be extremely challenging and risky. Remember, the customer already has the design and likes it, or cannot admit that it sucks. Also, this design matches exactly the way he imagine it. Chances are he refuses to pay for a new design and refuses to accept that the new one is better.

You can on the other hand do two things without doing something illegal nor pissing off your customer.

1. Explain your point of view to your customer

Explain to your customer that the design their in-house designer have made is not... "very professional". Recently, I had a meeting with a customer like this. The designer was in the room too. It was not too hard to explain why the design sucks, just by enumerating some basic rules which were all violated. If the customer were more business-oriented, he would fire the designer just after the meeting.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. Some companies are smart enough to understand that if their in-house designer is unprofessional, they must either pay him some training, or fire him and hire a better one. But it's not the case of all companies who have their own reasons to keep their designer and not train him. When it's the case, you may want to get rid of this customer, but without pissing him off. Here's a possible technique:

2. Make it cost-prohibitive to use unprofessional designers

Create a certification for the designers. When the customer arrives, ask him if his in-house designer has your certification (or any other certification you accept). If yes, the cost of the project will be low. If not, the cost will be extremely high.

Progressively, either the customer will leave, but with a feeling that not you but the in-house designer sucks, or he will hire a more experienced designer who will easily pass the certification.


I think most answers, from personal experience, are treating this case wrong. You have:

option a) Accept their design, take their money, give them a bad product/service

option b) Tell them the truth, reject their proposal, piss them off. No money, no client

But usually you also have:

secret option c) Tell them (sincerely) "Thanks for you suggestion, we'll take that into consideration" Do your design, maybe adapt something from theirs if there's anything salvage. Take their money, and hopefully have a happy client.

You see it's very seldom a client is adamant on the specifics of a design, they simply don't know better. If you aknowledge their suggestions and ask a couple of since questions around it: "What about that design is it you like, and why etc" They will feel that you listened to them and is not just brushing them off. Many times the client just want to give their input and have it aknowledged but is not really going to press specifics. If you take an antagonistic view point things will turn ugly fast however. Better to sidestep and recover.

As a professional it's your job not to simply give a client what he wants, but also what he needs (but without pissing him off). Your real client aren't really the people who's hiring you but the people he's "selling" to. Hopefully your reputation and the client both will be happier for it in the long run.

  • So do extra work that you either a) don't charge the client for or b) charge the client for without telling them first? I can't see this being received too well at either end. Jul 24, 2011 at 14:46
  • @Konrad - +1 for secret option c - no need to consider only the 2 extreme approaches.
    – Vector
    Jul 24, 2011 at 18:02
  • Most often it's not a question extra work but rather the specifics of the work. With this approach you stand the best chance of having some pride intact, a happy customer and a good design for your portfolio. It's all about how you handle the situation so you make them feel listened to and in the end is convinced they got the expertise they paid for
    – Homde
    Jul 24, 2011 at 19:44

I'd say your 1 and 2 points are the critical issues here. I'm going backwards because that expresses my points in a better order.

2) the community sees you 'develop' ugly websites, which is bad for your image.

You're a client-side web developer. It's understood that you often have no control of a design. I'm not a designer in any way shape or form on the aesthetic side of things for instance but my early bread and butter was taking other people's designs and reproducing them as faithfully as possible in HTML/CSS/JS. In my early portfolio I had the original designs with side-by-side comparisons of the HTML/CSS produced to mimic them. Making it clear that you're showing something for layout work skills vs. your own aesthetic and usability design skills is something you can do in your portfolio, not something anybody is going to be willing to stamp on their property because you think it's ugly/stupid.

FYI, the first thing I would do when considering any client-side dev, even a strictly web design-oriented one, is see how clean their HTML is under the hood so make sure you don't neglect best practices on that front.

1) I do not feel proud of the final product

In cases like this "the final product" isn't your responsibility. Put your pride in things you control as best you can and swallow the rest. But yes, I do agree that the one thing that's worse than a client that has no idea what they want is one that knows exactly what they want right down to what kind of brass they want in the brass tacks.

As for your suggested solutions, forget about it. The only way you will ever be given that level of control is when you start your own interactive freelancing business and you've attracted enough clients to say no to people. And if you're a great designer you can get there, but you're going to have to hold your nose for a couple years until you've established that level of cred. In the meantime look for smaller agencies that are already in that position to say no to pre-built crap designs because too many people are seeking them out for excellent design they provide in the first place.


A lot of the existing answers have suggested you should take the money. You are a business not an artist. I agree with this to a point, but doing this could cause you reputational harm.

I've several friends who worked for a company who started to do exactly that. They built the games the publishers asked for, often designed by committee. The guys who worked for them knew the games where terrible. It was the beginning of a vicious cycle. They made these crappy games and then fewer and fewer people would work for them, except for those publishers who wanted that kind of crappy game. The company went bust.

What do you need more; money or more business? If you just need money and you have an endless supply of customers then you should just take the money. Sometimes your reputation is more valuable than any particular project.

I would suggest you politely suggest that you can provide design consultancy skills to help them. If they don't take the hint, tell them that you don't feel that it is a suitable project for you. Do not tell them their design is terrible, it is too subjective and again might harm your reputation.

Don't be afraid to turn down work unless its your only option.

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