Publishers of technology books, eBooks, and videos for creative people

Home > Articles > Web Design & Development > Usability

Design Process, Clients, and Web Standards: An Interview with Jeffrey Zeldman

Jeffrey Zeldman speaks of how he works with clients to meet their needs while giving design a purpose.
Like this article? We recommend

Like this article? We recommend

Design Process, Clients, and Web Standards: An Interview with Jeffrey Zeldman

Sites full of eye candy have little usefulness. It's become a problem of designing for design's sake to shout, "Look what I can do!" Such designers have created a beast, an eyesore. Like judging a book by its cover, they believe offering awe-inspiring beauty will blind the users to the fact that it's not usable.

Instead of admiration, it provokes responses of "This is taking too long to load" and "How do you use this site?" Clients who request Web design services may fall in the pile of "do something cool" instead of "let's see how we can best meet our customers' needs." This is where it gets thorny as Web designers have to balance politics with advice of focusing on "need" as opposed to "want."

When working with clients, the challenge is to avoid the black hole of creating comp after comp after comp because of "cherry picking," where bits and pieces of every comp are picked for changing and creating a new comp. No one wants to tell a client, "Enough! Just make up your mind," at least, not out loud.

To avoid potential sticky moments, try adding a maximum number of rounds or time spent on iterations to the contract. Taking this approach prepares the client to make solid decisions during the design process. In this interview, Zeldman speaks of how he works with clients to meet their needs while giving design a purpose.

Initial Meetings with the Client

Zeldman indicates he's lucky in that his clients approach Happy Cog, his company, expecting certain things. Because clients know what they stand for, and because they come to them wanting what they do, they're spared the kind of circular dialogs that plague the initial planning phase of many projects. Instead, Happy Cog can focus on the heart of the problem, finding out everything the client knows about his or her existing audience. They ask what makes the client's product or service unique, where the product or service currently lives in its users' minds and in relation to competitive offerings, and where the client hopes to evolve.

Clients don't always have the answer to all these questions, but they understand that these are the right questions, and they're able to work together as creative partners from the very beginning.

Zeldman says, "If you establish your point of view and evolve from that point, you attract clients who want what you have, and you set the stage for projects that develop naturally, from shared goals. If you try to be all things to all people, you become everyone's second or third choice, and you waste time bidding on projects nobody really wants you to win. When you do win, you waste a lot of time coming to terms, because it's not clear what you do."

Assuming clients come to you for reasons other than price or proximity, Web designers spend a lot of time in the initial contact phase learning all they can, and deliver a proposal that's tailored to the client's needs, including some needs of which the client may be unaware. "Boilerplate responses smell like what they are, and have a low success rate. Proposals that include a preliminary needs assessment and a conceptual model of what you hope to achieve are naturally more attractive to client than rehashes of stock proposals," explains Zeldman.

Find the heart of the site, the thing that will solve its business goals and bind it to the hearts of a particular audience, making it essential to them. You need to learn everything the client knows about the product or service, and funnel it through your design expertise.

Staying on Track

Zeldman indicates he has never met a stupid client or anyone who knows less about his product, audience, and competitors than he does. He encourages clients to talk and treats them as full partners. After all, it's their site. When they're not happy and something's wrong, the project won't succeed.

With bigger clients you sometimes have discussions that spring from internal political jockeying rather than the site's needs. And with smaller clients, you sometimes get excited talk that's all over the place, because someone (your agency) is finally listening, and the client can't stop rambling — like a guy who's just fallen in love, and needs to tell his partner every detail of his life story. Useful nuggets can come out of those long rambles, so Zeldman encourages them and listen patiently or at least pretends to listen patiently.

When client and contractor get off track — when the long rambles through the park of the client's mind no longer turn up the occasional gold nugget — it's time to steer back to the client focus. Zeldman suggests doing this by responding only to the few points that merit it, and responding in a few short sentences outlining one plan and an alternative. The client realizes he or she has been heard, and also recognizes that they've reached a stage requiring a decision.

Dealing with Multiple Iterations

Some agencies take three or more designs nearly to completion before asking the client to make a decision. That's a waste of time. It varies by client and project, but Happy Cog's contract indicates they'll show two to three initial designs, and unless they're way off base, they can generally focus on the one that's working best by mutual agreement.

A good place to start is where the client's identity is weak or non-existent. Logo and theme-line: one round of three, discussion, and refinement. More often, it helps to place the logo and theme-line in a visual context. Comp a look–and-feel that includes these and other elements that are needed on the site's front page.

In a perfect world, you've discussed the architecture and know exactly what's needed. Zeldman has found that what you agree to in a storyboard or wireframe may not work right in the context of a designed screen experience. Designers complain about clients changing their minds after agreeing to a site plan. But sometimes the client is right. And designers change our minds, too. Directors change scripts when a film scene isn't playing. The same thing is true of Web design.

"So instead of holding my clients to a paper plan and punishing them financially when they diverge from it, I treat the comp as a learning tool for us as well as the client. Maybe we thought we needed two levels of navigation plus one-click access to specific products or areas. Maybe when we see it in a comp, we realize it's too busy and would only confuse the site's visitors. The client may even bless the work, but if we're not happy, we say so, and come back to them with something that works better," says Zeldman.

Establishing mutual trust and respect up front leads to a more willing client when it comes to changes especially when a designer thinks about the client's changes. Happy Cog spends much up-front time getting to know the client to ensure they'll make compatible partners. Otherwise, if you don't have that level of trust, you shouldn't be doing the job.

If a project has a "hundred iterations" problem, it stems from lack of vision, lack of patience, and a knee-jerk reaction to the client's attempt to solve problems you should be solving yourself. Sometimes inexperienced project managers foment this knee-jerk reaction pattern, spinning the project out of control.

In explaining how he addresses the iterations problem, Zeldman says, "We let the client talk a lot. The client may have a hundred issues with a preliminary or secondary iteration. We listen to all the issues, discuss only those that are relevant, address those concerns only very briefly, and let a little time pass while we think about everything that's been said.

"Later, we re-open the comp and begin changing it, guided equally by aesthetics, general usability issues we've noticed ourselves, and an unconscious memory of the client's chief concerns. We may address the client's problems literally but more likely will simply solve them visually, regardless of what may have been discussed."

Happy Cogs works to show its solutions rather than sell them. As Hillman Curtis says, "Clients understand graphic design. They've been living with it all their lives. When we've finally nailed it to our own satisfaction, we know the client will recognize that it works."

Again, establishing mutual trust and respect at the beginning of a project is the only way that kind of iterative process can work. It helps avoid unnecessarily overwrought deadlines and multi-tiered iterative phases tied to punitive rules that can encourage hostility between client and designer.

A key to a successful project that avoids an out-of-control iterative process is to ensure the contractors work with one key decision-maker at the start of the project. The client may have to answer to a committee, but contractors don't. The process of selecting one contact evades the situation of being obligated to twenty people on the client side, each with a different vision for the site.

In sharing an experience, Zeldman says, "We collaborated on a project with another agency, whose process differed greatly from ours. They made themselves answerable to everyone on the client side. The client's Brand Manager wanted a blown-out, design-intensive look and feel on a site driven by an aging content management system (CMS) incapable of delivering such a product. The client's IT Director sought a simple site her CMS could handle, and was unwilling to even consider upgrading the system, possibly for reasons of budget, possibly because she disliked the Brand Manager."

He continues, "Both clients had equal say. The agency was placed in the unenviable position of creating a design its client could not produce, or presenting work the client could handle but the Brand Manager would never buy. We escaped unharmed, but last I heard, the other agency was still presenting revisions."

Happy Cog avoids this problem by stating clearly in its proposal that it'll work with one client who's ultimately responsible for the site's success. Any potential client who is uncomfortable with this stipulation will choose a different agency, and sometimes you have to let that happen otherwise the project is heading for a train wreck. Answering to committees invites chaotic working relationships with mediocre end-results.

Modular Design Phase (Templating)

It's unavoidable that the design will change during the modular design (templating) phase. Having this in the proposal and contract is a reminder to the client throughout the design and development process, so they're never unpleasantly surprised. Design shops remind them why the design will change: to accommodate the technologies that drive the site, and more importantly, to address unforeseen circumstances and deliver the best possible product.

As the design experts, you know what technologies you'll work with as you've designed comps accordingly, and changes will be minimal and as expected. But naturally, as you move from flat comp to working prototype, there will be changes because the Web is not print.

Something is always missing no matter how carefully the project is planned and how many times site's architecture is discussed. When developing templates, it's inevitable that you discover something is missing, and you need to solve design problems specific to a particular sub-page.

Many agencies deliver Photoshop comps of every sub-page, seeking design approval before going to the prototype phase for that page. In some cases, where the design varies from page to page, that may be the right approach. "But if your design is fairly consistent throughout, the extra comps are a waste of time and money. Just build the templates. Clients like seeing working prototypes. They feel they're getting somewhere, and they're right," explains Zeldman.

Needless to say, long before you get to this stage, particularly when re-designing an existing site, know all about the client's server and platform, and any "kinks" you may be forced to work around. These kinds of things happen, and the client may lack time or budget to facilitate more rational implementations, so know before you go.

Handling "Wrong Direction" Feedback from Clients

Clients who approach Happy Cog know that it'll put forward compatibility across current and future browsers, platforms, and devices ahead of pixel-perfect renderings in buggy, non-compliant, outdated browsers. Despite this, the shop discusses Web standards with the client in advance of any work, includes it in the Proposal, and restates it in the contract.

With general use of 4.0 browsers falling well below 2% at this time, it's easy to make the case for coding with standards or steering away from outdated design techniques. As long as visitors receive all content, it doesn't matter that the site will look better in compliant browsers than it does in old ones. He offers the analogy, a black and white TV can display a movie, but naturally it won't look exactly the same as it does on color sets, or on wide-screen, high-definition TVs, or in the theater.

His company's emphasis on forward compatibility via Web standards doesn't mean that it uses CSS layout in all projects. Often, it takes a transitional approach that looks good in any visual browser, but of course looks better in compliant ones. Many institutional clients are stuck with 4.0 browsers. The client is thinking in terms of long-term viability, and that means designing and building with Web standards. But the IT department is still installing Netscape 4 point whatever on hundreds or thousands of desktops.

Happy Cog's solution may involve using XHTML table layouts, but not crazily nested ones, just basic table layouts. It may include a two-tiered approach to CSS: one style sheet for all CSS-aware browsers even the cheesy ones that get CSS1 wrong, and a more advanced style sheet for newer browsers supporting CSS1 and CSS2. Link to the advanced style sheet via the @import method, effectively hiding it from old browsers that can't handle it.

The New York Public Library's online Style Guide describes the approach, and it's how the NYPL has been able to bridge the gap an installed base of ancient browsers and the goal of long-term viability. "Many of our clients buy into that kind of transitional approach, because it supports legacy browser concerns without mortgaging the future health of the site," he says.

Jeffrey Zeldman Bio:

Jeffrey Zeldman is a New York-based Web designer and Principal of Happy Cog Studios. He's the author of Taking Your Talent to the Web and Designing with Web Standards. Zeldman is the Creative Director of A List Apart, a magazine for people who make Web sites.

Peachpit Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from Peachpit and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about Peachpit products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites; develop new products and services; conduct educational research; and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by Adobe Press. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive:

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020