What web designers can learn from George Clarke

For those, who do not know, George Clarke is a highly successful British architect and he presents a TV show on channel 4 in the UK called, The Home Show. Although Clarke’s expertise is architecture and interior design, throughout the show he demonstrates some great techniques that easily cross over into web design.

George Clarke

You are the expert not the customer

The premise behind The Home Show, is that people feel their current home isn’t performing well enough for them. They can’t afford or don’t want to move homes so they want to improve what they have. This leads to them calling George, and he realigns their homes for them.

Straight off the bat, George makes it clear that he is the expert. He consults the clients on the redesign of their home but has complete and utter final say even to the point where he gets the family to move out whilst the work is going on and doesn’t let them see the finished work until it is completed. Admittedly, part of this is pure showmanship for the television audience but the main point here, is that George’s clients are in no doubt who the expert is and trust him so much that they are willing to give him complete free reign.

The budget does not stretch

At the start George asks the family for their budget. If it’s small, then he scales down his plans, if the budget is large he scales them up. At no point does he throw in freebies for the family. In fact at the end of the project if he has run out of budget often the family are left with an empty room which they are (nicely) told to do up themselves when they can because the budget wouldn’t stretch.

The budget is always realistic too, the family don’t expect £200 to buy them a loft conversion. In most cases people are dealing with their life savings and George is never dismissive if their budget is smaller than he needs but at the same time he lets the client know exactly how much work they can get for that.

Usability is king

Before starting any work or conceiving any ideas, George moves into the family home for a short period of time and tries to understand what problems the family are facing with their current design. He does not come along with a new design already in his thoughts rather, he takes the time to work out what the problems are first hand and how best to solve them. Often the families can’t express what is wrong with their homes just that there is something wrong. This simple usability studies that George carries out enable him, the expert, to see exactly what problems the family are facing and he can then use his expertise to fix them.

Your clients may find their websites aren’t performing but they don’t know why – and why should they –  they just want it to work and to make them money. Sitting down with people who use the site and watching them can be a real eye opener on how the website can be improved.

Gauge client’s tastes

Another tactic George uses to ensure he doesn’t create a redesign that the client hates, is to ensure he knows what style the client likes. He usually takes the parents of the family to a furniture shop and asks them to pick out their favourite chair or another item of furniture. he uses this test as a way to gauge what the client si looking for. He isn’t asking the client which chair they want in their newly redesign home but what style/type/feeling of chair. From this information he creates a design that the clien twill like.

In web design, a good technique with clients is to ask them to supply a list of websites they like. Provided you don’t get wacky responses, this is a great way to find out what type of design they might like and not to waste too muhc of your time creating designs that they may hate.

Explain your design decisions

Finally upon finishing the job, George guides the family around the new home, showing them each room, in the order he wants and constantly explaining what he’s done and why he’s done it. This helps them appreciate his design skills even more because he makes them realise that he’s not just put a wall there or removed a wall because he likes the look of it, he’s done it for a good reason and by explaining he wins the family’s hearts and minds.

If you hand a design over to a client and simply expect them to ‘get it’ straight away you may be in for a shock. They may be expecting something different or may not like the idea of something until they understand why. ‘Where’s the spinning logo I asked for?’ they may say but you have to be there and explain why you haven’t given them that  spinning logo.

Summary

A lot of web designers think that the because the web is a new medium, they can ignore common business practice but they can’t because whilst there are some differences to web design and other industries, the basic principles of business and client management still apply.

The building trade is a great comparison because the projects there are often unique and cannot be priced up instantly which is similar to web projects where virtually every project is different despite having shared features like headers, footer, images, etc. By using other industries as a guide it you can use the knowledge those industries have gained to your advantage in web design.

5 responses to “What web designers can learn from George Clarke”

  1. A good post Phil. I think a lot can be learnt from it and as you say, design, whatever medium it is, has some similarities and things can be learnt a few areas.

  2. I like your analogy Phil, the first thing that came to mind when I read the part about leaving a room for them to finish off was creating a roadmap with your clients. I used to sit in meetings at the start, middle or even end of the project where the client(s) would come up with all wonderful ideas to add on and change parts and I would listen and follow up with making those changes.

    Recently I have taken inspiration from Jason Fried of 37 Signals with the philosophy of ‘launch smaller and quicker, then steer the boat in the right direction’ – this can be a great way to tackle a big project, as with a big house. Get the essentials sorted, solve the biggest communication problems and launch, then add that photo gallery or forum and so on…

    The selling points to your client are that they can promote this new feature and create more repeat visits, launch quicker and have scope to really make sure they have the correct ideas in place for the site.

    This can help the designer/agency by spreading the work over several months, create repeat business and measure the results of doing the work.

    The house analogy is great, however you would never really design a house to your visitors tastes but (debatably) a piece of design should be aimed at your clients target market/audience. Re-enforcing this to your clients is important as they may not like a certain colour or typeface, but if you can get them to understand who they are communicating to they can start to put their personal tastes and desires to one side.

    • Laurence, I take your point about not designers a house to the visitor’s tastes – that would be madness.

      I guess in the house analogy, the clients are also the customers so whereas with web design, it matters much less what the client wants (despite their protests to the contrary) and more what the customer/user needs.

      I’m a big fan of ‘launch smaller and quicker’ too. It’s a great mantra.

  3. First Sarah Beeny now George Clarke? You gotta stop watching daytime TV and start working :p

    Just kidding – great article once again

  4. I like the analogy Phil and I think that Lawrence’s comment puts forward an interesting point. I suppose one of the skills of a good web designer is to understand that a design must appeal to both the client and the client’s target audience. In many situations that’s a fine line to tread. It’s important to be able to diplomatically communicate your ideas and expertise to the client in a way that convinces them (at least in part) to trust your judgement. If they never trust you and they’re disputing every one of your ideas then it’s never going to be a good project for either party. Of course it’s vital you should be receptive to input from the client, just that you need to strike a fine balance between what is constructive input and what you perceive as likely to be problematic in the scope of the project. Cheers.