I have done many website design and development as a freelancer and over time, I have my own set of "business procedures" to properly (or so I thought) determine project scope and budgets before signing of the contract. However, recently I was engaged by an interior designer and things got sour because we could not agree what phase we are in. So, I want to know and relearn: In web design and development industry, do you do the design before signing of contract so that you have a something to create your project baselines estimates, or do you design after signing the contract and accede to the client to experiment with different designs until satisfied?


I told him that as I understood in this case, the development phase starts when the contract is signed and from that point onwards, I should not be getting requests such as "[looking at another website] Oh this looks nice! Can you make something like this and let us see?". I explained that I can accept if he affirmed "No! That is not what I agreed to, [this] is what I wanted!", but I simply cannot create actual web pages one after another to let him choose and pick like shopping.

The interior designer insist that he knows better since he is in the design industry longer than I am (he is probably 15 years more senior at least). He maintains that the design phase comes after the signing of contract. He said he would sit with the client, go through several revisions, sign off the designs, before getting down to development phase. He also doubts me because he thinks it is not feasible to commit time and effort at the design phase without a contract.

The main source of confusion in this episode is a Design Intent document provided by the client. I normally come up with my draft designs before meeting the client but this time, they have done all the "screenshots" in the Design Intent with detailed text annotations. I thought I am supposed to follow the document, I even clarified my doubts extensively, but after signing the contract, they said it is "for design intent only" and anything can change!

The main problem I have with his practice is that I find that it is impossible to draw up the schedule and cost without first having a clear understanding of the scope. Therefore, the steps I normally take would be like this:

  1. Client looks for me by word-of-mouth and asks "How much do you charge?"
  2. I ask for requirements such as nature of business, purpose of website, target market, reference websites for look and feel and functionality.
  3. Client gets back to me with information and I decide if I am capable to meet expectations. If I am not confident, I let them know and decline the job, otherwise;
  4. I will offer "Can you let me come up with a/several designs and see if there is anything you like?". This takes about 1 week and will usually include as many different page layout as practical and usually the more important pages like product, about, contact.
  5. If he likes it, I will let him know a rough quote and then set up the first meeting with them to explain and agree on the design and also check if there are additional/hidden requirements. This meeting will usually uncover further functional requirements which I will add to the rough quote.
  6. Finally, I return home and draw up the schedule and cost, using the design JPG (which is now final) as scope, and get the contract signed.
  7. During development, I normally do not accede to major change requests without additional charge especially if they affect schedule.
  • Hey Jake, this sounds like an interesting problem, but instead of asking for procedure, could you please be a little more specific in terms of your question? Our Q&A site's voting mechanism's work better with more specific questions since it's easier to vote for the best ones. I also think you'd get better answers that way. Check out How to Ask for more in-depth guidance. Hope this helps.
    – jmort253
    Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 4:08
  • Thanks for the encouragement, still new to the rules here. I have narrowed down to the part on design now as I think that is the core of the question. Hope it helps.
    – Jake
    Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 6:52
  • I think that does it. Thanks for clarifying, and welcome to Freelancing SE! If this is your first time here, you might take the tour and also take a look at the other questions tagged "contract". Good luck! :)
    – jmort253
    Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 7:10

3 Answers 3


I do custom software but I am not a web developer. However, I recently hired a company to develop a website.

MY CONSUMER PERSPECTIVE: The company I settled on did the contract before the design. NO ONE offered a design in advance of a contract.

In their contract they said "We will submit up to X designs for you to choose from for the home page plus X internal pages" and "We will make X revisions to the chosen design."

I chose them without a design based on designs in their client portfolio. I also liked that they were local, met with me in person, and did invest some of their own time to research certain unique things my website needed.

We signed the contract which included pricing. They submitted designs, we picked from them, then we went back and forth getting the design "just so" and now they are cutting the HTML code. Imagine their nightmare if they'd given me unlimited design options at no additional cost.

They are very helpful and accomodating, but naturally some "ideas" only occurred to us as we went along. We understand that if those are important to us, they will cost us extra.

We almost went with a different company that does a discovery phase that was about $3K (if I recall) They said we could take that "report" of what we needed anywhere, we weren't obligated to move forward with them. I understood why they did that but found the idea of committing $3K up front to find out what the whole project would cost a little scary/off putting.

As stated, we initially inquired with about 7 web developers. NO ONE offered to submit designs to us without a commitment and while most gave us ball park pricing, no one could give us solid pricing without going over our specs first. Hence the "Up to x design submissions" language in the contract we did sign.

DEVELOPER PERSPECTIVE As a software developer however, I realize that most people cannot visualize something that is described. So when I have ideas on how to automate something I will often do a mock up to land the business. I try not to put too much time into it though. But I may do some dialog boxes that are not fully coded but that show how the work will flow. Sometimes I even do a YouTube video showing features I've developed for others, explaining how their software would work. I know I have landed clients because of this, but I am careful not to invest hours with someone who I sense is bargain hunting and/or not serious about buying.

INTERIOR DESIGNER PERSPECTIVE I've no experience here but I do watch a lot of home renovation shows on TV... I've seen some where contractors compete with designs, and the favorite design wins the bid. So maybe it is normal to do the design in advance with interior design, but I don't think it is with web design.

I think your client is confusing his industry with yours. Good luck explaining that to him...

In the future I'd make sure your contract spells things out clearly to protect you.

  • The experience with multiple other developers adds a lot of perspective, something that I do not have. Thanks. In this particular project, I actually sub contracted the backend system to another company. I showed them the Design Intent which only has frontend screenshots and ask "Can you figure out what is required?" Without further clarification, they confirm they understood the requirements and went on to development straight without showing me mocks. I must say they managed to get 90% right, but the client's changing of design voided everything that was done. :(
    – Jake
    Commented Aug 16, 2014 at 6:11
  • Oh man, that's messed up! Going forward, I would never sub anything out until you have a contract and a deposit. Did you have SOME kind of understanding on price/scope before you started? Even if verbal, the must expect to pay for your work. Can you say "This design change is no problem at all, but I want to make sure you're positive you want this before moving forward because it requires a significant change to the programming architecture which is going to add $X to the project. I never want to shock anyone with an invoice... Do I have your permission to start on these changes?
    – Emily
    Commented Aug 17, 2014 at 18:45
  • Also - maybe this client is just a jerk and deliberately trying to abuse you. But I've had clients where I felt abused by their constant questions/changes/little requests and I said "I can't keep doing this for free" and they said "Of course! I just assumed you'd send an invoice..."
    – Emily
    Commented Aug 17, 2014 at 18:47

I think you're shooting yourself in the foot with your current approach.

Imagine a house painter offering services. The client doesn't know what he wants, but calls up the painter. The painter paints the house red on Monday. The client doesn't like it. The painter paints the house green on Tuesday. The client still doesn't like it. The painter shows up on Wednesday expecting to paint the house purple, but the house has already been painted orange (apparently by someone else). Then the client tells the painter, in not so many words, to get lost.

Paint, labor, fuel, brushes, phone calls, and all that stuff cost money. However, the painter didn't get a written contract from the client to pay for this three-day "design session", so the painter's screwed.

You're doing the same thing! You are opening yourself up to abuse by basically taking work "on spec", i.e. no contract gets signed until you work to come up with a design that the client likes. It wastes your time. To a savvy client, it makes you look pretty stupid but the client isn't going to tell you that if the client essentially asks you to work for free and you accept.

You'll turn around and say, "but the client is demanding __". Okay, that's nice. But it's your business! The client can demand whatever, whenever, but if it's not to the terms that you need to keep money in your pocket, walk. You don't let a client decide how your business is run.

If the client wants iterative design, great. But the client should be paying for your time and materials along the way. You should capture this in a written contract before starting any work, no matter how "little of a task" your client tries to tell you the design portion comprises.

More on NOT doing "spec" work can be found at NO!SPEC.

  • But I don't paint the house until the client confirms, so I don't think this analogy works? I think what you are describing is what the client wants, which I disagree.
    – Jake
    Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 5:04
  • Unless it is a time and materials contract, you cannot take this approach, can you? But the question is, what is the industry norm?
    – Jake
    Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 5:15
  • Doing the work involved to create mock-ups is, in essence, painting the house. Some clients will push for this part to be done for free, just to see how desperate the consultant is.
    – Xavier J
    Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 20:18
  • What type of mock ups are you referring to? I only do JPGS and refer to existing websites, unless I have a revolutionary concept to sell, in which case, I will create that webpage but it will still be an unpolished version. I think a better analogy is a renovation: you show the client the design in sketch and CAD, but you don't sign until the design is confirmed to go ahead with the actual renovation.
    – Jake
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 1:31
  • Furthermore, when you don't sign, you are not obliged to design for the client till the end. If you feel the client is going to be demanding and stingy, you can call it off. That's how I screen clients too.
    – Jake
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 1:33

The way that we approach projects for all our customers is to split the work into 2 distinct parts: analysis and build. The analysis phase is the scoping phase and contains no design work. Everything relating to screen layouts and functionality is captured through a wireframing tool such as Balsamiq. This allows both us and the customer to go back and forth until we are both happy that all of the screens required have been mocked up. This is done on a time and materials basis and I usually quote around 3 weeks for this phase. Once this phase is complete and the customer has signed off the wireframes, we draw up a contract for the build phase.

The systems we've been building have tended not to have a strong bespoke design element to them. They've more been admin or workflow systems where the design has been taken care of via a professional Bootstrap theme. That said, if we were to take on a project that required a strong design aspect, we would still insist on a contract for the design phase, but the contract would be on a time and materials basis rather than a fixed cost. That way, if the customer wants to keep changing things they have to keep paying for our time.

If you start with the design phase whilst still trying to determine the requirements you run a very real risk of the customer fixating on how the site should look rather than what the site should do. The analysis phase also allows you to fully understand how the customer's business processes work and what their business is about, which should help you during the design phase. Obviously, some work has to be done before drawing up a contract or you'll never understand the full scope of work. The more abstract you can make the output in this initial phase, the more the customer will be able to focus on the functionality of the project without distraction.

  • I think I didn't use the word design properly. Your first paragraph sort of describes what I actually do except you used the word "mock" instead of design. I think the difference is only in the level of detail and it is difficult to define with respect to client expectation. Do you have a clear guideline between mock and design, say if you do not use balsamic?
    – Jake
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 13:37
  • For me, mock would be very simple, no colours, black and white outlines everywhere, so that the focus can be on the content and features rather than look and feel. You could use HTML wireframes for this or Photoshop, provided that there is no polish to the initial screen layouts. I like Balsamiq because it's very quick to shift stuff around. Design, on the other hand, would be screens built in Photoshop/Illustrator (or equivalent) that would then be passed to a developer to turn into a working website.
    – levelnis
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 13:41

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