How do you prevent scope creep when a client can not make up their minds or articulate what they really want?

03.29.2010 / Question submitted by: Andrea Cutler

Author: Andrea Cutler 7 replies. Share yours.

Creative Process Discussion

John McHugh:

Most corporate identity or branding initiatives have a great deal to do with change, both personal and professional. If this is a new brand, has the client forsaken a steady paycheck to launch their dream business? If this is a rebrand, is the new CMO on the hot-seat to revive the business and get results? Whether embarking on a rebrand, or developing a new brand altogether, chances are you have caught the client at a time when they are under a great deal of pressure stemming from change. Part of your job as a designer is to serve as their steadfast guide through the entire process. Being sympathetic to the client’s position can really go along way here.

Jointly defining the scope of the project from the outset is critical. I like to discuss a client’s needs and concerns at the first meeting. I then follow up with another meeting and walk them through a previous project I worked on that was similar in scope. I find that most of my clients have had very limited, if any, interaction with a designer before. Simply showing and explaining the process to them can be a real eye opener, for both parties. This shows them what to expect.

Fill out a creative brief with the client. And not just some generic one you nicked off a web site. Make your own and tailor it to each project’s needs. Do this with the client. Design can be subjective and personal. The goal of the creative brief is to make sure that the project is meeting the objectives you both agreed upon, and not the needs and wants of the individuals who happen to be involved in the process. Use the brief as a measuring stick throughout the process.

Before you begin any designing, write a contract. In that contract, make it clear—whether you are charging per hour, or as a project—what the final deliverable(s) will be. Also note if and how you will handle any client revision requests, how many, and how they will be billed. If the client pushes for more options, or begins to get off scope, gently remind them of the parameters of the project as outlined, and agreed to upon, in your contract. Many clients will begin to get ahead of themselves as they realize all the other needs they are going to have once a new brand is rolled out. It can be overwhelming. Again, be understanding.

Look for ways to involve a client in the design process. I’m not advocating having them stand over your shoulder while designing, but keyword generation exercises, mood boarding, even collaborative brainstorming help keep the client engaged in the process. When the client feels good about, and involved in, the process (and they should be!), They will be less apt to reject concepts that you developed in a vacuum. To paraphrase Bruce Mau, design the process in such a way so that it drives the outcome, and not so the outcome drives the process.

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  1. Alice Dagley

    Thanks for the article. I quite agree with you. We should involve our clients into work process. However few clients like getting in touch with you during the process. Sometimes it’s hard to extract the information from them. As a result you have to face disappointment by work outcomes from both sides. I also agree with you on getting info in writing. It will help you to avoid misunderstandings. What is more you always can remind your clients their requirements to avoid such an expression like “This is not quite the thing we required!”

  2. JanMichael Guzman

    Very well put, I find the best way to avoid creep is by using a collaborative tool that visually illustrates and denotes where and when in the project you are. I find clients are less likely to back track when they can see the work that has gone into the project thus far.

    I’ve created my own, but a good public example is Basecamp or Action Method.

  3. Steve Zelle

    Thanks John, great points and like most good direction about managing clients, the key is in exposing as much about the process as possible, dealing with their fears, and treating them fairly. These two past Processed Identity articles also deal with the subject: and

  4. PM Hut

    2 things:

    – Learn how to say no to your client/customer
    – Make sure you gather the right project requirements.

    It is very hard to fight scope creep when it “creeps” on you in the middle project, this is a sign that you did not do your job properly (bad requirements gathering), or you’re allowing clients to “speak their mind” with no consequences.

  5. 11.26.2010


    It starts with a creative brief and a contract, stating terms, and change fees. If the client refuses to sign it, then expect trouble. Start work without a contract and you get what you deserve.

    Part of it all is getting 50% of the fee up front and having milestones for partial payments, or at least being able to walk away with the 50% and counting yourself lucky.

    If the client doesn’t at least accept a creative brief and says, “I’ll know when I see it,” then you should be running away quickly at that point.

  6. Trey Smith

    Thanks for such a great article. Its 2013 but it seems all your tips are still relevant. Thanks for the great tips. It makes a designers life much easier.

How do you prevent scope creep when a client can not make up their minds or articulate what they really want?