This story is the stuff of freelance nightmares. A designer, who shall remain nameless, had been dealing with a client who crept outside of scope willy-nilly and refused to pay a final invoice.
In retaliation, the designer used the only power at his disposal: the keys to his client’s website.
“When things got to a particularly nasty level, and [the client was] refusing to communicate and pay, he Rickrolled them,” recalls author, designer, speaker, and A List Apart founder Jeffrey Zeldman, a friend of the anonymous, aggrieved designer. (For anyone who hid from the Internet in 2008, Rickrolling is tricking someone into watching the Rick Astley music video “Never Gonna Give You Up.”) On the client’s homepage, a looping video was replaced with Astley’s cheesy 80s dance moves.
“As soon as they hired a replacement [designer], he took it down and helped them out,” Zeldman says, “but it was a case of letting the site become a disaster because there was nothing to prevent him from doing that—except his goodwill, which had been strained to the breaking point.”
All this to say, the website handoff is a crucial step both for the client and the designer, and you can take steps to prevent such a worst-case scenario. Through the years, the design community has refined the process to arrive at best practices such as design libraries and style guides. But the errors of the past still provide valuable lessons for today.
Though in the Rickrolling example it was the designer who went off the rails, clients are also at risk of going haywire with a website once the designer has left—probably not as intentionally or extremely.
Zeldman remembers the early days when designers had to do it all before the CMS existed. They’d essentially be handed a Word document and asked to transform it into HTML.
“Then we got content management systems, and we were like, ‘You can update your own content, hooray!’” he recalls. “And then they started doing horrible things.’”
For his part, Irish web developer Jeremy Keith of Clearleft remembers handing off templates. “We’d hand them over to the client and say, ‘You have everything you need, here you go!’ Two months down the line, they’d realize either they have to bring us back in or reverse-engineer what they were given.”
“The word ‘handoff’ is too binary and final. What you want is actually more continual, constantly tweaking and collaborating.”
From there, designers advanced to components and modular design. This enabled clients to build new pages based on flexible parts, but the guidelines weren’t always that comprehensive. Finally, we’ve come to see design libraries and design systems as the be-all, end-all solution to the website handoff.
“It’s a way for the designer to give a part of their brain to the client: Here’s the DNA of this design, and you can keep reusing it in ways that aren’t fragile,” Zeldman says.
But both Zeldman and Keith stressed that even the beloved design library isn’t enough on its own. Today’s best practices have gravitated back toward the original way of doing things.
“We can think of this as a new thing, but it’s a very old thing,” Zeldman says.
Back in the olden days of hand-holding clients throughout the entire web design process, studios would stay contracted with a client for each new webpage that needed to be built.
Now we’ve come full circle, Zeldman says, and even freelance designers stay contracted with clients after the launch to continue iterating.
“Even the beloved design library isn’t enough on its own.”
Zelman thinks of his team as part-time strategic partners, cheaper than hiring an entire in-house team. This is especially helpful for small businesses and ecommerce sites competing with the Amazons of the world. Zelman cites his work with Betteridge, a jeweler that’s been in business since 1897. Together, they’ve been able to plan for big sales events like Mother’s Day and make strategic recommendations, like sending an Emerald Day notification specifically to customers who have bought emeralds before.
“It preserves the quality of the work,” he says. “The client gets more out of the investment. It’s like a good TV series instead of a good movie.”
Keith has stopped saying the word “handoff” altogether.
“It communicates too much finality,” Keith says. “It’s too binary and final. What you want is actually more continual, constantly tweaking and collaborating.”
At a recent conference in London, Keith heard agency and freelance designers expressing jealousy at in-house designers for their ability to keep iterating forever. But the in-house creatives longed for the ability to do more than iterate.
“The ideal situation is that a client says we want to hire you again. But too much of that and you’re practically in-house,” he says. “There’s no happy medium. The grass is always greener.”
So the website handoff has returned to its roots. Even freelance designers stick around after launch, though it’s still tricky to find the ideal departure point.
Regardless, as designers and developers form stronger relationships with clients, perhaps we can all avoid getting Rickrolled.
How do you hand off a website or web project to a client?
Share your best tips with us on Twitter: @InVisionApp.
Header illustration by Liz Pratusevich.
Independent writer, editor, Californian. My passion for storytelling has taken me around the world: I worked as a freelance writer and teacher in Mexico City for a year, then got my master's in digital journalism at Columbia University. I've had reporting stints at The Miami Herald, Napa Valley Register, and Mother Jones. I'm also the former managing editor of Communication Arts magazine, a commercial art publication that's been in Northern California since 1959.