Complete a Web Design Project at the Beginning; or How to PREVENT a Runaway Train

Posted by in Featured, Project Management, Tips, Web Design | 9 comments

Complete a Web Design Project at the Beginning; or How to PREVENT a Runaway Train

What I mean by the above cryptic phrase is that before you start a web design project you must begin with the end in mind, and it needs to be a very specific end.  Don’t even start your first mock-up until the project has been fully “scoped”, or completely defined.

Anyone who has been a web designer for more than a month knows about runaway or never ending projects.  The client says it will be a simple website, all they need is “A”, but then “A” morphs into “A+B” and then “A+B+C” and then they decide, well “A” isn’t really want they meant after all, really what they wanted was “Z”… and of then of course “D”.  So the website that you thought was going to be a simple “A”, ends up being “BCD and Z”.  What you sold for $750 ends up being worth $3000, but you were only paid for the initial quote.  Sound familiar?

The disaster usually happens in such small increments that it is hard to know when the original project should have ended and a new one began.  Most web designers can readily identify with this and most advice they get is to put their foot down and tell the client that the new things they are asking for will cost additional money.  Unfortunately most designers are not of the personality type where this comes easy.  So we push through and struggle with when to tell a client and how to go about being more firm to varying degrees of success, but usually we end up failing miserably.

Let me be clear,  the problem is NOT that you need to be more firm and cut your client off by telling them “no more”, or for you to demand more money!  Now breath a big sigh of relief, because here is the catch, no one likes to do this.  No one likes to be the bad guy and stop a project until they get more money.  It feels wrong, and it feels wrong because it is wrong.  And it is a bad way to do business.

Stopping a runaway train is nearly impossible.  There is too much momentum behind it and the best you can do is ride it out and hope to not go over a cliff.  The way to stop a runaway train is to prevent it in the first place.

The problem began at the very beginning when your potential client approached you and said I would like a simple website with just a few pages and you said “Great! I can do it for $750” (or whatever your starting rate is).

Starting a vague project with no defined end is a guarantee for disaster every time.  If you give someone an inch, they will take a mile.  Beside your frustration, there are much larger stakes on the line here.

First, the relationship with your client will be irreparably harmed, and if they don’t feel the harm, you will.  Most likely you will both suffer.  The old saying “Good fences make for good neighbors” carries over nicely into web design.  Clearly defined projects where the meaning of “done” is set, makes for good client/designer relationships.

Without a detailed and defined scope for your project, the client suffers because of your hesitation and push back to their ever expanding and changing lists of requirements, and you, the designer, will resent the client because of your loss revenue from wasted time.

Second, you will severally limit your cash flow.  As you sink your time in constant “redo’s” and going way beyond what you were originally paid for, you won’t be able to start on other projects and invest your time in revenue generating tasks.  This will slowly suffocate your business.  Many independent designers and web developers have found themselves wondering why they just can’t seem to make more money.  It isn’t for lack of projects, it is for lack of controlling the projects.

The solution to runaway trains and pulling all your hair out begins at the very beginning of your website design.  You must set the “scope”.  Some of your first communications with a client need to outline, in measurable terms, what your client wants and needs and what defines “done”.  “Measurable” means that you set numbers for everything.  For example: “The site will include 10 root pages and 18 sub-pages.  There will be 8 newsletters and 4 biographical profiles.  The homepage will have a slider with 3 images.  It will include 6 stock images from this vendor at this set cost” etc.

Before you start creating the site, create a very detailed email to give to your client that outlines everything that will be included in the web site and the agreed upon price.  Also stipulate, in professional terms, that anything beyond what is mentioned above “can result in additional fees”.  This means that you can let small things slide if you want, but you can always refer back to this agreement and show that what they are requesting is “out of scope” or “beyond the original agreement” and will generate additional costs for them.  Be sure to give them a quote on how much more it will be.

In this email, ask the client to reply if they agree that this covers everything and that the price is acceptable.  If not they can edit or make additions as needed until you both agree.  Make sure you get their final sign-off.  This is your Bible for this project and breaking any of the commandments in your project Bible will send you straight into web design hell.

Your measure of success in taming “scope creep” rests in 2 things.  First, the level of detail that you include in your agreement email, make sure the client agrees in writeing (email).  Second, your ability to enforce the agreement.  It is much easier to refer back to a clear and detailed written document that you both agreed to than to some vague conversation you had with them over the phone 6 weeks ago.

Following these simple steps of working with your client to get all the details of what they want up front and attaching a firm price to it in writing is guaranteed to revolutionize your web design experience.  Not only will you be happier, but it will improve your client relationships because “good fences make for good neighbors”.

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  1. Good count of web design what a performance dude. I read the whole post and assume that the solution to fugitive trains and pulling all your tresses out begins at the very commencement of your website design.

  2. This is such a great resource that you are providing and you give it away for free. I enjoy seeing websites that understand the value of providing a prime resource for free. I truly loved reading your post. Thanks!

  3. Thanks for the kind words everyone.

  4. A very good article with some excellent points. You’re right, scope creep is one of the main issues you have to deal with when working with clients.

    As the experts we need to second guess for our clients and it’s vitally important to note down what isn’t included in the proposal. We should be trying to pre-empt what the client may ask for throughout the duration of the project.

    If you include costs for things that they could have but choose not to they haven’t got a leg to stand on when you’re halfway through the project and they ask to have it included. “Sure, you can have the image zoom feature we recommend at the start and you turned down – lets just look at how much we priced it at in the proposal”

    It’s a fine balance though, some clients could be put off when you include a section in the proposal listing what isn’t included. If you make sure you list out the benefits of having these features though, and they decide against them, you’ve got a record if they come back at a later date asking for them (it will also gain you more trust if they want features added that you mentioned at the beginning and they’ll realise it’s good to listen to the experts!)

    • Great point Chris. I like the idea of preempting what they may want, clearly listing the benefits and then including what they don’t want in the proposal. Excellent.

  5. I agree with Chris but we also go a step farther. We often put the bones of a feature in when they decline if we know full well by the end of the project they’ll end up wanting it. Saves us a LOT of time being able to just go in and flip a switch, even months later. Though the risk is that a savy client will figure it out themselves but at least you’ll get a great testimonial.

  6. Great post, and all too true. I’ve fallen into the scope creep crevice before, and intend to practice patience in laying out full scope in future at beginning.

    • It happens to the best of us. I am constantly adding to my development agreement to lock it down even more. Anytime I hit something new where I wished I had known it up front, it gets added for the next client.

      • Sounds like your development agreement is worth its weight in gold.


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