Survival with No Brand Guidelines: Turning Nothing into a Website

We’ve all been there. The client wants a beautiful website but hasn’t done even the slightest bit of legwork. No brand guidelines, no logo, no corporate colours, no marketing copy, but they need the website up yesterday. As a web designer, how do you create a striking, engaging and visually coherent website out of thin air? In this article we’ll go through some tips for keeping your cool, not firing the client and arriving at a good outcome for everyone.

Topics Covered:

  • Finding out what the client wants without reading minds
  • Creating a visual identity on the fly (I know this isn’t your job)
  • Knocking together placeholder content that doesn’t suck
  • Successfully communicating your ideas with this “type” of client
  • Making client revisions you really don’t want to make

Finding out what the client wants without reading minds

Most of us mere mortals can’t read minds and even if we could, the client in this scenario probably hasn’t really put much thought to what they want anyway. It may seem daunting, but somehow you need to come to an agreement with the client on a visual direction and define what success looks like. Otherwise you are stuck with blank canvas syndrome and an impossible task that is destined for failure and conflict.

Just a quick reminder about the importance of branding. Don’t let the client tell you they don’t need brand guidelines. Here’s a bit of info from Lean Labs you can share with the client on why brand is so important to business in general..

So, what does the client actually want? This can be tricky to determine when they haven’t provided any kind of direction. It’s highly likely the client doesn’t actually know what they want. In these situations it’s common for designers to waste hours producing random designs on spec, hoping that the client will like one of them. For those who’ve played this game (myself included), the strike rate isn’t usually very high and arriving at a finished design is painstaking.

The good news is, there’s a better way.

What you need to do is put on the hat of a brand designer for a brief moment in order to set the project up for success. This ultimately comes down to being inquisitive. Try asking them specific questions about the kind of image they want to project, their target audience and what kind of feeling they want their website to evoke.

There are lots of useful questions you can ask, that will help you formulate some kind of visual direction. I’ve put together a simple brand questionnaire you can use at the link below. Just copy the google sheet, rebrand it and fill it out with the client. It’s as simple as that.

Brand Questionnaire Template

I suggest filling out this questionnaire with the client. This way you can quickly guide them through any questions they have trouble with and make sure it gets filled out. The key here is getting client buy-in. Hold the client’s hand through the process but try not to make decisions for them. They need to feel like they own these stylistic choices, so they are invested in them.

Finally, and this is crucial – make sure to email a copy of the completed brand questionnaire to the client for written sign-off. Don’t start work until you receive their approval. Not only does this create a legal paper-trail, should things turn sour, but it also lets the client know there is an agreed visual direction and sets their expectations.

Creating a visual identity on the fly (I know this isn’t your job)

Now that you have an agreed set of visual parameters, it’s time to start pulling together a visual identity for the website. I know, branding takes ages and this is what brand designers are for. True, but this step needn’t take long and the resulting site design will be so much stronger and simpler to design as a result, so bear with me.

Here is all you need to put together:

  • Colour palette Copy the colours from the reference sites agreed on with the client in the brand questionnaire. There’s a science to colour selection which you can read about here but don’t get too bogged down in it. At a minimum, you’ll need two contrasting primary colours and potentially a highlight colour, unless you are going super-minimalist. Stick with black or white background colours if in doubt.
  • Typography – A good rule of thumb is to use two fonts, one for headings and one for body text. Again, there’s a lot that goes into choosing the right typeface but for now, just try to keep it simple and easy to read. A good place to start is Google Fonts which has a wide selection of free, high-quality fonts.
  • Imagery – All sites need some kind of imagery to add visual appeal. Whether it be photos, illustrations, patters or just nice looking icons, make sure you use something and take cues from your reference sites. If you don’t have time to source your own custom imagery, there are a number of great free stock sites like Pexels, Noun Project and Blush. Pull 5-6 reference images together as examples of brand direction.
  • Logo – If the client hasn’t provided you with a logo, it’s important to address that problem with them. Tell them they will need to get one designed and you’ll use a placeholder in the meantime. That is unless you want to take on a logo design project.

Putting it together

With all of this in hand, you now have everything you need to start putting together a basic visual direction for the site. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy and doesn’t need to take very long. Just put examples of everything into a quick mood board on Pinterest and send the client the link for approval. When sending it, make sure to again attach a copy of the completed brand questionnaire, so the client is aware that the two documents together form the agreed visual direction.

Once approved, you can go ahead and setup your design system or even just some basic styles in Sketch or Figma, and you are then ready to start!

Knocking together placeholder content that doesn’t suck

The purpose of a website is to share information but what do you do if that content hasn’t been written yet? Firstly, try to avoid the ‘lorem ipsum’ trap. It can be so tempting to just throw in some nonsense placeholder text, but it does nothing to help the client understand what content needs to go where. A much better approach is to copy and paste real content from other sources, even from competitor’s websites. This will give the client a much better idea of the kind of content that needs to be produced and also helps your own understanding of what goes where.

I time permits, you could also ask the client to write a rough version of all the content themselves. It doesn’t have to be perfect but it will help crystallise their thoughts and also give you something to work with. If they are stuck, try plugging the key topics into an AI tool like Jasper and see what it comes up with. No doubt it’ll be better than lorem ipsum, and will help the design flow and make sense.

Successfully communicating your ideas with this “type” of client

In case I haven’t already made it blatantly obvious, this type of client needs over-communication. Make sure you check in with them constantly, keep them updated on your progress and get their feedback at every stage.

One of the most important things to remember is that they are not designers. They don’t understand (and likely don’t care) about kerning or white space or any of the other design concepts that we take for granted. So when presenting your designs, make sure to talk about them in plain English, using language that everyone can understand. Focus on the user experience and how easy it will be for people to find what they are looking for on the site.

Another great tip is to use video instead of static images when presenting your designs. This could be a screen recording with some commentary added, or a basic clickable prototype they can see in action. The key here is not making any assumptions and walking the client through every design decision you have made.

Making client revisions you really don’t want to make

So, you deliver an amazing design. You are extra proud of it because you created something out of nothing but still the client picks through it and requests a bunch of dumb revisions. This happens to everyone. Try not to take it personally. Take a deep breath, read this hilarious comic strip by The Oatmeal, entitled How a Web Design Goes Straight to Hell, then do this instead of getting your back up:

  1. Ask them to talk you through the rationale behind each request and explain yours.
  2. Suggest a compromise that meets them half way
  3. If they don’t agree to a compromise, explain the ramifications to the user experience of making the change.
  4. If all of the above fails, simply make the change they requested and move on. You won’t be the first to do so. The key is not being bitter about it. Try and make the best version of what they asked for and own it.

And that’s it in a nutshell. How to survive a web design project when the client gives you no direction whatsoever. It’s not easy but it can be done with a proactive approach, a bit of planning, lots of communication and some pride-swallowing. Just remember to keep things positive and hopefully your attitude will set the tone for the project and the outcome.