As a designer, the concept of “sign-off” annoys me. It comes from the age of print media, where somebody had to take final responsibility for the design and copy before it went to press.
This makes perfect sense. After all, it may cost tens of thousands of pounds to do a second print run, if you’re lucky enough to notice the error in the first place.
The concept of sign-off has resulted in a rather unfortunate culture, which sees design as an attempt to please a single important stakeholder; to get a project close enough to their original vision to gain their consent. This sets up a false expectation that there is one central source of truth, and the designer’s role is simply to chip away at the marble until they unveil the object the client had in their mind all along.
Digital technology and the rise of agile has put pay to this. Design and product development is no longer about navigating a project through a series of sign-off gates. It has become a mutual journey of discovery, where both designer and client work together to advance the project through a series of iterations, not to some pre-imagined goal, but as an attempt to constantly stress-test the idea in order to make it better. Or as Walt Disney used to say, “always be plussing”.
Designers should never ask for “sign-off”. It results in satisficing behaviour. It encourages the designer to do just enough to please the client, and no more. Instead, designers need to stop asking for “sign-off” and instead ask for “input” or “feedback”. Asking “what can we do to jointly make the project better?”, rather than “provide me with a list of things you need me to change in order to make you happy”.
The request for “sign-off” is often a smoke screen for what the designer really wants to say. “We’re coming to the end of the project, we’re almost out of time, so this—barring a few tweaks—is what we’re going to end up with. I trust you’re OK with that?” Sadly this sentiment is rarely ever expressed. Instead the designer asks for “sign-off”, the client comes back with a litany of changes which there’s no time or budget to make, and everybody ends up frustrated.
This isn’t the client’s fault. This is poor project management. This is a failure to engage the client early enough, a failure to properly explain the agile process deeply enough, a failure to keep the client up-to-date with progress, and a failure to clearly communicate what you actually want from the interaction. The end result should never be a surprise to the client. It should always be the natural and logical conclusion to the ongoing conversation you’ve been having. In this way, projects are never signed-off; they simply come into being.
So “sign-off” is almost never the right thing to ask for. Either you’re asking for suggestions to make the project better, or you’re presenting your intention to progress the project to the next step in the process. I believe “sign-off” has no place in the modern agile process, and should be banned from the digital designer’s lexicon.