Scott Boms


For freelance designers, as with larger agencies, clients are our bread and butter. Without them there’s really not much point. Without them we’d all be queued up in the unemployment lines.

Design is this big unknown to people. They can usually recognize it or point out things that have been “designed”, but ask them to describe the process of getting from an idea to a final product and many wouldn’t have the first idea where to start.

It’s our responsibility to educate clients so that our working relationships are easier and the work more enjoyable — whether it be setting reasonable expectations, clarifying deliverables, ensuring clients understand that we can only do so much without requiring input from them, and making sure that they understand what they’re paying for and why it’s important.

This is something I think we’re collectively still failing to do.

What Problems?

There are a myriad of problems facing designers today. New technology, new communication mediums, uneducated clients, uneducated designers, too much work, too many distractions. The list goes on and on. Rather than try to cover an impossible amount of information, I’m going to take a stab at highlighting a few particular problem areas based on my own experiences.

These are:

  • The design process
  • Enticement (AKA Don’t Waste My Time)
  • Work on spec
  • Timely responsiveness and communications

The Design Process

Design can be a tricky thing. It’s hard to quantify and harder to explain. Every designer has their own process for getting from an initial brief (if you’re lucky enough to get one) to a final, billed and closed docket.

A project might involve research, user studies, competitive analysis, initial concept development, wireframing, design, code, database design, etc. There’s a million things that could go into any one project. Every project is unique in its own way with its own hurdles to leap over.

No wonder it’s difficult to educate clients on what we do.

Some clients, for the sake of reducing their costs might ask to cut out, for example, wireframing. They don’t see the value in it. They don’t get the warm and fuzzy feeling of seeing Photoshopped comps; something that looks “real”. Sure there are times when wireframes might not be necessary but it’s during projects where they could be critical that it becomes our responsibility to educate our clients as to why they should seriously reconsider.

Few clients understand the research process that should be included at the start of any design project. This usually means putting on your thinking cap and figuring out what the real problem you need to solve is and perhaps even scribbling down a few possible solutions. Research might mean doing some of the other things I mentioned earlier — like talking to the user base of a particular website (assuming there is one already) or even creating potential user profiles to understand who it is you’re going to design for, because we all know it really shouldn’t be the client themselves (although they are important in the equation too).

Not doing research up front is like writing an essay with no background on the topic. The up front process work is as important as everything else, including the outcome because if you get that wrong, there’s a good chance the final product won’t fit the bill either.

Enticing The Designer

Initiating contact with a designer can be a real problem. While we have to remember that while it’s our job to foster a good relationship with our clients, they too have a role to play. It’s just as important for the client to provide value to the relationship — it’s not just why they’d want to work with you — it’s why you’d want to work with them in return.

An introductory e-mail such as the following does nothing to provide a reason to open a line of communication with a potential client.

Please call me asap regarding a new business concept.

That was the contents of a real e-mail I received — the entire e-mail. No phone number. No name either. Even better was this one:

how much?

Um… too much for you. If you have to ask then it’s definitely too much.

I get these regularly, and while these are extreme cases, the moderately bad ones aren’t much better.

When vying for the attention of a designer, here’s a few things to keep in mind — we need real information. Don’t waste our time with pointless e-mails like the examples above. Give us a problem to solve. Be clear. Concise. Tell us why we should be interested. Sell it to us. Why would we want to work with you? And assuming you get that far, commit to the project. Prove to us you’re serious.

The need to react quickly and make decisions in existing work and when dealing with new/potential work is a real challenge for designers. A lack of commitment from the client usually indicates problems down the road. And while your first instinct might be to just say “yes”, you’re better served by knowing when to say “no” and saying that more often.

No Spec!

Our time is not free. There — I said it.

Freelance designers and larger agencies are businesses and face similar problems to their clients — paying the bills being one of them. It’s not unusual for a client to ask for extra work to be done and be surprised when they receive an invoice for services rendered. Design is not a free ride and you get what you pay for. Billable time is more than time spent working in Photoshop or developing HTML or CSS. It’s also that up-front research and preliminary process work which is often overlooked, misunderstood, and rarely billed.

If a client asks for work on spec, just say no. You don’t want those clients no matter who they are. Doing work with no guarantee of a contract is not worth it and does nothing but hurt yourself and other designers by setting expectations which should never be there in the first place. It’s like asking a carpenter to build a bookshelf, deciding you aren’t happy with their workmanship and then going to a different carpenter to build the bookcase. Like I said, say no to work on spec.

Communicating and Responsiveness

Communications is a cornerstone of design. We use visuals to communicate ideas, values, and meaning. Design is more than just making something look pretty.

Steve Jobs said “design is how it works”, and while I agree, it is also about how it looks — at least that’s the belief held by many clients. Clients understand beauty; many don’t fully grasp how function fits into the picture.

It’s easy to find clients that can tell you they want a website that looks like “x site”, but it’s difficult to find one that can provide you with solid, rational thinking as to why that would be beneficial to them.

Clients are often good at saying, “I like this” or “I want something that looks like this”, but are challenged to tell you why with certainty or empirical evidence. It can be even worse when they don’t like something.

These are the same clients who may not fully comprehend what they’re asking of the designer. They’ve forgotten about the real key players — the people that go to their website and actually use it or buy their products. Those are the truly important people and the ones who often have no voice in the design process.

Ask a client why they want something (or don’t want something) and you shouldn’t be surprised if they can’t tell you. I think of this as a variant of “the customer is always right” — meaning, just do as you’re told. There’s a catch to consider though.

The client is (presumably) paying the bill. The job of the designer is, on some level, to please the client. The thing is though — it’s also our job to do what’s right. To do what’s right for the user — and that’s a tough thing sometimes because often, what is right for the real users of a particular website/application is something that is a tough sell for a client. The designer is typically the voice of the end user. Without us standing up for them, they have no voice. If we give in to the client every time, then the end-user loses but ultimately, so does the client even if they don’t recognize it right away.

There’s a certain amount of trust that needs to be established so that the client understands that, as the designer, you have theirs and their client’s best interest in mind rather than pursuing frivolous and selfish creative goals. Constant communication, debate and honesty are all good ways to foster trust with your clients and mitigate problems before they get out of hand.

We have to know when to fight for something and when to let go. To take something from the 37signals train of thought — ask yourself — “does it matter?” If the answer is yes, fight for it. If not let it go and focus on the important things.

On the topic of responsiveness — and this ties in with meeting deadlines — the client is just as responsible for keeping a project on track as is the designer. A project can quickly come to a crashing halt when the designer is stuck waiting for feedback or the answer to a question from the client. The problem also being that the designer is expected to eat that wasted time and scramble to get the project done on time no matter what.

Communications should go both ways. Respond in a timely fashion. Everyone is busy — that’s a given. If you want your work to be taken seriously, you have to take it seriously and attempt to stay on top of it and provide responses so that things move forward, not stop dead in their tracks. Don’t assume the designer is a mind reader. We’re not. If you want us to do something, say so. Tell us why. And don’t wait two days to tell us either.

Designers should assume the same of their clients — spell things out in a way that people can actually understand. Treat your clients the same way you would like to be treated. If after a sufficient amount of time they aren’t responding accordingly, don’t be afraid to call them on it.

Wrap Up

Being a designer can be a fun and often exciting job. Being a designer, whether you work for yourself or an agency means the general rules of business and etiquette apply. We don’t work for free. We expect committments. We expect to be treated fairly and with the same respect we should be offering our clients. We expect honesty and integrity and are more than happy to educate clients on what it is we really do and why this is valuable to them.

Hopefully there are a few good lessons here. Feel free to share your own or your comments.

So say you…

Always always always set a roadmap with clear deadlines for deliverables; these deliverables should be unambiguous, clear and signed off with the client as they are reached, this is generally a good way to structure payments and be as transparent as possible upfront where time is going and what to expect when.

Also as part of setting these signing off points set review points. A review point should outline what is to be reviewed and how quickly, thus outlining the scope and timetable for any changes. Make it clear to a client that once something is reviewed further changes will cost money, also slowness to complete a review will also cost money. I.e. if a client provides copy for something make it clear that they can provide one set of changes to to that copy and anything else will cost them money. I find talking about review points in terms of cold hard cash tends to focus a clients mind as well as reiterate the fact that my time costs money and if they are slow then that is a buisness cost.

John Anthony Evans John Anthony Evans February 7, 2007

John - you make some good points, especially regarding slowness in completing reviews. This can be a real sticking point for me. Some clients are really good about it while others… well, not so much. And setting firm dates can also be a challenge, especially with web projects where scope creep is so much more rampant.

With regards to billing for changes - things also depend on whether you’re billing by the hour vs an overall project charge. Nevertheless, setting a fixed number of revisions up front can help mitigate that somewhat. I try to restrict changes to at most, 3 cycles to keep things under control.

Scott Scott February 8, 2007

With regard to changes, the only reason I have become so anal about changes because even small things can be real work. Like a client who wanted to make a ‘quick’ change to a font used in the navigation, which then meant reworking all the navigation elements, which became a real sticking point on that project. I also often work in the physical world and once had a client change the installation site of something pretty large, when I said that this might cost more money the client looked at me dead serious and said, ‘but you have not started to build it yet’. I was flabbergasted he didn’t understand that even moving something a few mm (in this case it was metres and required a redesign of everything) simply means more work.

Hence why I set out a series of unit type revisions so there can be one revision, perhaps two of each unit, and then one final revision of the project if such a thing is appropriate. If others of you choose to do this make sure you set some sort of scope or it will bite you in the arse!!!

Essentially Scott what you wrote about communication is key here, the clearer you are, the simpler things are and the more in control the client feels, then the easier the project plays out in my experience.

John Anthony Evans John Anthony Evans February 9, 2007