I was in my sophomore or junior year in college when someone came to campus to get a design student to design a poster for them. I thought it would be great to get some real world work in my portfolio, so I jumped at the opportunity. They wanted to promote an aspect of the Kwanza celebration of Umoja — which is Swahili for unity.
They discussed with me how they wanted it laid out and the colors, and I was ready to design it. I enthusiastically started by buying materials and putting it together by hand. I built it using cut Pantone papers, sticker lettering, and some paint. Then I gave them the final hand-crafted poster design. They loved it.
Then I started to negotiate the pricing. And they were shocked I wanted to be paid. They figured my work was probably worth $25 at the most, plus it would be a great portfolio piece for me. And since I was not in the position to demand anything other than what they suggested, I accepted the payment.
This situation (and others like it) caused me to look at my design work differently from then on. Following are six mistakes I try to avoid now.
1. Working without a contract or agreement
I try never to do any design work without one. It doesn’t matter whether it’s for a business partner, friend, family member, church member, nonprofit organization, or business owner. It doesn’t matter if I even plan to get paid or not. This is about clarity. Relationships and communication are preserved when intentions and boundaries are clear. It's best to lean on the side of too much detail rather than assuming expectations.
2. Not having a process
Having a process saves time because it gives me a predictable path for achieving results. I can accurately estimate the cost and time, and be assured of an approach that works — rather than spending time groping for solutions and figuring out how to approach the same problem over and over again.
And a process helps me stay on track. Jumping into "designing" without a plan becomes a disaster when a client doesn’t like the design direction. I can spend time and effort working in a random manner just to solve a problem that keeps morphing or becoming unclear.
On the other hand, with a clear process, I can communicate it clearly with the client. So, we both know where the check points are and what to expect. Whenever a problem comes up, I can refer to checkoff stages in the process to avoid going too far off the agreed upon path. When I have a process I can focus on solving specific problems, rather than cater to whims and personal sidetracks.
3. Not having clear boundaries around my process
G. K. Chesterton said, “Don't ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.”
Sometimes people want me to change my process. They figure they can save money or time if they cut steps out, or change some steps to include things they want, like reviewing any preliminary thumbnails. Unless there's a very good reason to do this, I'm emphatic about keeping the process intact, because I have enough experience to know that each step in the right sequence works for a particular reason. Having a process is great. But it doesn't work if I allow the client to dictate the terms of the process or to follow an entirely different process.
Most of the time the client is coming to me because I'm the expert in solving their visual design problem. So, my plan is to always stick with what works, rather than cutting out steps or adjusting them simply because someone wants me to. No matter what, I always remember that a process works for a reason. It takes into account unforeseen complications, and keeps a project on track. And we can avoid unnecessary problems that come up when we eliminate a step.
Here's an example. When a clients says, "You don't need the text copy yet. Just design it," that's a red flag that I don't have what I need to properly approach a design project. When that step is eliminated I know I'm probably not going to solve the right problem. Text copy and visuals must work together, because design isn't about making something pretty. It's about clear communication. If I ever include preliminary design approaches without the proper text as a step, I will have an entirely different process and timeline that the client and I agree on ahead of time. After the agreement is signed with the agreed upon process, no changes to the process should be made unless we form a new agreement.
4. Not being clear about boundaries and scope with the client
It's not enough to know what a client (or boss) wants me to do and when they want it done. I must be clear about what I am able to accomplish in the timeframe given, and what it's going to take if there's no budge on the time. If I am upfront about the issues at the start, we can negotiate a solution that we all can agree on. This is much better than arguing over details during the process. I must have agreement on the scope ahead of time.
To be clear: Scope is a combination of timeline, level of demand (quality, features, specifications), and budget.
5. Lacking confidence about my process
This problem is mostly associated with lack of experience. When I had less experience, I could be intimidated by more forceful personalities — even though I knew I was right about my approach. I may be persuaded to adjust some steps to suit their process and timeline, or guarantee results I can't guarantee. But I've found that this rarely worked out well. And when problems inevitably came up, like misspellings, or lack of quality, the client rarely assumed any responsibility.
Project goals are sometimes unrealistic, and I have to be honest about it. It's better to be honest about what I can and cannot do, rather than try to make an unworkable situation work. Realistic goals are those that my expertise can address. For instance, good design might get the client more attention, but good design will not overcome bad customer service or a bad reputation. However, when good design is combined with a solid brand, sales can improve a great deal. Good design with a good plan can garner more leads, more considerations, and more purchases.
Sometimes clients underestimate the amount of time a project will take, and it's proper to correct their understanding. Just because something looks simple, doesn't make it simple. Unfortunately, some clients feel that handing off to someone else to do it will make it all fine. What I've found with these types of people is that it ends up taking the amount of time I originally estimated regardless. And, I have to deal with griping about how long it's taking. This is one of the reasons I keep good records, so I can document how the time was spent. So, I can show these clients that what's required cannot be ignored.
I try not to work too much with these types. But when I have to (like with an employer) it's best not to back down on my timeline and cost estimates. Over time even these types learn to respect what I say when I stay consistent. But even if they never respect me, in the long run, I have to like myself.
6. Fail to keep good records
Like I said above, I keep good records to not only track my projects but to remind clients of any forgotten decisions and justifications. I used to think it was a waste of time. But I've found that good records (and work diaries) help clarify why certain decisions were made, give me the ability to estimate more accurately, and help me make adjustments to a process or client relationship.
These six mistakes highlight why most of design is about sound business practices and how we communicate them.