I have to say it and it may be unpopular or a faux pas but since the economy in the U.S. has tanked, so has the cordial relationship between graphic designers and their clients. I came onto the scene a year or two before things started to go downhill and remember the somewhat ‘good ole’ days’. Graphic designers seemed to be recognized for their special skill sets and knowledge; clients were well aware, or willing to acknowledge, the quality of the designer’s work. There was friendly banter and attitudes between the designer and the client. Nowadays, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

As a graphic designer who occasionally freelances, I’ve witnessed some pretty unsavory behavior mostly coming from the side of the clients looking for graphic design talent. Huh? Isn’t that unfair and wrong of me to say? Well, having dealt with tons of potential clients, I’m coming down hard on those who are continually looking for graphic designers to do work. Some of the problem is a lack of communication. Graphic designers are often so fixated on the computer and keyboard that taking the time to be a customer service rep is almost panic attack-inducing. When we’re approached by a client over the phone or via E-mail, we don’t always communicate or hype our own talents and business. Freelancing, if you’re a serious graphic designer (or even writer or whatever you freelance in) is just that – a business. Imagine if a corporation like Apple never responded to an E-mail or communicate with their audience and clients what their skills and business has to offer?

That’s where I think a lot of graphic designers go wrong- we try to take on too much. Not every graphic designer is capable of doing everything. Not every graphic designer is good at illustration; good at designing an advertisement; good at programming and designing a functioning Web site. Yet, what happens? We put out there that we’re a graphic designer, or a writer, and then we receive inquiries asking us to do something outside of our realm of expertise. The result? Often, the freelancer takes on the work because of the promise of money but the end product is far from great and the client has wasted his or her money. The true end result? That client takes that one experience and uses it as precedent for all future designers they work with.

This will sound ludicrous considering today’s job market but when it comes to freelancing, I actually turn work down. Over the past two years, I’ve come to understand that with a full-time gig, freelancing is more like a part-time position and if I let it get out of hand, I’ll burn out quickly. I am an at-large graphic designer; I’ve designed advertisements, brochures, entire magazines, posters, t-shirts and more. Yet, what am I good at? I’m a graphic designer whose talents and emphasis are in illustration. It’s a very minute and limited market, but it’s what I do. So when freelance work comes up, I do choose to take on projects that’ll expand and test my skills as an illustrator because in the future I’d like to see more come from my illustration side.

I don’t feel bad about turning down work. It’s giving work to someone else who probably needs it more. I think it’s polite to other designers to pass on the work if you know someone in need, or simply informing a client that while you appreciate the inquiry, your specialty is _______ and therefore you wouldn’t be the best fit or match for their particular need. It’s simple communication and honesty and there’s nothing wrong with that. Here are a few more things graphic designers should keep in mind when dealing with clients:

1. Have an idea what your prices are. Some designers like hourly rates, which is fine, but in my experience it makes some clients (especially in today’s money-strapped economy) very uneasy because it gives them the impression you’re going to drag your heels and hand them an outlandish bill. So if you do charge by the hour, look back on the projects you’ve done and give a quote that includes the average of the final total. State that it’s an estimate but that it’s the average final price for that project. I think clients will be more inclined to work with you having a better idea what they could be paying you in the end.
2. Document everything. When dealing with a client, save every piece of communication from them that comes your way. You never want to lose track of a client or have them refer to something they E-mailed you and for you to embarrassingly realize you’ve lost or have deleted. Plus if there’s ever a conflict or disagreement, you’ll be able to whip out an E-mail or refer to a conversation and feel confident that you know what you’re talking about, even if they don’t.
3. Never do any work before you have a signed contract and part of the money upfront. Different designers work differently but for me, if I’m dealing with a new client, I don’t even start a sketch or design without having received a signed contract that states the price, has outlined terms (including something about copyright, right of ownership, expected payment schedule) and is returned. This lets your client know they aren’t dealing with a friend or buddy, you’re a business and need to be treated as such. If you do work without any terms written down and agreed upon, I’m sorry, but you’re setting yourself up for a disaster because nothing but a word or handshake is obligating the client to honor your business arrangement. Here’s the contract/new project form I provide to the client with a quote: Click Here To View.
4. Always get the contact information. Get the name, name of the business (if applicable), mailing address, office address, E-mail address and phone number for each project. There will be times when you’re unfortunately going to have to put aside that designer cap and put on the customer rep one. And there are times when you’re going to have to go from being nice and pleasant to being the annoying bill collector.
5. Above all, communicate and be able to describe your business! Have a business plan and model. I’ve encountered few designers who can do it all. If a client is asking you to do something you know you’re not capable of pulling off without it looking elementary or like a class project, pass on it and politely provide a reason why. If the client tells you they only plan on paying X amount for a job and you find that a bit low, politely explain why. There’s nothing worse than selling yourself short as a designer. Did you go to school and get a degree in design or whatever you’re freelancing in? How much did that cost you? Are you still paying the student loan back for that? Thought so. Short selling yourself isn’t doing anyone any favors.

Now, a few things for clients to consider:
1. Treat designers like professionals and not short order cooks. Nothing is more offensive and off-putting than a client who approaches a freelancer with a list of conditions and demands and wants everything done in a short turnaround (we’re talking 48 hours or less) and say they only want to pay an amount that’s double digits. Yes. I’ve had it happen on more than one occasion since the economy’s decline so it’s worth mentioning. More clients today seem to think graphic designers are on the same level as Burger King or McDonald’s staff: you want fast-food design; cheap and quick. Sorry, graphic designers are professionals and this is a business. Don’t be surprised if your inquiry isn’t responded to if you do this.
2. Have a budget but understand that the designer also has a budget. As a designer, I’m well aware of the economy and that people are hurting in the money department. BUT you’re asking a designer to help you do something that’s going to profit and help promote your business. So why are you going to devalue the work the designer is doing by asking them to do something you’re incapable of doing on your own at dirt-cheap prices? Be willing to work with the designer on a price that you both are happy with.
3. The promise of future work is no excuse to underpay. I’ve heard it all before. “I only have $30 to budget but that’s because I have 20 or 30 more projects like this for the RIGHT designer to do so you could make a lot in the future!” Sorry pal, unless you’re willing you sign on a dotted line and pay half of that future project cost upfront, you’re better off paying fairly for one project than flaking out and having not intention of following through.
4. Be mindful of your time needs and be mindful of the designer’s schedule. I’ve encountered more and more clients who apparently all of a sudden need something done the same day, within a few hours, by the end of the week. Sorry to sound like your mother but wisen up and plan ahead. There’s nothing more frustrating than dealing with a client who needs something done immediately but then has a dozen revisions and wants quality, flawless work. You wouldn’t want someone rushing you to do your job so don’t rush a designer to do his or her best work on your behalf.
5. Know what you want and what type of need you have. It amazes me that so many people will rush toward a graphic designer with a list of needs, a time schedule but really have no idea what they’re asking for. Not all designers are created equal: not every graphic designer is a web designer; not every great web designer can provide you with a graphically stunning website; every graphic designer is not a great artist. Don’t be surprised if your design needs call for more than one designer and don’t be surprised if you’re asking a designer to do the job of 2-3 people that their prices are going to be higher.

Above all, for both designers (or at-large freelancers) and clients: respect one another. Most designers have busy schedules and are pressed for time; they have projects on their list, full-time jobs, family obligations and a life. The same goes for clients. Both need to come to the table willing to negotiate, compromise and work with one another. If we can get back to treating one another like business professionals rather than online acquaintances, we’ll truly be able to make beautiful work and designs together.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. Antoine,

    I am a freelance artist and illustrator. Recently I extended an offer to a couple of good friends to design their logo for free. They wanted an ‘etherial bull’. They wanted me to do it in the style of some of my drawings. My approach to design much like most of us out there, is to brain storm, sketch out a few ideas, and present what I envision. In this case I presented them with an outline of the image and couple of treatments of what I would do. Day later the deadline was 3 days ahead. They pushed for a very quick turn-around despite the fact that: its free, its my interpration, i have a job, i have other projects…and also, THAT ITS A FREE FAVOR! Needless to say, they were unable to do what they were supposed to do by their own deadline so I they pushed the deadline to four days from ‘now’. I worked on the logo intermittenly through those four days and only met once with one rather than both of them. Come Sunday (the final day) I spent six hours finalizing the logo which HAD to be done by then. After the two parties discussed the logo, the urgency suddenly dissappeared on their end and they began to request changes that would imply a work in progress. Changes requested even went into my stylistic choices and colors. Primarily the one of the three colors. Their part was to send a pantone which I never received and was then told to use a darker color in the red family. They stripped the font off and had the image of the bull ready for disection. The color red I chose (which was in my opinion vibrant, modern, and worked well with the logo) was disliked by them. Since then I have received requests to send over the original outline, working vector files, and make it a grayscale etc. I assumed this was their intent to make their own changes to something I put together in a hurry so they may be able to use it for this deadline. Needless to say I have been reluctant to send over particular files as well as artfully dodging meandering around their requests to make the changes. To me it was simple – I will make it, and if you like it then it is my gift to you. If not then don’t use it!

    This blog you’ve written is a fantastic piece of real time frustration that all of us have encountered. I hope that you would write something about dealing with this type of a situations in the area of paying clients (old and new) and friends. How does one explain this to someone who doesn’t see it though your eyes (which btw they should since they work in video production and are their own artistic directors)…. Suggestions are very much appreciated!!! I am losing my shit and trying to keep calm! Thanks

  2. Thats really funny that it is so terribly true. Pretty much everything you just outlined I went through within the last week leading up to an hour ago where I did just what the last two paragraphs stated before I read them! I’m happy to see my actions were affirmed to an extent. Friends and business can turn into something a kin the the spill in the Gulf. Thanks!

  3. Thanks for sharing this well-written post!! I have a specific question about client etiquette that I’m wondering if you could answer for me… could I send you an email?

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