Despite what some may believe, design work is far from a commodity; every project and every client is different. The variated nature of the work is what prevents designers from finding the mythical steady stream of homogeneous, commodity-like projects and gliding through them with consummate efficiency. As much as we may wish to to build endless identical design replicas, you were likely hired to bring a unique, distinctive design to each digital project. For better or worse, that means your approach should be different every time, including your approach to non-design tasks such as approval, payment, scope, clients and contingencies.
Many designers find themselves too focused on the work itself to consider the risks and ramifications that occur outside the realm of pixels, colors, attributes, functions, tags, and testing. Each twist on a new project and each client’s unique temperament comes with an inherent addition of risk, and ignoring these risks or putting your “soft skills” on “auto pilot” can lead to some sticky situations down the road. Each project comprises different challenges and expectations, and neglecting their nuances can make the work harder in the long term. Fortunately, there are some versatile risk mitigators that can squash design project headaches before they ever start.
Secure Signed Approval on Initial Design Comps
While signed approval for initial design mockups is not a binding agreement of any kind, it does carry a surprising amount of clout and can prevent unproductive or contentious client conversations. The same agreement established in person or over the phone may seem like a fairly firm decision, but it leaves a lot of wiggle room for temperamental or absent-minded clients to change their mind. You shouldn’t refer to the signed approval crassly, but you can include a tactful reminder of project parameters that have already been established within almost any client correspondence. They are far less likely to dispute or deviate from a signed design comp than they are to misremember an undocumented conversation.
Secure a Down Payment
Asking for even a small advanced payment may feel like a “reach” to some, but it’s likely easier to attain than you think. The act of having a conversation about payment in itself is a sign that you’re a contender for the project, if not the top choice. If you’re more comfortable with an exchange of concessions instead of a simple ask, consider offering a small incentive or a guarantee of support that you were likely already going to extend. And, reminding a client that an advanced payment doesn’t affect the total cost is not only relevant and truthful, but it also demonstrates your focus on a win-win agreement instead of a zero-sum, win-lose approach.
Establish a Custom Contract
Regardless of industry, it’s very tempting to reuse a contract verbatim whenever possible. It can feel rewarding to get as much “mileage” or value out of an expensive legal document as possible. But, if you reuse or stretch a contract beyond its practical purpose, you can end up costing yourself in the form of headaches, brand damage, or worse.
Luckily, contracts are often broken into clauses, so it’s easier than you might imagine to tailor them to suit your unique needs for each new project. Just be mindful of clauses that establish terms that are depended upon or referred to elsewhere in the document, and revise accordingly. After all, these contracts are written in English, and prudent, careful revisions won’t compromise their integrity or protection.
Establish a Specific Scope of Work
You should determine a scope of work from both an inclusive and exclusive standpoint — that is, you should describe in specific terms exactly what you’re providing and what you are explicitly not providing. Don’t be apprehensive about describing what you’re not doing for the client; this leaves very little room for confusion, ambiguity, or improper expectations, and it can often lead to conversations about additional work. If you don’t approach matters of scope proactively and set specific boundaries, an ambitious, wildly-optimistic, well-meaning client could start setting their own expectations and stretching the scope well beyond what was… or wasn’t… discussed.
Set an Hourly Fee for Work Outside of Scope
One of the most vulnerable designer situations is also one of the most common: A designer who is 99% done with the work and has received 0% of the remuneration solicits payment and instead receives last-minute requests or change orders that were never discussed. This is a common client pattern, but it’s rarely a malicious one. Clients often don’t know what they want until they see it, and the more clarity you add with each design refinement, the more obvious it is to the client what should be done next. (Paying the designer isn’t always the obvious “next step.”)
A client who’s excited by your work will rarely check the agreements to determine the cost of such additions, so it’s up to you to make the determination. If you’re lacking for leverage due to large amounts of work delivered without payment, you may start to feel like you’re being coerced into doing more design work or receiving less compensation that you had agreed. It’s rarely the client’s intent to land you in such a situation, but agreeing in advance on an out-of-scope hourly rate can prevent the difficulties altogether.
Additionally, your hourly rate can gently express your willingness (or lack thereof) to work beyond your agreement: if the project is thrilling, you might propose a lower rate to foster your own further involvement, and if the project doesn’t pique your interest, you could set a higher rate to gently discourage out-of-scope work without frustrating a client.
It’s unrealistic to expect a wide variety of clients and projects to all fit perfectly into the same process, and ignoring their many differences can lead to additional risk without any additional reward. These risk mitigation methods don’t have to be contentious or adversarial. In fact, clients will likely notice, value, and appreciate your diligence and professionalism. In all likelihood, they want the same clarity that you do.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but developing and utilizing these peripheral “soft skills” such as setting proper expectations and win-win negotiating is what will ultimately enable you to spend the majority of your day developing your “hard skills” instead of putting out fires, clearing up client confusion, or recovering from disaster.
Peter is Chief Digital Officer of CuriosityStream, a multi-platform nonfiction streaming service by the founder of Discovery Communications (Discovery Channel, Science Channel, Animal Planet, etc.). Peter is also Co-Founder of True North, a management consulting firm and digital marketing agency with clientele that includes WebMD and Salesforce.
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