5 Ways To Mitigate Risk For Any Design Project

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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.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on Mitigating Risk in Design Projects

What are the common risks involved in a design project?

Design projects, whether they are related to web design, graphic design, or architectural design, often come with a set of risks. These can include miscommunication between the client and the designer, unrealistic project timelines, budget overruns, and lack of clarity in project objectives. Other risks can be technical in nature, such as software failures, lack of necessary skills, or unforeseen issues in the design process. Understanding these risks is the first step towards mitigating them.

How can I effectively communicate with my client to mitigate risks?

Effective communication is key in mitigating risks in design projects. This involves clearly understanding the client’s expectations, regularly updating them about the project’s progress, and promptly addressing any concerns they may have. Using project management tools can help streamline communication and ensure everyone is on the same page.

How can I manage my project timeline to avoid delays?

Proper planning and organization are crucial in managing project timelines. This includes setting realistic deadlines, prioritizing tasks, and allocating sufficient time for each stage of the design process. Using project management software can also help track progress and identify potential delays early on.

How can I manage my budget to prevent cost overruns?

Budget management involves careful planning and monitoring of project expenses. This includes estimating costs accurately, tracking expenditures, and setting aside a contingency fund for unexpected costs. Regularly reviewing the budget and adjusting it as necessary can also help prevent cost overruns.

How can I ensure clarity in project objectives to avoid misunderstandings?

Clarity in project objectives can be achieved by clearly defining the project’s goals, scope, and deliverables at the outset. This should be documented in a project brief or contract, which should be agreed upon by all parties involved. Regularly revisiting these objectives throughout the project can also help ensure everyone stays on track.

What technical risks should I be aware of in a design project?

Technical risks in a design project can include software failures, lack of necessary skills, or unforeseen issues in the design process. To mitigate these risks, ensure you have reliable software, adequate training, and a backup plan in case of technical issues.

How can I mitigate risks related to lack of necessary skills?

If you lack the necessary skills for a design project, consider outsourcing certain tasks to experts, investing in training, or using software that simplifies the design process. It’s also important to be honest with your client about your capabilities to manage their expectations.

What should I do if unforeseen issues arise during the design process?

If unforeseen issues arise during the design process, it’s important to communicate this to your client as soon as possible. Discuss the issue, potential solutions, and any impact on the project timeline or budget. Having a contingency plan in place can also help manage these unexpected situations.

How can project management tools help mitigate risks in design projects?

Project management tools can help streamline communication, track progress, manage timelines and budgets, and document project objectives. They can also provide a centralized platform for all project-related information, making it easier to manage and mitigate risks.

What should be included in a contingency plan for a design project?

A contingency plan for a design project should include strategies for managing potential risks, such as communication breakdowns, project delays, budget overruns, and technical issues. This could involve setting aside a contingency fund, having backup software or equipment, or having alternative solutions for potential problems.

Peter NorthPeter North
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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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