How Doing Less Work for More Money Saved Client Work (or) How I Finally Became a Professional Designer

This has been the best year of client work I’ve ever had. Which wasn’t all that difficult, really. I’ve had some abysmal experiences working with clients in the 8+ years I’ve been a designer. But before you amen me (or better yet, write me off) as one of those oh-so-superior young designers bemoaning idiot clients from hell, let’s get one thing straight — every single one of those bad client experiences was my fault. 

You’re Supposed to be The Professional, Remember?

Most designers, at least when we’re starting out, think we’re much better at all this whole professionalism thing than we actually are. As an independent designer, I’m typically responsible for choosing the client, helping to determine their goals and the way(s) we can accomplish them, setting and enforcing boundaries, negotiating scope, timeline, and payment, and communicating with them throughout the project, for good or ill. 

When I didn’t get paid for work, I likely failed to facilitate an environment that attached clear boundaries and real consequences to lack of payment. When the scope spiraled out of control, I reaped the extra labor I sowed through my lack of clear statements of work prior to beginning the project. When clients were unhappy with our working relationship, I could typically trace it back to my inconsistent or even M.I.A. communication. When clients were frustrating to work with despite my best efforts on my best days, hey, I picked them, right? I chose to enter into a business relationship with that client. In short, I was never a victim of anyone other than myself. And my clients paid for it. 

It’s taken me 8 years to get a grip on the business side of things. And 2011 hasn’t just been good in comparison to my previous bad experiences—it’s been good, period. Amazing, really. Predominantly happy clients, better projects, timely payment and, most important of all, a contentedness for myself and my wife that had been absent from any previous adventures in client work. 

So, what changed? A number of decisions, each building on the other and progressively improving the whole:

I Only Work 15 Hours a Week for Clients

15 hours might not sound like much, especially to you fulltime independents, but I work a fulltime job, too. And I love my job. But since I direct and lead other designers and developers as much as I design these days, doing work for other clients in the 5–9 is enjoyable and beneficial. If I take four weeks vacation and I actually do that much work, that’s 720 billable hours and +/-200% of my salary every year. Not too shabby. Goodbye, student loans.

I’m upfront with potential clients about my weekly allotment, and it helps me filter well before I ever take on a new project. Sometimes (often, actually) a client needs a 60 hour project done in the next two weeks, and I either politely decline and point them in another direction or I sometimes try to pitch only portions of the work they need, portions that can be completed in my 15 hours. Potential clients love the candor, and I don’t end up taking on work I can’t do, ruining my reputation and doing a disservice to paying clients.

There’s nothing magic about 15 hours; it’s just what made sense for the lifestyle we want to live in this season. We’ve all got 168 hours in a week. If I’m at the office ~45hrs a week, getting 8 hours of sleep every night and doing 15 hours of client work each week, that gives me 52 hours to spend with my family or by myself. Any more work and the cost/benefit ratio dips into unhealthy and unhappy for me and mine.

I Work for One Client at a Time

I can’t juggle. I definitely can’t juggle multiple clients and serve them well on the thin time margins I’m keeping. I’ve always failed when I tried. I know my limits. I don’t want my reputation and talent to take me where my integrity can’t sustain me (and it will, if left unchecked). It damages my rep and renders my talent meaningless in the grand scheme of client services. “He’s real talented, but he doesn’t do what he says” is a massive failure unless my goal is to be known as an unprofessional, out of work, real talented guy. I’d rather serve one client to the best of my abilities than multiple clients simultaneously, mediocrely. 

My clients know up front they don’t have all my hours in a week, but they also know they have my full attention when it comes to my weekly scheduled client time. I feel equipped to serve one client for 15 hours a week, and that’s the maximum effort I have to put in. I can sustain that in this season. 

When things come up (which they will) I only have one point person to talk to and sort it out. If a scheduling snafu happens, or there’s a content issue, or a direction change, it only affects the only project I have at any given time. I feel freedom to engage the client, fix the problems, and serve them well without pushing off or affecting other clients. Everyone wins.

I Work For Free or For Very Expensive

I have two price points: my hourly fee or nothing at all. Everything in the middle tends to be the most frustrating of experiences. There are plenty of designers who will make you a logo for $200. I’ve chosen not to be one of them.

Once you’ve accepted a low-paying job, it doesn’t matter that “you should be making more money” or “branding typically costs more than this so the client should be happy with what I give them.” You took the job for that fee, and now you have to deliver as agreed, or you suck at being a professional. Don’t take work you’re unwilling to do for the agreed upon price. Simple.

As for free work, most of that takes the form of work for friends—wedding invitations and collateral, show posters, album covers—or pro-bono work for churches and non-profits. Most of my friends can’t afford me, but I don’t want them to have ugly wedding invitations, either. So I help where I can, and I don’t charge them. The barter system is also an amazing option, but whatever the logistics of unpaid work, generosity always comes back around.

I Don’t Begin Paid Work Without a Contract and a Check

That seems like it should be a no-brainer, but the lack of both have chewed me up and spit me out in the past. No paperwork will bite you more than it blesses you. 

Mike Monteiro’s excellent talk Fuck You, Pay Me was immensely helpful in making me realize this, along with asking a lot of my peers to see their contracts and office paperwork. If you want to be a professional, you need contracts. There is no other option.

I Over-Communicate Over-Communication

Every client is different, but in general I want clients to want me to stop bothering them. I’d much rather be the annoying one than the one they can’t get in touch with for a week. No one likes to be ignored, and, like it or not, when someone gives you money in exchange for services, they are entitled to know how you’re utilizing your time. 

Boundaries Will Set You Free

I know a lot of folks who have fulltime jobs and do client work have struggled with finding a system that works. My boundaries won’t be your boundaries, but trust me, you need to figure out yours. Our industry doesn’t need anymore flighty designers cashing 50% upfront checks and then winging it for the rest of a project. That doesn’t serve anyone. 

If you want to enjoy client work, decide what kind of lifestyle you want to have and set boundaries to pave the way. If you want the respect and trust of your clients, earn it. 

You’re supposed to be the professional, remember?