Update: I was lucky enough to give a talk on this post at the Yahoo/Dribbble Meetup last year..
I’ve been a freelance designer for over 7 years working with some of the largest companies in the Silicon Valley (and many more that you have never heard of). Throughout my time as a designer I learned more than just the occasional business tip. I learned how to bill over 300K from a small office in downtown Willow Glen, California. This article isn't about design per se, it’s a list of things you should always do as a designer, a list I’ve compiled over my time of making mistakes. Learn from my categorical screw ups, or don’t, whatever.
Learn to say “no”, or better yet, “hell no”
Not every idea is good and not every project (regardless of the potential profit) should be accepted. If the end product isn't something you’d want to use then don’t agree to work on it. When I started out I was a design slut, I took any and every project that landed in my inbox. I designed book covers, wedding invitations, signs, brochures, pamphlets, folders, business cards, websites, stickers, decals, clothing and brands…before realizing I hated all of it. I didn’t want to design things that people only looked at long enough to throw away, I wanted to design interactive UI and truly understand why people make the decisions they make. Learn what you want to work on quickly and turn down everything else.
Wear a Condom, Protect Yourself
Early on in my freelance design carrier I was happy to accept jobs with little or no agreement in place. I was too excited to have a new client and didn't want to scare them off with a lengthy contract filled with legalese that even I didn't understand. Don’t start any job, no matter how small without a contract. You can find many examples of contracts online that should adequately cover your ass if shit hits the fan. Which, if you freelance for long enough, will happen. It’s also a great practice to track and keep all client communications; emails, phone messages and meeting notes.
I’ve been in court twice in 7 years — I won both cases because I had a contract in place and kept ample notes!
NDA’s or Don’t Steal My Shit, Agreements
NDA’s or Non Disclosure Agreements are a dime a dozen in the freelance design world. You will be asked to sign NDA’s since people always fear that you are going to take off with their idea. Truthfully no one gives a shit about your idea, nor do they have the time or energy to try and emulate it. Feel free to sign these confidently, just make sure they are “mutual” non disclosure agreements. And keep a copy for yourself.
Know Your Value, Don’t Undercharge
Too many designers charge far too little and hurt our industry. Figure out what you should charge by requesting quotes from designers you respect and appreciate in your area. See what they charge and go from there, you might be selling yourself short. People are not necessarily looking for the lowest price, if they are you don’t want to work with them, trust me.
Marketing Lesson — Today’s Topic: Understanding perceived value. To explain this better I shall illustrate…
Imagine yourself walking down the street and you see a sign that reads “Massages $10/hour” What do you immediately think? Best massage ever? NO! You’d probably think that sleazy place will leave me walking out with HPV (insert your favorite STD as you will). Now change that price from $10/hour to $10,000/hour. How about now? What do you think? That’s got to be the best massage in the world if they can charge that much! That is perceived value, people associate quality with price.
Manage Clients, Don’t Let Them Manage You
Managing clients is a necessary skill to hone. Part of being a freelance designer is managing your time, some clients will want to manage it for you. Don’t let them. If you have a happy balanced work/social life that affords you to start your day at 9 and end at 1 than don’t answer a clients phone call or email after that time unless it’s absolutely critical. Pick up the phone once and you’ve taught them that it’s okay to call you at 2A.M. The same goes with meetings: for short projects establish a daily call via google hangout. For longer working engagements establish 2 weekly calls/meetings (typically Monday and Friday) and spend that time outlining what your working on for that week. Don’t let clients discuss nitty gritty design details early on, they hired you for a reason and you’re more than a design tool! If they just want someone to do their photoshop bidding direct them to someone that’s not you.
Never do Anything for FREE
Non-paying clients are the absolute worst, they will demand the moon and the stars and eat up much more time that you ever thought they would. If a client feels strongly about getting design work done then they should be able to pay for it, don’t do work for FREE! You might be saying “well, a non paying client is one thing but, maybe, I’ll help out my local non-profit ”. Fine do it, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. If you’re good at what you do, get paid for it. Period.
Show Me the Money
If you bill hourly or per project get some cash before you start. Project based clients should pay you 50% down before you pick up your pencil. This will help you to get some money in the door and gauge how serious a client is about a project. Tell hourly clients that you require a retainer which will be billed against until it’s depleted. Bill every 1-2 weeks, this ensures you haven't burned up too much time without getting paid. Clients can be dodgy and you don’t want to be out on the street because you thought they would pay on time. Set net 15 terms, not 30 and in no way 45. If a client fails to pay even one time stop working on that project immediately.
Set Clear Expectations
“I NEED IT YESTERDAY!!!” is an all too common phrase that you’ll hear from clients. That’s fine, the quicker they need it the more you should charge. You’ll probably have to work longer hours and cannot afford (your reputation as a designer is at stake) to lower your design standards to meet deadlines, use this image to illustrate the concept when necessary. Clients can have a great, cheap or fast design but not all three. Make sure you set reasonable deadlines with your clients and outline in the contract how and when you will deliver the final files. Do they just want the PSDs or AI files? Do the layers need to be organized? (They should be since you are a professional but ask anyways). Does the client need sliced assets? The more clarity you have in the beginning means less headaches in the end. Also, never send finals before receiving the final payment.
Get Shit Done
If you say you are going to do something, do it! Be a trooper and deliver for your client, this is the best way to build up a solid reputation and your book of business. Sometimes in this game you will need to swallow your pride and make things happen, do just that…make it happen.
Be Good at 1 Thing, Really Good.
You’re probably not a great designer and a great developer, heck you might not even be good at one of those things but you sure as shit are not both (sorry, your mom should have told you that). People who say they are designer/developers are either crap at design or crap at development. Pick one, hone in on a niche and own it. Make a name for yourself, get noticed, get clients, get paid, whatever.
Bonus: Use Quality Tools
Increase your productivity by finding the right tools to do the job! Here is a short list of tools that have saved me time and money. I’m good at designing; not bookkeeping, writing proposals or keeping track of expenses.
- Quote Roller — Great proposal making tool.
- MacRabbit’s Slicy — Stop waisting time cutting assets.
- Droplr — Easy way to send and share files.
- Symbol Set — Icons made easy.
- Skala Preview — View your Photoshop documents live on a device.
- Pttrns — Get inspired.
- InVision— Create click-though mockups to share with your clients.
- Bench — Your startup accountant.
- DesksNearMe — Find the best co-working spaces.
- Panda Doc — Create, send and track documents. BETA
If some of these points end up helping you somewhere down the road as a freelancer then I’ve accomplished what I set out to do. If you think that I’m full of it and have a better way to approach the freelancing world, best of luck. I’m only detailing how I’ve been going about things, constantly learning, constantly screwing up. Cheers and Happy New Year!