14 mistakes to avoid when working for your first freelance client
I was recently hired by the United States Educational Foundation in Pakistan to work on the website for alumni of the Fulbright program, both designing the brand identity and building the website itself.
Screenshot of the identity on the Fulbright Alumni website’s homepage
After years of freelancing, this is the project that encapsulated what I would call “the freelance experience.” There was setting expectations. There was a need for flexibility. There was hope and compromise.
I have taught design at undergraduate and graduate levels for multiple years now, and I wanted to document this experience not only for my students but for the freelance design community as well.
This post will go into:
- Quoting prices
- Letting budget lead the solution
- Planning in-person meetings
- “The handoff”
- Staying organized
- …and more
Mistake #1: Not using holistic pricing
The world is quickly becoming more design-aware. According to the Design Maturity Model, “Design is reshaping products, portfolios, and industry standards at more than 70% of companies.”
And yet, designers, for the most part, are still underpaid for the value they bring.
When it comes to budget (especially for freelancers), we have a long fight ahead.
I always advise my design students to ask for more than their original estimation.
The reason I advise quoting “more” than they think they should (when, in reality, it’s just quoting fairly) is that we tend to just charge less than we should for our design work, while letting the hours spent on communicating, revising, and logistics go completely unpaid. If you’re unsure about quoting, start with reading this set of tips via Fast Company and filling out this nuSchool questionnaire.
I also advise my students to assess their projects in qualitative means as well.
- Is this a client you’d want to build a long-term relationship with?
- Would your portfolio benefit from that client or particular project?
- Is the work going to be more or less interesting than the other things on your table?
- Are there ways you’d be accommodated in that would make it more worthwhile to you (such as the option to work remotely, or a looser deadline?)
The Fulbright project, for example, was a client that was important to me because of my personal relationship with the organization and community, and I was also accommodated in terms of working remotely and choosing a deadline. So, even though I went a bit under my original quote, it was still worthwhile.
Lesson: Quoting is an art and a science. Make sure you think about both quantitative and qualitative considerations!
Mistake #2: Forgetting to ask where your work will be seen
The identity I was to design for the alumni website would not only be used on the web but also in email communications, print, and physical installations at the annual conference. Knowing that upfront helped me keep the visual identity versatile enough to work on multiple mediums.
Many clients often see design as one catch-all solution. It’s up to you to press them on and find out exactly what they will be needing so you can provide the right quote and solutions. I remember our first conversation going something like this:
Client: We want a design for the new website that will feature the upcoming conference
Me: So do you want an identity for the conference as well as the website, or they can be the same?
Client: They can be the same
Me: How would you be using the new design at the conference?
Client: We will probably need a backdrop behind the speakers, some standees and promotional materials
Me: So it’s not just a website, then.
Client: Yes, basically we want everything we will need for the website and actual conference
What was initially announced as a call for a website development project quickly turned into an identity and website project across both print and web. However, it needed an ongoing Q&A type conversation for the project to evolve to what it was.
Lesson: Use your design expertise to help your client find out what they really need.
Mistake #3 Not factoring in client’s resources
Budget limitations kept us from hiring a developer, so we compromised on a Squarespace website that I could build myself. This decision enabled the client’s IT team to, with minimal training, take over the project when my contract expired.
A lot of clients just want a good-looking and functional website. While that takes away from the interesting and rewarding challenges of working on something from scratch, using existing resources as a foundation for your work will make your life easier.
Lesson: Know what resources are available to you to better meet client needs and communicate trade-offs.
Mistake #4: Showing up unprepared for in-person meetings (or not having them at all)
Within days of starting work on the project I took a pre-planned trip, followed immediately by a move to the UK. The project’s deadline was set for a few weeks after my trip to accommodate these changes, but that still meant I could only have in-person meetings with the client at the start of the project—and everything after would have to be done remotely.
To get the most out of the two meetings we managed to schedule, I made sure to come prepared. I arrived for the very first meeting armed with a mockup based on an imprecise idea of what was needed. Even though it was early- we hadn’t gone through the exact requirements yet- and the client was still in the process of shaping the design brief, having something tangible to discuss so early on still provided more concrete direction than having nothing at all.
The identity proposal I brought to the first meeting… before the color scheme or any conference details were even finalized!
The solidified direction that came out of the first meeting led into an even more productive second meeting, where we sorted out communication patterns for our transition to remote. For this meeting, I came prepared with a prototype for how the finished design would look and feel.
When this was approved, the rest of the process was smooth sailing. Those two meetings built trust and set the tone for a collaborative partnership.
As designers, we are perhaps a little too comfortable with digital modes of communication. As any MBA or people person would tell you, there is still a lot of value for meeting someone face to face and that’s true for the designer-client relationship too. If that’s an option for you at all, even if you mostly work remotely, I would highly recommend taking up on it.
Here are some more tips for preparing for your client meeting.
Lesson: Facetime works well enough when working remotely but nothing beats real-life facetime. And whenever possible, bring something tangible (such as wireframes or prototypes) with you to get useful and specific feedback.
Mistake #5: Not planning for your departure
Go into a project knowing your “exit strategy.” You will not just be making something and walking away: You’ll be responsible for the project long after it has formally completed.
From the get-go, the client and I decided that the project will end with a Skype meeting walking their IT team through essential pieces of information. While I remained available for questions and concerns afterward, that one meeting proved sufficient for handover.
The email I sent to request the handover meeting, including a list of things on the agenda.
Investing in handoff will save you time and headache. Try to predict any training challenges as well as future content needs that might arise from the use of the project, and devise a strategy ahead of time to address them in your handover meeting(s).
Lesson: The project isn’t finished until it can live without you.
Mistake #6. Showing in-progress work
It’s always useful to research the person you’ll be working for and/or reporting to. If you don’t want to bluntly ask them about their background, their designation or department at the company can reflect this information or you could look up their LinkedIn or other public profiles online.
When you have the privilege of reporting to a designer, you can show them work at any stage and they’ll be able to imagine how it will look. Part of the design process is, well, the process: barely-there wireframes, necessarily-imperfect prototypes, and sketchy works-in-progress.
This client, however, didn’t speak “designer”—he spoke “high-fidelity prototype.” Knowing that he didn’t have a design background, I elected to avoid the likely miscommunications of low-fi wireframes and to go full-steam-ahead to the high-fidelity work.
There is a fine line to walk here because you don’t want to share work so late in the process that the project has gone completely off-track and could have easily been put back on it if you had shared your progress early enough.
I showed a mockup to the client in the very first meeting, based on our email communication, using a color scheme that I chose. However, the client quickly asked for a different color scheme, in line with their existing brand, which I was able to do easily at this point. If I had continued creating brand assets without sharing the color scheme initially, it would have created a lot of unnecessary work later.
Lesson: Even if you have a client who wants to stay on top of your progress, try to chalk out milestones early in the process and share only when necessary.
Mistake #7: Forgetting you were hired for a reason
In juggling a lot of projects and clients, it can feel easier to “lean in” to a client’s requests than to justify your strategy.
Pick your battles, I say. But do stand up for yourself.
I remember having to stand my ground on sticking to a graphical identity for the project. The client expressed a desire to see a second option but I strongly believed in the original concept so I made sure I communicated my reasons for doing so.
The conversation went something like this:
Client: Is it possible to see another option, something that reflects the journey of our alumni?
Me: What are you thinking?
Client: Something that uses pictures or illustrations of our alumni…
Me: That sounds like a good concept but are we able to commission a photographer or illustrator for the project?
Client: Not really.
Me: I think the graphical identity allows us to create a strong visual without having to invest in those resources.
Learning to communicate is key, because, if you can explain your design choices in their language, you might not only get them on board—you’ll win even more trust. The client knew that we would not have been able to commission quality photography or illustrations especially for the identity/branding, so I was able to convince them that a graphical identity represented the best solution.
Lesson: If you feel strongly about something, remember why you were hired: to be a design expert, not a design lackey.
Mistake #8: Ignoring the working style that makes you the most productive
I like to work alone and in the privacy and comfort of my room—unlike the stereotypical freelancer working from a cafe or office between cappuccinos.
Given my trip and the flurry of activity around beginning grad school, I had to mark out days where I would just be working on the project uninterrupted, instead of trying to get a little done every day.
When we first discussed the project, the client had invited me to come in and work from their office. However, because of my preferred working style, as well as travel plans, I told them that I’d prefer to work remotely and only come in-person for the first two meetings. Everything else would have to be done via Skype and email. The client was willing to accommodate my requests because it had a mix of both in-person meetings and my preferred work style.
You may have a client that wants you to come into an office every day or time the number of hours you spend working: either way, it is important to discuss the working method ahead of time to avoid potential conflicts later on.
Lesson: Make sure you have a plan for working in your preferred style and discuss it with your client ahead of the project to work out any issues.
Mistake #9: Being “above” the less fun bits of work
Designing the identity was fun, and going through photos of alumni from past years was interesting. Much more tedious, though, was uploading and migrating older content (such as blog posts, articles, and videos) to their new home.
The client had stories on a WordPress blog that they wanted to be incorporated into the new “Reading Room” section. There were issues with the content export so I ended up having to manually upload many of the stories, taking more time than many of the actual creative tasks for the project. Similarly, adding the video gallery meant adding each video from YouTube and then formatting it correctly so it would show up as I wanted it, without video titles or a selection of related videos.
That’s the nature of most design projects, though. Everything comes with a nitty-gritty boring side.
Lesson: If you’re only just starting out in design, know that there will be some manual hard work that isn’t as exciting as choosing a color scheme or making things look pretty.
Mistake #10: Disorganization
For this project, I was the sole designer reporting to a single contact person. That meant that, besides the odd administrative email, that person was the only one I had to communicate any project updates with.
To make sure I could easily keep track of all communication and files, I asked my client that we try to stick to one email chain, and use a shared Google Drive folder for any brand assets and project files.
Inevitably, there were still materials and pieces of communication that ended up coming from different sources (photos on a USB stick, finance and administration thing on separate email chains, milestone emails that required the client to loop in other members of their team, etc) but laying out communication preferences at the start still made the whole exchange process much easier.
Lesson: Take the lead on projects by communicating your email and file sharing preferences from the start, and then stick to these methods to stay on top!
Mistake #11: Not testing
Safari, Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, iPhones (older and newer versions), Android phones, tablets…the list goes on and on.
It’s been said many a time before and cannot be overemphasized: test out what you’re making in as many different technical settings as possible, and definitely in the most common use cases. And this doesn’t even begin to capture user testing (more on thathere).
Thankfully, the Squarespace platform made sure that the website was responsive across devices. However, it organized some content differently on mobile than how I wanted it so it took a bit of tinkering to get everything to appear exactly as I wanted on different devices.
Lesson: Even if you are using a platform that takes care of most technical aspects for you, don’t trust how something will look and work until you’ve tried it out yourself!
Mistake #12: Going beyond the initial scope for free
Since the needs of my client were, quite understandably, evolving as they neared the conference, I knew they would be depending on me for design needs as they appeared. That meant that there was sometimes a bit of uncertainty about certain deliverables and unexpected urgency.
However, I knew that that would be the case going in. For instance, I knew they would need some kind of promotional material in print based on the identity, but only found out that I would need to come up with a layout for standees near the end of the project.
It would have been useless to try and pin down all deliverables exactly at the start of the project because some of them appeared later in the process. Nonetheless, I had made sure that my contract covered both web and print deliverables to take care of such instances.
It is, of course, preferable to get down specifics as much as you can before you start working but sometimes it’s just not possible. And, of course, if something completely new gets added to your work pile, don’t be afraid of asking for additional compensation!
Another concession I made for this project was time-related. I knew the time crunch the client was under so made sure that, whenever possible, I was available to them over email, WhatsApp, and any other mediums. I also made myself reasonably available for follow-up queries even after project completion.
Lesson: Just like great customer service, excellent freelancing requires (occasionally) going above-and-beyond your job description.
Mistake #13: Not asking for recognition
It’s certainly good to show off a project in your own portfolio, but it can only really help if you are credited visibly in the actual work itself.
My client allowed me credit in the footer of the website, including a link to my portfolio, which shows up on every page.
Once I showed them how the credit line would look, their only concern was the font size and color, which we were able to then work on together. The client had originally wanted the credit lines to not include any information about the platform we were using but I didn’t feel comfortable leaving that out so talked them through how it was an industry standard. They conceded eventually so the text now reads exactly how I wanted it to be.
Lesson: Don’t be shy in crediting yourself in a way that feels right to you.
Mistake #14: Being possessive of the project
Days after finishing the project, I saw that someone had uploaded a picture to the website that wasn’t perfectly formatted. I was not happy.
Instead of agonizing over it for hours on end, I turned off my computer and went to bed. I realized that my work was done and I now have to let it live in a world where others were going to take over for me and use it as they will—and that is alright!
If you want to have a sizeable freelance design business, you don’t want to keep revisiting a project after it’s done or it will just take time and energy away from new projects. Understand that it will live in an imperfect world and let go!
Presenters at the annual conference standing in front of the Emerging Leaders identity
Instead of thinking about the misformatted picture and taking the hypercritical attitude described above, I like to focus on my client’s actual feedback about the project instead.
Lesson: Try to appreciate the good work you’ve done and give yourself a pat on the back.
I drew on over nine years of freelance experience in working on this project and yet learned a lot thanks to the unique personal, professional and creative challenges that characterized this project. All the hard work proved worthwhile when I got great feedback from the client and I hope readers will find the lessons I shared useful for their own work.
One of the many generous things the client said about the project after it was finished
On to the next one!