If you’re a designer and you freelance, then you understand that it’s a journey. We’ve all made mistakes and the learning process never ends. Here are 10 common freelance mistakes that designers often make:
1. Not knowing your worth
This might be the #1 mistake that designers fall into — not understanding the value of themselves, the work they create or the skills they possess. When you understand your own self-worth, including the time, energy and care that put into your craft, then you will more likely understand the value of your work and the benefits that you offer. Many designers — at some point or another (often in the earlier stages of their freelance career) — fall into the rabbit hole of undervaluing their self-worth, which can lead to underpricing, over-promising, being taken advantage of, compromising and low confidence. There’s an inevitable process of learning, growth and discovery that happens through experience, failure and mentorship. Hopefully, you will be able to continuously build your confidence over time and understand what it is that makes you unique, valuable and worthy of success.
“Until you value yourself, you won’t value your time. Until you value your time, you will not do anything with it.”
— M. Scott Peck
2. Lack of design process and organization
What steps do you take to execute a project from beginning to end? Do you have a specific process that you follow each time or do you just freestyle each project?
We all know that design, in part, is a form of artistic expression — and, that creativity is a precious commodity that can’t just be pulled like a file folder at any given moment. Great design takes a large dose of brain power, inspiration and action. Although this may all be true, “going with the flow”, “doing what you feel” and “working when it speaks to me” is not an efficient process. A clear design process allows you to map out time for each stage in the project journey, from ideation to final production.
What happens when there’s lack of a process? Sometimes you get lucky and the project is fine. But in most cases — especially when project scope, number of stakeholders and other complexities increase — lack of process will ensure frustration on both ends, missed deadlines or extended timelines and a whole lot of unnecessary stress.
3. Not being up front about money
As designers, it’s safe to say that we love the process of creation and making something. But let’s not act like we don’t want to get paid, either. If you are offering value to someone else through your design talents and time, and you are doing business, then you should be paid for it. There are a plethora of mistakes that can be made with money: failing to require a deposit to initiate a project, starting a project without a clear and mutual rate or without providing an estimate, avoidance of conversations about collecting payments owed to you, being unclear about how pricing can increase with increased scope and/or revisions, not sending timely invoices, etc. The list goes on and on. Though it may be uncomfortable for some to have these conversations about money, the truth of the matter is that it’s way more uncomfortable to do the work and not get fairly compensated.
Doing what you love is not always about money. However, when money is involved, there should be clarity on both ends about how much things costs and when it should be paid out. Plus, keeping the money conversation in the forefront of your process is a great way for vetting clients — you’ll soon find out who’s serious and who isn’t.
4. Little or no investment in self development
Continuous improvement should always be a personal and professional goal. In an ever-changing design world, best practices evolve — trends, technology, software and techniques. If you’re not keeping up with the design “Jones’”, you’re creating a disadvantage for yourself. That doesn’t mean that you have to buy every new gadget or attend every design conference. It does mean that you should have elevated past Photoshop 7 by now, you shouldn’t refuse to explore outside of your basic toolkit and you shouldn’t stay stuck on mimicking the same design style that you established back in 2008.
5. No marketing or networking
If you’re a decent designer, you’ve probably had the privilege of receiving additional jobs through word of mouth. Existing clients can be great advocates for your business and bring notable growth. However, if your desire is to reach more clients, reach a different caliber of client or to expand your impact, you’ll have to put some effort into marketing and networking. This might mean getting out of your comfort zone, talking to new people, extending your brand through social media, your website and/ or printed collateral, writing up proposals or attending more events. If you’re not marketing yourself AND you are trying to reach the next level of freelance success, then it’s time to incorporate this critical step.
“People are in such a hurry to launch their product or business that they seldom look at marketing from a bird’s eye view and they don’t create a systematic plan.” — Dave Ramsey
6. Continuing to work with the wrong type of clients
“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” — Randall Terry
We’ve all heard this quote before, but how many of us were fooled about 27 times before we really learned this lesson? “Bad clients” are a seemingly inevitable experience for every designer. No matter how careful or meticulous you may be in your process, the human element always comes into play. We cannot always control when bad situations happen but we certainly can take preventative measures to decrease the amount of crazy that we might be prone to deal with.
There’s an endless line of complaints about what makes a client “bad”: late payments, no payments, bad communication, unclear business vision, lack of knowledge of design, bad taste, too many revisions, too needy, calls at all times of the day, disrespectful…the list can go on and on. However, if you consistently have bad client experiences, you must take the time to examine your own actions. Are you allowing this bad behavior? Have you set necessary boundaries through contracts, clear communication and processes? Do you take on every client or do you have a process to weed out the ones who may not meet the client standards that you desire? Are you able to say “no” to people and projects that don’t suit you, or do you feel obligated to say “yes” to everything?
7. Failing to implement a design agreement or contract
Almost every freelance designer has probably made this mistake at least once. You get excited about the new client or work that you have acquired and you jump right into the project. Things may go well for a while and then slowly go south once you get to revision #7. Or you may have completed the project and sent the invoice, but failed to get paid. Or maybe the client started their jerkdom on day one and made your life hell for the next 6 weeks.
A lot of these issues can be eradicated (or at least decreased) through a design agreement or contract. The contract should outline the scope of work that you will be doing for the client, specific terms related to how you work, expectations on both ends, timelines, payments, liabilities, copyrights, etc. Depending on the level of clientele or project, the contract can range from something simple as a disclaimer at the bottom of your quote or emails to a heavily detailed document. No need to worry though — you can start out with something simple that covers general basis and then develop your design agreement over time (mistakes, failures and ignorance usually act as a catalyst for updating your contract). Use proper discernment to know how and when to implement this practice.
Be up front with your client and introduce the design agreement or contract BEFORE you start the work and/or get paid a deposit. That way the client will be fairly informed of what’s to be expected on both ends. Verbal agreements are okay but a signed and dated contract is even better. Remember, in the unfortunate case of a legal dispute, your contract can be a life saver.
8. Working on unenjoyable projects
We all know that every project won’t be a passion project, but you certainly shouldn’t despise every project either. Continuously working on projects (and with people) that you absolutely despise is a sign that a) you may be undervaluing yourself by because you allow it to happen b) you haven’t clearly defined your ideal customer profile (ICP) and have no vetting process for the caliber of client that you desire c) you may be working in desperation and taking whatever you can get. d) you haven’t identified or fully explored your true interests in design.
Working on projects that you enjoy greatly impacts the level of effort, care and enjoyment that you find within your work (see mistake #7 above). Decrease stress by starting with the right people and ideas that you can confidently stand behind. Remember, crappy project + stress = less creativity.
9. Lack of time management
Missing deadlines. Waiting until the last minute. Spending too much time on low priority tasks. Not allowing enough time for other stakeholders to contribute to the project. Miscalculating time for research/discovery, revisions, feedback and rework. Lack of focus. These are all factors that play into bad time management. No one is perfect and we are often hit with untimely requests. However, a lot of the owness falls on our shoulders, so we must be diligent in our planning, organization and processes of our design projects.
Know the true value of time; snatch, seize, and enjoy every moment of it. No idleness, no laziness, no procrastination: never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.
— Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield
10. Unclear or nonexistent communication
If mind-reading was a designer’s superpower, we would all be so lucky. Unfortunately, even the designers with the best intuition still need to practice good communication. Especially for us introverted designers, it can be daunting, draining or stressful to talk to clients on the phone or in person (even in-depth email conversations). We might even get comfortable with accepting a job and going straight into the work, with little engagement with the client until we’ve produced the end product.
The issue with little or no communication is that it opens the door to unnecessary and preventable problems. Common communication errors include:
· asking little or no questions about the client or the business vision, needs, goals, etc
· not taking time to ask about or understand all of the project’s requirements
· failure to communicate your design process
· not getting clarity on a lingering question or issue
· making assumptions
· not establishing a clear point of contact when there are multiple stakeholders on the project
· not confirming that you received a message or failing to get confirmation that your messages/ideas/thoughts have been clearly communicated
· failing to gather missing information or alert the client about the parts of the project that they are responsible for
· Not communicating issues, problems or deadlines that may need to be pushed back
· failing to say “no” to work that is out of scope, unrealistic or unpaid for
· not being honest about your availability, bandwidth and/or interest (or lack of, thereof) in a project or client
Our unique experiences shape us as designers; failures often teach us invaluable lessons that we wouldn’t have learned otherwise. The goal isn’t perfection, but the goal is to continuously grow, become aware of our own mishaps, to learn and to build upon every experience — good or bad. Of course, your level of concern and involvement all depends on how far you want to go in your freelance journey. So whether you have just begun freelancing or you’ve gotten some experience under your belt, keep moving forward!
Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue
— Winston Churchill
What other freelance mistakes can you add to this list?