48 posts categorized "Account Management"

Slides from "My Top 10 Design Business Failures"

This Thursday and Friday, I provided two lectures for SCAD's Entreprenurial Forum 2011 in Savannah, Georgia. This event was presented by SCAD's Office for Career and Alumni Success, and was designed for students across all majors to gain perspectives on how they can become successful as businesspeople in today's economic climate.

The above slide deck is from my second lecture, called "My Top 10 Design Business Failures." You could call this my greatest hits album of major business mistakes I've made over my career, both as a freelancer and while working within agencies of all shapes and sizes.

My first lecture, "Being an Agency of One," kicked off the event on Thursday night. I talked about the four primary areas that any designer or artist must master in order to create the foundation for a successful business practice and be responsible while doing what they love:

  • Understanding your business model and what sources of revenue can support it
  • Designing the appropriate touchpoints required for well-considered client service
  • Discovering how effective project management creates sustainable studio success
  • Crafting the philosophy and plan that drives both your personal practice and your business practice, via a framework that David Conrad and I created called "The Elements of Design Studio Experience"

You can see an 11-minute clip of me answering student questions after the first lecture on the SCAD eLearning site. Some of these student questions I will be readdressing on this blog in the coming weeks.

If you live in Seattle and want to dig deeper into this material, please join me for the Design Business for Breakfast Series in Seattle, which is going on right now. Registration is still open for the last three talks. The next one is this Wednesday, February 23rd.

All of this material is drawn from my current work-in-progress for HOW Books, Design Business from A to Z, which will be out in the Fall of 2012. Both presentations were deeply informed by the following collaborators, who deserve great thanks: Erica Goldsmith, Fiona Robertson-Remley, and David Conrad.

Being a Responsible Consultant

Elephant in the Dark

As the design community continues its slow evolution from a craft-based industry to a powerful pivot across lateral, yet related disciplines—such as business strategy and technology—we are often reduced to being hired to create artifacts first and foremost, crossing off item after item on the list of required deliverables in the contract we duly executed a few weeks back.

This is professional practice, but it is not always responsible. Design may be a service industry, but that doesn't mean you should be a servant. You should be a responsible consultant.

These are a few traits I've observed from watching responsible consultants working in our design profession. Feel free to add more via the comments.

Continue reading "Being a Responsible Consultant" »

It's Not Your Fault


There comes a time in the life of every designer when things go wrong on a project or in a client relationship. Horribly wrong. The kind of epic fail written about by Greek storytellers, passed down from generation to generation, then recorded to paper to give voice to Awfulness That Shall Never Be Forgotten EVER. Fear gives way to more fear. Your heart pulses in your ears. Adrenaline drowns out words being spoken (or hollered) at you. The knowledge of things going awry makes you physically aware of your body in a way similar to, say, jumping out of a plane. Careening downwards, a constellation of past efforts glitters behind you in the darkness, while your future career in design looms closer and closer, like the factories and empty fields that pock-mark much of northern New Jersey.

Now that I've got a few major failures under my belt, and enough distance from them to have sifted through the wreckage for a few tiny wisps of insight, I've realized that in some of those awful situations, I hadn't done anything wrong at all. It was entirely out of my direct control. I'm talking specifically about ongoing politics within a client organization—the kind of politics, no matter how strong of a relationship that you hold with your day-to-day contacts, no matter how many dinners and baseball games and late-night shenanigans at the hotel bar, you just can't suss out the bitter end until the room's been turned sideways and you're hanging from the chandelier for dear life.

Continue reading "It's Not Your Fault" »

Protecting Deadlines for Interactive Projects

the great escape // throw the door away

A common mistake that marketers and executives make is in assuming that deadlines for interactive application design and development can be flexed in a similar manner to traditional marketing, advertising, branding, and visual design deliverables.

In particular, I am referring to two common scenarios that can compromise the integrity of your final deliverable—functional, stable, and bug-free code that renders properly across multiple browsers or app platforms.

Scenario 1: Heel-dragging at the initiation of a project—either in receiving a signature, payment, or critical information to start work—with the assumption that there is enough "give" in the first few weeks of the schedule to reach the provisionally agreed-upon deadline.

Scenario 2: A request is made by the client during the first few weeks of the project for the agreed-upon deadline for project delivery to be made earlier, often to accommodate a critical internal meeting or public milestone that wasn't on your direct client's radar while the scope was set.

Allowing negotiation about the boundaries of the project after you've entered into a signed contract should be a last resort for you and your team.

Here's why.

Continue reading "Protecting Deadlines for Interactive Projects" »

The Glass Is Always Empty

Sake Glasses

Last Saturday, I was talking with Keith, the export representative for a sake brewery in Nagoya. His day-to-day life sounded like a dream job for anyone who enjoys chatting with people and world travel. He's constantly flying from city to city, often internationally through Europe and Canada, presenting and pouring the range of high-end sakes that his brewery crafts every winter.

While he explained the flavor nuances between a junmai sake and a non-junmai sake—where the rice utilized in making the sake had its husk and 50% of its kernel polished off in the pre-fermentation process—I asked him how his job performance is measured. Does he have a sales quota? Or is there some kind of softer metric for his success for his company?

"I'm not measured on having to sell bottles of sake. It's my job to encourage people like you to come out and try sake." He held up one of the sake bar's glasses, which are traditionally made of white porcelain with blue concentric rings in the center to aid the human eye in assessing the color of the wine. "Sake is like a river that flows through Japanese culture. It could be considered holy. When a baby is born, she is brought to a Shinto shrine in her first few weeks of life to be blessed, and her lips are wet with sake. When a person dies and is buried in the Buddhist tradition, sake is poured in a glass at their grave in tribute."

"I don't imagine that would happen with beer," I said, visualizing Arlington Cemetery with a series of Miller LIte six-packs littering the otherwise pristine green grass and pure white grave markers.

"So, my job isn't to sell my employer's sake. It's to build relationships around sake." He pointed to my hand, which was clutching about 2 oz. of his employer's (admittedly) delightful junmai sake. "My traveling and holding tastings is going to encourage more people to start drinking sake. It's to encourage more people to show up with one of these sake glasses and ask for a pour. It would be foolish if I was focusing just on selling bottles, and not in the best interest of my employer."

For emphasis, he pointed to the bar's special glasses again. "If you sell someone a bottle, they will drink the bottle. But if you sell them a glass, they will always need to refill the glass."

He leaned over, his eyes twinkling behind square-rimmed, elegant Japanese glasses. "And the glass is always empty. It always needs to be filled."

Are you selling your clients yet another of these proverbial bottles of sake?

Or are they holding up the glass they've acquired from you, expecting a refill?

How to Manage Going Overbudget

Bleeding Money

We went over budget on this project, and it still isn't complete. What are we supposed to do?

Projects that go 1% over budget can balloon to 50% over budget very quickly, in part because your design team (or yourself) gives up trying to hit your hours. These situations must be controlled in order to make any profit on a project. You will also risk consuming valuable staff time that could be better spent securing and servicing new projects.

Follow this simple three-step process and you'll be more likely to close out your project without blowing your margin.

Continue reading "How to Manage Going Overbudget" »

Common Pitfalls of Estimating Design Time

Estimating Actuals

As I am able to read the thoughts of design professionals, I can provide a transcript for what goes through each and every one of your minds while you're estimating a design project:

"Hmm... I think this project is only going to take me 20 hours. Last time, it took me about three days, and we only billed them for 15, so if I make it 20 then it should be approximately what it took me to design it last time."

Time passes. Your boss and/or the account manager review the estimate and think that it isn't cost-competitive. They want you to find places to cut your hours.

"Hmm... maybe I can do the concepts in 16 hours. That seems like one of the few places we might be able to cut back. Besides, I've designed a ton of web pages, so this one should be a little easier than the last time."

Sorry to break it to you, but you're going to spend at least 24 hours working on that project you just squeezed into 16. You're also going to lose money on that project, unless if you bill an astronomical hourly rate.

Why does this happen over and over again? Because of these very common estimating issues.

Continue reading "Common Pitfalls of Estimating Design Time" »

The Design Investment Curve

The Design Investment Curve

Mind the expectation gap!

A few years back, I recall receiving a call from a potential client who expected that within two days of kicking off an identity redesign project, they would be seeing fully-executed comps—in full color, no less—from which they would provide critical input and choose a direction.

These conversations are known, in client service parlance, as opportunities to "reset expectations" or "fully outline our process" or otherwise spend a good ten to fifteen minutes describing in designer lingo a set of activities that, in the mind of the client, are a bit nebulous if they've never worked with a designer before. Usually, a client has no idea what to really expect until they're knee-deep in project deliverables and reacting to tangible work product.

So, want to save yourself some time and set client expectations in a matter of seconds? Start projects off with your own variant of the chart shown above. As you move from discovery (on the left) to concepts (the middle) to the final, executed design work (the right), point out where the deliverables that you're sharing in that review fit into the overall process.

If you don't set expectations in this manner right out of the gate, it's likely that no matter what you say or do, your client's expectations are going to look more like the following:

The Design Investment Curve vs. Client Expectations

Defining the Rules of Engagement


Usually when we talk about engaging with clients, we start listing tangible deliverables they should expect from a project, from the initial draft schedule to the final product design.

When you start a project, conversations should be only about what clients require from us. It's also about what we expect from them. The best way to do this is to define the rules of engagement for your clients.

The following expectations are completely fair to request from any new client:

  • Timeliness
  • Consistency
  • Direct dialogue
  • Respect for process
  • Transparency
  • Accommodation for human error

Now, you can't just send this list to a client and say, "Hey, now you're going to respect my process!" If you don't tell your client up front about your expectations for their behavior, you're scolding them for things they never knew they needed to do.

So provide to your client in writing your rules of engagement. It only needs to be one page, which includes at least the following:

Not meeting expectations, stated or unstated, is one of the major reasons that client relationships fail. So don't let that happen—state up front what you require, and the project will always run a little more smoothly as a result.

Thanks to Erica Goldsmith for collaborating with me on this post.

Sign Before You Design

Before I Lift a Finger

"Before the client’s signed my contract, should I start working on that big design project?"

The simple answer: No.

The more complex answer: No. Every minute that you bill will vanish in a whiff of non-billable smoke if the client decides to back out at the eleventh hour. For some designers, it only takes one client walking away from a contract to encourage strong boundaries. Others get burned over and over again, which can be crippling for your cashflow.

As part of your pre-contact negotiations, let the client know that you won't start work until your contract is signed. Every extra day that they take to sign the contract, you should tack on that extra time to the end of your schedule, instead of trying to make up for it. This should be clear to the client, in writing, as part of your terms and conditions.

If you haven’t extended them credit, you shouldn’t work until they’ve provided you with your first payment as well.

If they say the check’s in the mail, you let them know that the project will start when you’ve received it (and cashed it). If it's "held up in accounting," then this gives them an incentive to go breathe fire down said accountant's neck.

If you have worked with your client a number of times in the past, and they have paid you promptly for services rendered, you may consider extending them credit and getting started… but only after you have a signed contract.

If you're tempted to use a letter of intent (LOI) to negotiate a big fancy contract or master services agreement, know that it's essentially tantamount to extending credit if you don't get paid up front for your time.

And if you've set up your contract so your payments are gating the work, make it clear to the client well before you get to the end of each phase that you'll be expecting payment to proceed. Otherwise, they may be quite pissed that the project is going to be behind schedule because you hadn't communicated an essential responsibility to them.

Creating a Risk Assessment

Too Many Problems

When taking on projects with hairpin-turn deadlines, high levels of technical complexity, and large cross-disciplinary teams that function across silos within a large organization, designers often have to assume a great deal of risk. This risk is often codified in a series of contingencies that serve as part of a proposal, and take on the form of laundry lists such as:

  • Our firm will receive collated feedback from client within 24 hours of each provided deliverable
  • Our firm will require access to the hosting environment for initial testing by back-end development at the start of the project
  • Our firm will hold to the specified feature set provided in this estimate; any changes in the agreed-upon scope will have an impact upon timeline, budget, or both

While these itemized lists are valuable in defining client/designer boundaries, they don't do a great job of describing what happens when said boundaries are violated—either by the designer or by the client. We rarely dive into the nitty-gritty details of how badly things can actually go wrong until we've signed the contract and started work.

But there should always be a time slotted into project kickoffs where you sit down and put together a risk assessment.

Continue reading "Creating a Risk Assessment" »

How Can You Not Afford It?

The Three Year Slump

The email arrived at 2:43 PM, marked high priority. It ended with the following words: "We're going to postpone our web site redesign until our sales pick up." Hmm... could there be an causal association between sales volume and the quality of their website experience? (That was a rhetorical question.)

I was tempted to write back the following one-sentence response: "How can you afford not to?"

Yes, I know that embarking on a holistic redesign of your corporate website isn't about waiting another day to eat the chocolate cherry crinkle cookie sitting expectantly in the larder. Large-scale redesigns are heavy-duty, overwhelming, emotional experiences that rarely ends in everyone sitting around the campfire singing "Kumbaya" and slinging back shots. The hard costs associated with a redesign—the fees we charge over a length of time for services rendered—are just a facet of the time and energy clients withhold in order to find the "right time" to engage. And if there isn't a firm content strategy or IA plan in place for future growth, they're going to outgrow the thing faster than a white hare being chased by a polar bear.

But begging off a redesign on a weak web presence, especially when your customers are sobbing for it, can have dramatic consequences on revenue and web traffic much further down the road. (Read: Catastrophic.) And most clients can't look that far ahead, especially if their business isn't 100% contingent on the Interwebs. Short-term tactical gains are fairly easy to squeeze from limited means—i.e. more aggressive marketing and promotion—but the substandard quality of a lacking user experience will eventually shave down possibilities for long-term growth.

The only way you can articulate this to a client, beyond hand waving and terse pronouncements over a crystal ball, is to take a page from the playbook of all those MBAs. At some point, your clients are going to have to invest not just in the new website you can help deliver, but the long-term plan that said website is only beginning to fulfill.

So do these activities as due diligence, right out of the gate.

Continue reading "How Can You Not Afford It?" »

Estimating Projects by Long-Term Asset Value

Logo Cost TBD

In 1998, I remember catching up with one of my former classmates from college and hearing about their experiences of working at their first design studio as an intern. She related to me the following story (which I hope wasn't mangled by my faulty memory banks):

"All of the designers were really busy, so one of the owners gave me an identity project to work on over a week. I worked on a few concepts, but the one that I was really excited about had the last letter of the logo (a T) working like a construction crane picking up the letter to the left of it.
My boss showed the logos to the client and they immediately fell in love with my favorite. With just a little bit of further work, we delivered the logo and invoiced the client their standard fee for the logo. At the time, it seemed like a robbery for the amount of time I put into it.
My boss was really happy, they didn't have to spend much time art directing me, and they offered me a job when my internship was up."

As I asked her further questions about how the project went, then did the math:

One logo. One intern with minimal oversight. One week. $8,000 flat rate fee for just the mark.

Continue reading "Estimating Projects by Long-Term Asset Value" »

How to Handle Change Requests

Requires More Money

Tape this to your monitor:

"We'll be more than happy to make the changes that you've noted to this most recent round of [name of deliverable]. However, to accommodate your request, there will be an impact on the project schedule and overall scope, which may result in a change order. We'll get back to you within [X number of hours] with an idea of what kind of impact, if any, these changes may have."

Painting a clear picture of what deliverables and edits are included as part of your overall service offering, and then being just as clear about what client-desired changes are outside the boundary of that offering, are a fundamental attribute of running any service-oriented business.

Continue reading "How to Handle Change Requests" »

How to Conduct Your First Client Call

Run Away

The first fifteen minutes of conversation with a new client will often tell the story of your whole business relationship.

Just gauge the difference between these opening ripostes from two potential clients:

"Hello, my name is [REDACTED] and I'd like to see if your firm would be interested in taking part in an RFP for Big Fancy Technology Client's new website redesign."

"Hello, I was passed along your name by our mutual friend Lorrie. She said that you create amazing websites, and since we're looking to overhaul ours, I thought I'd give you a call."

In both cases, the budget and timeframe could be exactly the same. You just don't have any context yet for how the conversation will progress—except in how business and personal relationships are already being cued from their tone and assumptions.

So, how do you conduct your first client discussion to set yourself up for success?

Continue reading "How to Conduct Your First Client Call" »

Remembering to Say Thank You

Curtis Steiner Handmade Thank You Card

It's not just what you say—it's how you say it. This maxim could not apply more to sending thank you notes to those people who've supported you most: short- or long-term clients, vendors, colleagues, friends, and family. And as designers, we're quite well equipped to trump the usual off-the-shelf rote cards and send out simple, elegant cards that transcend the Hallmarks of the world. Clients don't just remember the results you've provided. They always remember that you thanked them for the opportunity to do the great work. And while you shouldn't expect anything discrete back from a thank you besides appreciation… often great things will happen as a result that you couldn't have anticipated.

Continue reading "Remembering to Say Thank You" »

Strolling to Conclusions


Roads lead to alleys. Alleys lead to dead ends. And you can't see them all before you've entered into a client engagement—no matter how much of a "design expert" you say you are.

"I've done a ton of logos, so this project is a cinch for me. In the client meeting, I'll share with them some design themes I've been exploring when drawing up my estimate. Just some riffing, really... nothing too serious that I can't back out of when the paperwork is finalized... It'll just help me land the gig."

What a bad habit. Sure, we get excited about the possibility of a new project and start sharing initial impressions that come to mind. But sharing your opinion like that—off the cuff—can be very damaging for the project you're looking to start, your long-term relationship, and the design profession in general. It belies an assumption that you are more important than the gazillions of people out there that form the basis of your client's design problem.

Let me provide a few examples.

Continue reading "Strolling to Conclusions" »