Almost two years ago, I wrote these notes to myself—so that I wouldn't forget these key lessons I'd learned about working in the design business.
When Starting a Project, Have a Plan
Designers love walking into new projects because of the scent of possibility just permeates the air. But before you even present a proposal, you need to have a complete view of what process you'll be taking for that project, and structure your fees accordingly.
Be Ready to Negotiate
You always need a position to fall back on. Otherwise, you'll be improvising one that may not be a good business decision.
Be Willing to Say No
You always have the right to decline a project. If your gut says the project isn't going to be worthwhile, then why do it?
Have the Cushion to Say No
Don't take a project because you need the money. Take the project because you know you're going to succeed, make the client happy, and put a strong piece of work in your portfolio.
See into the Future
Keep a high-level view of client needs outside of a design project to ensure future growth. Ease yourself into those roles as a partner to their business (a thinker), not as a service provider (a doer).
Keep Your Word
If you promise something, fulfill it. If you can't, be honest about why you can't get it done and be willing to accept fault and provide options to return balance to the situation. Reciprocity is key here.
Failure is an Option (of Last Resort)
You're running a business. If you aren't earning enough on a project, you may consider withdrawing from the project. But if you choose to go down that path, don't just leave your client holding the bag. Provide options. This is part of keeping your word: if you can't do what you said, you own up to it instead of stringing the client along, and point them in the direction they need to finish the job.
When Pricing Your Services, More is Better
Don't price yourself less than you're worth. Clients perceive your design work by the overall value, not the cost. Would you prefer the Gucci bag or the one from WalMart? They may look similar, but the client will perceive the value of your work higher because it is high quality AND they paid a premium for it. This is one of the dirty secrets we designers use to weed out clients.
Don't Just Estimate. Can You Really Afford to Do the Work?
If you're the only designer providing the estimate for some project work, then you can charge what you need to charge for a project as a starting point for negotiations. But if you're part of a multiple-bid project, you must consider who your competitors are and their market rates. However—if you're a seasoned veteran and they're fresh out of design school, there's no way you can compete on price. So:
Don't Differentiate Your Services Based on Cost Alone
Being cost-effective isn't a unique selling point for designers. You must first sell the quality of your thinking, the process you bring to help solve a client's business problem, and the overall value of your services independent of price. And before you go through that whole process, gauge where the client may land: "Do you have $5 for this project, or $1 million dollars?"
New Business is Overhead and Must Be Billed
Include in your overall cost of work common overhead costs, such as rent, phone, archiving your work, entering contests, and the cost of marketing and closing new business for your agency. If you don't, the time and cost you expend in closing new clients will go right out the window or be applied against the client project budget, which puts you in an even more slender box for doing the project profitably.
Include Overhead PLUS Room for Error
Don't estimate projects based on ideal scenarios. Leave plenty of room for experimentation and client feedback. You never know what is going to happen—especially if it's an internal project and you're the client.
Tell RFPs What You Think of Them
If you receive RFPs, have a blanket policy for how you respond to them and stick to it. Some designers reject all RFPs. Others respond to ones that require a limited amount of effort (in time and materials). And then there are the ones who jump through the flaming hoops, inevitably catching their clothes on fire and rolling in the dirt, trying to stop the damage...