I’m not sure whether other professions fall prey to the way certain people regard the graphic arts, but it does seem to be a vocation filled with ambiguity—on behalf of the artist and the client or potential client. Many times when I’ve been asked whether I can do this or that by a perspective new client, there’s this nagging voice in the back of my head as to whether they will be able to compensate me for my time. This query became even more complicated when a friend or acquaintance made the request. I often wondered to myself, do they expect me to work for free or so close to free that it’s really not worth it? If you’re wondering why I would even go down this path of thinking, it’s because as a freelancer, it’s happened so many times, that I’ve lost track.
The irony is that it never needed to happen if I had set the right boundaries with myself and everyone else in the context of my craft earlier in my career. In the past when someone I cared about would ask me to do design related work for them, I felt confused and conflicted about how much to charge, whether they assumed I’d do the work for free and if they intended to compensate me, whether they would question my rate…so on and so forth. Guess what uncertainty breeds?
More of the same.
Fast forward to about 6 months ago, one of my friends from business school asked me whether I could help her with a small project and my immediate reaction was, “I’d love to, but I don’t work for free.” She replied, “I don’t expect you to and what’s you’re hourly rate?” When I told her, I had this sinking feeling in my stomach that she would retract from wanting my help. Surprisingly, she agreed and we ended up working together. The reason I wanted to bring this up is that we are often sizing people up and making assumptions about all sorts of things. When it comes to perspective work, I would say, keep the doors open for the potential of working with just about anyone. That is unless they’re the wrong fit and if so, determine in advance the attributes or conditions that would make them the right or wrong client for you. The best way to gain insight into this area is through your own personal experience. However, it never hurts to create a list for yourself to gain clarity around the issue.
Here’s my list of what I look for in a working relationship with clients and potential clients.
- Do we get along?
- Mutual respect
- Is the client’s work/industry something I can stand behind? (I’m not talking about splitting hairs here, as much as I personally wouldn’t work with a company that’s engaged in the tobacco or fire-arms industries. It’s about aligning values and being intentional about how you navigate through the world)
- Open communication
- Ability to navigate basic technology to proof design iterations
- Ability to compensate me
- Commitment to a contract that spells out the scope of work
- If the other person assumes that you work for free
- A client that exhibits a lot of drama—problem makers vs. problem solvers
- Someone who doesn’t really know what they want but expects you to magically create something from nothing in the absence of a concept or content. (Magicians are in the business of cultivating magic…designers are not.)
- A client that shows repeated behavior of exceeding the project scope and not compensating you for your additional time. (This is a shared problem by both the designer and the client because a designer should not continue working on a project when the scope has changed and adequate communication has not taken place, specifying as such.)
Ultimately it’s not your job to preemptively determine whether someone can or can’t pay you. However, it is your job to have a plan and some numbers ready on the fly for an hourly rate, or better yet, gather more information about the project scope and prepare a formal estimate for your potential client. There’s nothing quite like a contract to get yourself and your client to a level of commitment that’s professional and respectful.