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Why is the Business of Design so Hard?

All business is hard. From the local hotdog cart to United Airlines- nobody seems to be doing business very well these days. So start with knowing that if you are in business more than seven years and have made more than you owe, you have beat the odds of failure.

Most businesses are full of business people- folks who actually went to college to learn how to be successful in the world of business. They learned how to manage, how to deal with responsibility- and mostly how to impact bottom line profitability (which means different things to different companies and organizations). Now they are adding ethics and integrity classes (but still not aesthetics).

Those business people are our clients, which is partly why it is so hard to be in an arts-based, creativity with the clock running, non-objective, sometimes superficial, sometimes self-serving service industry. We don’t learn the tools of running a design office in school. We don’t have models to follow the way law and accounting firms do. So we watch each other, join AIGA, read HOW and ask a lot of questions. That is where I come in for this new feature on business. You can ask me questions and I will try my best to give you objective, common sense answers.

I think that success in design ultimately comes from being very good at what you do, being consistent, pleasant to deal with and being good at multitasking. Common sense (which isn’t that common) gets you through most issues, but having a process, a strong moral code and a credit card helps you through the rest.

So for this first installment about business, I want/need to address client expectations.

Clients don’t know what we do, why we do it, or what the value is. We are a hair’s breadth away from being lumped in with Sir Speedy, Microsoft PowerPoint clip art and those wacky advertising guys. Clients often don’t get it. They don’t need to. They pay us because they trust us. We understand the nuances, the subtleties, the cultural cues of design. They make stuff, provide a service or do something that is generally not dependent on design as we know it. So for clients to understand our value, our reasons for choosing 130 # Silk Cover, for requiring them to download Flash 6, for them to understand that we have a unique knowledge that will help them with their bottom line — we have to understand how to speak to the client in a professional, bottom line business voice. Not about typography or image style, but about strategy and goals. So, I recommend:

Always write a project brief

Always clarify end goals

Always understand how you will measure success

Always be a partner in your client’s business

Always be responsible

Quality and spelling count

Always be accountable and be able to justify what you do, and you will gain respect and trust. And remember, that is why you are being paid (hopefully sooner than 120 days).

Cheers, Steve

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ARCHIVE ID 1665 FILED UNDER Business Articles (Admin use only)
PUBLISHED ON Apr.09.2003 BY steve liska
Armin’s comment is:

I have a question regarding this:

They pay us because they trust us.

That's all true and good. But there are many, many times where I don't feel like they really trust us. I know design can lean very much to the subjective opinions, especially when it comes to clients choosing one visual concept from the three, four, whatever number we present. The question I'm trying to get to is how do you convince clients on adopting the visual solutions we are proposing instead of a) making it bigger b) making it pop or c) my wife thinks it should be red?

I have always used this example: you go to a doctor to get a diagnosis, he says 'You have to get an operation or you will die' you never answer 'Actually, I'm just going to my aunt's, they have some clean knives and alcohol.'

On Apr.16.2003 at 09:18 PM
Armin’s comment is:

And I have one more question, about this:

Always understand how you will measure success

How does a small design firm or freelance designer measure the success of a project? We have just enough time to design and plan and answer phone calls to also spend time on measuring results. Do you hire an external consultor?

And as a second part to this question, what are some tangible measurements that one can make of a brochure design? or an identity for a small business? Is there a way to "easily" track these results.

I think that's all I have. For now.

On Apr.16.2003 at 09:23 PM
Tom’s comment is:

› Always be a partner in your client’s business

How can you establish quickly, say in a first meeting/capabilities introduction that is how you prefer to work and wish for them to view you as a business partner rather than a drive-thru menu design service?

I have some of my own thoughts on this, but what this leads to is another question of payment for partnering rather than project by project or even hourly rates.

My goal is to build a pool of clients that I really am considered an ongoing crucial part of their business and so the payment method would be of a retainer method.

Any tips on how to propose this or set it up?

Weekly - monthly - quarterly payments?

6 month - 1year contracts?

Retainer contract verbage?

On Apr.18.2003 at 01:03 PM
Steve Liska’s comment is:

In Answer in Armin's first question- trust is not something that comes easy. If the clients wife thinks it should be red, and you have not already explained the process you are going through, how decision are made based on attributes and strategy and goals-- then why shouldn't it be red? Design is not an issue of aesthetic judgement- it is a process. The more your client understands the process, and the more you prove that you understand their needs, the more they trust you.

On May.02.2003 at 02:14 PM
Steve Liska’s comment is:

In answer to the second question- measuring results is almost impossible in design, building brand trust or getting people to a concert cannot be measured based on the design involvement. What I meant- and is easy to do- is to start talking to your clients about how they will measure the success of the project- is it sales, web hits, looking cool, industry awards, etc.? It usually breaks down to better focus or better understanding, or selling more tickets. Design is usually a part of a complex marketing mix, but the more a client understands your actions are to acheive their desired results, the more they trust you and see your value.

On May.02.2003 at 02:22 PM
Steve Liska’s comment is:

Tom's question- which is a great one- doesn't come with an easy answer. Ultimately you need to build a relationship to be viewed as a partner. Sometimes longevity or a pile of project profiles can give you partner status vs vendor status, but you still need to build the relationship. Even then, you are a partner that costs them money- so clients are always careful.

The interesting thing we do is to talk about the kind of relationship we are looking for in the first meeting, to let them know the first project will be the hardest, and that we will be a proactive resource. How you charge for that kind of a realtionship- I haven't a clue. I just hope it will bring more work.

Retainers have never worked for me- and I don't think benefit anyone. Clients try to max the fee out, or feel that the aren't getting enough. If a client has a steady stream of work, a contract with discounted terms for the volume of work is possible, but it is rare that clients are that predictable. If they were, they would do the math and hire an internal person.

If you can find a client that finds you valuable enough to retain you- that is great- but be careful about terms and expectations- what do they get, how is it tracked, reporting, overages beyond contract, how to end the relationship, etc.

The main issue with designers and design firms is that we are expendable to clients - they need us, then the don't, then they do again. That lets them stay profitable and ebb and flow design budgets with their needs and requirements. So retainers or other relationships are contrary to being able to manage money well. But if you can do it- let me know how.

On May.02.2003 at 02:43 PM
David Zeibin’s comment is:

I'm sure this is the case everywhere: there will be a supremely successful design company (or a few of them) that seems to do work for just about everyone in the metropolitan area. That is, their client list spans pages.

Problem is, more often than not, these places are working with unqualified people and are producing utterly horrible design. So despite producing a very clearly low-quality product, these people are definitely not going to bed hungry.

How does this happen? Are they merely yes-men for the clients? Surely something must be said for this business model, as teeth-clenchingly frustrating for the struggling yet talented designer as it may be.

More so, how should designers approach self-promotion? When it comes down to it, designers sell a product just like everyone else, so what elements need to be in place to be successful in the art of self-promotion? Building a relationship of trust with the client when they're sitting across from you is difficult enough, so how can you get a head start before they even walk through the door?

On Jun.15.2003 at 11:21 AM
Aaron’s comment is:

Any advice on what you can do if you DON'T get paid after 120 days??

On Nov.12.2003 at 12:51 AM
Zoelle’s comment is:

> Any advice on what you can do if you DON'T get paid after 120 days??

I recommend using The Business Side of Creativity: The Complete Guide for Running a Graphic Design or Communications Business by Cameron S. Foote. This book really takes you through the different courses of action available.

I clearly state on the back of my invoices the terms of my services. The information included in my terms was taken from the Graphic Artist's Guild Handbook.

Would anyone find it useful to see examples of fellow designer's invoices?

On Nov.19.2003 at 03:21 PM
John’s comment is:

>Would anyone find it useful to see examples of fellow designer's invoices?

I know that i would surely find it useful.

I think some of the points that were made in the original article are right on point. We went to school to learn to be better designers, amongst other things. But it seems as though we all have been through a trial-by-fire when it came time to strike out on our own and actually build a business that acts and looks like a business to our customers, both current and potential. It seems as though when I actually have free time to focus on building my business I spend all of that free time thinking that I am either doing it wrong or that I am just a kid again trying to survive in the grown-up world of business. The "freelance" attitude has become a hindrance for most of us in pushing forward.

Don't know that any of what I just wrote contains any answers, but I am definitely willing to share my experiences and learn from others if possible.

On Feb.03.2004 at 10:02 AM
graham’s comment is:

why is freelance considered less wonderful than being an employee in the u.s.?

freelance (or similar) is the only useful model for any creative endeavour; any other way and you might as well work in a bank.

On Feb.03.2004 at 10:11 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Graham, being an employee gives the sense of "security" I guess. I am not disagreeing with you, I'm just saying.

> I know that i would surely find it useful.

Would anybody be willing to post some of their invoices? You can "blur" out the pricing, the client's name, even your name, heck, you can even post anonymously for once´┐Ż this could help get something interesting going maybe? Just a suggestion.

On Feb.03.2004 at 05:09 PM
Juval’s comment is:

So I'm not the only one that constantly hears "make it pop". It feels good in a way to know I'm not alone. It's still frustrating though.

To me it seems ever since the computer and graphic software became atainable by the masses, everyone is a "designer". Designer in a box.

How do you communicate with clients with no design sense? How do you explain that there is a valid reason for what you do? What if you communicate that and they don't care? Do you give up and give them what they want? If you do, does that make you a yes-man? A push over? Or are you still strong because you've exhausted every resource, let it go and know you gave it your best shot?

What happens when you try to educate and work hard to understand them and in the end they still don't like you? What happens when you can't afford to lose them? Or if you're in a position where just ending that one relationship can damage your relationship with other clients because of word of mouth?

These are all questions I'm constantly asking and trying to figure out.

I'm lost. I can't even get my thoughts together because of the frustration. I don't want this to become a bitching session so I'll go clear my thoughts.

Thanks to all of you. I've wanted an intellectual, creative outlet and I think I may have found it.

On Feb.03.2004 at 09:55 PM