By Tobias van Schneider Published October 21, 2020
If you’ve ever done freelance work, you’ve experienced it. When briefing you on the project, the client seems open and relaxed. “We trust you,” they say, “go wild.”
You dive into the project excited. Finally, you have full creative freedom, a client who gets it. You do the work, confident in your direction and taking every creative liberty you were offered.
Then you deliver your work and the client hates it.
What happened? Were you misaligned on the direction? Did the client change their minds? Did you just miss the mark?
While all of the above may be true to an extent, it's likely not that simple.
"Constraints are necessary for creative work. Without them, nothing happens."
Full creative freedom doesn't exist.
If you haven’t defined in clear terms what the client needs or wants, you’ll be taking shots in the dark with your work and hoping something hits the mark. Usually it won’t, because the client has nothing to judge it against besides their current mood and subjective taste.
Always start a project with some sort of discovery and briefing. And, whenever possible, write your own briefs – even if the client has already provided one. This allows you to define the terms of the project in your own words, and make sure your understanding of the project aligns with your client’s. It’s also an opportunity to set a tone and energize your client at the beginning, affirming their choice to bring you on board.
The client may say you have full freedom on this project, but you don’t. More likely, they aren't communicating or aware of what those limitations are. So you can help define them, and you should charge for this process. Include a discovery phase in your estimates so you get paid for it, the client knows to prepare for it and it’s accounted for in your timeline.
Once you’ve defined the measures of success clearly, you can find creative freedom within them. And you’ll have something to point back to when you present your work. Since you’ve set the objectives and limitations beforehand, you can better justify your decisions, find a clear solution or bill them for a new one. The client may disagree with your solution, but they can’t disagree with the terms you agreed upon together.
Constraints are necessary for creative work. Without them, nothing happens. Our minds spiral into dozens of directions and we eventually despair. Full “creative freedom” doesn’t exist unless you’re doing a personal art project – and even then, constraints are usually helpful.
Ask questions early and often
If you’re unclear about anything, even a seemingly small detail, ask. Don’t soften or bury your question with phrases like “Just to confirm” or “I was wondering if you could clarify” or “just making sure." Don’t worry about sounding amateur. Just ask the question.
When you ask simple, immediate questions, you get clear, helpful answers. Every question you ask reduces the chance of misunderstandings down the road.
"Never assume you and your client are on the same page."
Break up the process
If you sense you and your client might be misaligned, or it’s happened in the past, then you may need to break up your process. Don’t disappear for two weeks while you go into design mode. Add more phases to your process to keep your client in the loop and keep you headed in the right direction.
Build a workshop into your discovery phase. Add more layers of review and approval. Schedule a weekly, 20-minute check-in call. These are your tools to close the gap between you and your client. You won’t always need them, but if it seems like you do, you should use them.
Communicate every step of the way
Never assume you and your client are on the same page. Take notes, send follow up emails and reiterate takeaways at the end of your phone calls. This is not to make a legal case out of your project (although if your client relationship is to that point, read this). It’s to make sure you’re on the same page and agreed on the deliverables.
Every time you share a brief update about where you are and where you’re headed, it will make your client feel more involved and invested in the final result. The more involved your client, the more they’ll feel they did the work, and the more they’ll like the final result. Make them feel like your work is their own, and you’ll be more likely to succeed.
Keep your communication clear and concise. Nobody wants to receive a long email recalling a meeting verbatim. If you overwhelm your client with long, “let me know your thoughts” emails, you likely won’t get a reply. Most people will ignore those emails and eventually grow impatient as you pester them or stall the project waiting for an answer.
Keep it short and snappy, and give your client an easy way out. Let them pick between two options or set them up to give you a one-word answer: yes or no. If you have multiple questions, don’t send them all at once. If you must send more than one question or action item at a time, number the list so they can reply in an orderly manner.
Designers must also be project managers, even if you already have one on your team, and especially if you're working alone. If a client says "the sky is the limit," it's your job to bring that limit back down to earth. It may seem appealing at first, but a loose, poorly defined project won't do you any favors. To feel free within a design project, you need boundaries.
Hi, I'm Tobias, a German designer living in New York. I'm the founder of DESK, nice to meet you!