The professional growth of a freelance designer is an ever-evolving avenue, always winding and seldom smooth. Or at least that’s how it was when we were all starting out. We decided to take on this path hoping we’d find creative and financial rewards at the end of the road, only to find ourselves already lost on the beaten path on the first few clients that come our way.
If this was not the case for you, then I commend you for being smart about your work. Unfortunately for me, I had to learn the hard way. One thing is sure though, I’m not alone in this experience. We’ve all had our share of mistakes and blunders, especially in the area of dealing with our clients. If I only knew the things I know today, my journey wouldn’t have been too rough, and I’d probably have a higher rate-of-client-return.
But, the beauty with mistakes is they provide us with the opportunity to learn and grow as professional individuals. They reveal to us where we went wrong and teach us how we could properly react next time so we don’t make the same mistake twice. In this article, I will share the top rookie mistakes I made while I was starting out so you could learn from them and hopefully gain some insight on how you could grow as a professional designer.
1. Not Communicating Enough
This may sound simple enough, but this is probably the number one mistake I wish I could take back for more than a couple of times before. I probably would have had a higher client-rate-of-return had I simply communicated better. You see, freelance work is all about relationships. You may not be the best designer out there, but if you manage to establish a good rapport with a client, they’ll stick with you from then on. Next time they need a design thing, you’re their guy.
And how do you establish a good relationship with a client? Simple, by communicating effectively. Respond to their emails right away, address their questions when they come, and send them daily updates with where you are on the project. Heck, send them Christmas cards when the project falls on the season. Of course it goes without saying you should be polite and courteous when communicating with them.
Next time a client sends an email, don’t dally or put off responding simply because you don’t feel like dealing with a client right now or you don’t want to switch gears because you’re in the middle of the project. Ever contacted customer support via email? Don’t you just love those who respond right away in a very professional and courteous manner? So much so that you wouldn’t mind taking the survey that follows just to give them a good review? Well that’s how your client is going to feel if you treat them the same way. Next time they need a design service, they’ll contact the one person who made them feel valued — you.
Pro-tip: If you’re using some form of mail app, try putting your clients on the starred/favorites/VIP list. This way you know right away when a client has contacted you without having to sift through piles of email that come in daily.
2. Not Doing Enough Research
During my first few years as a designer, I was once asked by a client to create some fancy, heavily artistic marketing materials for him, and I remember sitting in front of my computer feeling stumped. I was used to designing stern, corporate materials, and designing artsy laid back materials was a fresh challenge to me. I remember just diving into it right away with what I perceived to be artistic without considering good ‘ol Mr. Google for references. Long story short, the volley of feedbacks took longer than they should have, and I had to put in more hours than what I have quoted.
Research plays an important role in the design process. The factors that play into creating the ideal output should be identified and addressed, as they allow you to gain more understanding and idea on the creative direction you would take. Such factors involve: the core identity of the brand, their target market, their competition, established authorities, etc. There’s also the design aspect: Their colors, what design style to use, typefaces to consider, the number of work hours it will take you, etc.
If you have a professional client, more or less they would have addressed most of these factors for you. They would provide a detailed brief on what you need to know to get a firmer grasp on the project. Even so, a bit of research of your own would still be very beneficial to you as you will be able to enter into the project well equipped.
Lastly, taking ample amount of research will better guide you on charging for the project. Providing an accurate quote depends on multiple factors that vary from project to project. Doing research will give you an idea on the duration of the work, the complexity of the design, and other factors which you take into consideration when you charge for a design.
Pro-tip: Head to Google and search for the terms ‘graphic designer client questionnaire’ to download ready-made questionnaire which you could customize. These are usually Word documents which your client could fill up and send back to you. They contain the most common questions a designer would answered in order to have a firmer wrap around a project.
3. Submitting Too Much (or not enough) Options
Ever had one client you wanted to impress so much you created 4-6 design options for him? You looked at all your designs and thought “Hey, these are all good. Any one of these are a good candidate for the winning choice.” You feel ready and a bit excited, so you prepare them for submission, create mockups, and give them a proper send-off to your client. After hitting that send/upload button, you feel good. You were able to showcase your skills, creativity, and out-of-the-box thinking.
When your client responds, he says he likes everything! He is impressed and has commended you for a job well done. In fact, everything is so good he needs time to decide which design to go for, and mentions he’ll ask what his wife thinks about the designs. A few hours later he responds with an email stating he prefers design-A overall, but with the typography of design-G, color scheme of design-D, and the icon from design-E.
What you now have is a mash-up of your designs, forming an entirely new design which the client – not you – conceptualized. This may not be such a bad thing if the results turn out good, but this is not often the case with these half-baked, dress up concepts.
While showing too many ideas to a client has its own benefits, often times this approach is counter productive. Given a lot of options, people tend to over-analyze things, much like a kid in a candy store. This can lead to frustrating experiences, and disrupt the workflow of the project. It’s good to have choices for the client because that will involve him in the process, but avoid giving him too much.
So how many design options should you send to your client? The best answer would be 3. ‘Three’ symbolically stands for unity, balance, and completeness, and is associated with the rules of compositions as in Rule of Odds and Rule of Thirds. Unless you and your client have explicitly agreed otherwise, presenting three options is a good start.
Pro-tip: If you have more than 3 design options, decide which of those are the top three, and submit only those. Keep the remainder as a fall-back plan should your client ask for other options.
4. Not Asking for a Downpayment
If there was a list that ranked the most common mistakes freelancers make, this would probably be in the top 5. I can definitely say I made this mistake during my early years, and I’m sure I’m not the only one in this statement. It’s very common, and it’s one of the mistakes rookie designers must learn to avoid if they want to improve their freelance services.
But first let’s define what a downpayment is. Some refer to it as a deposit, a security fee, or prepayment. They are essentially the same thing, and is simply defined as a percentage of a fee charged to the client prior to starting any form of work.
So why ask for a downpayment? There a couple good reasons why charging a downpayment can be beneficial to both you and your client. For starters, it will keep both parties honest. It will weed out those clients who are serious about working with you, from those who are not. Taking a project would generate a demand for your time, and you as the freelancer should make sure that your time is well-appropriated.
One of the worst things that could happen to you as a designer is being stiffed on payment. I once designed a logo for a client – without asking for a downpayment – and have gone far into the project. The client has already picked a design, but decided to back out at the last minute, never to be heard of again, without paying the agreed fee. I ended up putting time for nothing.
Sadly, this is one of the most common and frustrating things that can happen to designers. Luckily, a simple solution to that is to just charge a deposit fee. By doing so, both client and designer would be equally committed and motivated to see the project through. It’s like day dreaming to go on a vacation. The moment you purchase a plane ticket for the trip, that’s it. It’s no longer a dream. You’re invested.
That process of easing into the mindset of being committed also applies to clients who pay the deposit. As well as with you, the designer. You start becoming serious about the project the moment you’ve been paid a downpayment. It becomes a positive pressure for you to see the project through.
Plus, another obvious benefit when you ask for a downpayment is you will be able to pay for project-related costs, such as web-hosting for your client, or that particular font you need to complete the design. These are real costs that play into the design after all.
Lastly, charging a downpayment would make you look professional. Your client will recognize that you have a payment policy in place, and will respect you as a no-nonsense, sensible professional.
Pro-tip: If you are in your early years as a freelancer and feel that you still need to prove yourself, or maybe the client is quite hesitant to shell out some payment because you don’t have that much experience yet, charge a downpayment anyway. But lower the amount down to 20% – 25%. When you’ve grown your portfolio after some time, then you can start charging up to 50% – which is the preference of most professional designers.
Over-promising tends to happen a lot when discussing deadlines and managing work load. In our world of deadlines and cutoffs, it’s so easy to loosely agree to short turnarounds in our desire to impress our clients. And while stepping your best foot forward is always encouraged, missing a deadline simply because you overlooked your workload is a big disservice to both yourself and your client. You wouldn’t want to develop a reputation of over-promising, and then under-delivering.
I once had a client who asked me to design a couple of graphics for his niche sites. I needed the extra income at the time, so I easily succumbed to his suggested deadline – which was in two days time. I quickly gauged my current workload and thought “Hmmm, I can do it” when in fact, I already had too much work that also needed to be submitted within the next 48 hours.
Long story short, I wasn’t able to focus on his project, missed the deadline, and had to apologize for it. To make matters worse, I promised the client I’ll have something for him the next day. Yet another case of over-promising! Only now I have 24 hours to complete everything instead of the original 2 days. Talk about digging your own grave! I had to rush everything that day. I eventually completed the work, but ended up submitting a half-baked, poorly executed design. Needless to say, the client was disappointed when he saw what I managed to come up with in supposedly three days. I never crossed roads with him again.
The lesson to this is quite simple: unless you’re being paid ridiculously, be realistic and learn to say no. If you think you need a few days to produce a quality design, communicate it first before striking a deal with your client. Most of the time, a client would understand and respect that, and would still work with you. Again, it’s all about proper communication and being professional. Treat your clients well, and they’ll come back to you for your services next time.
Pro-tip: Do the opposite: Under-promise, then over-deliver.
6. Not Proofing my Own Work
To proof one’s work is basically to meticulously examine it for mistakes, errors, and flaws. In design, such mistakes could include typos, misalignments, overlooking a design requirement – generally anything that would render your work unfit for publication.
The idea is, we as designers should make sure our work is tightly knit before they’re sent off to clients. They don’t have to be perfect – trust me they won’t, the client will always have a feedback – but the least we could do is make sure we meet all the specifications, make no petty errors, and leave all chances for feedback directed towards improving your work, not fixing it.
There’s nothing like consistently making errors to make you look unprofessional and incompetent. These words may sound really strong and harsh, but that’s how I felt when I made the mistake of always rushing to submit my work without performing any QA session on it. I was working on an infographic back then, and the most common mistake I made was failing to implement a feedback simply because I overlooked it. At first it was fine as I had a kind client. But as soon as it continued and began to form a poor work pattern, it got real embarrassing on my part. It was one of those hair-pulling-due-to self-frustration moments. Suffice to say, I never landed a second gig with the client.
These mistakes often happen when our minds simply aren’t into the project as they ought to be, whether because we’re juggling multiple projects, or just plain burnt out. Either way, none of these are valid excuses for submitting mediocre work. The clients paid for our creative services, the least we could do is be professional about it.
Today, I always proof my work before submitting them. Even if it’s late at night and I’m rushing to hit the sack. Better yet, I sleep on it first and proofread the next day if I’m good on my time.
Here’s my simple QA process which I perform on every project. First, I quickly scan through it, looking for anything that sticks out. If I spot anything, I correct it right away in the source file. I then continue by cross-checking it with the client’s brief or instructions, making sure I implemented everything. If everything has been met, I go through the entire thing again, slow and up close this time, looking for any mistakes, particularly the small ones, I might have missed the first time. Any flaw I spot I always correct right away in the source file. I keep doing this until I’m satisfied my draft is ready for feedback.
This entire process doesn’t take more than 5 minutes really – unless it’s a big project – and going through the extra effort makes it so worth it when you know you will be submitting a tightly-knit design. Plus your client will thank you for it.
Pro-tip: When working with projects that involve any form of text, copy-paste everything from the brief. Don’t attempt to try to type things yourself, even if they’re just small words, to leave no room for mistakes. Trust me, typographical errors are one of the most common mistakes often overlooked by the designer because his mind is practically all over the place during the entire design process. Make it habit, and it’ll pay off in the long volley of feedback phases.
7. Doing Print Work without Bleeds. On RGB. At 72 DPI.
Ah yes, the fine art of print-design. They’re a different breed altogether, with different requirements. And this is where most rookies make the mistake of approaching the project the same way they would a digital project, say a website design. While these projects are locked within the confines of a computer monitor, print designs are actually, well, printed into the physical world. To make sure they print out exactly the way we want them to look like, some requirements need to be met.
For starters, it’s all the three things mentioned in the header above – setup your document with bleeds taken into consideration, work with a CMYK color profile, and have a resolution of at least 300dpi.
Bleeds in the print industry mean your design extends beyond your regular paper dimensions. Or they “bleed” off your canvas. Your design will actually be printed on a slightly bigger paper material – just a couple of millimeters on each side. This is most especially required if you have a colored or photographic background that spans the entire document from edge to edge. This bleeding can extend for a few millimeters or a fraction of an inch, which is then trimmed off post-printing. The reason why this is practiced so that there is a bit of extra space on the document to account for movement of the paper and possible design inconsistencies, especially when they are trimmed off by batches.
Basically what we want to do as designers is we setup our document with bleeds taken into consideration, so the print guys could properly print our designs without any unwanted borders. To learn more, here’s a detailed guide by Chris Spooner on how to setup bleeds on the most popular graphic softwares. It was a post made way back in 2008, but not much has changed as far as setting up the bleeds in those softwares are concerned.
As for your color profile, print projects should be setup at CMYK instead of RGB. The basic rule is: RGB for screen viewing, CMYK for print. CMYK stands for the 4 inks used when printing: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and the Key color, which is black. One of the reasons why you should use CMYK instead of RGB when printing is because not all colors produced by RGB can be replicated by CMYK. Particularly brighter and more vibrant colors. This is because when printing with the CMYK inks, colors are achieved by diminishing from the white color, which is the paper color. Theoretically, combining cyan, magenta, and yellow in equal densities should result to black. Whereas in RGB, this is the opposite and white is the additive color that can produce brighter, more vibrant tones.
As for your resolution, you should work with at least 300 dpi (dots per inch). What this means is, for every inch in your printed material, there will be 300 ink dots printed. The idea is, the higher the number of dots per inch in your print, the more crisp and sharp your printed graphic will look like. Usually, a 300dpi setting would suffice as any number higher to this would not show any noticeable difference.
The reason why this is a common mistake among rookie designers is because they overlook setting this up, thus ending up with the default setting, which is a document at 72 dpi. Printing this kind of material produces a pixelated, fuzzy print quality. So set it up properly right before you start. It’s not that hard to miss putting up this setting, as it’s usually among the options you are shown every time you start a new document.
Pro-tip: When working with print projects, always package your files for the print guys. This means you send your source file (PSD, AI, INDD), along with all the fonts, images, and all other assets you used on the project. Zip them all up in one folder and send it along. This will make things easier for the print guys should they need to fix something in the design to achieve the best print results.
I admit, I still commit some of the mistakes listed here on some occasions. Luckily, not as much as I did before. I have a better client-rate-of-return now just by learning from the mistakes listed above and applying them. Like I said, the journey of a freelance designer is ever-evolving. Best we can do is be smart about our methods, learn from our mistakes, and carry on.
How about you, what mistakes did you make that taught you a valuable lesson in your freelancing career? Feel free to share them with us on the comments section.