Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

The Business Side Needs Equal Devotion

The business side of a design operation is often less appealing than crossing an eight-lane highway blindfolded, but it is a necessary element that separates successful designers from the rest of the riff raff. Some may argue design is a commodity, but strong communication and attention to detail are not, and never will be.

One of the things that blasting 99designs got me thinking about, besides my penchant for belting out hyperbolic superlatives like a methed out Walt Whitman, is what defines a professional designer from the rest of the trash crowding the scene. In other words, what makes a designer the real deal? I don’t know much about how other people do it, but I can relate a few things from my years as a freelancer.

I also don’t know if this will turn into a series of posts. (At this point, committing to a series of blog posts on anything beyond the status of my big toe feels a bit daunting. The spirit is there, but the time is not.) But I thought it was worth honing in on a few topics related to the business side of creative. Yes, I am well aware of the fact that there are tons of books about this stuff, but the few bits below have proved to be indispensable ingredients to my success sustainability.

Have a Formal Proposal and Contract Process

My proposal and contract process has been honed from years of feedback and trial and error. By design, it’s not that complicated. I engage the client in some sort of discovery conversation via e-mail, phone or meatspace. This provides me with enough information to craft a proposal. The proposal is largely templated, and I only edit three or four sections between projects, but clients receive a highly detailed document that feels as if it were written just for them.

Competitively, my proposal is probably one of my strongest weapons. I constantly receive strong feedback on its thoroughness and writing, and there have been several instances where the quality directly affected me winning the job.

Bill On Time and Without Apologies

It is important to bill on time, at the specified amount, without apologies. The contract should specify when these bills can be expected, the terms for them, and the amount. Clients should never be surprised on any of these fronts, because nothing jacks a relationship faster than funny business with money; if an amount is going to be higher than what was originally agreed upon, the client should know well in advance, in writing. Be good with invoices, and your business will benefit.

On the flip side, clients are pleasantly surprised when the invoice comes in under budget. Sometimes, whether the timesheet backs me up or not, I’ll shave an hour or two off of the projected time, and the last invoice will be slightly under my original estimate. It’s a cheap shot, and arguably pandering, but it makes for some feel-good e-mail hugs, so shut up.

The Little Things, Like, You Know, Communication

Every business requires meticulous and mind-numbing number juggling and detail tracking. Stay on top of this crap, because they multiply like gremlins. There is a multitude of applications to help you with this, but the central piece is always customer communication. My gmail account is tricked out like a Bentley in a Jay Z video with hundreds of contacts, routing rules and descriptive labels, but a lot of people with European cars and corner offices like expensive CRM applications to accomplish the same thing.

Designers who succeed cannot do it on skill alone. I’ve said it 9,000 times before and I’ll say it 9,000 times before I die — more often than not, being a good designer has absolutely, quantifiably nothing to do with design. It’s about immediate follow-up, proactive lead generation, relentless headhunting, and transparent diplomacy. It’s about kissing ass and still getting your way. It’s about managing expectations, exceeding those expectations, and making it look effortless.

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commentary + criticism

Rachel Goldstein

wrote the following on Wednesday November 5, 2008

Nice post. I think to be a successful freelance designer, you have to be a person who can juggle a zillion things at once. You need to live and breath design. When you go to sleep, you dream about getting back to the computer to finish up your design. In the shower, you don’t see the white shower walls, instead you are within your head figuring out how to manipulate typography in order to make your layout work. When you are feeding your baby cereal, you are see shapes and fonts inside the cereal. Sounds weird when you actually describe it, but a designer needs to love figuring out design dilemmas.

BUT, in order to successfully run a design business, you also need to do the business end of things. You need to promote your business endlessly. You need to network with other designers for business growth. You have to sell yourself every chance you can get. You need to manage your time wisely. You need to make sure that you keep your financial books up to date and that you are making enough money. There are so many other things that you need to know how to do. If you don’t mind only getting a few hours of sleep every night, and all of the other things that I mentioned sound like a mirror-image of you, then yes, you ARE a professional freelance designer.

I hope that this helps.


Ross Johnson

wrote the following on Tuesday December 23, 2008

Great post, and I agree completely.

I love the point that at the end of the day how well you design is second best to how well you exceed what your client expects. A lot of that is more about how closely you communicate with them rather than producing something usable and beautiful.

I know of hundreds of companies that are quite successful despite design being their weak side because they are great at managing client expectations.

I find that blocking out a half hour at the start of the day and a half hour at the end of the day to follow up and touch base with clients about what is going on with their project. If you contact two clients a day it is pretty easy to make sure everyone is in the loop.