Business design advice to keep you sane & prosper

Inspired by the recent “My Top 10 Business Design Failure” presentation in the Notebook, I thought about this from my business standpoint and decided to share my own business lessons and thoughts. I’ll keep this short(ish) and bittersweet.

Working without a down payment

Not sure why designers do this, but I receive quite a few emails asking me if I obtain a down payment. The answer is yes and no. Yes, I require money upfront, but no I don’t consider this a down payment. It’s considered a retainer. If you are a busy designer, most likely you are scheduling work well in advance. In order to secure working together for a date that extends beyond a month I require a 25% retainer with an additional 25% upon the start date of the project. Never start work without payment.

Handing over files / launching before final payment is received

I’m certain I will catch a few disagreements on this one, but I make this statement out of sheer confidence: Don’t deliver files until final payment is received. I hear one too many stories about designers finishing work and receiving final payment six months later, or worse, not at all. Plus it only takes one bad experience for you to learn. You don’t walk into the grocery store and say I will pay you in full for the milk later, so why should you run your business any differently.

Attending to the “needed it yesterday” crowd

Great design and successful solutions take time to achieve (sorry clients, we don’t have these incredible ideas stored away for later). Great work evolves and transcends over rigorous thinking, designing, testing, re-thinking and more. Abiding by the “needed the website yesterday” deadline or other unrealistic deadlines often ends in bad business or let down. On a similar note, I often find that when you ask clients why they are in such a rush they aren’t really sure of why. Educate them on your process.

Too many concepts

Everyone likes options, but showing too many only creates more of a problem. Personally, I hate going to a restaurant with a menu of 100 dishes to choose from. Not only does it take me an hour to decide, but it usually results in me picking the worst one. Same goes for design work. Showing less is more.

Not billing by the hour

Here’s another point that I know will keep the comments below busy, but after making the mistake my first year of freelancing I’ve learned that billing by the hours spent makes everyone happier. Although I know this is more difficult having clients understand and conform to these terms, let me explain a bit how I go about this.

First and foremost, let the client know that you bill by the hour at the rate of $XXX.XX (manage expectations for the get-go). Most clients will want to know how much they will spend on the effort in full, so what I typically do is provide them with a starting price based on the scope of the project and what I suggest. I tell them based on this quote I am able to allocate XXX hours into that particular endeavor, however anything over will billed hourly and added onto the final invoice (also I am also able to obtain the initial payment based on this quote).

I also supply my clients with milestones documented in the signed contract — yes, that’s another mistake: not working with a signed contract — this way we are able to stay on schedule and allows the client to see how the process fits into the budget. Which leads me to my next point…

Not obtaining a budget

In the words of “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, “Everyone has their price.” Kindly let your clients know that sharing their budget saves a lot of headache and time for the both of you. It allows designers to determine how much time they can allocate to a project and enables us to advise the client on how best to use their money.

Doing what you do best

I’m not going to debate if designers should code and if coders should design, but both sides should have a solid understanding of the others medium at the least. I will however stand by the statement that you should stick to what you do best. If you’re a designer that knows how to code, but doesn’t enjoy it, then why do it? Give yourself the chance to do what you enjoy by bringing in a developer that has the same passion for what he enjoys. Trust me, the work in its entirety will show for it and you will give yourself to grow more, not to mention live a happier life and lead a happier business.

Good design and good business is about teaching

If you wanted to make things look pretty, maybe you should have been a painter. Good design and even better designers teach their clients and share your experiences with others. Educating clients add more value than a rounded corner button. Transparency goes a hell of a long way in our industry. Actually any industry for that matter (businesses take note). Teaching allows you to formulate your own opinion and point of view, which helps to become a better “salesman” (I apologize now for using that word),  get more work and demonstrating confidence in your decisions.

Understanding design is a craft

In the words of Mark Boulton, “Web design is a craft. And like other crafts – letterpress printing or book-binding – they’re not generally taught in colleges or universities.” Being in this fast moving industry means you need to constantly be on top of it and both want and need to continue maturing to prosper. For those that don’t know this already, but working in the web right now is the place to be and it’s even better as a designer with the amount of work that is out there currently. Hone your skills and pay the bills folks. Don’t forget to have fun while doing it though.

Discussion and Comments

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  1. Clint says:

    This was a really great read. I used to work for various individuals in the past and I watched them make some of the blunders you mentioned above. I myself got burned out from it all years ago, but I’m finally making a comeback. This time around I am working for myself, and I want it to be as positive as possible. I will take your advice to heart!

  2. Mark says:

    Great Article. I agree 100% with not handing over the files until the final payment has been received. When you buy other products or services, you are expected to make payment immediately. Its no different when delivering a website.

  3. Rachel says:

    Really, really useful article Brian! It’s good to see these different tips – totally agree with not showing too many concepts. The last thing you want to do is confuse the client by giving them too many choices – also agree about the contract! So, so important. Glad to see I’m doing most of these though :)

  4. Ethan Geyer says:

    Brian — what an excellent post! I don’t know how I haven’t happend upon your site until now, but I’m psyched that I finally did.

    One of the best things I ever did was switch to hourly billing. I love it, and I think it creates trust and mutual respect for my and the client’s time and money. (i.e. I’m not trying to rush through the project to “increase my hourly wage” and I’m really happy with what I bill).

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  5. web design says:

    I agree to all points but especially with working without downpayment.This is the biggest mistake done by the designers especially who are new to the industry.
    Thanks for sharing.

  6. Bryan says:

    Thanks for the article. I needed a kick in the pants. :)

  7. Jack Smith says:

    All excellent pieces of advice. Many of those mistakes I’ve made in the past, and I bet plenty of others have too. Still, you learn from your mistakes!

  8. Melvin Dy says:

    Greetings, Mr. Hoff.

    First off — great article. It outlines very well the challenges and mistakes that beginning web designers / developers face.

    In my capacity as copywriter and blogger for Digital Hiccups, LLC (a web design / development startup), I am writing a blog post that may cover similar topics. I am leaving this comment as a sign of good faith that I am not ripping off your stuff. Considering the quality of the content here, I think I will add a link to this article, if you don’t mind.

  9. i like your article your article is very informative keep posting

  10. Sherry says:

    I actually agree with everything you wrote. Although I have strayed outside the confines of almost all of the points, what was important was that it was only one at a time. For instance, I can give a client I’ve had a great working relationship with some leeway when it comes to launching their site before final payment. Or in the case of a long term client that needs maintenance work, I can often accommodate their requests, then bill them, and they pay and everyone is happy. Early on in my design career I fell victim to the, “trying to please everyone all the time” pitfall and that meant I was making some really poor decisions that cost me. But after only a few of those I grew up and learned how to do better business, how to educate clients first, and how to do more successful projects without getting taken advantage of.

  11. John says:

    Thanks for this great write up. About the 25% retainer fee, do require this right after you have sent the proposal out to the client? How do you avoid sending a 10-page proposal to someone who’s actually just scouring for project quotes?

  12. Charlee says:

    I just found your blog and glad I found it at the right time as I am literately about to take on a project and move into the freelance world!!

    Any other tips would be much appreciated!!

  13. Re: Working Hourly

    Jason Fried mentioned in his Inc Magazine article that working hourly “penalizes efficiency.” So he started billing by the project. But that led clients with bigger projects to be weary of bigger numbers with fixed prices. Which led to him billing by the page. I know each person has his or her story, but I keep thinking, if we get something done faster, why should we pay for it?

    Can anyone comment on this?

  14. Geet Purwar says:

    I agree with all your tips. Great article Brian!

  15. John says:

    Bryan, any chance that my question gets answered by you?

  16. Great article. My business is a year old and I found this very informative. There were several sections on here that I have already had to learn the hard way (especially the ‘attending to the need it now crowd’ – not worth it) and there are several valuable lessons on here I will take with me to refine my approach with clients in the future including not giving out so many options to choose from which I have begun to notice doesn’t work in my favor and not asking about the budget we are working with. Thanks for the great information.


  17. Kmax says:

    After more than 10 years of working in the design field I must say that I totally agree with Brian’s advice. Good job Brian!

  18. MP says:

    I’ve made the mistake of believing that I will be treated the same as I treat the client, and trust in their word or email, as they can trust mine.

    Big mistake – do you have more advice (or links) specifically relating to signed contracts? I’d love to get your views on that, seeing how all the advice here is so good.

Brian Hoff
About Brian Hoff: Designer, Writer and Speaker

I’m a graphic designer living in Brooklyn, New York who loves creating compelling and useful websites and memorable interactions across the web. When I’m not designing I can be found writing, speaking and occasionally part-time teaching at colleges — all on the subject of design. I started this blog to share my passion and experiences with designers and clients. I'm most active on Twitter; say hello: