A few years ago I was interviewing a designer for a job. We ended up passing on him. Not because the work was bad, it wasn’t. And not because he interviewed badly, he didn’t. We passed on him, because while reviewing his portfolio, we came across work for a client I won’t name. Let’s just say their product kills people.
“Why did you work on that?” I asked.
There are two answers I would have accepted from him. “I don’t have a problem with their business model—in fact, I think there are too many people in the world.” Weird? Sure. But hey, he would have been making a stand. The second answer I’d have accepted would’ve been, “They’re terrible, but I really needed the money and had no other options.” I can’t begrudge anyone making a living, and we’ve all done things we’re not proud of.
Instead he looked surprised that I was asking the question and said something to the effect of it just being the next project on his plate.
I asked him if he agreed with how they made their money. He replied in the negative — he’d just done the design. I told him we didn’t take on any projects that we couldn’t ethically stand behind.
And here I’ll quote him: “Must be nice.”
And that’s when I decided not to hire him.
Now, I’m not trying to embarrass this individual, who I’m sure will have a solid design career, and I might have even done the same thing at his age. But as a designer, hell, as ANY type of craftsman, you are responsible for what you help to put in the world. You are defined by the clients you take on, and you can only stand as proud as the work you do and its benefit to society entitles you.
The clients you choose to take on define you.
In ten years of business (Christ!) at Mule, we’ve taken on projects we’ve been personally excited about, projects we thought had a fantastic benefit to the world, projects we thought were great fun, projects with subject matter we were curious about, and yes, even projects that were taken primarily to keep the lights on (if any clients are reading this please rest assured that yours did NOT fit into that category), but we’ve never taken on a project that we were either ashamed of or knew from the start would be problematic.
The former I can only leave you with your own moral compass to wrestle, but on the latter I think I may be able to pass along a few tricks to help you pick out the right clients and ensure the mutual success of your business and theirs.
The business development process should go both ways. They’re trying to decide if they want to work with you, and you’re trying to decide whether you want to work with them. Are they tackling a problem that’s interesting to you? Do you have the core competencies to solve it? Is there room for you in the problem-solving process? Can they pay you?
Over the years the one constant that we’ve been able to rely on is that how a potential client behaves in the business development process is EXACTLY how they will behave during the project. Trust your gut. If they’re slow to return your calls now, while they’re trying to engage you, they’ll be just as slow later. If gathering requirements or success metrics is hard, then gathering feedback will be just as hard, if not harder. If biz dev turns into a May Day parade of red flags then disengage. You will not be able to do good work, and neither you nor the client will be well-served.
“Don’t worry. We know exactly what we need.”
Oh, thank God. Because I was shitting my pants wondering if I’d know where to place the buttons and rounded corners and other doodads.
Beware of clients that wait to call you until they have a perfect diagram of what they need. If they’re not coming to you for strategy and problem-solving, they’re not coming to you for design, they’re coming to you for production. And if you take on production work, you don’t get to call yourself a designer. (Yes, there’s a union. And we’re vicious.)
Look for clients that have clear goals, not detailed punchlists.
From a client’s point of view, hire a designer to help you get to a solution. Not to execute on one. You wouldn’t show up at a database analyst’s door with a fully realized database schematic. Don’t show up at a designer’s door with a drawing of a tuna can.
You know that douchebag at the bar who walks up to your friends and says, “You know, I usually date models…” Yeah, that guy. The client services version of that is, “You know, we’ve got some really big name agencies who’d love to get this job.” Great, go call them. Don’t work for someone who tries to make you feel they’re lowering themselves to work with you. Good work comes from mutual respect.
No, just no. Never work with someone who shows up begrudgingly. It’s not going to work out.
I’m wary of working with startups in general. At least on their initial work. Even when they’re good, smart people, they’re people with dreams. People who probably walked away from their comfortable full-time jobs to follow a dream they’ve been designing in their heads for months or years. What they need is someone to flesh that out for them. They’re not usually in a mindset to have their dream messed with, nor should they be. Remember how mom dreamed of being a filmmaker and dad talked her into waiting until after having you and now she drinks? They’ll be better clients in a year, when you can do dream analysis, by which I mean analytics.
Someone who is in the business of selling pants will still be selling pants in three to four months, provided they’re still selling anything. But when someone selling pants comes to you with an idea to sell toasters, beware. Why are they getting into a new business? Is it a natural growth of their existing business? Does their expertise in their current business translate to their new business? Or is it an opportunistic attempt to “fill a hole in the market?” That hole may close before the project is over, and they’ll want to move to the next opportunity. Want to redo all that work? No, because they’ll want you to do it for free.
Which brings us to…
You are in business. You need to be as confident about money as you are about design.
Beware of clients who want you to work for equity. There’s too much there beyond your control. And especially beware of clients who tell you the work you do together will look great in your portfolio. For one, it probably won’t. A client who asks you to work for free already disrespects you. How do you think that’ll play out during the project? Think you’re getting portfolio-level work out of that? Secondly, you’re in business to make money. I’m lucky enough that I get to do what I love for a living, but only because I make a living off it. Working for portfolio fodder is the same as dying young and leaving a good-looking corpse.
Never work for free. Any work you take on for free will get pushed aside for paying work. That does neither you nor the client any favors. Neither of you will respect each other’s time. If the situation merits it, work on a discounted rate. But submit a budget showing the actual rate, with the discount applied.
Money is a standard part of any business transaction. I’ll go over strategies for talking about money in a later post, but as far as selecting clients goes, watch out for clients who don’t understand the financial value of what they’re hiring you for. In 95% of the jobs we’ve taken on, our clients have met or exceeded their success metrics after our work was done. Can we take full credit for that? Sure! Well, no, probably not, but it’s safe to say we were definitely a part of that.
Will following these rules help you get better clients? Probably. Are they failsafe? Oh, hell no. But they’re based on many, many years of trial and error, messing up, dusting myself off and trying again. As always, I’m not advocating for a single way of getting real or getting things done; I’m telling you how it worked out for me. Your mileage will certainly vary. Above all, the best advice I can give you in selecting your clients is to be confident, treat everyone with the same respect you want them to treat you, trust your gut, and iron your shirt.