Starting a New Project with a Client: My Communication Essentials

Recently I was asked an interesting question by a friend who coaches small business owners. She asked me and a few other artists what we need from clients when we start a new project with them. This got my wheels turning a bit.  As I’ve been freelancing for about a year and a half, and working as a designer for about three years now I’ve had some time to summarize my thoughts on the subject. Perhaps this will be helpful for those of you working with designers, or those who are designers trying to sort this out for yourselves.

When I’m starting a new freelance project the essential information I need to know up front is (1) what is the scope of the project, (2) when do they need it to be completed, and (3) what is their budget. (More simply: “The scope? How Long? How Much?”)

The Scope:
Any project starts off with a discussion of the requirements of the job. This happens in different ways: in person, over the phone, or via email (my preferred method.) While talking directly to my client means that I can ask all of my essential questions up front, it also has it’s disadvantages. We have no written record of the conversation which I can reference in the future. This is why I generally prefer email. The information I like from a client up front is an emailed list of bullet points outlining the project with all of the job’s essential content attached. (copy, manuscripts, essential graphics, flowcharts, etc) Even if we converse in person, or on the phone initially, a written record is essential to me because I can reference it later.  It’s very very helpful to have an emailed list of expectations and essential content for a project up front. Once we’ve discussed these details, they may be laid out in the contract/project proposal/etc.

“How Long?”
The timeline of a project is vitally important to me because it helps me know where to place the client on my schedule. Often I’m juggling several projects at once and need to know where to place their project in my queue. Furthermore, if it’s a rush job, it could effect my overall rates depending on how busy I am. If a client forgets to tell/send me their deadlines in our initial exchange then I have to reply back. This interchange may eat up valuable time. It’s best to have that information up front.

“How much?”
The elephant in the room. As a freelancer I’ve learned not to avoid it, but smaller companies, friends, and folks who’ve never worked with artists before tend to be timid with the subject. I’d rather have that information outright because, honestly, the project hinges on it. Unless I’m doing the work for charity, or to build my portfolio, I’m concerned about rates, so it’s best to discuss it upfront. Even more, I don’t want my clients to be afraid to ask me about my rates. I’ve thoroughly thought them through and am not ashamed of what I charge. So they should not be embarrassed to ask me about them. Moreover, I’m always willing to discuss different payment options, flat rates (one cost for the whole project rather than hourly), or other options that might work better for them. Most artists I’ve talked to are more than happy to work with their client on this.

These three items are what I find most important to discuss before working on any project. Avoiding any one of these may eat up valuable time and money! If anyone has any additional thoughts/comments I’d love to hear them! I know I’ve certainly not thought of everything, and am interested in constructive input as I work on building client relationships and my company!

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