Common Questions About Design Professionalism

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The design profession is full of happy folks, and understanding why so many designers enjoy their work is not hard. But not all are so happy. If you’re not careful, the joy of getting paid to pursue your passion can be tainted by the less joyous realities of the professional world.

You see, no matter how skilled you are as a designer, unless you are equally prepared in professional matters, your prospects will be limited and your circumstances compromised. This is true whether you work freelance, for an agency or in-house with a company.

Every week I hear from designers who are struggling to come to terms with these realities. Unhappy with their current circumstances, they write to ask for advice on improving their lot. Usually, they either claim not to understand how things got so bad, or they lay the blame somewhere other than at their own feet. In every case, however, the sole cause is their poor choices and lack of professional acumen. It needn’t be so.

Design is craft
Design is craft, but no matter how skilled you are as a designer, unless you are equally prepared in professional matters, your prospects will be limited and your circumstances compromised. Image source1

Professional Diagnosis

Here, I’ll paraphrase a few emails I’ve received from designers seeking advice. For each, I’ll diagnose the situation, explain in no uncertain terms what should have been done to avoid the situation and suggest a strategy the designer can follow to improve their circumstances.

These circumstances are not uncommon. Many of you reading this are likely experiencing similar problems… or may at some point in the future. I hope that the information, advice and strategies presented here will help you avoid these and other problems.

1. From A Freelance Designer

Question: “I recently graduated from design school and have started freelancing, and I’m wondering how you get clients? How do you get your name out there?”

This person may just as well have jumped out of an airplane and then asked, “Now, how do I go about finding parachute? Oh, and should I land somewhere specific? How exactly do I do that?” Even so, this lack of foresight is quite common. The immediate lesson is that you shouldn’t become an independent professional with little to no professional experience, with no prospects and knowing little to nothing about the business.

Fresh out of college or design school, you’re not a professional; you’re a technician (by definition, the opposite of professional). For the next few years you should be acquiring the skills, knowledge and understanding required of a design professional. The place to do this is in the company of peers and under the wings of mentors: at an agency or in house with a company. The successive lessons and built-in support system inherent in these environments are essential to a designer’s professional development.

The way to “get your name out there” is to establish a pattern of excellent work and a reputation for integrity over several years, while you let your agency or company carry the burden of acquiring clients and running the projects. If you are any good, in time you will earn the respect of your peers and superiors, establish a good reputation (spread by word of mouth) and acquire professional acumen. If in that time you make any effort at all to share your work and thoughts with the wider design or business community, your name will become known (through word of mouth and your portfolio or blog), and your reputation will be built on substance rather than on social marketing’s smoke and mirrors. This would be the appropriate time to embark on a freelance career.

As a freelancer, you’ll be running the whole show. So, you’ve got to be an ace at finances and budgeting; at speaking with and converting potential clients; at knowing what to discuss in order to weed out unsuitable potential clients; at preparing all manner of legal and project-specific documents, writing proposals, project management, intra-project client communications (and being the confident, unflinching pro in the face of every client request, question and distasteful situation); at dealing with dozens of types of unforeseen issues without hesitation; at maintaining tax information and constantly preparing various tax and business forms; at marketing, preparing and maintaining your own branding and identity, with its various elements; and at knowing how to begin and conclude all kinds of projects confidently. Oh, and you’ll also need a constant flow of interested potential clients.

If you’re not confident and accomplished in all of these areas, then you’re not ready to be a freelance designer.

Freelancing is only suited to seasoned professionals. Pursuing a freelance career as your first step in the profession is almost always a foolish move. Professionalism is maintained by habit. If your first step is a misstep, you’ve set a poor tone for the work ahead. Unless you immediately correct your mistakes, the habits you’ll develop will be clumsy and unprofessional.

Design is craft
The way to “get your name out there” is to establish a pattern of excellent work and a reputation for integrity over several years. You need to be good at whatever it is you are doing. Image source2

2. From An Agency Designer

Question: “I’m not very good at the discovery meeting with clients. I’m never really sure what to ask or how to figure out what sort of design they’re looking for. My project manager or C.D. usually ends up asking most of the design questions. What’s the best way to handle this situation?”

This is a common issue for designers at agencies, especially those with little experience. Luckily, an agency is a good place to gain experience and competence. But the question signals a few issues that require attention.

First of all, design questions are not really appropriate during the discovery process. Granted, specific branding constraints may need to be defined and understood, but the design you will craft will come not from the client’s judgment and understanding of design but from yours alone. The design will be your articulation of what they need, based mostly on their business aims, the website’s purpose, their customers’ needs and expectations, the end users’ specifics, etc. In fact, if you ask no design questions at all, you’re probably on the right track.

Imagine for a moment that you’re a physician trying to determine the best course of treatment for your patient. In that situation, you would not ask the patient what he thinks should be prescribed. Instead you would inquire about his symptoms, history, environment, physical needs (e.g. is he a pro athlete, or does he simply need to be able to get around normally?). The answers to these questions will define the constraints and indicate the appropriate course of action. Your patient’s opinion on what prescription would be appropriate is likely irrelevant; he came to you because he lacks the ability to help himself.

Go into the discovery meeting prepared. Before the meeting, learn as much as you can about the company, its history and its past and current activities. Script a list of questions—some specific to this client and some appropriate for any client—to get the ball rolling. These questions will serve as a springboard to more in-depth discussion, which in turn will flesh out what you need to know.

One more thing: you’re the design professional and it’s your responsibility to conduct the project successfully. You (not the PM or CD) should be driving the discovery. Use your time at the agency to improve your discovery skills, taking on more responsibility with each successive client. Reflect on each project’s discovery process, and look for ways to improve the process and your questions. With time and effort, you should become competent in this essential part of the design process.

3. From A Freelance Designer

Question: “Some of my clients expect three or four (or more) comps from me. But that’s a lot of work, and I would prefer to show just a couple. Should I just charge more if they want more comps? How do some designers get away with just one or two for all of their clients?”

These are interesting questions, and they beg a couple more:

  1. Why is this designer allowing his clients, who are not designers, to set the number of design comps?
  2. Why is he letting quantitative preference rather than qualitative necessity frame his understanding of the issue?

Good design is not found by picking from a pack of arbitrary options, but is rather the result of deliberate, contextual choices. Taking a scattershot approach to design is in no way effective. Your clients may not appreciate this, but you certainly should! Your responsibility is to ensure that your clients don’t shoot themselves in the foot.

The only person who knows how many design options are appropriate is you: the designer who is engaged in the process. And in almost every case there is one best design solution. Sometimes another compelling direction is worth considering and presenting to the client, but this cannot be known until you have fully engaged in the process, conscious of the parameters specific to that project.

In most cases, you’ll explore a host of options during the design process. A thorough exploration will cull a majority of the trials, leaving only the most appropriate and compelling candidate(s)—one or two. These and only these design options should be shown to the client. Inferior designs should never be presented, even to fulfill a request for more options (options for what: mediocrity?).

As a freelance design professional, or even as an agency designer, your responsibility is to define how many design options to present in a given situation. If a potential client insists on a less effective and less professional process, do not agree to work with that client. Compromise never brings excellence and has no place in design or professionalism. If you become comfortable making this sort of compromise, other compromises will also become easy for you. Your clients deserve and are paying for more than a compromised design.

4. From An Agency Designer

Question: “I seldom get to meet my clients before I present design comps to them. By that point, the projects almost always become a tiresome series of re-workings of my original ideas. How can I change this?”

One wonders what these original ideas were based on if the designer has never met the clients. If so, either 1) this person is at the wrong agency, and/or 2) this person lacks the professional understanding or the backbone to insist that she decide how the agency should structure design projects and client-designer interaction.

Relationships are built on trust, and trust is born of experience and understanding. Your client cannot trust someone they have never met and whom they know nothing about. So, when designs are presented by someone the client has never met, no wonder the client is a bit reticent and inclined to second-guess the designer’s decisions. These and the ensuing problems are all a result of the designer’s failings. Yes, it’s on you. Always.

As the designer and an aspiring professional, you must insist on driving the design process. This means that you must be the one to meet with the client in the beginning. If a project brief is required, you must be the one to create it, based on your direct conversations with the client and his team.

If your agency has a process in place that prevents you from fulfilling your responsibilities, your options are either to change the process or to find a better agency. Anything less relegates you to an irresponsible practice in an unprofessional environment. Hopefully, this is not acceptable to you, because it would erode the habits you are professionally obliged to cultivate.

5. From A Freelance Designer

Question: “I love to design, and I think I’m pretty good at it. But I’m not comfortable talking to clients. Whenever I’m on the phone or in front of a client, I get very nervous. I think my nervousness makes me seem less capable, and I’m pretty sure I lose some of my client’s confidence. What can I do to correct this? Should someone else do the talking?”

Effective communication is one of a designer’s most important jobs. Every communication, whether by email or phone or in person, is an opportunity to demonstrate value and win confidence. And if you don’t demonstrate value, you’ll seldom win confidence. Like designer #1 above, you may simply not be prepared to be a freelance professional.

If you fail in communicating, no matter how skilled a designer you are, you won’t get the chance to ply your skills very often, and seldom for the best clients. The best clients are those who invest complete trust in their designers. That trust must be earned before any actual designing happens (see designer #4 above).

And no, someone else should not do the talking. The design professional’s job is to show confidence when dealing with clients. No one else can communicate your value or win trust for you. The reason clients distrust those who do not communicate with confidence is because this trait signals other incompetencies. This may sound harsh, but it’s a fact: if you’re not confident, it is because you lack capability (whether professional competence, design skill or perhaps vocabulary)… and you know it. Address this void, and your confidence will shine through.

If you lack confidence in conversation, start to address this deficiency immediately or find another calling. Otherwise, you may have a bright future as a production artist somewhere, but not much of one as a design professional. Design professionals are experts at every aspect of interacting with people.

Confidence aside, it goes without saying that excellent vocabulary is an important component of effective communication. People judge you by your words, as well they should. Knowing this, your professional responsibility is to work on your vocabulary, just as you work on your design ability: daily.

Professionalism

Skill in design is only part of what defines a competent professional. Professionalism is also measured by integrity, preparedness in handling and interacting with clients, and breadth of understanding in the myriad of issues that will confront you in the course of working with others (whether clients, co-workers, employees or others). Professionalism is also measured by how well you uphold ethical standards in making the difficult decisions in every area of your work.

Talent and skill can make you a technician; and a technician is, as we noted, not a professional. For context, think of traditional professions: lawyers, doctors, architects. The enormous responsibility they are entrusted with, and their ability to carry out that responsibility across the scope of their work, makes these people professionals. Thus, an able professional would not be troubled by the questions posed in this article. Rather, they would know precisely how to proceed or how to circumvent these issues. If you have any of these questions, you may not be prepared to be a design professional.

Screenshot
Professionalism is also measured by integrity, preparedness in handling and interacting with clients, and breadth of understanding in the myriad of issues that will confront you in the course of working with others. Image source3

All of these situations result from designers believing that being a good designer is good enough. This profession has little room for those who lack a professional’s integrity and broad understanding. Designers who are willing to compromise and simply accept the faulty decisions that are handed to them have had their profession stolen from them. These designers have no business working with clients who pay good money for professional service.

Be better than this. Your first step to success is to assume your rightful responsibility for everything that involves you. Dissatisfied with the flawed structure at your agency? You chose to work there; change your circumstances. Frustrated by your perpetual lack of prospects and stalled reputation? Sounds like you’ve got deficiencies to address. Overwhelmed by the challenges and complexities inherent in freelancing? You probably started freelancing without sufficient preparation.

Fix it. You fix it. It’s all on you.

Designers: you get paid to do what you love. How great is that!? But this fortunate and enviable situation leads to fulfillment only if you take full ownership of your profession. Otherwise, you’re carrying a time bomb. When it goes off, your career will either falter or be blown to smithereens. Don’t let this happen to you. Educate yourself. Have the courage and integrity to habitually make good choices so that you enjoy a long and happy career as a design professional.

(al)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.flickr.com/photos/s-t-r-a-n-g-e/2239001689/sizes/o/
  2. 2 http://www.flickr.com/photos/10813066@N06/2056353545/sizes/o/
  3. 3 http://www.flickr.com/photos/peter-heindl/3201114199/

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Andy Rutledge is a principal at Unit Interactive in Plano, Texas. When not working, road cycling, or banging on the piano, he's usually found ranting about design or professionalism on his personal site, Design Pro. You can follow Andy on Twitter.

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  1. 1

    Cre8ive Commando

    March 8, 2010 3:54 pm

    Good advice Andy. Although sometimes I think it is actually good for a young designer to be thrown in the deep end and start freelancing early, especially to build up their portfolio initially. They will definitely make some mistakes but they’ll learn a wealth of practical industry knowledge. :-)

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  2. 52

    www.glossygames.com

    March 8, 2010 4:00 pm

    I agree that this article is very unrealistic. if you work for an agency and your boss asks for 3 version of the same logo you suck up your pride and you do it, if you are a freelancer without a client for months you do those 3 versions, in a perfect world there is no IE6 and all clients are web savvy and understanding. but in the real world you do what you have to in order to survive.
    having said that you should strive to make these rules apply and be as professional as possible or things will get out of control very quickly.

    As for the born to be a designer argument. that is also false you are not born with the skills. It is just that you like what you do so you practice and practice and get good at it.
    make a science out of your art and an art out of your science.

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  3. 103

    Thanks, all, for your comments. While I appreciated everyone’s opinions and observations, I’m troubled by some commenters’ inference of condescension or the impression that I employed a patronizing tone. I assure you that I intended nothing other than plainspoken advice in an effort to help readers who have experienced or are experiencing similar situations currently. I especially was speaking to those who are planning on embarking on a career in the design profession, to offer a proven and advisable roadmap to more assured success.

    I have to imagine that whatever inappropriate attitude you found, it was something you brought to the article yourself. Else, I’m not sure how to explain it. It might help to first imagine a smile on the author’s face (for this or any other article you come across) while you read it. I don’t think people work to offer “angry help” to their peers. :-) A benefit of the doubt could be useful from time to time; especially when you don’t know the author.

    It would indeed have been patronizing of me to offer milquetoast suggestions and to have beat around the bush using delicate language in describing what does and simply does not work in crafting a professional practice and education. For those who are the real audience for this article, I was paying you the compliment of directness. For those who could never understand my advice and are not the audience for this sort of article, I’m sure offense is the only thing you could take away from it.

    The most unsettling complaints I see in the comments are those brushing off my advice as mere opinion, unrealistic, or not appropriate for the “real world.” My colleagues, my employees, and I operate in a very real world in this very manner; and have for some years. My article and the advice I offered is not a theory-fueled guess on what might work sometimes. Rather, it is distilled from decades of experience working with some of the best (and worst) people in several fields. This approach is the only reason that my employees and I continue to get paychecks.

    In addition to that ongoing, practical experience, I have for years observed the efforts of others—friends, family, peers, etc.—and know without doubt how circumstances play out given various approaches and preparations. I know from experience what factors into the distinctions between mediocrity, big trouble, and great success in these matters. It is a very real world that I draw from to offer these observations. I would not be so irresponsible or mean as to offer you impractical opinion disguised as practical advice.

    If you decide that the uncompromising approach is the only path for you, I know from experience that you’ll enjoy far greater success and far more happiness than if you opt to wing it. But more importantly, I know that on the uncompromising path you’ll be a credit to your profession rather than a semi-qualified also-ran. Even better, you’ll be a responsible person.

    Sometimes old farts like me are willing to dispense with the b.s. and simply say what is, without the use of social lubrication language to help everybody feel better about themselves. Whenever I get that from my elders, my ears perk up and I don’t spend my time trying to figure out how I might be offended by the manner of their message. Seriously, I’m not trying to mislead you; I’m just trying to help.

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    • 154

      “I have to imagine that whatever inappropriate attitude you found, it was something you brought to the article yourself.”

      Case and point. A dozen people take issue with the tone of the article and in your 7 paragraph response you take zero responsibility and blame the reader for superimposing their own issues into the text?

      I operate in the real world as well, friend. And I wouldn’t have lasted a second in the world you write about had I done things in the ways you describe. Not everyone succeeds in life by being abrasive, however appropriate such behavior may seem to be.

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      • 205

        The difference with you and your real world as opposed to Andy’s is that you are neither seasoned nor successful, and instead of reflecting what wisdom has been imparted in this great article, you get angry because it challenges your status quo. I have been through the sh*t Andy is trying to warn you about, but if you want to go ahead and do it all over again, be my guest. It’s not like it matters to anyone here whether you learn anything from this article and act accordingly (although it would be nice, since Andy certainly didn’t write it out of boredom). And that’s the truth, whether you like it or not.

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    • 256

      Working in the business Ive developed a thick skin and I figured out how to stop being so sensitive. This business is hard work. I have failed working with a small start up company at first but have succeeded greatly freelancing and working with other companies. It was my first failure with the company that taught me how the real world works. Even if you do your job fast and efficient, it’s still a lot of hard work.

      Being calm and collected is probably the best choice when I talk to clients, and if sometimes you don’t cut straight to what they want or the goal they want for their site, then you’ll end up spending a lot of wasted emotion, time and energy.

      I interpreted the lack of confidence as being truthful. Your just giving a living and learning experience and I appreciate that. Most designers Ive met have a huge ego, and they ones that don’t actually sound like you…upfront and honest. Cut the BS. When I’m honest and upfront about a project, most clients will respect it. And in the end, it just makes the process a bit easier and more time focused on the site itself. Thanks for the honest and good insight.

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    • 307

      The simple fact is that you’re advising people (as someone who doesn’t have a boss to be uncompromising towards) to be uncompromising towards their bosses //and// telling them that if they aren’t they won’t cut it as freelancers.

      So if someone takes your advice it may well leave them without the confidence to pitch for freelance clients and without a job. You say on Design View:

      “I firmly believe that a professional’s most important design skill is the ability to behave well and respond gracefully in bad circumstances”

      and here you negate that completely with “Usually, they either claim not to understand how things got so bad, or they lay the blame somewhere other than at their own feet. In every case, however, the sole cause is their poor choices and lack of professional acumen. It needn’t be so.”

      So which do you believe, or are you just playing devil’s advocate for the sake of traffic/SEO?

      ~jh.

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  4. 358

    Thank you for the article.

    Whether a ‘client’ is a co-worker/boss at an agency, a family member, a frugal local business owner, a crazy millionaire that just loves your work and pays top dollar, or your own self, I find it easiest to treat them all with the same level of professionalism.

    Of course, the golden rule applies any time

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  5. 409

    An exceptionally well-put article. Much better than the common-sense bullet-lists appearing here lately.

    It is clear to me Andy is a veteran of the trade. A lot of the advice here is hard to swallow without first-hand experience, which I think is why many have objections in the comments – but from my experience, it is a very accurate description of real-world workings.

    The hardest and most important lesson to learn as you develop your professional skills in this business is how to filter clients. While it might seem sometimes you have to take a project despite any reservations you might have about the client, it’s just isn’t worth it.

    Clients who have major requests that go against your better judgement and refuse to trust your expertise at web design end up reducing the net value of any compensation you might receive from doing work for them.

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  6. 460

    This was a fun read, but my heart aches for these people. We all know what it’s like to struggle and I always want to rush to those that need help. If you’re reading this and you need help please email me. I’m more than willing to throw some words anyone’s way.

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  7. 511

    I hate to make a comment that will probably go unread (considering the massive amount of positive/negative debate going on already) btu I find the “Don’t freelance until you’ve had a job” advice hard to swallow.
    After graduating from university only the top of my class found jobs right away with design firms, the rest of us needed to build portfolios in order to find work in the industry. What better way to build a portfolio than by freelancing? Obviously you’ll start very small and probably with people you already know (which is where I stand now) but eventually you’ll come to a point where either you can re-apply for the jobs that were turning you down earlier or you can continue improving your freelance client-base.

    In any case, if anyone knows of a firm that’s hiring relatively inexperienced designers I’ll go anywhere for work.

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  8. 562

    As a large part of Smashing Magazine’s readership no doubt subscribes for the pretty pictures and freebies, I figured that this post would be about as well received as a fart in a funeral.

    Andy’s style is very blunt, and in many cases abrasive – when reading this article it’s very easy to hear “this is the way I do it. This is the right way. This is the only way. If you don’t do it like this you’re not a professional.”

    I suspect that Andy is just being exceedingly direct to drive the point home. Take the *lessons* on-board; get real life experience, learn to communicate well, etc.

    Everyone is different, and what works for one person may not work for another – anybody with a lick of common sense knows this, and if you constantly quantify your points to placate the fence-sitters, you’re just diluting your message. (I could be wrong, maybe Rutledge is really just arrogant and abrasive. But I like to give people the benefit of the doubt.)

    I don’t agree with every detail of every point of this article; but if the article is making you intensely uncomfortable every time you read it, chances are you’re not ready to be a professional designer. Take that unease and use it as motivation to learn and better yourself, rather than wasting your energy attacking the author.

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  9. 613

    Hey Andy,

    I love your stuff and this is an awesome article with several awesome nuggets of advice.

    However, in regard to becoming a freelance designer, I don’t agree that you need to be an “ace” at budgeting and finance or how to file your taxes. Hell, I don’t think you even need to be an expert at writing proposals, project management, etc in order to be a freelancer. I think becoming a freelance designer is an evolution from technician to professional, driven by the desire of freedom of working for yourself.

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  10. 664

    …. A great article about “Common Questions About Design Professionalism” !!

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  11. 715

    @Portland OR Student >
    Glad to help! Hang in there. Start getting some jobs under your belt so that when you graduate, you’ll already have a portfolio started. Make a killer web site that showcases your work, to market yourself with (I know straight from clients’ mouths that this has been a deciding factor for hiring me, at least). In the end it’s all about passion and dedication. When you encounter an obstacle to your freelance career, only you have the ability to overcome it. In that respect, your skill and work ethic will speak for themselves. Even if you’re not perfect when you start out (who is), these traits are going to go a long way for both you and your clients!

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  12. 766

    The single best article i’ve ever read on smashing magazine. I wished i’d read this 4 years ago when I first graduated.

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  13. 817

    Great post, I have a question for anyone who can answer it. I have been a designer at a particular design company for about 7 months.. Things are going well but my concepts never get made into HTML / CSS they kind of get approved internal and externally by clients but don’t tend to get implemented. or they get half implemented due to clients budget im told. However other guys sites whithin the company do get seen through alot! I am worried I will not have much for my portfolio in the way of live work.. any suggestions?

    Thanks people

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  14. 868

    Celalettin Akın

    March 9, 2010 4:39 am

    That’s very magnificent article. It is really useful. Thanks for everything.

    Celalettin Akın’s Personal Blog

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  15. 919

    This has little to do with the article at hand, but one thing that seems to missing from this site are design ideas for b2b websites. In fact, you hardly see anything that’s not aimed at blogs, boutique shops and, understandably but nonetheless quite ironically, web design companies.

    Where are the ideas for businesses – bigger businesses in the finance, technology, logistics, and manufacturing branches, for example – that need to commnicate tradition, dependability and a certain gravitas alongside innovativeness? Who’ve no direct interest in being on the bleeding edge of design but still need to look smart?

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    • 970

      @Cem, yes wouldn’t it be refreshing to see some analysis (showcase even) of successful b2b sites rather than the sites of other web designers.

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  16. 1021

    There are a couple of unrealistic points here.

    First, the client asking for multiple comps – yes, perhaps 4 is excessive, but every agency and corporate enviornment I have worked for – and in my personal freelancing – we always show at least 2 different approaches. Odds are the client will lean more towards one, this saves time in having not to tweak one approach to fit what could have been presented as another solution.

    And Second, Implying you are at the wrong agency if you dont get to meet the client, I would have to question if you have ever worked at an agency at the rank of Designer. Most times, they dont invite everyone with their hands in the project to meet the client – that would be ridiculous, on top of the fact that especially at agencies you usually have several different projects you are working on at once. This is one of the reasons why Creative Directors, Art Directors, Producers, Account, etc are in place – they meet with the client – and they act as the middle man. I worked at a very successful and award winning agency for 4 years, and I only had the privilege to meet clients after I had started to climb the ranks.

    Also – to tell a designer they should find another calling because they aren’t good at talking is absolutely ridiculous. There are plenty of avenues a designer can go where they simply design and are not involved in the client communications.

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  17. 1072

    I REALLY enjoyed this post, and agree with #1… If i was to start freelancing fresh out of college I would’ve failed miserably. But now after years of experience and a growing client base, I’m considering leaving my day job for a full time freelancing career.

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  18. 1123

    I wish it were that easy… There are rare occasions when I just can’t work with a client and send him/her packing, but this is very rare (and I would never pay my bills this way!)

    1”) The immediate lesson is that you shouldn’t become an independent professional with little to no professional experience, with no prospects and knowing little to nothing about the business.” – I don’t usually shy from a challenge. I’ve never worked with a firm, never had a mentor – I taught myself years ago and have been doing fairly well as an entrepreneur (it’s been about 13 years now). Most of my work now comes from referrals, word of mouth, and I’ve managed to get hooked up with a few high end design firms that outsource to me for years now. I admit it wasn’t easy, but it CAN be done. Where there is a will and determination, there is a way… and if you love what you do, you’re off to a great start.

    2) Discovery Meetings are not always possible. We (“website designers”) live in a virtual world. In many cases, such as mine, I work with clients internationally (well, not so much since the economy has pushed the US dollar down to nothing, so for now, nationally). My clients are scattered throughout cyberspace in other states, most of the time. Instead, I have questionnaires that I send out to my clients and I gather as much information as possible to streamline the process of design projects. The more information you have at the beginning of a project, the better. You don’t want to drag on a project because you’ll be doing more Administrative work rather than design, and those potential clients may move on to another design firm that works quicker. Remember, you’re in competition with hundreds of other designers, and there is always someone better than you! Your process and communication should be clear from the beginning. Admittedly, if you’re working with a large corporation, the “discovery meeting” may be necessary, and can be done virtually with an online meeting program, but it’s not as common, especially if you’re a freelancer just starting out…

    3) “Good design is not found by picking from a pack of arbitrary options, but is rather the result of deliberate, contextual choices.” – I completely agree, it’s in your hands to show the client a deliberate design. But, do expect criticism. You cannot expect your clients to give you full creative control in every project, but everyone has their right to an opinion and a vision. Everyone, even non-designers who have no professional knowledge of design at all, have their own style and preference. Not every project is a perfect situation, you WILL and should expect clients to put you to the test and challenge you with design ideas and their personal preferences. Don’t forget, it’s their website, not yours. You can’t have it all your way. Unfortunately, there are some pretty quirky (and in some cases, annoying) design recommendations or requirements that you may not agree with. You need to take those recommendations and turn them around, into something more realistic, you can’t simply tell your clients to shove off because they are “wrong”… Art is in the eye of the beholder – and in some cases, the one who is paying the bill! You cannot tell a client their idea is awful and you’re not doing it. You need to be professional about it, and show them an alternative, or something. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule (such as the time a client asked me to use styled Word text! – No way!) Remember – they hire you because of your portfolio (ideally, you should have one), skill, and style – so you have the upper hand when it comes to making recommendations, you just need to communicate them professionally and let them keep their integrity as well.

    In my project agreements, I start out with ONE design concept out of the gate, with “unlimited revisions” until their design is approved. If you have years of experience, this agreement works because you usually don’t have that many revisions, especially if you gather enough information to start. If you don’t have years of experience, this will GET you years of experience! You need to start somewhere.

    – There are always clients that haven’t got a clue – you need to be prepared for them, because they will always be there, no matter how many years of experience you have. If you are up for the challenge, show them the first concept and get their feedback before making any additional concepts for them. With experience, you’ll know how to read your clients and ask the right questions, take their feedback and use it to create the next revision or a new design concept. Then, you’ll learn to keep concepts to a minimum, instead of designing 4 or 5 different designs.

    Overall, there are some good points in this article that are helpful, regarding professionalism, integrity, skill… It’s definitely opinionated, but it’s not set in stone. There are always exceptions to the rule. Starting as a freelancer is basically getting your feet wet. You will not be good at designer-to-client communication immediately, but you’ll get there eventually. You’ll start out a little bumpy, but you can’t just throw in the towel, you need to get that industry experience if you’re going to get hired by a design firm anyway! You can’t expect a design firm to just hire you in all cases – especially in this economy. There’s no perfect situation, ask any seasoned designer. There are always issues to deal with, “hard” clients that put you to the test and make your eyes roll. It doesn’t mean that the designer is always to blame, every situation is different! You can’t expect perfection from every client you work with, but it’s not professional to turn every client away either. Think out of the box! Get your clients to think, help them prepare, and ask questions – they may not have all the answers at first, but that’s the point. Sometimes those questions that have them stumped actually get them thinking, and they may need to go back to the planning process on their end before hiring a designer.

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  19. 1174

    Design is a job. Do it passionately.

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  20. 1225

    I am always troubled by articles such as this. If I were to follow the advice given in these articles about the “ideal career path” to being a freelancer I would probably still be at my last agency where I was miserable, over-worked, and burnt out. Most of the agencies I have worked at did not have any sort of mentoring program for new hires because most of the AD or CD were too busy (and overworked as well). And in a lot of cases, most agencies are reluctant to hire fresh talent because of their relative ‘greenness’ and the amount of time it takes to bring an out-of-college student up to speed.

    If anything, regardless of whether you become a freelancer or become an agency designer, there is much to learn by trail by fire that has to be learned on your own.

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  21. 1276

    I have never had “professioanl” in-house experience but I still consider myself successful and professional. It boils down to what you feel is “successful”, I don’t make a ton of money, I’m not wildely popular, I struggle to find work like everyeone else, does that make me less successful or more un-professional? I don’t believe so and find it a bit offensive that this article implies exatly that.

    I work hard, I have great clients (the few I have), I run my own company, manage my own clients, do my own taxes, etc. etc. and I still have food on my plate, help provide for my family. I’m successful and I’m professional.

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  22. 1327

    Great information, thank you for this write up!

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  23. 1378

    “Your first step to success is to assume your rightful responsibility for everything that involves you.”

    That’s a great thought. Thanks.

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  24. 1429

    thanks … this is very useful…

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  25. 1480

    This is one of the first articles I’ve read on Smashing Magazine that I found was an insult, not just to me, but to freelancers, and design professionals in general everywhere. You came off really pretentious, and just totally unrealistic – saying you’re not a professional if you’re new to the business just doesn’t make sense.

    The design industry doesn’t have it’s own unique brand of professionalism, if you have good business sense (which in most cases can be found hand in hand with common sense), and you’re a good designer, then you will be able to succeed as a freelancer. It may take more time to build up your portfolio, and rather than major corporate projects (like the ones you would most likely be getting at a larger agency), you may get a lot of start-ups / small businesses – but by no means does it take working for a big agency to be a professional designer.

    “The way to ‘get your name out there’ is to establish a pattern of excellent work and a reputation for integrity over several years.” – how about just being good at what you do? Email local businesses who could use an online revamp, if you’re good at what you do, and can show them something they like you will get the contract (if they want the revamp, that is), and can slowly (though not as slow as you suggest) build your portfolio, as well as a strong reputation locally – which is (in my opinion) a hugely vital step for a fresh freelancer to take.

    This is the kind of article that would turn away anybody who’s thinking of getting their feet wet with design, you make it out to be a chore that takes several years to accomplish, rather than a passion.

    Really disappointed with Smashing for posting this deterrant for new designers.

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    • 1531

      Hey Josh,

      I’m afraid you kind of missed the point of this article. It’s not about not designing anything nor is it about an inability to attract customers. It is about professionalism and the way one handles the design and customer relations process, from the design itself down to such seemingly mundane things as filing proper tax reports and budgeting. Most freelancers straight out of school (me and presumably you included) underestimate the scope of an undertaking such as this. It can ruin your life if you keep banging into walls and it may just turn you off design indefinitely without you ever realising what went wrong. Unless you’ve run your own successfull business from the age of 12, you will not be prepared. Unless you have had great mentors in your field coach you diligently, you will fail (how will you know your design is good? How do you measure that, except through experience?). There is no way to learn all you need to know simply by trying long enough. You will make millions of small and big mistakes that others have made before you. Learn to listen to what they have to say. The rest will follow.

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  26. 1582

    Great article. Very honest and straight forward. Some of the responses to this article are disturbingly ignorant. People who are dismissing this article are selling themselves, their clients and their careers short.

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  27. 1633

    Joseph McCullough

    March 10, 2010 9:57 am

    This article hurt my feelings a little bit, but It’s probably what I needed, haha. I am a freshman in college and I am doing freelance work. My hope is to gain experience with dealing with clients and learn more on the go so I can create better design. I also think I’ll have an advantage over my competing graduates when I get my degree because I’ll at least have some experience in the field, so I should be able to find a job with a design firm.

    It seems like the “From the freelancer” sections were copied and pasted from my thoughts. I went to debate nationals in High School, so I thought I was pretty good at communication. With the calls I make to prospects, my voice would always quiver and I’d be really nervous, and I just didn’t understand why. I gave speeches every weekend for four years, why can’t I talk to this one person?

    Well, as this article pointed out, it’s because I don’t have confidence in my service. If you don’t honestly value yourself, no one else will value you either. But I don’t think your lack of confidence is permanent: You can address the problem instead of saying “freelance just isn’t for me”

    There is a lot of “just quit” in this article. And though it’s true that some people should quit to benefit themselves, try to make adjustments to your business decorum and test the results before you throw in the towel.

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    • 1684

      Joseph, a couple of years back I was in a similar situation to the one you are in. I was in the middle of school, although I was a sophomore (in English Literature!), and decided to test the waters by freelancing. When dealing with potential clients, I would get that horrific feeling too: I’m just not good enough to be doing this. And the truth is, I probably wasn’t. But if you’re anything of a designer, you excitedly pursue new paths and push the bounds of what it is that you do on a daily basis, even while you learn the tools of the trade in the classroom. Your peers who simply go to class, take the tests, and submit their works for review at the end of the year don’t fully grasp this type of profession. They don’t see the equation that school, plus some self-teaching on the side, will one day make them a more capable designer.

      And no one is born a designer but some of us are born with the gusto required to truly excel at our passions. I think it shows courage that you went above the call and tried to seek out work on your own, and even more for admitting that maybe you was too premature at doing this. But one thing I can pass down is that the more time and interest you lend to your craft, the greater you will grow as a designer and artist. When I took my first freelance jobs, I felt like they were all shots in the dark. “I might be able to do this.” But after a while, I began to believe I could, and surprisingly found out that I was right.

      Just keep your interest. Soak up the principles as best you can. And then go out there, believe in yourself, relax a little bit and let the juices flow.

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  28. 1735

    I understand some of the anger towards this article, but overall I agree with Andy. Are there exceptions to the rule that you must be a seasoned professional before you break out into freelancing? Certainly, but the rule remains that if you want to succeed, you need to know what you’re doing. How do you learn? By gaining experience.

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    • 1786

      Yeap. Freelancing is much harder than normal job, because you have to do everything “else”, in addition to your professional area. Finding clients, negotiating with them, solving time and money issues, controlling project schedule and even giving yourself a rest, once in a while ;)

      There are exceptions, but if we look closer at that people – we shall see that they all have a history of previous work experience in the past.

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  29. 1837

    Starting out on your own can be very tough without any kind of reputation. Being true to yourself and able to to convey quality and confidence is key. I think it is crucial for beginning designers to have some kind of mentor or someone to work around to help mold their talents. School and work experience are two completely different things and without someone to help wade you through the work “pool” you can never gain the ability and confidence to succeed on your own. Great article!

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  30. 1888

    Anthony Alexander

    March 10, 2010 3:40 pm

    Fail, and fail often. By the time your first failure starts to blur in your mind, your failures to the uninitiated will look like the best thing they’ve seen in all time.

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  31. 1939

    Very Interesting for a newborn web designers. I really found this post interesting. Thanks Smashing.

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  32. 1990

    Great article. It will help the web designers.

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  33. 2041

    Good article. I completely agree about the importance of gaining professional experience before freelancing. The unfortunate situation for many straight-out-of-school “freelancers” is that no self-respecting client would (or indeed should) hire them. So they tend to get stuck servicing the bottom-end of the market and never gain the experience and professional skills that they would in an agency working on quality accounts.

    About client communication, I think you overemphasise the importance of vocabulary. I have the pleasure of working with designers and clients from around the world and with different language abilities, and I find that vocabulary is far less important than an ability to listen and empathise.

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  34. 2092

    Interesting read on both the article and the comments afterwards. I agree with some of the reactions here that just starting out as a designer, whether a freelancer or in an agency, has it’s ups and downs. The best way to come out of it alive and well is through experience and tips from a reputable network of professional designers. Professionals, being that they know what to do I this kind of situations and give pointers to excel in this field, whether in the designing process itself or as a business. There are different views about art versus design, about client-dictatorship versus designer-centered designs. I think it’s about making the goal and purpose of the project, at the same time making the client happy and yourself handling the project, and getting paid well. Newbies shouldn’t worry much about stuff like the questions above. Have confidence and trust, but don’t be an a**. Ask around if in doubt.

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  35. 2143

    This article is simply amazing. A must-read for anybody looking to become a designer, or any other freelancer for that matter. How I wish I could’ve read this 5 years ago when I started freelancing, it would have saved me *a lot* of trouble, including a minor depression and a bankruptcy. I’ve since gone back to fix my education and any freelancing I might do in the future is a *loooong* way away.

    Trust this guy or learn it the hard way!

    Thank you Andy!

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  36. 2194

    So basically, what this article is implying is that you need to read a book once in a while to be able to communicate with your client. Research is what everybody does before design, but more than this you need to present the design not make your client do it for you.

    Its like he is giving you a coloring book..

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  37. 2245

    I totally agree! When I started freelancing I had no idea what the heck I was doing, and as a result I made a lot of mistakes and burned some bridges. Now, 3 years later, I have a steady flow of clients and more work than I can handle, but I get it all done. I also work part time at a company as a usability designer so that I can learn more. I make less money working for someone else but I get experience that is invaluable. I’m in school for Industrial Design and many of my peers are always asking me how to get into freelancing, my response? “Get an internship first; don’t jump in without some experience.” I wish someone had told me this when I started and I really appreciate your article. I hope young designers will take your advice!

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  38. 2296

    Great article – I often wondered about this! Dubli is pretty good also for learning more about this kind of thing, if any other readers are looking for this kind of information. Google it! :)

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  39. 2347

    I couldn’t agree more.

    If you try and freelance without any actual agency or client based design experience, be prepared for some rough times.

    Now, if you want to make it – you’d better be able bring a LOT to the table. I’m sure there are SOME great designers that can get away with only designing, but at our agency we’re also looking for designers that understand usability, basic seo, can create some simple copy if necessary, understand PHP and/or .NET, definitely CSS and jquery, and are able to work fast. Oh, and you should be very organized and focused, because every project is monitored time-wise so we can meet budget.

    It’s all about value – if you don’t bring something AMAZING to the table, there are dozens if not hundreds of other designers who’ll probably do what you do, for less.

    Having said that, if this is truly what you love – never give up. I had to learn these lessons the hard way, but today I’m doing what I love and am very successful at it. Dedication, determination, education, and persistence.

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  40. 2398

    No matter what education background you have in design or any career. There is one lesson that no school or university can teach you, and that is experience.
    This only comes from reading, learning from others, learning from mistakes and time.
    I come across so many fresh designers from a design school or university that think they know it all because they have a degree or diploma, they don’t realise that the best qualification you can have isn’t written on paper……its experience. Learn, learn, learn and don’t stop learning.

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  41. 2449

    Excellent article! Thank you very much for sharing!

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  42. 2500

    You are correct. It’s one thing to be a designer and be good at what you do, but in order to be a design professional, it takes more than “mad” Photoshop or whatever skills. I think that part of the problem of professionalism in the design community stems from design schools. They teach us how to use the applications and tools to do our jobs, design composition theory, and other aesthetic concepts and that’s about it unless you take any sort of business electives while you’re going through school. It’s not until we get out into the “real world” do we learn the professionalism of the job, and even then, it’s usually the hard way.

    Many people in this field are the “awkward geeks” that are uncomfortable communicating with people face to face. Through school, they maybe take 1 communication class freshman year, because they have to. They are the one who goes last when they have to give a speech to the class and their voice crackles through it the whole time and it’s as painful to listen to as it is for them to give. For those people, I recommend they join their local Toastmasters club. It’s an excellent way to gain both confidence and assertiveness and to refine your communication skills. They don’t put any pressure for you to speak in front of the group until you feel ready to do so.

    Also, it’s never a bad idea to take business classes at night, or when ever you’re schedule allows. I’m not saying get a full blown MBA, unless that’s what you want, but it will go a long way in helping freelancers or want to be freelancers get a handle on what it takes to own and operate their own business, because that’s what a freelancer is, a small business owner. Freelancing is only part design, that’s the fun part, it’s also being a salesman, an accountant, a project manager and a client liaison and if you’re not at least familiar with these concepts, the sad fact of the matter is you’re probably going to fail.

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  43. 2551

    “Fix it. You fix it. It’s all on you.”

    Sorry, but the person who wrote this article is preaching from a pedestal. Maybe he never experienced or has already forgotten how it is to be a designer starting out their career.

    Ideally, all the points he explained would be valid and easy to carry out, but the reality is that we are in the middle of an economic crisis, there are about 500-1000 applicants for each job opening, agencies are struggling to stay afloat, and clients often think of designers as technicians. I’ve had clients doodle things on Paint/Photoshop and say “this is what I want, now you make it pretty”… or I say “this idea won’t work on this medium” and they say “but that’s what I want”, so the boss comes in and says “give the client what they want”, then gives you disapproving looks when a project flops — it was poorly designed and missed the mark completely making the client’s investment go to waste, you knew that and pointed it out, but no one listened because “the client knows best” and “you have to keep the client happy so they return”, even though they might not return after the agency fails to deliver the results expected.

    If you make a fuss, and say things like “I refuse to work with this client”, as the article puts it, then you’re guaranteed to be out of work pretty soon. After spending time, money and a lot of effort on a design degree, I’d rather suck it up, get as much experience as possible, and then maybe later go freelance or start a studio with like-minded people. In the meantime, I’m glad to earn a little money (seriously, I work 9, 10 or 11 hour days, often don’t even have a lunch break, for not much more than minimum wage) and try to get as much experience as possible. That’s about the only thing I agree with this article, most people aren’t ready to jump straight out of college into the shark pool that is the design business.

    Best of luck to all fellow designers who are struggling!

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  44. 2602

    In regards to the first question …

    I agree that, in an ideal world, one should spend some time working for an agency/company before going out on their own as a freelancer; however, many people like myself are thrust into freelancing by circumstance. Graphic design hiring is nearly non-existent near me due to a tough economy.

    I began freelancing straight out of school, because I really had no other choice. The road has been difficult, but it is travelable. The secret is to find other ways to educate yourself and develop your skills. Networking goes a long way to reaching these goals. For example, I have freelanced my services to other more-established freelancers who are able to farm out (sometimes mundane) work.

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  45. 2653

    Interesting article with some good points even though I feel the author’s advice is in many ways very idealistic and disregards the real world pressure of keeping the lights on. Unless you’re a rock star, big name designer with a line of clients out the door you’re not always in a position to tell a potential client to go take a hike if they’re being “unprofessional”, etc.

    Also, most clients DO, in fact, suggest solutions to their problems (and often insist on them) even when they don’t have the slightest clue. If, as a designer, you do what the author suggests and refuse to go along with their wishes you often get a negative reaction and gain a reputation of being “difficult to work with” even though your insistence on good design has the best intentions in mind — to deliver the best possible design solution for your client.

    The problem is that many clients DO, in fact, look at designers as a human Photoshop plugin and there are also a large number of designers who never put up even the smallest fight and settle for that role. This makes it very difficult for those of us who refuse to do that. I have personally witnessed many instances when companies end up letting really good, talented designers go (because they’re perceived as difficult to work with and having a large ego) while keeping spineless “technicians”, as the author calls them, around because they simply do what they’re told and never make any waves.

    Sometimes it’s very difficult to know where to draw the line, especially since in the real world, you’re under pressure to make a living and your income comes from the clients. You can be a great communicator and be very knowledgeable about design and take the time to educate your clients, but you’re still dealing with people and, unfortunately, people can sometimes be very stubborn and unreceptive to new ideas.

    It is always an unbelievable pleasure to work with a truly knowledgeable client who has real understanding and appreciation of the designer’s expertise, but unfortunately, that’s not always the case and sometimes designers are not in a position (for financial reasons) to be very picky about their clients.

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    • 2704

      If you can afford to do bad work for money, you have no professional reputation to lose. The rest of us either send these people somewhere else or do our job and educate the client on the importance of what we do. Doing that is an integral part of any professional designers job – if you can’t or won’t do it you aren’t working professionally. Do not expect your client to educate themselves about your work, it’s not him who is being hired.

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  46. 2755

    Enjoyed Reading Keep Updating !

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  47. 2806

    P.M. stands for Project Manager, who are C.D. and A.D?

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  48. 2857

    thanks for information very nice

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  49. 2908

    Interesting read.

    To all those who have taken offence or are “insulted”.. Please, get over yourselves. It’s just an article. It wasn’t aimed at offending anyone and it was quite informative. If you took offence to it, then maybe you need to look at yourselves – maybe you’re offended because some of the things Andy wrote are very true and they may very well apply to you!

    Even though I don’t agree with everything he has written, I am not going to run the guy down! I can either use what he’s written, or choose to ignore it. Now why don’t you guys do the same??

    You’re supposed to be “professionals”, well some of the comments I’ve read here make you look like complete idiots.

    Right, that was my 2 cents worth. :)

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  50. 2959

    This article is really useful; I learn a lot from it today

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