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Business of Design

The Key to a Successful Design Project is Communication

Let’s imagine your in-laws have invited you to dinner in Boston, and you live in NYC. You know from experience that the drive is roughly 4 hours, so you leave the city 4 hours before dinner begins to make it on time. Everything is going smoothly until hour 2, when you hit massive unexpected traffic. Google Maps says it’ll take you an hour to get through the jam. My question to you is, when do you call your in-laws to tell them you’ll be late for dinner?

  1. At hour 2, when you hit the traffic initially.
  2. At hour 4, when you’re on the road and already late.
  3. At hour 5, when you show up at their door.

The correct answer is option 1, as soon as you know you’re going to be late. This sets expectations for your in-laws and allows them to spend the extra hour productively instead of waiting nervously for you to arrive. Option 2 will upset your in-laws, but at least they won’t spend the extra hour waiting around. Choosing option 3 sounds like a great way to be excommunicated from the family.

Much like your hypothetical in-laws, your customers appreciate being told of delays and cost overruns ahead of time as they occur. Informing proactively makes for happy clients; springing bad news all at once makes for angry clients. If your vendors notify you that your orders are going to be delayed, you should immediately relay the new ETA to your client. Relaying small bits of bad news as they occur is always superior to relaying a large chunk of bad news just before (or even worse, after) the deadline.

This rule-of-thumb holds not just for project delays, but for billing as well. Invoicing your clients for hourly work on a regular basis sets their expectations, enables them to easily link your fees to the hours you just worked, and gets them in the habit of paying regularly. Waiting to invoice until  you have accrued a substantial amount of hours leads to sticker shock. Deferred billing invites clients to question both the sum and total cost of your hours, increasing the risk of non-payment and client unhappiness.

The best designers aren’t just great at design—they’re great at setting and managing client expectations, too.

Let’s change our original scenario a bit. You leave for your in-laws’ 4 hours early, and this time there’s no traffic. At hour 3 your in-laws call to ask you to pick up some vegetables from the farmers’ market. Because of the route you chose, the farmers’ market is 30 minutes out of your way. What is your response?

  1. No, it’ll make me late for dinner.
  2. Yes, of course.
  3. I can do that, but it’s 30 minutes out of my way and will make me late for dinner. Would you still like me to go?

The correct answer is option 3, as it plainly lays out the trade-off to your in-laws (the client) and gives them the final call over whether to delay dinner. Option 1 comes across as insensitive, as it completely disregards your in-laws’ request. Option 2 pleases your in-laws, but you’ll still be in trouble for arriving late as you didn’t set their expectations ahead of time.

Client requests for time- or cost-sensitive changes are simply part of the business. As a design professional with great knowledge of and experience in the industry, you are your client’s guide. You have a duty to inform the client of the estimated cost of their options so that they can decide whether the trade-off is worth it to them. Remember—at the end of the project, the design belongs to the client, not you, meaning the client must have the final say over any choice. Clients that get full information in order to make the best decisions are happy clients; clients that are not informed of trade-offs blame the designer for negative repercussions.

As a general rule, you should always err on the side of over-communicating with your clients. It’s way better to over-communicate and be asked to tone down the frequency of updates than to under-communicate and not know about any issues or resentment until it’s too late. The best designers aren’t just great at design—they’re great at setting and managing client expectations, too.


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