5 things I wish I knew as a creative working with my first client

Has everyone here watched 500 Days of Summer? I hope so, because the only way I can think of starting this article is by ripping off that bit where they do the expectation vs. reality type-thing. 

Expectation: When you work with your clients, you’re going to smash the job out in your first try. I mean, why wouldn’t you? The client has presumably seen your style of work and they’ve hired you; so it would make sense for them to trust you to create yet another piece of epic design that they’ll fall in love with.

Harsh, harsh reality…: Delivering creative work can be messy for a number of reasons. Revisions are a given and it’s so easy for things to get wildly complicated during the process of fine-tuning. 

I’ve recently had the pleasure of being on the other end of the client/creative relationship as my team at work commissioned an agency to develop the branding, website and printed materials for a programme.

This process taught me some pretty essential lessons that I wish I knew when I first started working with clients, and guess what! I’m passing them on because CONTENT.

1. Make a delivery Gantt chart

All of you that already know what a Gantt chart is are probably undergoing some sort of PTSD-like symptoms as you get flashbacks to some horrible project that shaved about 7 years off of your total life expectancy. 

To the blissfully uninitiated, Gantt charts are tools used primarily by project  teams (those people in your office with sunken eyes and a vaguely haunted look) to scope out how long each part of a project should take, and when project items should be delivered by.

There are loads of fancy pants software packages available that you could use to create a Gantt chart, but a plain ol’ Google Docs spreadsheet will serve just as well so there’s no need to fork out for this. In fact, they have Gantt chart templates available for you to use so you don’t have to spend time setting one up. 

Why bother?

A couple of reasons; firstly because it forces both you and the client to agree on acceptable timescales for reviewing and delivering content.

It’s important that you set deadlines for clients to submit feedback by, because realistically your client will have other deadlines in their job and so anything they feel isn’t time sensitive will of course just be pushed to the bottom of their to-do list. 

Give them a deadline to submit any feedback so that your project isn’t put on hold and you aren’t sat twiddling your hard-workin’ thumbs. 

Secondly, when you have successfully landed a couple of clients in one go, it helps you to keep track of where every project is at.

It might sound like something that’s easy to keep track of in your head, but trust me…when the project is running and you have emails flying back and forth between you and the client team you’re working with, it’s ridiculously easy to lose track. 

2. Create an amends tracker on Google Docs

If you’re like me then you probably have the idea of taking on as much responsibility for each stage of the project as you can because you want to provide the best customer experience.

Don’t make compiling feedback your job. 

Why bother?

You’re a creative because you want to make a living making things, not because you want to spend an age trolling copy and pasting points from a bunch of emails into a spreadsheet.

Google Docs lets you create a web-based spreadsheet for free that you and your client can both access at the same time. 

Save yourself a boring job; just create the spreadsheet with the proper headers and then leave your client to fill it up for you.

3. Be vigilant with subject lines

I’ve already mentioned it, but over the course of a larger creative project, there can be a lot of emails flying around. 

Most people’s first habit is to just keep hitting reply on the last email they received from someone and start typing, regardless of whether their next emails has anything to do with the last or not.

Why bother?

The scenario you’ll find yourself in as a result, is that in two weeks you’ll be looking back for a specific email that was sent and you’ll find it’s a mission to track it down.

Using the search function in your inbox is out because all the emails have the same subject line and so you’ll end up losing a whole bunch of your time scrolling back.

Your time is worth more than that, so every time it looks like the topic of discussion shifts in an email, change the subject line to something relevant before you click send. 

This also has the benefit of passively demonstrating to your client that you’re focused and on the ball which is no bad thing.

4. Send an early preview of your work

Listen, I get it…when you’re making something, you never want anyone to see it while it’s a work-in-progress.

You’re worried that the people around you will realise that for the first 95% of the time you spend working on it, your design is an awful mess; and you’re terrified that people will think your work sucks because they don’t understand that it only starts to look pretty towards the end.

The fact is that you need to get good at finding ways of demonstrating what the end product will look like before you have to spend all that time and energy finishing it.

Why bother?

Even though you deffo know better than your client what looks cool innit, the truth is that they might disagree for one reason or another (cretin!).

You need to be able to minimise the amount of wasted time spent on designs that won’t be approved, because unless you’re paid by the hour, time spent on doomed projects is time you’re not getting paid for.

Bite the bullet, find a way to get across to them what the end product will look like and get their feedback as early in the creative process as possible. Like I said before, your time is valuable, even if you don’t feel like it is in the beginning, so treat it that way. 

5. Speak on the phone

No-one on the planet likes a long email, because there are very few occasions where a long email doesn’t demand a long reply. 

If you or your client has so much to say that they can’t fit it into two reasonably small paragraphs; pick up the phone.

Why bother?

If either of you has that much to say about anything to do with the work, conveying your points will be much, much easier over the phone. 

Don’t be shy, just pick up the phone and clear things up. There wasn’t a single time that I spoke to someone at the digital agency on the phone and regretted doing so. 

There we have it, five things that I wish I knew before I started working with my first client on a bigger project. 

I know there are a lot of list articles floating around the web and it’s basically a given that 80% of the points listed in any of them are bound to be ignored. 

The thing is, even if you read through them all and didn’t think about it again until you start working, vaguely following just one of the tips listed will save you loads of time and stress; so just aim for that.

Finally, the first project is there to make mistakes on (obv don’t tell you client that, fake it to make it etc.). These tips might work for you or they might not, the important thing to remember is that landing a client in the first place is AWESOME. 

If you get to the stage where you need any of this information then you’re officially a legend in my book – keep on doing what you’re doing.

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