It is a fantastic time to be a designer.
I have never seen the design-for-hire industry so saturated with work in my entire life. Almost every single of one of my designer friends (who either are partnered with a few other people, or do all freelance work) are completely and hopelessly booked up with client work. I’m extraordinarily busy, they’re all extraordinarily busy, and this means that who holds the power in the design consulting world has shifted. The shoe’s on the other foot now.
In The Past
Even though the consulting business is based on the idea of peer-business, where a company is paying a person for a service with both parties on the same respect plane, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve emailed or spoken with clients who assumed they were “above me” for whatever reason. For some reason, some companies feel as though “giving designers a project” is like charity work, where if they didn’t give us money to work then we’d starve or live out on the street or something. It is this attitude that causes so many friends of mine to hate clients and hate client work, simply because they had terrible experiences with the wrong types of clients and companies.
It feels completely different. I’m totally booked, all my friends are totally booked, and now when I get emails for new projects I can’t take them on. Many companies want to give me money and I turn down their money which probably catches them totally off-guard. I feel bad because they ask for people I can refer them to, and all my friends are booked as well, so what is a company to do? Here are some tips about reaching out to designers for new work:
- Don’t act as though you’re doing them any favors. I’m fickle. If I get the slightest inkling that the project is lame or that the client might not be cool, I’ll turn it down in a heartbeat because I don’t need that type of drama. So many times I’ve received emails from companies saying “We’re in need of a designer for a project ASAP please give us a call” and they just don’t get it. If you don’t tell me off the bat what the project is about, or what your timeline is, or what your budget is, then why should I be interested? Contacting a designer is about selling your project to them so that they get excited and want to jump aboard. Also, I’m not going to call you without knowing what the hell your company does, because that’s a waste of my time.
- Don’t send out massive RFPs to freelancers or small design firms. I might get some flack for this one, but this is truly what I believe. When hearing Jim Coudal speak at SXSW, I think he said that his company automatically turns down all work if the RFP is longer than 3 pages, and I’m behind him 100%. If a company sends me an RFP that has a 1) totally locked-down timeline, 2) so many guidelines that the guidelines have guidelines, 3) or no budget, then I’m not going to respond no matter who it is. I was recently contacted by PBS to redesign I, Cringely and the RFP they sent me was a 10-page scrawl of ridiculous timelines (plus, they emailed it to me without even saying “Hi, Mike!” it was a totally anonymous email) so I just emailed everyone back (including Robert Cringely) and declined it off the bat. I’m not going to waste my time on a politics- and drama-filled project no matter how popular the site is.
- Have a budget? Tell me. Some companies still don’t trust their contractors, and the quickest way to find out if they trust you is to ask them what their budget is for that project. If they say they don’t have a budget, that’s fine, but if they say they have one but then mince words and don’t exactly give you a dollar amount then they don’t trust you. They’re playing that game where they have a number in their head and they want you to hit it or be below it, just so they can save some dough. One time I got an email from a prospective client who told me 1) the project details, 2) their timeline, and 3) their budget, all before I ever emailed them back. That’s the type of stuff designers (or other consultants) love to see because it means you respect our work enough to trust us with your internal project details.
- Shopping around? Tell me. If I’m not the only person you’re talking to for the project, let me know early on so I know what to expect.
- Be friendly. The very first time a company emails a designer, that is their job interview. If you sound like an arrogant jackass in your email, then the designer can assume you’ll be an arrogant jackass all through the project which means the designer will have to put up with your arrogant jackassery for months at a time which means that the designer will probably delete your email off the bat. So be nice, because the first communication you have with a designer is how the designer will think you act, and that’s important.
- Email me, don’t call me. I’m a computer person, and during the day I’m in front of my computer checking my email, so please send me an email instead of calling. If your project is so damn urgent that you need to call me before you email me to save that minute and a half, then I don’t want to take on your project anyway cause it’ll probably be a hassle. And this leads me to…
- If your project sucks, then do it in-house. Is it fun? Will I be able to do good work? Are you a good client? Will you let me design, or will you micromanage? Answer all of these questions in your head before emailing me or any other designer, because if the answer to any of these is “no” then getting a designer or design firm on-board will be a struggle. Designers are cool people, we love to work on cool projects, so if your project really isn’t cool then we won’t be excited about it nor will we won’t put all our energy into it.
That first email that a company sends a design firm is like their job interview. We read that email and pluck out everything that’s not there and then draw inferences about 1) the client, and 2) the project just from that little bit of text. Like I said in the first part of this entry, the tides are turning because all the good designers are fully booked so you need to sell yourself and your company if you want our attention. Merely contacting us and saying you’ll pay us to do something isn’t enough anymore, you need to actively get our attention and make us want to work on the project.
Designers In Need Of Work, Listen:
I realize this entry doesn’t apply to people who are just starting out, trying to build a portfolio, or are just trying to make some extra bucks by taking on any project that comes in. However, just because you’d like to build a portfolio or get some work under your built, don’t take on shitty work. Yes, it’s a paycheck, but shitty work will make your life more miserable than if you simply had not taken the job and had less money. I know a lot of people who are just getting started, and many of them ask me to pass on these client emails I just talked about to them, but it’s like passing a disease, I just can’t do it no matter what the circumstances. If you desperately need work to pay for food or housing, then by all means take it on, but if you can do without the extra dough a shitty project brings on then please weigh both sides and think about what a shitty project/client will do for your psyche or morale.
To all companies looking for designers: I hope this helps you out in your search. To all my current and future clients: don’t worry, I love each and every one of you 🙂