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Project management basics for freelance designers

Get full  Visibility  and  Control over project Budgets, Costs and  Profitability

Designers are often bad at self-management, especially if they come from agency environments where they’ve relied on a bunch of project management professionals to deal with practicalities, financials and planning the work. So when a typical agency designer is starting his/her first freelancing gig, learning to be a project manager is essential (and it’s a hell of a task if you’ve never done it before).

I went through this experience myself some time ago. When I first started working as a freelance designer, I hardly understood the importance of project management in my everyday workflow, and considered project management of lesser importance than my own expertise.

As a result, most of my first freelance design projects back then were pretty badly managed. I would come up with a very sloppy estimation of the time needed to complete the project, and an even sloppier deadline (if any at all). I then spent double the estimated time doing the work, missed the deadlines, delivered wrong assets, and even lost my nerve a couple of times. Once, the frustration grew to the point where I resorted to hiring another (cheaper than me) freelance designer to finish the project. It became even worse when I started to do more complex projects, and it was frustrating for both me and my clients.

From all of the initial struggles I learned that as a freelance designer you are selling your skills as units of time. And, in order to sell your hours effectively, you need careful planning and regular checkpoints. Some basic project management skills are essential to any successful freelancer, no matter if you are a designer, developer or any other type of contractor. I keep my projects in order with three simple steps: 1. Project planning; 2. Communication; 3. Project handover.

But first let’s talk about clients. These are two types of clients that I’ve come across:

  • Motivated, tech-savvy clients (I’ll call them “Client A”), who brief the task in detail and understand the work process behind that task. It’s quite easy to deal with these clients, as they are much more understanding and can provide some sort of a task description (or even a complete task breakdown, if you’re lucky). Example: “I need a website for my company. WordPress please, 5 pages in total, online catalogue and here’s a prioritised list of requirements and draft copy.”
  • Usual, result-driven clients (“Client B”), who know that they want to have as a result, but don’t really understand how it’s done and can’t provide any specific task description. Example: “I need a website for my company, make it look stunning.”

Both types can be troublesome in a lot of different ways. As for me, I prefer the first type as they are genuinely helpful in getting the job done and are easier to deal with. (No random questions like “Why did that slideshow take five hours to do? It’s just some stupid pictures.”)

1. Project planning.

This is the most important step of all: estimating how much work there really is and how much time it will take you to do the job. Time is ultimately your most important resource, and so doing the estimation properly will make the rest of the business much easier and more straightforward for both you and your client. Therefore, take your time (pun intended 🙂 ).

Once you get that briefing email, take a moment to think before rushing to accept the job, even if it’s a time-critical project.

I’ll explain why.

How to cut down time you spend on estimating projects?

With Client A (the one who knows what it takes), it’s easier: you’ve got the task description, so you need to break down the project workload into the required steps, sum up the hours needed for the work to be done, and add a 25-50% buffer for reviews and amendments. I usually add 25% if client has a clear brief and 50% if the brief is not clear and there are some gaps in the task description. However, be transparent with the client: present both minimum and maximum (minimum + 25-50%) plans. They will appreciate the honesty.

If you’re “lucky” to have Client B (the “why does it take so long?” type) as your customer, you first need to explain the different steps of work and request a task description or create one yourself. Task creation should be billable as well, so this is the first thing you should try to sell to your client. My advice: if they don’t want to pay for the planning, stay away, otherwise it’ll get worse later on.

Deadlines are usually very dependent on the project requirements and your own availability. I usually have 6-hour working days and 2-3 days in between projects. However, deadlines are one of the things you’ll often miss and this is ok, as long as there is a good reason and that you notify the client upfront. It’s still good to have deadlines as a target. Such discipline is essential to any process.

So my typical estimation for a small- to medium-sized project looks something like this:

  • UX: 10-13 hours
  • UX Review/Amends: 5 hours
  • Visual design: 6-10 hours
  • Design Review/Amends: 4 hours

25-32 hours in total

  • First UX drafts will be ready in 2-3 days.
  • Visual design would take 2 days after UX is signed off.
  • Fixes might take around 1-3 days, if required.

1.5-2.5 weeks in total for the project.

It’s good to have deadlines as a target. Such discipline is essential to any process. Click To Tweet

Don’t forget to agree with the client how the project will be billed and also when and how you will handle the final deliverables.

I’m not touching the price of an hour of work – this is something that you know better than me. Good practice is to have a fixed price (which can obviously be discounted if you are really interested in the project).

It’s important to have a way of quickly estimating the final budget for the work and using a tool like Price&Cost is great in helping to keep your financials in order.

2. Deadlines and in-process communication.

After you’ve got the job, agreed on the deliverables, set deadlines and got the budget approved, you can start the actual work. However, don’t stop communicating with the client. It’s good to always keep in touch, have regular reviews, and, if possible, to set up recurring meetings. This will help the project to stay on track and will minimize the amount of mistakes and wrong turns. Keeping in touch also increases your client’s confidence, and keeps you more organized and motivated.

Communicating frequently is especially important if you are dealing with Client B, who is less aware of how things are done and is more doubtful and impatient and less forgiving. It’s a good idea to report on your work from time to time.

Client A is usually more patient and understanding, so there would be no problems if you just keep them in the loop.

My typical “keeping in touch” email will look something like this:

“So far we are ready with the UX with no major fixes needed. I’ve worked 11 hours.

Visuals are partly done, with only 4 hours spent so far and I’ll send you latest drafts in 2 days. So far the project is on track to hit the deadline in 2 weeks and to remain within budget.”

3. Handing over and billing.

If you’ve completed first two steps properly, then the last one is an easy task. If you’ve estimated your work accurately, the project cost will be pretty precise, and so you should just bill that and hand over the final files.

However, if you’ve spent more time on the project than anticipated, calculate the final cost and present it to the client. If the additional costs (more fixes, task changes, new requests) were explained well and you’ve made the additional costs clear, it shouldn’t be a problem. With Client B it might be a bit more difficult. Just try to be persuasive and explain things thoroughly.

You can use Price&Cost to calculate precisely how much to bill.

Once the project is finished, make sure that the relationship between you and your client is still healthy and positive. For that to happen, the client should be happy with the results, and you should be paid on time. If this is the case, then it’s a good idea to offer support for the project. Support is billed separately and I usually treat it as a new repeating project and agree on the time for it separately.

In summary, adhering to basic project management principles = more organised workflow = well-executed projects = happy and loyal clients = more new projects = one successful freelancer. So, plan the project well, use the correct tools, understand your client’s needs and answer questions promptly, and you’ll be just fine!

Thinking of starting your own small design studio? Price&Cost co-foudner Andrei Bernovski shares his experience on planning and managing larger creative projects.


Easily Forecast and Track project Budgets, Costs and Profitability

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