One of the most unexpectedly time-consuming (and often tricky) aspects of running your own illustration business is handling and managing your projects.
As the service provider and (usually) the project manager, you’re the sole point of contact and have responsibility for the entire, end to end process, from securing the client to sign-off.
There are any number of potential sticking points, such as:
- Quoting and pricing up a project.
- Client not paying on time (or at all).
- Difference of creative opinion.
- Project and scope creep with additional requirements and requests somehow making their way into the project.
- A project running on and on, with endless requests for tweaks and revisions with no end in sight.
These sticking points can be exacerbated when you work purely online – not on location – by the lack of face-to-face contact and the fact that things can very easily be mis-communicated, misinterpreted and misunderstood with online communication channels.
We’ve summarised below some of the key stages of an end-to-end project process where you might come unstuck and how to prevent this from happening in the first place…
Have a Written Agreement
This is a MUST – and it doesn’t have to be a formally written contract, as long as you have the key aspects in writing (email) agreed and confirmed before you start the project.
At the very minimum, have confirmed agreement on the following aspects of a project:
- Scope of the work to be created
- Agreed timelines and important deadlines/milestones
- Fees and payment schedules
- Changes in requirements/scope and their impact on fees
- Usage rights and ownership of work created
- Conditions for changing the agreement on both sides (e.g. ‘kill’ fee)
Chase Your Deposit
If you have agreed on an initial payment upfront/deposit, ensure you receive it before you start any work.
If you hand over an initial concept/sketch before a client has paid the agreed amount, you’ve given away any leverage you might have had, with which to bargain.
Clarify Client Requirements
While your agreement/contract can include a summary of the agreed work, always ensure you get a full breakdown of what you’re creating and providing to a client.
For example, your contract may state “illustrations for a book” but ideally you’ll clarify this to state “10 x A4-size illustrations for a book etc. etc.” so that both sides are clear from the start what the core deliverables are.
Nail down the specifications and a detailed brief as tightly as possible – when it comes to something as subjective as design & creativity, it’s always tough to satisfy personal tastes & preferences.
A well-constructed and fully completed brief from your client can help you prove (should you need to) that you’ve delivered what was requested, irrespective of whether a client might personally like it or not.
Initial Concept Stage
Limit Initial Concepts
Be clear upfront (in your agreement at the Pre-Project stage ideally), how many concepts/sketches a client can expect to receive, and how many rounds of revisions/tweaks they’re allowed before being charged a supplement.
If you don’t do this, a project can get stuck here in an endless round of the client requesting new concepts until they finally find one they like.
Red Flag: If a client ever says to you, “I’m not sure what I’m looking for, but I’ll know it when I see it” be very wary!
Use a Gating Process to Keep Moving Forwards
It’s also important to add a gating step at this stage – that is, an ‘official’ signing off of at the sketch/concept stage which allows you to lock it down and move to the next stage of the process.
Once this ‘sign off’ is received from a client – it can be as simple as an email confirmation from them ‘signing off’ the sketch – you have something to fall back on should any major changes be mooted later in the process (or the dreaded, “We don’t really like it” comment once the project is complete).
Managing Scope Creep
If you’re working on a more complex or longer term project, it can be easy to let additional requests creep in, that aren’t in the orginal request and aren’t covered by your fee.
Phrases such as “Oh, could you just add X, Y and Z? I know it won’t take long…” can become commonplace and before you know it, that cover illustration for a book has turned into a cover plus 5 extra internal illustrations, with you taking on the extra work for no additional fee.
Ensure you highlight and communicate any potential instances of this as soon as they seem to be happening; producing – by default – any extra illustrations, and then mentioning that these weren’t in the original agreement puts you in a weaker position to re-negotiate any additional fees for the extra work.
Get Official Sign-off
Defining what constitutes the official end of a project ensures it won’t drag on and on with endless requests for amendments, tweaks or additions.
Typically this is the ‘official’ handing over of the final deliverables – graphics, images, files etc. – whatever it is, be sure to define and communicate this to the client.
Ensure they know that this constitutes the official end of the project and that any further work will be subject to further fees.
It can be daunting to set your boundaries and stick to them in this way, but contrary to your fears, you may find that clients respect your professionalism, your well defined process and the fact that you are protecting both your own interests and theirs when you consciously and mindfully manage your projects in this way.
The bottom line is this: Never assume that a client knows how you work nor what the process is (or should be). It’s your job to communicate this to them, it’s not theirs to simply know.