The original article has been written by Mike Rundle of Business Logs in Design and Usability and it can be read here.
The version below has my own additions in red – done after due permission from Mike.
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 India, the freelance graphic design market is flooded with people who are willing to do a design job for peanuts. This includes educated designers as well as self-taught designers and people who designed a college magazine and now believe they are designers. If you asked someone to define a good designer, I’ll be surprised if you got two definitions that are similar. It’s a fact – there are lots of design jobs available and there are lots of people willing to do them.
In India, however, the power shift is yet to happen.
[ Graphic design and agency jobs are different – I’m not talking about ad-agencies – In India the distinction is still not clear ].
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.
Been there, done that. Without going through a terrible client or a terrible project, it would be difficult to understand the value of a good and great client. We recently heard from a client who needs corporate identity designed for her company – she needed it done in two weeks, agreed to my standard rate upfront, asked for the 50% advance invoice and gave me a detailed brief in the first meeting. It shows that she trusts the designer. [ assignment is done, and the cheque is in the bank ]. I’m thrilled, the client is thrilled and I know for a fact that if she has any work in the future, she’s coming to me and that I will take on the job – she’s fun to work with!
And there is one who wants me to design the invitation and catalog for an event. This client is very patronizing and the push for a “discount” has gone too far. While the client says that the event is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them, they don’t seem to want to pay for the invite and catalog design. I am one e-mail away from saying, “thank you, but no thank you”.
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:
I am not totally booked. Simply because I don’t take everything I get. I know how to fire a client and do it without too much ado. Also because the few good clients that I have – are great to work with and the projects are cool too. The reason I don’t forward them to other designers is because there aren’t many good ones out there.
It might sound like it’s easy for me to say “no”. It’s not. I’m not a freelancer anymore – I’m a creative head at a company – I’m an employee. Resistance to saying “no” is much higher as I’m not my own boss – but surprisingly, the management is quite supportive – they get quite enthusiastic about saying “no” to shitty projects but more often than not, the “money-making” tendency takes over. It’s a slow and steady process at a traditionally-run organization and I’m thrilled to bits that they’re ready to make a start.
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.
Wow! Talk about beating a dead horse – it’s common sense – why can’t you give a designer more details? When someone is asking me for work and they don’t tell me much about the work except that it is a “website” – how and why do they expect me to send them a quote? But the reality is that 90% of the enquiries pan out like this – no details whatsoever. So one has to learn to live with it – at least till you’ve reached a level where you couldn’t care less. What I do is to ask them “please tell me more. It’s impossible to give you a quote otherwise.” – while it’s a time waster for sure – I still find it difficult to ignore enquiries – but then there are those that are simply deleted without a second thought – “I like your work. I want a logo designed but I want to see your portfolio first. Can you send me a link?” DUH!
Then there are clients who don’t leave any stone unturned in terms of giving me information – a delight to work with.
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.
You might think that this point contradicts the one above – the one above talks about getting more info and this one talks about getting lesser info. But then you’re totally missing the point – less information does not make a bad brief – unnecessary information kills it. Every company has policies, guidelines, timelines etc. But you need to understand that while designers understand and work with your timelines, telling them that’s nothing’s flexible isn’t going to make it a fun project. You cannot expect excellent work and shove a 10 page RFP in their face. It’s a no-go. A short, concise e-mail is better than any RFP – to start with at least. If the client cannot manage to create crisp guidelines at their end, the project is only going to be a tentaculous octopus.
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.
Well Mike, you’re lucky to have even one client who tells you what their budget is – that’s because they know your work and trust your skills as a designer. I still have to meet a client who tells me what their budget is – they ALWAYS want me to quote first. The main reason for that being – in India no one knows what to charge / pay for design work or that graphic design is separate from ad-agency work. I recently had an enquiry where the client told me that they did not even know that there were people who designed corporate identity for a living or that there was something called “corporate identity” which is a design subject on its own! When the client does not even know that such a subject exists, why in the world would they pay anything else but peanuts for getting it done?
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.
Every client who’s talking to more than one designer, including me, will tell me that they’re talking to others. They always tell me – because they want me to feel the heat and give them dirt-cheap prices. Ain’t gonna happen. I’ve refused more clients than I can remember who were clearly and unashamedly creating a price/bidding war.
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.
That’s an impossible proposition in India – it’s rare that a client is “friendly”. Mostly, they’re just trying to find out who’s the cheapest and they go about it in a very clinical fashion. “We need work done, we can pay, the other guys’ charging dirt, we like your work, can you charge less than dirt? If not, don’t reply.” While I’m not saying that I’m Queen Victoria and that you need an appointment to send me an e-mail, the least you can do is be civil, use my first name, act as if you made an effort to look at my portfolio and be polite! It’s a game of mutual respect – it’s business, indeed, if you treat me like dirt, why do you expect me to jump out of my pajamas to work with you?
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…
The phenomenon of e-mail is still quite alien in India. [ and when I say alien, I don’t mean that it doesn’t exist – it does – any person worth his salt in corporate India has an e-mail id. They just don’t know how to put it to use. ] When I send an e-mail, most of the time, I also have to follow it up with an SMS or a phone call to tell the client that I’ve sent them an e-mail. When such a situation exists, I really cannot expect prospective clients who are making an enquiry to send me an e-mail first. I’d love it if I first got an e-mail as an enquiry because most clients still don’t know what to ask or tell when they call up a designer.
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.
Case in point. Project was fun, client was great, client was willing to let me design. But the client’s second in command was not [ the second in command was an external consultant who probably did a quick and dirty design job for a previous client and was under the impression that they’re a great designer ]. Interference was maximum, creativity minimum – micromanagement to the hilt. I’ve quit in disgust and word of mouth is going to ensure that that particular consultant does not get to work with any good designers in the future. Ask me via e-mail and I’ll tell you who it is 😉
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.
While the above isn’t true for the majority of Indian designers, it’s true for me. Money is no longer the only attraction – keywords are “fun”, “challenging”, “exciting”, “flexible”…
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.
I love the book “It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be” by Paul Arden and while I usually don’t recommend books, this one’s title alone makes it worth having in your bookshelf. If you don’t start respecting yourself and your capabilities now, you never will. And I’m not saying it now because I have a cushy job and I don’t know how it is to be a freelancer – I’ve been a freelancer for a year and a half, I do not have a formal design education, I’ve had my days where any money from any client was a blessing – but after one particularly shitty project, I decided no more.
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 🙂
I’d like to say the same to my past and current clients – Roshni, Amrita, Christian, Paul, Peter, Bettina, Joyce, David, Deepa, Amit, Alon, Richard – I love each and every one of you! And there are many more to come – design is still a nascent industry in India – to better times ahead.