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7 ways to set clear expectations on your next design project

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So, you’ve just taken on a new design client and are ready to get started. Congratulations! Winning a new round of work is an exciting moment for any creative person. But before you sign on the dotted line, it’s important to make sure that both you and your client are on the same page—and stay that way throughout the duration of the project.

illustration of a person sitting at a desk doing a zoom call with two others
Illustration by Fe Melo

A new design project can open the door to long-term working relationships and client referrals that will help you build your business. But even the most experienced designers can run into roadblocks. A client relationship can quickly turn sour for a variety of reasons—from scope creep and seemingly unending revisions to feedback delays or client disagreements.

To protect your time and your working relationships, it’s important to set boundaries upfront. Clear project terms will give you and your client guidance in case anything goes wrong down the line. By setting these expectations, you’ll both know when to say “no,” when the client needs to pay more and when it’s time to walk away.

In this article, we’ll go over 7 crucial terms you should always agree on with your client before getting started:

Let’s get started!

1. Discuss your deliverables

The client sends you a creative brief and it seems simple enough. But have you two really dug into the details? It’s important to be specific when it comes to the number of designs and variations that are meant to be completed in a project.

logo suite and variations for dead flower shop
Logo suite by coric design

Scenario #1: Say a client wants a logo. What are they actually expecting? These days, many brands have a wide variety of logo deliverables for their digital and physical assets. Will they need different sizes to ensure legibility? How many color options do they want? Will they need wordmarks and badges? How about the extra details—patterns, ornamentation, brand accents or animations. Do they assume a brand guide is included?

You and your client may be defining “logo project” very differently and it’s vital to agree on those expectations from the very beginning.

By outlining the project deliverables in the very beginning with your client, you’ll be able to itemize and charge for any additional work. Having a list of clear deliverables will also help you prevent scope creep later on.

2. Agree on file formats

Miscommunication about file formats can really set designers back—especially if they’re at the end of a project. Always make sure to check with your client about what file formats they need.

illustration of a person talking to two other people
Illustration by Daria F.

Scenario #2: You’re working with a non-profit client who wants an editable brochure template. You and your client have gone through all the revisions and you’re ready to wrap up the project.

You send the client an editable Adobe InDesign file and prepare the final invoice. But your client gets in touch because they are confused. They don’t have Adobe Suite and were expecting the brochure to be in Microsoft Word, since that’s the application they know how to use. Now you’re on the hook to recreate the entire template in Word so that they can use it.

Some clients aren’t well-versed in graphic design and may need your guidance in understanding what file formats they need. Ask them what design applications they’re comfortable using, whether it should be an editable file and what they plan to do with your design once it’s finished. That information will give you insight into what file formats the client needs and help you skip any last-minute snags when they receive your final designs.

3. Set a maximum number of revisions

Ask any designer and they’re sure to have at least one horror story of a client who just needed one last design change… And then one more small change. And then…. Ok, just one more small change.

We get it! Designers can be perfectionists, too. But we all have our limits and—at least where client feedback is concerned—it’s best to set some boundaries. Your client needs clear guidelines to understand how to work with you.

three versions of the logo design
three versions of the logo design

Talking about your revision process will help them understand your expectations for their feedback throughout the project. Explain how many design proposals are included in your project pricing, as well as how many feedback rounds and revisions you will deliver.

To emphasize this point, you can include extra revisions for an additional charge in your negotiation. By setting a maximum number of revisions, the client should recognize that there needs to be intentionality behind their feedback (which will hopefully save you from an unending loop of design tweaks).

While it can be a nice gesture to offer an extra tweak or there, it’s important to know where to draw the line and how to value your time.

4. Timelines

Time is money—especially when you’re working on a design project. If timelines aren’t agreed on upfront, it can be really easy to veer off-track. Misalignment around due dates, working schedules and time estimates can quickly ruin a good thing.

Make sure that you have a clear understanding of how much time the project will take, and that your estimates are in line with your client’s expectations.

logo of clock
Logo design by Cope_HMC

As you get into feedback and revisions, you may find that the project is taking up much more of your time than either you or your client expected. This would be a good opportunity to renegotiate prices—but only if you both understand that the project is going out of scope.

Questions to ask yourself at the start of a project:

  • When will this project officially start?
  • When should this project be completed? Is there a hard date to complete this project?
  • How time-intensive is this project? How much time is this project expected to take?
  • What are the milestones for this project and what are the estimated due dates for each milestone?
  • How much time should each revision take?
  • Does the client expect you to be available at certain times? Are there specific working hours or a set work schedule?

By asking yourself these questions, you should get a clearer understanding of the project scope and how to price yourself. By clearly communicating these time estimates with your client, you should be well-prepared to have tough conversations, if needed.

For instance, if your client is slow with feedback, you can explain how their delays are affecting project milestones and delivery dates.

If your client is asking for massive changes to your design, you can let them know that the project is taking up more time than originally estimated (a good opportunity to push back on their requests or renegotiate prices).

5. Prices and payment structure

Once you’ve determined your deliverables and timeline, you can think about the project payment structure.

Start by looking at the itemized list of design deliverables. What is the price for each of them? Then look at your timelines. How much time should this project take up and how much are those hours worth?

 illustration of an American bill with the text “never doubt your worth”
Illustration by Irudh

You can choose how you want to communicate your prices—perhaps you prefer to bundle your services. Or maybe you want the client to understand the value of each deliverable through an itemized pricing sheet. The way you share your prices with your client is up to you! But taking the time to understand where those prices come from is vital for your value throughout the project.

Once you set a project price, you should think about the “what ifs.” What if a client requests more deliverables later on? What if a client asks for more revisions than you agreed upon? What if they start needing you to attend meetings or are taking up more time than expected? How much will all these extra things cost?

By including solutions to these “what ifs” as additional services in your payment structure, you’ll be able to softly push back with your client and add those services to your invoice, if they still want them.

6. Termination and cancellation

Let’s face it. Sometimes things don’t work out. Budgets get cut. The client can’t be satisfied. Timelines are getting too overstretched. You have an emergency. Life happens! And you need to be prepared.

So let’s ask the tough questions: what happens when you or your client need to walk away? And how much should you be compensated if the contract ends early?

illustration of a planet
Illustration by Zombijana Bones

Scenario #3: You’re working with a difficult client and the project is going sideways. Emotions are running high and the client decides to terminate the contract. You reach out to see if you can get paid for your work, but the client is giving you a hard time saying that you didn’t deliver what you promised. You look at your original contract, but can’t find anything that clearly states how much the client owes you if the project ends early. Now you’re on the back foot for this negotiation.

As you go through your pricing and payment structure, you should include a clause that helps you and your client navigate a project cancellation, if the worst-case scenario happens. In your negotiations, you should discuss up to what point a project can be canceled with a full refund. As you go over the project timelines, you should also discuss the percentage a client should pay based on how much of the project has been completed.

Some designers charge a non-refundable fee upfront to make sure no time is wasted. Others set payment milestones where they are paid a percentage of the total price. The way you set up your payment plan is up to you—but make sure that you get it in writing just in case things go awry.

7. Confidentiality

Lastly, it’s always important to understand whether a client needs you to sign an NDA or keep the project confidential for an amount of time.

logo design with a key in a diamond shape
Logo design by Stamatovski

In your negotiation, you should include any confidentiality timelines and be specific about when your work can be made public. Maybe the client is waiting for a public launch and only needs to keep your work confidential for six months. Or perhaps there is sensitive information in the project that can’t ever be made public.

Your portfolio is how you sell your services. If you’ve spent a lot of time on a project, but can’t share it publicly in your portfolio, you should consider how much that confidentiality is worth and include it in your pricing structure.

In conclusion

When you’ve confirmed a new creative project, it can be tempting to jump right in. Taking a moment to negotiate your terms with a client will ensure the whole process goes smoothly.

As a professional designer, it’s important to protect your time and know when to push back. We hope these tips will help you clearly value your work and empower you to take on tough client conversations more confidently.

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