I used to believe you should take on whatever work you can get. When I was just starting out in design, I had little experience and was looking to gain more. I heard everyone around me telling me to take all the jobs I could get.
You might’ve heard something similar. It’s a great way to establish yourself in the market, right? Well, I have a story that might tell you otherwise.
My Passion for Web Design
In high school, I took a web design class and fell in love with it. I immersed myself into web design, in and outside of class. I loved it so much that I was working on my websites in other classes, at home, and eventually joined the school’s web design club. Through the club, I competed against other schools’ web design students. I eventually won a couple first place awards in a couple local and regional competitions.
I eventually made it to the SkillsUSA California State Championships in San Diego. Out of 19 teams, I won a silver medal and was half of a percentage point off of winning gold and going to the SkillsUSA National Championships. I was blown away by just being at the State Championship and placing, let alone nearly making it to nationals.
My First Client
I was at the height of my passion for web design and loving everything about it. By the end of my senior year, I had my first client work opportunity. By this point, I was graduating high school, doing work I loved, and going to get paid for it. I was in heaven!
That’s until I realized I was working with a client from hell. The client paid me a low three-figure flat rate for the whole project. They set the terms, deadlines, and had me sign an non-disclosure agreement. At the moment, I didn’t think about it. It was a job, so I got to work.
Here’s the problem: I had already decided I would do anything for the job, because “I needed it.” The client saw this and took advantage of it. They were a bad client to begin with, but it never crossed my mind to turn them down. I didn’t want to deal with the responsibility because I was the designer, not the business person. So, I allowed them to set the terms, take responsibility, and (implicitly) take advantage.
After two months of working on the website and making revisions, I realized it wasn’t worth it. I had been working slavishly (quite literally) on the project. The number of hours I had worked on the project had surpassed the number of dollars I had received from the job. But the worst part, was the client relationship. They didn’t have respect for me, and it’s because I didn’t have any self respect to begin with.
After the Project
What happened to the business? Two months later the client decided they didn’t want to continue their business anymore. What happened to me? I never wanted to design a webpage ever again. I learned that taking on whatever work you can get is horrible advice. Unfortunately, I learned this lesson the hard way.
Did I gain experience? Sure, but it was at the expense of my passion for web design, which got me the job in the first place. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t seem like the best compensation to me.
I learned that making your passion about the money is the quickest way to kill it. I would have benefited far more from working on my own side projects for experience, rather than taking on that client. More importantly, I probably would still have a passion for web design.
Being Selective with Clients
Though there were plenty of unprofessional practices I made, my biggest failure was taking on the client in the first place. You must protect the passion above all else. The passion is what drives all of your work; if you allow someone to ruin it for you, then it’s a lose-lose situation. You must be selective with who you decided to work with. It starts with you being selective with who you work with, not the other way around.
I should have never taken them on as a client. They didn’t respect my process, or values, or myself in general. In the beginning, there were plenty of signs of them taking advantage of my eagerness. I ignored these signs because I just wanted the job:
- They would low ball and compare my rate, so that they could pay less.
- They showed signs of distrust by having me sign an NDA.
- They piled on the demands to increase the scope of the project.
The Mindset of a Professional Designer
Later, I realized that I was conducting myself unprofessionally. A designer focused on professionalism takes the responsibility. I was blaming the client, rather than seeing where I went wrong. Once I transitioned to lettering, I decided to take full responsibility of the clients I took on, take control of the process, and set the expectations.
Professionals don’t take on any work they can get. A professional designer starts from a place of values, and they make decisions against those values. Instead of blaming the client, they take responsibility for everything that goes wrong in the project. They don’t take on projects that will compromise their values or ones that aren’t a good fit, because it would keep them from producing their best work.
A designer with a professional mindset doesn’t focus on the money they could receive; they focus on the value they can provide to the client. If the passion for your work is ruined by the client, then you can’t provide any value. So, you should protect that from happening at all costs, because it’s the lifeblood of your work.
Thanks for reading! Next week, I’ll be sharing how I’ve transitioned to being selective with client work requests to protect my passion for lettering.
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