I’m in my first year of business in graphic design, and this summer was insane! I’m a slave to my clients and I don’t know how not to be. They text me and expect responses ASAP and have no problem adding things to the scope of the project. I have a few really big projects, so I feel like I need to keep them happy at all costs (to me.)
Some context: Things started off really slowly for me, and looking back, I realize I didn’t do enough to set up systems. Well, really, I didn’t set up any policies because I thought I had things under control when I only had one or two clients.
How do I set up systems when I’m in the middle of a ton of client work? I depend on my clients to pay my rent, so I have a very hard time doing anything that would make them end our project or not work with me in the future. But, I also know I can’t keep up with the way I’m working. I feel like I burned out months ago. How do you pace yourself while providing excellent client services?
I can’t tell if I’m attracting very needy clients or if I’m letting clients take advantage of my generous nature.
Send Systems ASAP
I would like to congratulate you, first and foremost. You are in one of my favorite growth phases. It may not seem like it, but you actually hold the power here. Take a deep breath and STOP working. I’m going to come at you with some practical advice, then dive into the big picture theory of it all.
You MUST get clear about the timeline for your project. Take an afternoon, day, or two days to map out each of your projects. It may seem counterintuitive since you’re feeling extremely busy, but this is the only way to see the big picture.
What you’re trying to find is each project’s current status, what’s expected of you to complete the project, and how each might overlap. I suggest a spreadsheet: set the headers as your days or weeks and make the first column the list of your clients. When you’re done, and you’ve figured out the next steps, send a kind email explaining to each of your clients what your plan is. Make it clear that you’re doing your best to make them happy, you have a plan, and you are not taking on extra aspects of their project. You CAN do this, and they will appreciate the transparency and boundaries.
If you’re not being clear with your clients about what you can and can’t do (in regard to both timing and deliverables), this problem is being created by you. So, are your clients adding more work without a plan to pay you? I can’t tell from your question, but this podcast episode changed my life. There are also articles linked in the show notes that will help you manage scope creep. Read those and build your bravery muscles. You should get paid for every part of your work.
So, by systems, do you mean boundaries?
There might be nothing you can do at this point with your current clients, but you can absolutely learn from your “mistakes.” I put mistakes in quotes because how else would you have known what you needed before you actually went through with the work? Making a mistake has a negative connotation, so I’d like you to see it as an opportunity to make your life better. Every business owner does this.
I’m not sure where it was taught (I have a feeling in art schools across the country… yikes) that the client dictates the project's trajectory, but it seems to be a theme among graphic designers in particular.
You are allowed to dictate the schedule, you are the expert that plans the needs you have for your clients, and you dictate the payment terms. These are important parts of being in control when there is, in fact, very little control you have over your life when you’re working for yourself. Counterintuitive, I know!
What people are looking for in a graphic designer (or creatives):
Expertise (they want you to SOLVE their problem, not make it worse). They need an expert who knows how to create assets that will strengthen their business and brand
Delivering assets on time
Open & clear communication (especially if there is a delay)
Fast (enough) turnaround
What you are truly in charge of is communicating your needs to your client before the project begins. You cannot move forward until your client agrees to your terms. If they don’t like it, either they will negotiate (this is good!), or they’ll leave (also good! You’ve dodged a bullet. Trust me.)
The top boundaries to make you a happy designer:
timelines for client feedback
communication tools, hours, expectations
Overall, a system is really about how you work. Step away from the stressful day-to-day to figure out what hurts most in your business. What’s taking too much time? Is there a template or a technology that can help?
Don’t forget that your job is to get better at your job. It’s worth dedicating time, energy, and money to know (confidently) that you’re doing your best.