Ever hear the phrase ‘starving artist’? Given the current state of the freelance design world — especially among less experienced designers — it should probably be ‘starving designer’ instead. Why? Because there is no professional artist, alive or dead, who is going to give their work away for free or allow payment to be deferred indefinitely.
Designers, on the other hand, are often eager to create valuable work for shady clients with no guarantee of payment. Today, we’ll explore how a simple role-playing exercise can help cure you of this malady, and ensures that you get paid on time, every time.
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The Obvious First Step
First, the essentials. I don’t often write about contracts because every freelance designer should already be using one. If you don’t use a contract for every new design project you take on, I’m sorry, but you’re asking to be screwed over.
The contract doesn’t just protect you from shady clients who want to take advantage of you — it also protects the right clients, who make honest mistakes, from unknowingly costing you time and money. Clients are only human, but a contract helps keep people on track much more often.
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Passion For A Price
Okay, so on to the exercise. Imagine you’re a plumber. Get a good visual going — perhaps you look like Super Mario. I don’t know — this is your scenario! Anyway, one day you’re approached by a client who wants you to do a complicated repair job. The price they’re willing to pay? Nothing. This client wants you to do several hours of plumbing work free.
Would you do it? Furthermore, how do you think other plumbers would feel if they heard that you said yes to these terms? Would they say, “Well, at least you’ve got some good experience you can show to your next client?”
Of course not. They’d lambast you and call you a moron for getting taken advantage of. Yet somehow, when a designer does the same thing, it’s overlooked as something acceptable. Why? Because designers keep allowing it.
Know Your Worth
Designers may have gotten into the industry because they love design, but they also need to make a living. A professional designer knows the importance of robust design in the pipeline of business. The difference between a well-designed product and one poorly designed can often mean the difference between thousands — sometimes even millions — of dollars of revenue.
Yes, marketing is essential, but if it weren’t for strong design, companies like Apple would be obscure, tiny, and non-competitive — if they even existed at all.
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You are a very valuable part of your client’s business. If you weren’t, they wouldn’t have bothered hiring you in the first place. Keep in mind that they need you — just like someone with clogged pipes needs a plumber. The value you provide is just as significant in its way.
Stopping Delays In Their Tracks
Many times, a client who is withholding payment is not intending to be malicious. As Mike Monteiro reminds us in his iconic 2011 presentation at CreativeMornings in San Francisco, “No client enters into a relationship with you just to be a jerk” (I’m paraphrasing a bit, naturally).
They genuinely needed your design services at some point, and their delay in paying you could be a bookkeeping error or some minor oversight on their part.
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There are also times where the client feels that you failed to provide a satisfactory result, which is entirely fair. Going back to our plumber example, if you went to use your newly fixed toilet, and found that the pipes were now leaky, you’d do everything in your power to withhold payment until that problem was fixed.
Sometimes, it’s a simple communication error between you and your client, which can be fixed with a simple, polite email or phone call.
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Practice Your Acting Skills
You can put yourself in the shoes of a plumber, or any other independent contractor, every time you have to deal with a payment issue.
By remembering that your client needs a valuable solution to a problem only you can provide, you can maintain the upper hand and make sure you receive the promised compensation.