the Design Office of Matt Stevens - Direction + Design + Illustration


Thoughts: 3 Years in. What I've learned / Pt.2

Yesterday's Part 1 post was intended to a be a few brief thoughts, but as I began writing I realized there was more to say. This was to be catharsis for me, after starting the year with a bit of an aimless feeling, I thought it would be helpful for me to write down and crystallize some of my own thoughts, maybe as a way of reassuring myself. I'm not exactly sure, but it was helpful and the feedback that so many have given has been very rewarding. So thank you for that. Now let's dive into the rest of my thoughts here in Part 2.

PRICING / One of the biggest struggles I have is pricing jobs. Somehow I want every client, every job to work along some master system and all be consistent. One of my early struggles was in the absence of the client just giving me their budget (this is almost every time) trying to figure out what I think they are expecting. I have found this to be impossible and not helpful. To try and make that estimation becomes one of emotion. "I can't send that price even though it feels right, they won't expect that, it's too high and they'll go running." Use your intuition and instinct, but try and remove those kinds of fears and emotions. You can't guess what they're expecting, all you can do is your best to try and price the job fairly and accurately. I have used a sort of informal triangulation that works for me most of the time. Ask for the budget. As I mentioned, this doesn't often get offered to you. I then move on to 3 numbers for the job. What is my gut? Just right off the top of my head, what is the number that surfaces instinctively. I then refer to the Graphic Artists Guild handbook. This has great info for just about every type of design/illustration project. It can't account for your specific situation, but it's a good guide. Then I look at comparable jobs that I've done for clients of this size or in this same industry. Somewhere in the midst of those 3 numbers I end up landing on something that I can confidently present to the client. And if I'm really stuck or particularly worried, I've also reached out to peers that I know have done similar work. You'd be surprised how much even the most seasoned design vet has the same challenges as you and how generous they are to help you out. Even now I still get caught up in the beginning worrying about the numbers. It takes me a while to work through the fear of being too high, too low or losing the job and to just remove the emotion and arrive at the numbers. I'm getting better at it, but it's still a struggle. (And yes, every year I go through the thought process of whether I should pursue an agent or external pricing resource)

HALF UP FRONT / Get a portion of each job up front. I often ask for 50% as a deposit to initiate the project. Sometimes with larger organizations this can be a challenge to get the money to you quickly if the job needs to start right away. Then it becomes a judgement call, but if you do decide to move forward, make sure the payment wheels are in motion. This is a bit different for editorial work vs. longer term design or identity projects. Editorial is often very quick turn and this kind of payment up front is impossible. To get a large company to get you money up front when the job may be due in a few days is not realistic. Often times this up front payment can weed out those that would be a danger to not pay. If someone has selected you to work on their project, but has reservations about up front payment for unclear or invalid reasons, it's probably a situation to avoid.

KILL FEE / Building in a kill fee is a very reasonable and wise thing to do. As a small or one person shop, it's tricky to make sure you have capacity for what you're currently working on and for what's coming up. There is a monetary value to the time you've allotted to the project you're taking on (and the work you may have turned away to make yourself available). Projects end, often for unforeseen reasons. A kill fee is just a way of protecting yourself when this happens.

IN WRITING / Your contract and/or statement of work doesn't have to be anything amazing, but you need to make sure you have one. For me it's really about having a well-written and clear document that both you and the client can review and agree to. It's these unwritten, unspoken details that often make things go badly when the unexpected happens. It should include timeline, scope (in detail), payment schedule, kill fees and usage/ownership details. 

CHASING INVOICES / Yes this happens. Yes it's not fun. Longest payment has taken 9 months so far. I've never been outright stiffed on any jobs but I've had to spend more time than I'd like tracking down payments.

SPEAKING / I get asked a lot by my fellow creatives about speaking and is it good for business. Speaking is an honor and a privilege. I truly see it that way. That someone would invest money to bring you out to their group is humbling. It often forces me to look at my own work in new ways. To back up and think about what I have learned and what I would hope to impart to others. Because of this, early on, I said "yes" to everything. I saw it as a way to give my time, help people with my experience (and sure, I love to talk about myself). But what I realized was that often these speaking engagements were costing me too much. I just needed to be choosier about what I took on and when. I'd find myself in a small town on the other side of the country on a Thursday night speaking to a group. Missing time with my family and trying to work late in my hotel or on a plane to keep up with my paying work. I realized that I needed to be more careful and thoughtful about what I said yes to. Conferences are a great opportunity as well. Your trip is paid for, often you get an honorarium beyond travel expenses, and you get to attend a conference and be inspired. If you get the opportunity to speak, definitely grab hold of it, but do it in a way that it doesn't end up costing you too much professionally and personally. If you don't think the speaking thing is for you and you don't enjoy it, that's fine too. I wouldn't say it's been a huge source of getting new work for me.

PERSONAL BRAND / I'm not really sure how to talk about this and not even sure if it's a good thing or a bad thing. It is definitely "a thing" though. As an independent, with your name on the door, you are constantly creating a perception of who you are and your work through all the channels that you put  out there. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook are all broadcasting messages about you. I'm not suggesting that you handle these in any particular way. That's a personal decision and something you need to decide for yourself, but I do think it's important to be aware of the signals you are transmitting to the world. I try and use every channel at my disposal to broadcast my work and often some of the process behind it. Being in a smaller market and doing a lot of work with remote clients, breaking down process and thinking is a good way for me to show potential clients how I think, what my approach is and to give them an idea whether or not I would be someone they would want to work with. As an independent designer, I think clients are mostly buying into your work, but to a certain degree they are buying into YOU.

COMPARISON / Picture this with me. You wake up on a Monday, feeling pretty good about the week. Ready to take on your project work and do something great, or maybe your work has hit a lull but you find yourself determined to work your way out of it. Try something new or dive into that side project. One quick visit to Instagram or Twitter...before you know it you're down the rabbit hole looking at that one designer's work. You know the one. Everything seems to be going their way and they seem to have all the gigs you wish you had. The shots of beautiful work, visiting amazing clients or speaking at some great gig. You sit there, on this Monday, in front of your computer. Looking at the layout you don't really want to do or staring down that phone call with the difficult client that you don't really want to make. Believe me, I've been recently as, oh say...this morning! I think we as humans struggle with this, but it seems even more acute in the creative fields. I suspect it's because we are so closely connected to what we do. Who we are and what we make are sometimes indistinguishable from one another. I don't have an answer for you on this one. Some have just stopped looking, which I think can be helpful. I think being grateful for what I get to do and realizing we all have a tendency to do this comparing can also help. I've gotten to speak to some of the best designers around, many whom I've done this comparison thing with, and they all do it too. Everyone's looking up at someone. The sooner I can realize that and get back to doing my own thing, the better off I'll be. In the grand scheme, don't lose sight of what matters most in your life. In 20 years will your friends, spouse or children remember the time you spent with them or that you got over 200 likes in your latest instagram post or that you got that killer job with COOLBRANDCO™ ?

"Comparison is the thief of joy." Theodore Roosevelt

STAY TRUE / When I fall into this process of comparing myself, feeling like crap, rinse, repeat...I often feel this energy to reinvent myself. I think it's natural when we feel unsure to look around at what our design heroes are doing and say to ourselves, "I should be that." The most satisfying projects I have are ones that begin with the client wanting my unique voice and my approach (they're not all this way). The only way to achieve that is to figure out what that is and to develop it.

CREATIVE COMMUNITY / The demands of working on your own can create a "head down" mentality. You can begin to view your time as your money (I mean, it is). But there is no paid vacation. When you don't work, you aren't making money, so this can keep you from doing the things you need to do in the long term. One of the areas that suffered the most for me was creative community. Taking the time to break out of the isolation of working on your own and to learn and be around others sharing the same kind of work, experiences and challenges. One of my best experiences was Creative Works in Memphis this past year. There were so many speakers there doing the same kind of work I was doing and there was a real tone of honesty amongst the speakers. We all face the same stuff whether we're working for the most sought after clients in the world or the small business down the street. It's reassuring to know that others are going through what you are. My goal this year is to put myself in more situations where I can have some more of those experiences to learn from others. It's easy to see it as something that costs you to do it, but it really does cost you more to not do it.

Thanks for taking the time to read all of this. It was helpful for me to write, so I hope you've gotten something out of reading it.


Matt Stevens1 Comment