What You Need Before You Start Your Next Design Project

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Learn about a key part of my process that I neglected for so long and one you may be neglecting as well.

I have been freelancing now professionally for between 6–7 years — 2 of which have been full-time — and even now I’m still learning and improving on my process.

Case in point, one of the recent things that I changed about my process was instituting project plans at the beginning of the project and now a new productized service that I’ll explain more about later.

Now you may read that and ask yourself “What? You went years without having any project plans or roadmaps?” No… I did have very loose plans for my projects or even had some clients spoon feed me their own plans (some of which weren’t very helpful and even derailed the projects). What I was missing were plans that formed a solid backbone for the projects. In reality what I had were plans with a back bone similar to that of a chocolate eclair which could slow a project down — sometimes to a complete halt.

In the past, whenever a project would start, we (my client & I) would lay out a basic idea of what it would entail within a proposal or statement of work. Within the statement of work, we would say something along the lines of “one header illustration, three supporting illustrations, etc.” All of which were what the client had originally said they wanted — usually to get a general idea of how much the project would cost.

Additionally, when the client says “we want a header illustration”, that’s not a whole lot to go on. It’s hard to price out something like that because it could be either really simple or very complex. Without knowing the style, the exact content and purpose of the illustrations, it’s hard to give context around the work, time, etc. to create an accurate price for something like this.

The overarching problem here is that we’re going off of simply what they wanted and not what they needed. The fact that, we’re also going off of simple line items like “one header and three supporting illustrations” doesn’t help matters either.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t putting a whole lot of time into helping my clients tell the best story to educate their users/customers about the services they offered. I was taking their word and ideas as gospel and wasn’t doing a whole lot of thinking into how things could work better for my clients.

Around the time that I became a full-time freelancer, I began changing things up and focusing a bit more towards the need vs want. I noticed that my relationships with my clients began to improve and I began to attract not only more clients but higher quality leads as well.

The first things I started implementing was giving my clients a bit of homework at the start of each project. I’d share with them a simple google doc that would help mean obtain exactly the type of information I needed to get a jump start on our project. The document would include the following touch points for each of the illustrations:

  • Illustration Title

  • Placement

  • Supporting Text

  • Description

  • Ideas

Each project, for the next six months would include this type of homework and I began noticing that clients were having a lot of trouble figuring out what to put under each bullet so I had to readjust things to include comments and examples of what goes where. That would fix it right?

No.

In theory it seemed like the perfect way of getting all of the information that I needed to complete the project, but there was just one major drawback. There were still changes coming down the line as we were working. More things were being added, others were being cut — mid-production. There was still so much chaos!

I eventually started to feel that it was just the norm and that I would have to work through it each and every time with clients both new and old.

One day though, I happened to be on a call with my good friend Peter Deltondo and a prospective client that we were both hoping to work with together — him doing the UI/UX and me doing the branding & illustration work. As he was discussing his part of the project and his process of doing things, he happened to discuss what he referred to as “Discovery”.

Now, this term wasn’t new to me, I had heard it countless times before both in articles and when I worked for agencies in the past. It was something that primarily is used for branding & UI/UX projects. Before a project is started, an agency or freelancer will do research on their clients industry, create a sitemap for a web app or develop wireframes for a marketing site — just to name a few. All of these can be apart of what is known as Discovery. In this instance, it’s for a large project with a lot of unknowns. This discovery process would help him identify all of the project requirements to ensure not just an accurate estimate for the entire project to the client, but a strategy for building a successful product for the business and not building out an unpolished idea that may not succeed. This is all work that would need to be done regardless, but it was positioned ahead and separate of the full project. Essentially it positioned him as an expert advisor willing to EARN his business for the full project by helping provide a path for the project’s success.

In essence, the difference between Discovery and doing discovery at the beginning of a project is that it’s done before a project is even started. It allows you as the freelancer to help your client or prospective client realize their needs for the project. You can spend more time with the client, sitting down to go through their current website and finding where illustration may benefit to explain some obscure feature, currently being represented by some stock photo of a smiling woman with a headset on.

It became apparent to me, on that call that this was what I was missing. Why couldn’t I do the same thing for my own illustration projects?

Most of the time, when creating illustrations for web, my clients come to me saying they don’t know what they want for sure, but it’ll be between X & Y number of illustrations. Instead what if I offered to them Discovery, where I walk through their wireframes with them and help to craft the story they need to share with their users.

Instead of being told that the homepage needs a header illustration, two supporting illustrations and six custom icons, I could help my clients realize that they didn’t need those additional illustrations they wanted. Instead I show them they need three supporting illustrations to help walk their users through their on boarding process and one main illustration to support their call to action at the bottom of the page.

By doing this, I’m not just applying my illustration skills toward helping my client but those I picked up as a UI/UX designer before going full-time freelance. I’m able to help my clients even more than just creating pretty drawings or by crafting the story that’s already being stunted by the square container they put it in.

The interesting thing to remember here is that all of this is before the project has even started. We’re literally laying the groundwork for the project together, figuring out what is needed and how it will benefit the client’s brand as a whole. With that being said, it also means there’s always the possibility that we may not work together. The client could discover that there’s a lot more work to be done then they can afford at that time, or that maybe I’m not the right fit to help them. The good thing is that they haven’t committed to the project yet, and so they can decide not to move forward. If they do decide to go that route, they aren’t leaving empty handed. At the end of the Discovery, they receive a roadmap detailing everything we discovered along with my recommendations for moving forward that they can then have me move forward with or someone else (if they so choose to).

The best part though about this whole concept of Discovery, is that it can be used for almost any type of project or creative industry.

Lets say for instance, you’re a Photographer (by the way I’m definitely not a photographer but I can speculate) and you constantly find you have clients coming to you wanting you to photograph their events, but they don’t have very much direction for you to run with. So you offer to help them draw up a roadmap to figuring out what they need from the shoot and how you (or another photographer) can help them. You take an hour with the client and you have them walk through the event’s schedule, asking them to point out key moments or individuals that should be photographed. Then, you can make suggestions (based on your experience) to potentially set up a Photo Booth for the attendees to get their photo taken and share them (and your client’s event) on social media additionally you’re giving them a keepsake that will allow them to remember the moment, the event and your client in the future.

Something to also think about with Discovery, is that you’re pulling these things (the research & roadmapping) outside of the full project in hopes of landing the larger project & establishing that you know what you’re doing. You’re able to show your potential client that you’re not just a pixel pusher or someone who can draw pretty pictures but someone who is an expert in their field.

Which is what we want for our clients right? Success!

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Synopsis

The thing that I was missing and the thing that you may also be missing as a freelancer or small studio is the ability to create a solid roadmap & plan for you and your client’s engagement.

This is something that took me a while to figure out but once I did and started to implement it into my workflow I noticed that projects went smoother (without many bumps in the road) and clients seemed way more happier.

Next time you pitch a project to a client, pitch a round of Discovery to help bring everyone in on the same page and offer a solid plan of action.

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