Mark Bult Design: San Francisco, CA, Established 1988

Web design and development for small and large business, e-commerce, b2b, b2c, SAAS, and community websites. User experience design and usability testing.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Know your potential client

Doing freelance design for 20 years has enabled me to hone my client selection skills over time.

What does that mean? It means knowing how to spot whether a potential new client will be easy to work with or hard to work with.

When you're starting out as a freelancer you're often living month to month and it seems like you can't possibly turn any paying client away. But trust me, one of the best things I've done in my career is to hone my skills at determining what kind of client each new referral will be. It has saved me a lot of headaches over the years.

Of course, you don't always know if that person is going to be a micromanaging meddler, or a waffling mind-changer, or any of the other 379 types of clients, but with attention and experience you can learn how to get it mostly right most of the time, and pick clients who will both help you pay your bills and not drive you completely insane.

Perusing the stories at made me think of this one time recently, though, that I slipped up and didn't let the signals and flags alert me to the fact that I had an asshat for a client.

About two and a half years ago, I had decided to take the plunge and look for a "real" job with a "real" company and to stop freelancing. I was sending out my résumé to lots of places and going on interviews and all that stuff. I applied for a Senior Designer or Art Director or something position at this interactive design firm in San Francisco that I'd never heard of, but they called me for an interview, and I drove up to meet them.

I'd looked at this company's site and the work was alright, but I wasn't all that impressed. However, it was a potential job. I was living off a couple small contracts and tiny side projects but was spending most of my time looking for full-time employment and working on my woefully outdated portfolio, so money was going to run out in a few months and I figured I'd better go to any interview that came along.

I probably should have been more selective and maybe put more weight into the fact that their site was not that impressive. Their client list was, however, so I decided what the hell.

I met with the CEO and we had a good interview and I thought it was going well. We talked about my online portfolio a bit and then he asked me for the URL again and I spelled it out for him as he typed it on his keyboard. He was using a Mac, I don't remember what model or anything, but I recall he had a rather old Apple large-screen CRT. I didn't think much about this at the time, until he said my site wasn't displaying right and I came around the side of his desk to see what the trouble was.

For starters, he was using System 9. By this time, System 9 was pretty much an antique OS, so I was a little surprised to say the least. The following flashed through my mind: "WTF is this CEO of an international design company doing using System 9?" but I was in the middle of an interview and didn't want to get distracted by what my mind was saying to me. Mistake #1.

Oh, did I mention that he was also using Internet Explorer on System 9? Okay, 'nuff said.

So the interview continues, I show him some of my print stuff and he likes it, but he says he's not quite ready to hire someone, he's got a few candidates he's considering, including me, and he kind of apologetically asks me if I'd do a contract job for him to sort of test the waters. Five hundred bucks or something, to do one design with three page mockups for one of his clients that needs a website redesign.

I thought this was actually a great idea, because I would get to test the waters too. And while I ordinarily would charge somewhere between $3,000 and $30,000 for such a project, he wasn't actually expecting all the research and associated work I'd normally do, just some quick mockups and only a single design. Plus it was a bit of cash, and I wasn't in a position to say no to any cash, no matter how little. Mistake #2.

He was probably having a couple of his other interviewees do the same thing; then he'd have three or four design directions to present to his client, and he'd only have to pay $1,500 or $2,000 to do them. Ordinarily, I'd frown on this sort of thing, but I made a compromise in this case, thinking, hey it might lead to a job. Mistake #3.

It turned out the client was one of the world's biggest manufacturers of Flash memory, but they had a totally non-impressive website considering this status. So I headed home, reviewed their site, and with basically no direction and no assets, I created three really good page designs. I delivered them via email to the design firm, and they really liked them, and told me they'd get back to me in a few days, after their meeting with the client.

I uploaded a tiny screenshot of the homepage mockup to my blog and wrote a brief post about it. I sent my bill to the design firm and went back to sending out résumés and working on my online portfolio.

A week or two later I get this angry email from the design firm's CEO, saying that "somehow" the client had come across my post on my blog, and they were angry and it was unprofessional of me to post it and implying that the client was threatening to sue him and demanding that I take it down right away. And oh, by the way, we haven't gotten your bill yet, can you send that right away? Thanks.

First off, I'm thinking, "They 'somehow' came across it? Have you ever heard of a keyword alert, dumbass? Like Google Alerts?"

Then I'm thinking, what exactly is this company worried about? I put a homepage design on the web. A homepage design. Not a product schematic. Not the plans for a nuclear device. Not their patents for the past ten years.

The homepage mockup contains absolutely no sensitive information. In fact it only contains text that's on their currently live homepage! Plus some improved copy that I wrote. And their logo. And a photo. A photo that I had to get from my collection, you asshats who didn't give me anything to work with.

I reread the email and I realized that he'd mentioned that my post was "insulting as hell," which must've been because I slandered them oh so mightily by describing the client as "the market leader in Flash memory, although you wouldn't believe it from their current website".

Which was, um, true. Their site was really bad. This was a multi-billion dollar international company. And their site barely functioned. Not just ugly. Barely worked.

I imagined the scenario that set this guy off. He's sitting in his office, in front of Internet Explorer running on System 9, and the client calls him up and says, "Who the hell is this designer writing about our company and our website all over the Internet and putting up the mockup you just showed us last Tuesday?!"

And the design firm CEO guy can only say, "Huh? I have no idea what you're talking about! What? Where? On a blog? What blog? How do I get to a blog? Can I see it on my Internet Explorer?"

And he goes and (with some difficulty, I'm guessing — probably by following a link in an email sent by the client, and certainly not by doing a search to find it, or, y'know, actually knowing I had a blog in the first place) finds my post, and reads it, and sees the tiny little mockup there, and fires off this angry email at me because he felt like a complete dope for being embarrassed in front of his client.

Which I can understand. I'd be embarrassed too.

But I mean, c'mon. Let's not overreact here.

A) I put up a tiny mockup. That I designed. For starters, that entire design, with the exception of the client's logo in the corner, is owned by me under U.S. copyright law until I get paid for it, buster. Which you haven't done yet. You are a professional in the graphic design industry, are you not? You do understand copyright law, do you not? Asshat?

B) My post was insulting? As hell? What, by implying that a huge company such as your client should by all accounts have a very professional website and it's surprising that they don't? Well excuse the hell out of me for being honest. I can see how they'd be rightfully ashamed, but insulted? Methinks you need to examine your emotions a little bit more closely, friends.

C) What exactly were you angriest about? That you looked like a fool in front of your client because you'd hired some contractor to do your work for you? Or that you looked like a fool in front of the client when you didn't know that it's pretty common for designers these days to actually have a blog, and *gasp* even discuss their work on their blogs! Or was it that you were embarrassed that you hadn't asked me to sign any sort of nondisclosure agreement or even implied in any way that this homepage mockup design was some ultra-secret project that had to be kept from the world at all costs?

Look pal, I could understand them and you being upset if I'd posted something important, but it's a damn homepage with a couple paragraphs of marketingese on it. Get a grip.

(Mistake #4: Not realizing that a guy who uses Internet Explorer on System 9 is probably a few years out of touch with the way the design community — and in fact, the world — operates these days. It's about transparency, pal. It's about sharing, and community, and writing about what you do.)

Okay, so I took the screenshot down, and I deleted the client's name from the post, but I'd be damned if I was going to censor my own (truthful) post. At that point, job be damned, it was pretty evident that I didn't want to work for this asshat if this was the way he did business.

Luckily, I never had to work with him again. Although it was many months before I finally got my measly $500 out of him.

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