The Importance of Being Organized

by Brent Wiethoff

Designers are notorious for being disorganized and scatterbrained. It's just in our nature. Even the most conscientious of us tend to forget about deadlines, miss meetings, and fly by the seat of our pants. True, the spirit of design is most often manifested in spontaneity. But there's business to tend to here!

Let's say you are working on a brochure for a small plastic flatware distributor. You may have several names of people to keep track of, as well as their positions and their role in the project. You'll also be best off knowing whose word is the final answer. Then there's the content of the brochure: who's delivering it? When was it last proofread? And of course they want beautiful four-color pictures of their new product line -- when was that photo shoot you were supposed to art direct? And after you got it all approved, you delivered it to the printer and did your typical press check. Hopefully you ordered the right quantity on the right paper stock!

Clearly, even with a seemingly simple job, there are lots of issues to keep track of. Just the thought of juggling all these things accurately in one's head is enough to make me queasy. You've got client information: contact numbers/email addresses and the like; names, positions, roles, and interpersonal politics; and even those personal non-related issues like the assistant's daughter who's been expelled from school. Then there's project-related information: from the basic requirements to the details of the deliverables; deadlines; Pantone colors, paper stock, and logo specs. And to top it off, the client's changes and requests can come at a moment's notice. Let's look at some common pitfalls and strategies of designers out there, to see what we can glean.

Keep good records

Common sense will tell you that even the most detail-oriented mind is fallible. I've seen very many fellow designers fail or fall behind because they didn't take notes while discussing a project with a client. Don't want to get confused? Write everything down! And I'm talking about more than just on the back of your hand, or a restaurant napkin. Keep an organized log of what's happening.

Don't delete email; organize it

Don't, under any circumstances, delete an email to or from a client while a project is in progress! Even if you think the email is unrelated to the project, save it. I'm speaking from personal experience here, folks -- deleting email can get you into big trouble. Instead, use your mail client (Outlook Express, Mozilla, or even webmail) to your advantage. Create a folder for the client, and put incoming and outgoing messages in this folder. Some email services such as gmail even offer thread or conversation-style email viewing standard. But keep it, don't delete it.

Get written approval (and store it)

Another common mistake for beginning designers is to give the signed proof back to the client so they can show their bosses. Art approval can be a very sticky situation if you don't have some proof that a client signed off on a phase of the project. Frankly, you never know the full political situation inside a client's structure, and without protecting yourself you could be used to make someone else look bad. Make sure you get the appropriate person to sign, and keep a copy of it attached to the proof.

Stay on the same page

Particularly with communicating with clients, the last thing you want to do is to tell different things to different people. It's best to keep everyone in the loop -- try CCing all parties involved for pertinent correspondence. But keep in mind, some clients won't want certain people to be in the loop on certain aspects of a project. Try gently suggesting that staying on the same page with everyone involved is the safest way to succeed.

Sign a good contract

If you haven't been stiffed for payment yet as a freelancer, you very likely will at some point in your career. Avoid working for friends (and family), and make sure that you both sign a contract that mutually protects you from one another as much as possible. Be very clear on payment deadlines, and gently remind your client as they approach. Deliver what the contract says you will deliver, so that you will have a leg to stand on if they miss payment or content delivery.

Honesty is the best policy

When there's a problem, and it's your fault, own up to it. Think about how you feel when the clerk behind the counter at McDonald's doesn't care that they gave you the wrong sandwich. Being snotty or not caring about mistakes will almost definitely assure that you won't get repeat business or any referrals from your client. Instead, explain the problem confidently and show them how the their project will still be done on time, and come out as requested. If it costs them money, offer to pay for it. However, try to avoid the simple use of "I'm sorry," as this doesn't do anyone any good in a professional sense. Focus on the solution, and move on.

Stick to a schedule

Whenever possible, set real dates as markers for your process. Keep in mind that while your client is coming to you for help, each person involved in the project very likely is already swamped with their regular duties. Especially if they're outsourcing their work to you, their time is precious. So plan meeting times appropriately ahead and keep them as short as possible. Set deadlines for their delivery of content to you and for your delivery of design to them. This makes clients feel confident that you know what you're doing. Not sure how long to give yourself to get it done? Ask how long you have, and give it to them early.

However you get organized, you must have a system! Remember, your clients are paying you good money (most of the time), and expect you to treat their project professionally.

About the Author
Brent Wiethoff is a freelance graphic designer with several years of experience in the field. Currently living in Dallas, Texas, he works from home and teaches Graphic Design at Westwood College. You can find out more about Brent and see his portfolio at