by Nigel Gordijk
Solo operators who offer Web design services are increasingly working direct for big name clients who want to avoid high fees by using experienced freelance talent. For the Web designer, this means wearing several hats including that of project manager. How do you keep a project running smoothly without jeopardizing what you do best - designing?
Most of my clients are design consultancies and, more often than not, they want me to work in their office using their equipment and software. However, some of my 'direct' clients aren't set up to accommodate a designer and so I have to use my own facilities in my home office.
I prefer the latter option as it allows flexitime working. I'm an early riser so I tend to be at my desk at 8.00 a.m. and finished by mid-afternoon. If you're working at a client's location (or worse, if you're a wage-slave) 'face time' becomes important, as you have to be seen to be working.
Working without having someone looking over your shoulder can be liberating in some respects - you work your own hours, and there are no office politics, to name but two - but can also be intimidating in others. At the end of each workday I complete a timesheet for my client and sometimes I feel a strange sort of guilt when I'm recording the time spent doing work that can't immediately be seen.
For example, on a recent Web project I spent most of one day cropping and resizing images that appeared throughout the site. The client wouldn't see the pictures straightaway because the pages hadn't been coded yet - but I knew what size the images would be - and the sheer number of them meant a lot of laborious Photoshop work. The client never questioned my hours for this task, but at the back of my mind I kind of worried that they might. How could I prove I'd actually done something that I couldn't show?
Had I been working in the client's office where they could see me churning out a production line of cropped photos, this wouldn't have bothered me. But because of my insecurity about working unseen, I was feeling cut off from the client.
Even a designer who, like me, has more than a decade's experience under their belt can occasionally feel that they're working out in the wilderness. So here are my solutions for making sure that working out of sight doesn't mean being out of mind.
Regardless of where I'll be executing the project - my home office or design consultancy's office - I always try to have the project briefing face to face. There are always questions that arise in meetings that may not be apparent to either party when writing an email or talking on the phone. It gives me an opportunity to get to know the client and, more importantly, for them to know a bit about me.
For example, I designed the Learndirect Scotland Web site for the Scottish University for Industry (SUFI). The first few meetings were at the client's offices in Glasgow although the actual design work was carried out at the London office of Web consultancy Interactive Bureau. Meeting the client face to face in those early stages, as well as seeing their body language while discussing possible design directions, proved invaluable months later, deep into the project.
In these days of working over the Internet there are projects where meeting the client in person is simply unfeasible. When I designed the Lilies White Web site, all briefings and communication were carried out by email, phone and post. As much as I love visiting Canada on vacation, I draw the line at transatlantic commuting.
It's good to talk
Communication is essential. When working from home, I email weekly progress reports to the client, describing what I'd achieved in the past week and what remains to be completed. It's important that the client is aware that you're still alive and working on their project, not slouched in front of the box watching daytime TV and billing it as research.
(This, of course is ludicrous. Have you ever seen British daytime TV? Utter cack. I'm convinced that the television schedules were designed by the UK government to encourage the unemployed to look for work.)
Also, I find that asking questions about an ongoing project shows that I'm continuously thinking about it. No one will think you're dumb if you ask for clarification; on the contrary, it looks good for you if you raise intelligent points.
Ask for regular feedback from the client, but set deadlines for their comments, preferably in writing or by email. There are two reasons for this: it allows them to feel part of the project, while setting a deadline keeps the whole thing moving along. If they fail to respond by your deadline, then you may have a useful fallback position if the project timing slips.
Sometimes, there may be more than one person involved in a project on the client side. To avoid confusion, I always ask that feedback is coordinated through one person. Because these various people are usually in the same building, it's easier to avoid repetition or contradiction this way.
Now, I'm afraid you'll have to excuse me - 'Bob the Builder' is about to start...
Nigel Gordijk is a freelance Web and print designer living in Brighton on the south coast of England. He spends way too much time traveling to work (mostly in London) and not enough actually working. He's currently trying - with some success - to convince clients that he's more productive closer to home.
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(c) Nigel Gordijk