Quality. Reliability. Being nice. Three essential values for a successful freelance design career

By Geoff Muskett

Sticking to a set of values gets you a long way in work, and life. You values are what define you and set you apart from others. They guide you in every decision.

In life, it might be that you never, under any circumstance, pay for anything on credit. Or maybe you always start your day with meditation. Or you call you friends and family once a week. Whatever it is, these values are part of what defines you.

To my detriment, I don’t subscribe to the above (at the moment). I don’t claim to have life figured out. No-one does, at least no-one should. There’s always room for improvement.

What I do know is that my three core work based values have, and continue to, serve me well. They have guided my growth as a designer for the past fifteen years. I’m betting they’ll continue to deliver for the next fifteen.

Quality. Reliability. Trying to be a nice guy to deal with.

Though simple, these values have taken me from ‘spare time web tinkerer’, to lead digital designer at Worlds Apart (a big player in kids furniture and toys), to senior designer at a creative design agency. And now to being a booked-up, full time, freelance designer.

Whether working in a big company, a small creative agency or freelance, these values stand up. They work regardless of the environment you operate in. They are the main drivers of my career so far, and continue to bring success. They’ll work for you, too.

1. Quality

Real quality. Not just ‘the best you can do’

This means producing quality by any standard. Make something you and the client are happy with, then go the extra mile to make it even better.

Things can always be made better, whether its perfecting the kerning on your letters, the curve of your logo, or refactoring a chunk of code.

Of course, you need to know when to stop, but make sure the work you’re delivering is of optimum quality. Thats what clients want. Thats what you should want.

Never be satisfied with second best

I used to be a perfectionist. I’m pleased to say that I’m not any more. Perfection is unobtainable. Years of working on websites that have to be functional on old browsers have taught me that. And to be honest, perfection is unnecessary.

However, if I feel a design is not 100% as good as it can be, I’m restless. That niggling thought lingers in my mind… ‘you can do better’. I can’t shake it until I’ve done better.

It’s not easy. Sometimes it can take time to reach a conclusion I’m happy with. I’m occasionally guilty of beating myself up about it, and it effecting my mood.

This has improved with time. My best advice for this situation is to relax, and let the the subconscious work it’s magic.

It’s worth a blog post dedicated to this topic. It boils down to moving on to some other part of the job, or doing something else entirely. Then returning to the problem a few hours, a day, maybe two days later. It’s amazing how many times I can solve a problem instantly in the morning, after having slept on it.

Not spreading yourself too thin

Focus on one thing at a time and do it to the best of your ability. Then make it better. As discussed.

Exceed client expectations

When was the last time you experienced great customer service? Perhaps you employed a builder to build a wall. She did a great job, you’re pleased. But, without asking she also fixed that problem you have with the windows jamming shut. You’re ecstatic.

Thats what doing quality work, and surpassing client expectations is all about.

The goal is always ecstatic clients.

2. Reliability

If you were invited to a party and didn’t show up, you may not be invited back. Same goes for work commitments. If you agree a deadline, and miss it, why would that client employ you next time?

This is pretty straight forward advice, but not always easy to follow in practise.

Sometimes it involves saying no to work in order to meet existing agreed deadlines.

Scheduling work

If you’re looking for somewhere to eat, would you choose the restaurant which is buzzing with locals? Or would you choose the empty place next door, where the waiters are wondering around with nothing to do?

The busy one, right? Same goes for freelancers. Clients want quality freelance designers. Quality freelance designers are busy.

Usually clients understand that you can’t start a job until you’ve cleared you current work load. It’s a case of being professional, booking work in, and delivering on deadlines.

Regular communication is key to meeting deadlines

If the first time a client sees work is at a final presentation, the deadline is going to be missed.

It’s important to be collaborative so they can feedback at regular intervals. If feedback is coming at the end of a project, there’s no time to implement it.

Goodbye deadline. Goodbye start date for the next project. Hello grumpy client.

Setting weekly catch-ups is one way to keep everyone on the same page. No nasty surprises for the client, no last minute feedback throwing deadlines.

3. Being a nice guy to deal with

Clients are people. Even if they run a company with 500 employees, they’re still people.

Being friendly and taking an interest goes a long way to building good relationships. But this can be forgotten when you’re trying to ‘be professional’.

The key is being professional in delivering work, but being a person when meeting clients.

Listening

This is underrated. We often focus on our own presenting, persuading and influencing skills. Really we should be doing more listening.

Ask questions, lots of them. Even seemingly obvious ones. The answers aren’t always what you’d expect.

This is how we learn our clients needs and goals. Which is the basis of the work they’re employing you to do.

Stand by your values

Whatever your values are, stand by them.

15 years delivery quality design and code, reliably, in a nice manner have got me a long way.

Plus I have a good feeling about the way I’m running my business. It feels like the right way.

My name is my business. Standing by my values and building a good reputation based upon them is essential.

What are your values?

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