Posted 07.26.2010

Posted 07.26.2010

When I meet a freelance client…

Recently, I’ve had more people ask about doing freelance (YEAH!) I’ve been doing freelance work since I was in high school! Along the way, I’ve had some excellent clients and I’ve had some….well….some have been great learning experiences.

Over the years, I’ve learned that a lot of the issues that have come up could have easily been avoided if there was more communication on the front end. I’ve learned the value of Creative briefs and contracts, being able to explicitly define everyone’s expectations. It has proved invaluable particularly on the tail end of a project when we’re trying to determine what was agreed upon early on.

So, if process is so important, I thought I’d share mine.


A couple of years ago, I bought Sitepoint’s Web Design Business Kit. Even though it was a little over $200, it was money well spent. It came with two large notebooks — one explaining process and the other full of forms, letters, and templates. There was also a companion CD with all the documents in editable form. That notebook alone, was worth the $200.

One of the steps this book talks about is sitting down with the client and really discovering what they do and their process. One, this communicates that you’re interested in what they do and, two, it takes a lot of guessing and assuming out on my end. I’ll be the first to admit, I haven’t done this with all my clients (and hopefully the ones reading this that I haven’t done this with won’t feel slighted!) But for e-commerce clients, it’s almost a must, to determine how they figure pricing, release products, and market their company.

Some questions include:

  • Define the audience.
  • Influences on buying from the company?
  • Why do your current customers buy from you?
  • Main competition.
  • What do they do better than you?
  • What do you do better than your competitors?
  • How does the company currently market themselves?
  • What features of the site don’t you like?
  • Which products or pages are the most popular?
  • Who will update the content? (See my blog post on Developing a Content Strategy, this question is crucial!)
  • Defining site objectives and success. If there’s not a quantifiable measure of success, how will your client know you’ve done your job? Your measure of success may or may not line up with your client’s.
  • What the site should have.
  • What sites do you currently like? (To me, this is the most important question I ask. It helps me determine their tastes and aspects of sites they value.)
  • Training required?

In the sitepoint book, there are 14 pages of questions! I don’t ask all the questions, I pick and choose. I obviously can’t include all those questions (hello copyright!) But, check out the kit.


After I’ve gathered all the information I believe I need, I’ll write a Creative Brief. Basically, I regurgitate all the things a client has told me. The benefit? It allows them opportunity to make sure what I heard is what they meant. Here’s a list of all the things I include:

Overview + single purpose of the site

Typical tasks users might perform on the site
This may include discovering information, registering for a newsletter, reading a blog, contacting the author, etc.

Project Roles
Both mine and theirs

Domain Registration
Do they have one? If not, is it my responsibility or theirs to purchase it?

Are they currently using a company? My recommendations?

* Everything the project does include, does not include, and / or they might want to consider (good place for up selling)
* Here, I don’t just list, “contact page”, I say “1 contact page with a form that will email to this person once a user submits it.” I also talk about how many comps they’ll receive, how many rounds of revisions, how the site will be powered (WordPress? Expression Engine? PayPal?)

Information Architecture
Here, I’ll attach a site map, illustrating the site’s navigation

I list what and how the client will receive from me at the completion of a project (i.e. documentation, image files, html files, database files, etc on a CD)

Maintenance and Emergencies
This is where I include my contact information, email address and cell phone number.

Proposed Schedule
I list out the due date, who’s responsible, and the action item. This includes when I need approval, when designs will be submitted, etc. I also try and give myself way more time than I think it will take. Better, that I under promise and over deliver (I’ve learned that the hard way).

I also have a clause at the end that talks about if a deadline is missed on their end. If they’re 2 days late submitting revisions, I push the entire project’s deadlines back 2 days. It’s not fair to me to cram to hit a deadline when they didn’t meet theirs.

This is everyone’s favorite part. I explain my rates and breakdown the project according to hours. Here are all the items I list out:

  • Site specification development (needs analysis / content / planning / site structuring design)
  • Administration (preparation of contract / estimate, digital and paper file management, tacking hours, invoicing)
  • Meetings, phone calls, email correspondence with the client
  • Creation (including revisions) of the homepage prototype in a graphics program
  • Creation (including revisions) of the interior page prototype in a graphics program
  • Production work including coding the pages of the site
  • Connecting the site to a CMS
  • Final additions, corrections, and edits
  • Domain registration / DNS change / hosting arrangements, setup of client address
  • 15% contingency allowance

At the end, I explain what happens if we go over hours, as well as any additional charges that might apply (domain registration, hosting, stock photography, etc.)

I also include a payment schedule. Generally, the projects that I charge a percentage up front, go better than the projects I don’t. Psychological? Maybe.

Time stamp
I saw a video on vimeo the other week where a guy talked about his firm’s process. One of the things I picked up was including a time stamp. The creative brief is considered invalid after 30 days. Both scheduling and fees can easily change, particularly if a client sits on your proposal for years. (It’s been known to happen.)

Outstanding Questions
This is a good, central location for me to list out all the items I still have questions about.

Other freelancers I know include more information, others less. Here are a few more ideas:

  • Mode of payment (PayPal, credit card, or check?)
  • Samples of previous work you’ve done with similar client requirements
  • Clear indication of the next steps
  • Describe how you usually work with clients. How do you plan on communicating with them? Email? Phone? In person? Basecamp?

Since I mentioned the Sitepoint kit earlier, I thought I’d add what they include in their proposals too. They go as far as to include information about their company and their team, FAQ about the web, and user analysis (search engine optimization and surveys on what users value in a site). It definitely adds a little more light reading to proposal, but establishes you as an authority and professional.

Mark Boulton and Brian Hoff are two freelance designers that I really admire and appreciate.  They’ve both posted some of their templates online that are worth reading.

Just remember, the more you include up front, in writing, the less room there is for questioning on the back end!

Other tips and tricks

Figure out who the decision maker is

This is huge. I’ve gone through an entire discovery process with a client, written a creative brief, only to have it handed up the line and realize “I haven’t been talking to the decision makers.” The entire scope of the project changed, at that point. Boy, did I feel stupid! I had just wasted my time and theirs.

Are there other resources or processes that you’ve found useful? Other elements you include in your brief?