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How to Manage Clients When You Own a Freelance Graphic Design Business Expert advice to help you keep your clients happy and get the job done to their satisfaction

By Shelby Larson

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The following excerpt is from Shelby Larson's book Moonlighting on the Internet. Buy it now from Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes
Limited-Time Offer: Moonlighting on the Internet is $2.99 on Amazon Kindle (U.S. only) through August 31

Shelby Larson presents the most reliable and proven ways you can create an extra paycheck for the short term and establish a continual revenue stream for the long term with your own website. In this edited excerpt, Larson explains how you can successfully manage the client side of your graphic design business.

An initial consultation with a freelance graphic design client is extremely important and, in most cases, it will be your first contact with the client. The consultation allows you to hear directly from the client about their needs, which will not only help ensure your final product is in line with what they're looking for but will also help you determine how much work the project will involve.

Next step: creating your proposal. This project proposal is essentially your sales pitch and should clearly convey three important items:

First, your proposal needs to convince your prospect that you thoroughly understand what they're looking for. Many times clients know what they want but have a hard time conveying it to you. Reiterating it in your proposal gives them the confidence that you're on the right track -- or gives them the opportunity to correct your vision so it's in line with theirs before you establish the final price with them.

This proposal helps confirm that you're the best person for the job. You want to highlight what they're hiring you to do and follow that up with the information that shows them you'll be providing them with quality work to meet their needs and desires.

You also want to clearly define your pricing, processes, timeline, etc. It's very important to be completely clear from the beginning so you can accurately manage their expectations from start to finish.

Remember, this isn't a contract, so don't include any legal jargon or terms and conditions. When done right, your proposal will look nice, add to your sense of professionalism, and inform the client of everything they need to know to get started. As a designer, it always helps to also make it branded and looking nice.

So what goes in a proposal?

  • Cover page. This includes the title, client's company name, date, point of contact whom the proposal is being prepared for as well as your logo.
  • Body. Begin by thanking the client for his or her time. Add specific details relevant to the client and the project.
  • Project scope. This is where you get detailed about the problem and the solution for the company. You'll want to do a point-by-point presentation of everything required for the project and how you plan to handle it. This will show you pay attention to detail and thoroughly understand the client's needs.
  • Fee summary. This is the breakdown of all the services you'll provide the client. The summary will include itemized prices along with a project total. This section will also give an expira­tion date. This is important because you don't want to hand a proposal to a client, then have them come to you several years later wanting the project completed at those prices. Generally, a 30-day time limit is sufficient.
  • Fee schedule. This is where you define how you'll be paid. Detail at what point in the project you'll expect depos­its, triggers for payment, how you expect to be paid, and overall milestones of the project. This is also a good place to include estimated completion dates.
  • Background. This section is optional but highly rec­ommended as a final way to sell yourself as the best candidate for the job. Finish up with your experience, specialties, and a general background summary.
  • Next step. The final section is your call to action, with the next steps laid out plainly for the client. This lets them know how to start the project.

Client agreements

A client agreement or contract is an essential part of design work. It sets up a clear black-and-white statement of what you'll provide, what the client will provide, and how you'll get paid. Starting a project with that kind of assurance should make both you and the client feel better about it.

A client agreement is different from a proposal. Remember, a proposal contains no legal jargon and isn't binding. The client agreement is a binding document, which both you and the client sign. Unlike the proposal, this is not a sales tool and should contain very specific language. I recommend hiring an attorney or, at the very least, have one read over your contract and conditions before sending it out.

If you do a search for sample contracts, you will find plenty to review that will help you create your own. You can use pre-fab terms and conditions, which can be found on the website for AIGA, an association for professional designers. Sites like RightSignature offer you the ability to send the documents to the client via email for a digital signature. You can then download the signed PDF and have a legally binding document at the ready.

Revisions and completing projects successfully

There are things you can do to streamline the revision process, allowing you to finish the project in two or three rounds. First, ask questions. Try to fully understand exactly what the client wants. It's good to have a preset list of questions that you think will help you understand their expectations. It's never a bad idea to have them show you examples of what they're looking for. Be sure to ask about color preferences, font styles, and target demographics.

Next, write down your goals for each revision and have it in writing how many revisions are acceptable before an additional fee will be charged. I've found three revisions is the magic number; everything should be squared away by the third time.

Finally, know when to give in. At some point, there may be a disagreement in the creative flow. All you can do is give your opinion as the expert and try to make the client understand your choice. But when a client digs in, back down and let them have the final say. After all, they pay the bills and it's ultimately their decision.

Here are a few quick tips to help you map out the best way to work with clients:

1. Manage expectations. Get clear information at the first consultation -- design styles, colors, examples of things they like that others are doing.

2. Set clear deadlines. Ask the client for specific dates and times they'd like to see drafts and the final product. Many clients don't understand the time required for even the simplest graphic tasks, so establishing clear deadlines helps manage client expectations, along with allowing you time to plan for this and any other jobs going on.

3. Underpromise, overdeliver. Always add some time into client quotes and your own schedule for things that don't go the way you think they should.

4. Multiple drafts are inevitable. You're almost guaranteed to make at least one change before the final product. Be open to the alterations the client is requesting. If you don't agree with a change request, always approach it as a suggestion: give a valid reason why the design element may not work, and be sure to provide some possible alternatives.

5. Provide variations. Provide a couple of options for the client upfront. Maybe offer a safe version you know meets the client's expectations and then give them a riskier version you can envision based on their needs. Sometimes clients don't know that they don't know what to ask for.

6. Don't take critiques personally. Graphic design is very subjective -- as an artist, you tend to be protective of the work you've done. You have to remember that this is all about the client being happy with the end result, so if they don't love your first draft, collaborate with them to make sure the end result is something you're both proud of.

7. Stay current. Media/graphics are always changing, and new things are always coming out -- make sure to stay up-to-date and always be willing to learn.

Shelby Larson

Co-Owner of Content Divas

Shelby Larson is the founder and co-owner of Content Divas, an SEO, content marketing, and outsourcing firm started in 2007 to provide work-from-home opportunities to stay-at-home moms. This venture has since blossomed into a full-service digital marketing agency, Ember Dragon, and Moonlighting on the Internet, both of which Shelby is the owner and founder. She is the author of Moonlighting on the Internet, 2nd Ed (Entrepreneur Press, March 2016).

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