Admitting to mistakes and errors is not a natural human instinct. Holding up our hands and saying “I really messed that up” is not the easiest thing to do as we naturally don’t want to take the blame for our own actions.

Let’s face it we all make mistakes and I think it‘s during those times that we learn the most, not only about ourselves, but also about the situations we find ourselves in. I have learnt more from the things I’ve done wrong than the things I’ve done right. Those ‘life lessons’ have stayed with me and hopefully by sharing some of my mistakes I may be able to help someone else not do as I did.

So here’s me holding up my hands and saying “I really messed up…”!

1. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

A mistake I have made not once but three times! This is such an easy trap to fall into so beware when being promised the world by your client.

Client – “you’ve been working with us for a while now and we love your designs. We are literally snowed under with work so would love to work with you on a regular freelance basis”

Me thinking – “so I wouldn’t have to worry about finding new clients and would have an almost regular income… that sounds very appealing. It would, however, mean I would have to drop longstanding clients X and Y… but they haven’t been sending me much work anyway… I’m in”

The reality is that yes your client is probably snowed under with work and right now you are their ‘design saviour’ keeping both them and their customers happy but I can guarantee that this will not continue. Once your clients rush of orders dies down (and it will) your workload will start to diminish. The worry of then not having regular work kicks back in and suddenly clients X and Y seem very appealing.

Lessons leant:

  • Always keep your options open and don’t commit to one client (unless its full-time employment).
  • Don’t burn your bridges with existing clients even if they are not currently sending you work.
  • Keep looking for new connections and opportunities even at your busiest times as I can guarantee that at some point that one client’s workload will stop.

2. Don’t accidentally copy all you clients into one email!

This was a BIG one… and one I’ve NEVER done since! Times were tough as my current main clients workload had diminished, and so, out of desperation (and after thinking long and hard) I accepted an offer to work for a direct competitor of my existing client. I wasn’t breaking any contractual or verbal agreement with either client and I suppose it was an ethical situation more than anything.

Things went well for several months and no real conflict of interest arose on the projects I was working on. I was feeling more relaxed with regular work and a steady flow of income. But then it happened… I remember this so clearly… it was a Friday afternoon (the usual mad rush!) and I inadvertently copied both clients email addresses into the same email (meaning that they would be aware that I was working for both of them) … yes I know you feel my horror already…! My stomach sank… my heart started racing… and then I just looked at the screen and shouted nooooooooo!

And then… nothing… I had to endure the wait through the whole weekend until Monday when an email pinged in my inbox. I was terrified of opening it.. staring at it for what felt like an eternity I started to scan the first few lines and realised that my existing client was not happy and withdrew their workload. And then a second email from the other client stating exactly the same – total devastation as now I had gone from two regular clients to none.

Lessons learnt:

  • More haste less speed – whatever you’re doing take a few extra seconds to check over – it really does make a difference!
  • Talk to your clients – explain the situation you may be in and see if there is a workaround.
  • And as my Mother always used to say “Be sure your sins will find you out!”.

3. Don’t always be available

Something I have been guilty of especially in my early years of working as a freelancer (and still on occasion now). Wanting to please and help is not a bad quality to have but when it becomes your main driving force it can have damaging effects leading not only to a lack of creativity and frustration but also to eventual burn out.

When starting a new business we always want to accept any work offered and are terrified of turning anything away. We have all thought “well if I say no they’ll go elsewhere and I will have lost a good contact” but there has to be a cut off point. Learning to say no is difficult but in the long run only helps to create a more organised and ultimately creative environment to work in.

Always saying yes can portray a sense of desperation and can be abused.  A client should respect you and you should respect your client. Going the ‘extra mile’ on occasion can lead to a strong working relationship but be cautious about ALWAYS agreeing to stop what you are working on and start their work immediately. The same goes for a new contact. You cannot be expected to instantly start on a new client’s brief when already working on an existing one. I always use the analogy of booking your car into the garage – you wouldn’t ring up a garage and say “my car needs fixing but I want it done today” – we all know what the answer to that would be!

A friendly reply explaining how busy you are but outlining when you could possibly start on a new project goes a long way… “I’m really sorry but I won’t be able to start this project today, however, I can start to take a look at it for you tomorrow afternoon”. Not always being available gives an air of success too and therefore making you a more attractive proposition.

Lessons learnt:

  • It’s ok to occasionally help a valued customer in need  but not on EVERY request.
  • Operate a ‘booking in’ service where possible – this helps to stop requests getting out of control and knowing exactly what you are supposed to be doing each day!
  • Create your own work timetable – wasn’t that one of the reasons why you became self employed?!

4. Don’t undersell yourself

Looking back over my years of working as freelance designer I honestly think I could have had a far more lucrative career had I been more confident in pricing and charged my clients a more industry standard fee from the start.

Understanding your worth as designer is hard to evaluate and something that even now I struggle with. “So how much do you charge” is often the phrase that we feel awkward replying to. After giving my reply about my design rate I often hear “well we have found another designer who can do it for £10 p/h less”. This can be either be true (but does the cheaper designer provide the same service and skill set as you?) or just a hustle to get you (the desperate designer) to work for less.

A good way to manage a situation like this is to offer an initial incentive. Your reply could be “Ok I would be happy to work on our first project together at that reduced rate but future projects would be charged at my standard rate”. The client feels like they are getting a good ‘introductory’ rate, you haven’t completely turned down a new contact and both parties know that any future projects will be charged as stated.

Be upfront about costings from the start. Discuss your experience and where your work has been featured. It is much easier to charge a decent rate if you can prove your worth.

Lessons learnt:

  • Appearing ‘cheap’ can actually have the opposite effect.
  • Prove your ‘worth’ by showing previous designs and how successful they were.
  • NEVER, EVER work for free.

5. Sample and sign off

Another mistake that can be VERY costly! I had been working on a poster design that was, as usual ‘urgent’! I set up the design and foolishly, as I was in such a hurry to get this out to the customer, I sent it straight to print. Imagine the horror as 1000 posters arrived all proudly exhibiting a HUGE spelling error – again… nooooooo!

If I have learnt one thing over the years it’s to check, check and then check again anything that is going into production and, more importantly, I insist that my client has a sample done first. I will not send anything to print now without my client seeing and checking over the sample and signing it off. If, after sign off, any errors occur on the final production run you can safely say they are not your fault.

Lessons learnt:

  • Check, check and check again your design and set up.
  • Always get the client to sign off any samples or proofs.

6. Get an accountant from the start

Something that so many freelancers I know don’t make a priority. I started out using a ‘friend of the family’ which didn’t really work out and then went from one accountant to another never really feeling comfortable or really understanding my financial affairs. I didn’t regularly complete my own Excel spreadsheets each month and before I knew it I had over a year’s worth of bank statements and receipts to trawl through. It’s best to fill out your spreadsheets as each statement arrives – that way you always have an up to date financial overview.

I now have an awesome accountant who clearly explains everything to me and we plan ahead so no tax surprises appear further down the line. My advice is to meet with several and see if you get a positive feeling from your meeting. Often as freelancers we can be looked upon as ‘not as important’ so make sure your accountant has your best interest at heart.

Lessons learnt:

  • ALWAYS keep up to date with your finances – trust me it makes life so much easier!
  • Find an accountant you feel comfortable with.
  • If in doubt ask – taxes can be hard to understand so if you are unsure always ask for advice.

7. Don’t spend what you earn

Yep I spent too much of what I thought was all mine! A classic, and all too easy,  mistake to make when things are going well. Invoices are being sent and paid (!) and the bank account is starting to look healthy. It’s easy to get carried away thinking all the payments that are coming are yours to spend but beware… it isn’t all yours! Firstly, and most importantly, the taxman wants his share. My advice is to set up a monthly standing order to another account purely to save for tax payments. That way you know that what is left in your account doesn’t need to account for tax payments.

Save for the quiet times! As a self employed/freelance designer there has always been a noticeable fluctuation in my workload. With that comes some financial uncertainty. Make sure you have enough funds to cover your outgoings during the quiet times. I know this sounds obvious but it’s a mistake I made and one I know several of my peers have made. Unexpected bills will ALWAYS appear when you least want them too. I would always try to have a minimum of three months worth of money in my account. There’s nothing worse than worrying about how you’re going to pay your bills on top of the worry of trying to source new clients!

Lessons learnt:

  • Don’t be drawn in by how healthy your bank account looks.
  • Make sure you always have enough money set aside for tax payments.
  • You don’t know whats around the corner so be prepared.
  • Have at least a three month buffer of funds.

8. Outsource

This isn’t an obvious mistake to make but can be worth noting. I have turned down many projects over the years due to my ‘handwriting’ not being suitable. This in turn has led to a loss of income and new contacts. There are very few designers that can ‘do it all’ so my advice is to accept the project and then outsource the areas that do not fit your design style. You still have the project (and ultimately the payment) and the client is none the wiser. All it takes is a bit of careful project management to make sure you tie everything into together.

There are so many great designers out there to collaborate with and a wealth of images to buy (!) so the next time a brief arrives and you think “this isn’t for me” maybe think again?

Lessons learnt:

  • Don’t automatically turn a project down.
  • Source others to help.
  • Buy images online.

And finally…

9. Do something else

I’m still making this mistake today! When the inspiration dries up what do we do… yep we continue to stare at the screen/paper as its gets bigger and whiter getting more and more frustrated! This in turn manifests itself into a lack of creativity – the vicious design circle!

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from this it’s to walk away (if you can – sometimes a deadline won’t allow this). When starting a new project find out when your creative sweet spot is. I have found that mine is early in the morning. The amount of times I have walked away from a project in the afternoon with no inspiration or creativity “I just can’t do this” only to go back to it at 6am the following morning and everything falls into place.

My other bit of advice is to ask someone else. You can spend hours staring at a design not knowing what’s wrong with it only for someone to look over your shoulder and say “why not just move that up a bit and change that” and hey presto it’s done! (it’s ok to secretly hate them as they walk away!)

Lessons learnt:

  • Stop staring and go and do something else.
  • By trying to force your creativity your inadvertently stifle it.
  • Ask for a second opinion.

I hope some of my mistakes (and let’s face it some catastrophes!) have either made you realise you aren’t the only one who has made such errors or that you may think twice if you find yourself in any of these situations.

I would be really interested to read any mistakes you have made and what, if anything, you learnt from them.  Please feel free to type away in the comments field below! We’ll just keep it between us!!