When it comes to self-directed work, it’s common to hear designer’s complain that they’re their own worst client.

A lust for perfection is often to blame, as if the designer holds themselves to a level of expectation unreachable.

But the next morning, they’ll be able to do for someone else exactly what they’re having trouble doing for themselves.

So why is it that designers can’t be their own best client?

I’m starting to wonder if it’s because they’re skipping the most important steps in almost all design work.

1. Do Your Research

When a client comes to us with a problem, we ask them questions. Most of us would ask them a lot of questions.

We start by trying to understand who they are, what their product or service does, what its history and unique selling points are, how it ties in with their other products, what products preceded the one on the table, and dozens of other product and client related questions.

Then we’ll turn to the audience – who are they, what do they do, how will the use this product or serve, why would they want to, why do they need to, what else is on the market they might use, what problem does it solve for them, what’s their age range, gender, education level, and dozens of other audience related questions.

We want to know the story of the product, the client, the audience, and how they all intertwine.

The last time I built a self-directed project I know for sure I didn’t think about a single one of these. What about you? What was the last painful project of yours? Did you ask any of the questions you’d normally ask a client?

The conclusion here is obvious – do research on yourself and the audience you’d like to be showing the project to. Figure out what the story is behind what you’re doing before you draw up your grid and pick a typeface.

2. Treat Yourself Like You’d Treat a Client

I’m sure you have a checklist of sorts.

It might be printed, or it might be online, or it might be in your head, but you’d have a list of criteria a client needs to meet before you’ll start their work.

It’d probably include many of the questions above, but it’d also bring together content, no? The copy needs to be finalised, images too, illustration needs to at least be well defined, as does any extra custom photography work. Number of pages, perhaps? A sitemap, would be wonderful, whether it’s one the client has done up and you might need to improve, or it’s one you’ve developed and the client has approved it.

We wouldn’t allow a client to simply say “nah, it’s ok, I’ll figure that out later.” It’s just not a smooth way of working.

But that’s what we do with ourselves, and that’s why our self-directed projects become painful.

The solution is pretty simple – run yourself through your own client process checklist, and just like doing research on yourself, do it before you start any creative work.

3. Know the Goal

The above two hint at this, but I want to focus on it.

Know what your goal is.

Are you building a portfolio? Cool! What’s the goal?

Do you just want to show off your work because you’re proud of it, and would like to invite feedback from peers?

Then you’d probably want to either using something like Behance. Or if you were rolling your own, you’d focus on the images being the easiest thing to get to, perhaps with a comment form, or easy to access social buttons? Chances are the focus will be on the images before anything else, showing the outcome of all your hard work and skill.

What if the goal was to get some new work?

Put it on Front Street. The focus would be on you and the process you gone through, and the benefit your brought to a client.

The first thing a visitor might see might not be an example of you work, but a giant-ass headline that says “Available for Freelance” with a picture of your beautiful, smiling face, followed by a list of clients, awards you might have won, or sites you might have been featured on. In this case you’re trying to sell yourself, so sell yourself.

Then when you show the work, there might be more data – the redesign you did pushed sales up 20%, the advertising campaign increased social media followings by 300%.

Figure out this goal. Figure out what you’re aiming at before you build the gun.

4. Do Creative Research and Development

This is probably where most of us would start, though I know I’ve been guilty of skipping this stage.

Spend a small amount of time on creative research. Use Pinterest or Niice to build a mood board of work that you like, that you think has the tone that you’re going for. Figure out color palettes, the typefaces you’ll use, maybe keep in mind the kind of grid you’d like to use, if you’ll be using lots of photos or none, lots of illustrations or none, lots of icons or none.

Figure out how you’d brand the project, even ones that don’t need a brand. Figure out a set of guidelines that will keep you in place and stop you from venturing off, following threads just because they’re interesting, not because they’re important to the project.

Research the aesthetic you’re aiming for, possible solutions to the problems you’ll encounter, and the rules that you’ll need to stick to yourself. Do all this, then start to move forward.

5. The Secret Weapon.

When we build projects for ourselves we can easily imagine how we’ll grow it and how big it’ll become. We build a blog and start to think about what the book will look like when we start publishing because, you know, we’re totally famous.

It’s a nasty trap.

There’s something entrepreneurs talk about a lot when it comes to build products:

What’s the minimal viable product?

What’s the smallest thing, the most fundamental, without-this-there’s-nothing element of your project?

For me, at the moment, during this 30 Day Writing Challenge, the thing that must happen for anything else to have worth, is hit publish.

If the article is good or bad, rushed or over worked, I must always hit publish.

What is it for you?

To Be Your Own Favorite Client

One more time, those five steps that I think will help:

  1. Research your project, your history, the the potential audience.
  2. Hold yourself to the same standards you’d hold a client and organise the content and define expected outcomes.
  3. Know what your goal is and figure out how to get there.
  4. Put together some mood boards and pick the starting elements – color, typeface, medium, etc. Most of all, establish the rules by which you’ll work!
  5. What’s the fundamental thing that you need to do?

Looking at this list, it’s exactly what you’d do with a client, so don’t do anything different for yourself. We work with clients in this way because, well, it works. It keeps the project moving, giving us all the information we need to make sure we reach a preestablished goal.

It’s how we get shit done.

Have you got any tips on how to be your own best client? Share them in the comments!