Following directions is the utmost for creatives. Missing even the smallest point can ruin a project and lose you a client. Having been in the position of giving creatives directions for projects, I’m amazed at how many freelancers either didn’t listen or just ignored directions of an assignment, causing major problems in the long run. They say you’re known not by your reputation but by the last job you did. If it’s bad, then you have a bad reputation.

Likewise, as a client or art director, it’s up to you to relay ALL of the information to the creative handling the multi-faceted project or something will be missed. It’s a two-way street – for information to be followed, it has to be given. Part of the process of design is a creative brief – an instruction manual of sorts, for putting together a project as if you were putting together an Ikea shelving unit. If you ignore the instructions, your possessions end up on the floor or crushing you under them.

What Are People Thinking?

Most of my stories of people not following explicit instructions revolve around those who either missed deadlines or failed to follow instructions and provided art or designs at the wrong size. Personally, I get paranoid about my ratio math and always triple-check, twice, to make sure an image or design is the correct size. If you use the instructions as a checklist, it’s not that hard.

©1990 Everett Peck

One regular freelancer, who worked for a publication before I took the position as art director was habitually late with her assignments. I sat her down and explained why it was important she made the set deadline. She went home and posted on the internet about how I was “busting (her) chops” about deadlines. She also had some choice words and suggestions about the matting habits I should practice with my family members. Naturally, she was a bit upset when I stopped giving her assignments.

My favorite horror stories deal with people who just couldn’t follow a line in the dirt without getting lost.

There was the temp designer who smelled so bad I had to put him in an empty office, as the art staff couldn’t stand him. Checking in after a full day, he hadn’t accomplished a thing. Although he was hired to do InDesign work and acknowledged he was “expert,” he admitted later he couldn’t handle the InDesign work and proudly proclaimed, “Photoshop is my tool!”

He and his tool were dismissed before the end of the day and the small office in which he sat was closed, locked and treated as if it was radioactive.

A new designer showed up three hours late on her first day and claimed the subways weren’t running. She came from the same neighborhood as I did. There were no delays on the trains. She lasted two days. Her second day revealed that she didn’t know how to make a clipping path. It took a day of her creating the wrong clipping path on two hundred images to help the decision to not use her any further.

Yet another new designer was given an all day project that needed to be done immediately for the magazine I was art directing. Grunt work, but he was new and needed to build his clout with the staff. He was shown what needed to be done. I then stepped into all day meetings.

Coming back to the art department at the end of the day, after hours of corporate weirdness, and I asked if he was done.

“Check this out!” he said, holding up a highly rendered pencil sketch on a good piece of the magazine’s drawing paper.

He had spent the day drawing what he thought should be the next cover of the magazine. I stood dumbstruck. Who in their right mind would do something so outrageous?

The editor came in to check on the status of the project and saw I was pale from the loss of blood in the upper half of my body. The designer showed the editor his drawing and the editor looked over at me. He turned back to the designer and softly said, “one does not start their career doing covers for this magazine – one ends their career,” and he smiled, turned and walked away.

I turned back to the designer and asked how much he had accomplished on the project. Now he went pale. He hadn’t gotten to it. I had to walk him out while he was crying. So was I at three in the morning while I finished the work he didn’t do.

Please don’t think me cruel for firing these people. I felt very bad about doing it. They were so excited and high from their chance to work for top, iconic brands. They probably told all their friends and family about their new job/client and now had to explain that they lasted one day, or less in a couple of cases. All they needed to do was follow instructions, and simple ones at that.

To this day, whether it’s a client who, and I swear this is true, types the wrong company name on all the copy and it has to be fixed at press time, or a creative who delivers work at the wrong size ratio for a print piece or adds glitter unicorn gifs to a site because, “it’s a fun idea,” instructions were written for people to follow but they didn’t bother to read them.

It’s All Up to YOU!

While working at a staff position or freelancing, I would create a folder for every project I was assigned. I would start with writing down the date I received the project, milestones and due date. I would write down notes about particulars and instructions, demographics, expectations and any other information I could get out of the person in charge of the project. Later I would email all of that information back to the key person so we could both agree that all points were covered.

That folder became the information center, a style guide for the project, a holy book that held all the information for success. Every note or email I received or sent was printed out and placed into the folder. Every milestone was noted on the outside of the folder for quick reference.

While many of my superiors complimented my ability to instantly tell them where a project was at any point and use the information for any unforeseen changes, one told me it, “made some people nervous.”

It seems that the people who weren’t very good at doing their jobs didn’t care for this folder of evidence holding all the proof of who might have screwed up a project. It was like a database of incompetence for the corporation.

“Tough!” I replied to the news. As I think back, it was more a suggestion, or warning that I should ditch the folder and all the organization. It was at a company that seemed to celebrate incompetence. It was one step back for every two steps forward. Of course the numbers eventually caught up with that company and massive layoffs ripped through the hallways. Luckily they got rid of the rest of the employees who stood in the way with a sense of organization.

For normal situations, however, it’s best to stay organized and communicate with transparency and clarity so the process moves smoothly. One of the biggest problems have in the work process is what they call the “waste factor.” This is what a company has to build into the cost of its products. There are hard costs for material, costs for salaries, costs for overhead and costs for employees sitting on Facebook four hours a day, making a thousand photocopies of their rear end and breaking their keyboards by spilling their third coffee of the morning all over it… while surfing Facebook. Normal waste factor is nine percent. Most companies are experiencing a thirty percent waste factor these days. A third of what you pay is for people to check Facebook at work.

When it comes to hiring a freelancer, you need to make every moment pay towards the end of your project. One of the biggest waste factors in a freelance project is changes. Changes occur for several reasons.

  • It’s based on a celebrity who suddenly dies under mysterious circumstances and a new celebrity has to be chosen.
  • The SEC starts an investigation of the client’s firm and the company has to change names and board members… and open a head office in Grand Cayman.
  • The client doesn’t give complete information for the freelancer to follow, opting for the process of, “I’ll know what I like when I see it!”


No One is Psychic!

If you are a client, paying on an hourly basis for a freelance project and you expect a freelancer to know what’s in your head and all of your preferences and quirks, then you should hire a stalker. No one is psychic. People are PSYCHOS but not psychic.

You need to provide as much information to the freelancer for a quick and efficient delivery of your needs. If you want to approach a project with the attitude of, “I’ll know it when I see it,” then be prepared to pay through the nose, which is just under the eyes that will know when they see the right thing out of a kajillion combinations. Don’t complain when you are paying one hundred thousand dollars for a landing page for your web site because you needed to see thirty versions.

By the same token, if you are a freelancer, you sometimes need to pull information from a client so you have everything you need. Don’t just expect the client will say, “I need a web site,” and you can create without boundaries. If the client says, “I trust your creative abilities,” then that’s one thing… before they turn it down and say they’ll know what they like when they see it.

One of the key questions to ask a client when first starting a project is if there are any example of designs they like and have them show it to you. Interior designers will sit a new client down and ask them about their lifestyle and what kind of furniture design they prefer. Traditional, modern, ultra modern, Star Wars, etc. – they can’t afford to set up a new home and have a client recoil in horror at the wrong furniture and paint colors. They will also not take on a client who says, “I’ll know it when I see it.”

In one assignment from the president of the company for which I worked as an art director, she instructed me to design a letterhead that was, “sophisticated.”

After eleven tries and her growing angry about my not being able to design something “sophisticated,” I asked her to show me examples of what she wanted to see. She showed me a few letterheads she liked and said, “why can’t you just do something like this?”

“Oh,” I exclaimed. “You want something whimsical!”

The next version made her very happy. Sometimes we have to be careful of our descriptors or we end up with a stinking pile of “sophistication.”

Communication is the Key!

Whether you are the creative, vendor supplier or client, you must talk with each other to ascertain exactly what is needed and expected. Some call it the “process” of the project. Transparency is the key. You are forming a team and everything must be out in the open for all parties to see. Everyone must see expectations so the results please all parties. Decisions should be quick and purposeful and executions should be focused and on-target.

Maybe I should have told those freelancers and new staff people that they were expected to work hard and what the workday entailed. Perhaps I was foolish for just thinking they knew what was expected of them? Next time, although it might seem tedious and too basic, I will lay it all out for someone. At least they will know what I expect as their employer.

+ Speider Schneider