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Ever had a personal project you never finished? Do you find it difficult to be your own client or design things for yourself?

Last episode, we talked about being your own boss. This time, we’re breaking down what it looks like to be your own client.

Personal projects can be frustrating because we don’t treat them as objectively as client projects. But it’s absolutely crucial to separate your two selves to ensure the work gets done and the result is not compromised.

I make some bold statements in this episode: “If you’re not able to remove your own subjective preference and compromise from a personal project, what makes you think you have business taking on clients?” We talk about professional responsibility and how to ensure projects where you are your own client are successfully completed.

Highlights, Takeaways, & Quick Wins
  • You must start by clearly separating your two selves: the Client Self and the Professional Self.
  • If you’re not ready to pursue a project, don’t take yourself on as a client—just like you wouldn’t take on an outside client who isn’t ready.
  • If you’re allowing deadlines to slip because there isn’t money involved, then you’re saying your work is only about the money you make.
  • Your professional self is always responsible for any problems the arise.
  • Your client self is responsible for content and goals, while your professional self is responsible for the execution.
  • If your process isn’t written down, you don’t have a process.
  • In order for you to do your best work, you need to have an uncompromised process—when it comes to working with yourself, that means being objective.
  • If you can’t be professional with your own projects, you don’t have any business taking on any client.
  • Every project is an opportunity to improve your process.
Show Notes
  • 05:43 Sean: We actually talked on this same topic before and I wanted to revisit it. In the original episode we debuted the idea of your professional self and your client self (Related: e025 Being Your Own Client). Basically, we’re talking about being your own client, so you have to zoom out and imagine the two personas—you as the client and you as the professional. You really have to be objective about this and see it as two different entities, because it can get really confusing when you’re your own client and you’re also the professional, whether you’re a designer, consultant, developer, etc.
  • 06:35 Ben: It might feel like a no-brainer to you when you’re dealing with a client to be the professional, be objective, to have them come under your process, or to early on say that you shouldn’t work together. When it comes to working for ourselves, it’s like we forget we have a process in place, want to be problem solvers, and the fact we want to design professionally and objectively. The two selves is a way that we are intensionally positioning ourselves correctly with ourselves as a professional and making our client selves come under that professional process.

Treat it Like Any Other Project

  • 07:32 Sean: The reason for doing this is you need to treat this like a professional project, like any of your other projects. That’s easy to forget when neither part of you is accountable or has clearly defined roles. You end up just throwing yourself at this thing and whenever you feel like it, you’re the professional and whenever you think about it, you’re the client.
  • 08:05 Ben: What you’re not saying out loud, but you’re saying with your actions, is that what you tell your client about the importance of being an objective professional that follows a process is really just BS. You wouldn’t tell your client, “Do you like this color or design trend? We’ll put something together and it’ll work,” but you’re doing that with yourself. It’s almost like all the stuff you usually say to your clients is false.
  • 09:09 Sean: You’re saying it doesn’t really matter, because when it comes to you in their position, you’re skirting it. You need to have a process and if you have a process in your mind, but it’s not written down, then you don’t have a process. A process is a series of steps you follow when approaching a project.

You need to have a process in order to be able to work with clients—including yourself—otherwise you’re just winging it.

  • 09:56 You’re not actually being methodical and you don’t have a system you follow when you go into a client project. When it comes to yourself, if you don’t have that process in place already, don’t be surprised when it’s a big mess, you don’t get the project done on time, the client doesn’t have content, you’re waiting until the last minute, you’re getting burnt out, or the results aren’t very good. You can’t be surprised when you’re not following a process.
  • 10:29 Ben: When you don’t have a process in place, you’re not in control, and when you’re not in control as the professional, the client feels the need to take control because someone has to be in control. When you don’t have a process and you’re not communicating a process, they’re going to hijack the whole thing and it’ll be a mess. That’s what happens with ourselves! Even with a process it’s hard enough, because your client self shares a brain with your professional self and can see ahead to the parts of your process you’re going to be in control of.
  • 11:15 Sean: I would argue that may be a good thing you can leverage to your advantage, because in an ideal scenario with a professional and a client, you have articulated these coming steps. It’s not that one self sees the other self’s secrets.
  • 11:33 Ben: What I mean is the client should be familiar with your process, but they don’t have to understand all of the decisions you make as a part of that process. Where the professional gets in trouble with the client is when they allow the client into the decision-making process, because the client can only be subjective.
  • 11:53 Sean: I liked what you said earlier: the client will subconsciously take up responsibility where they see that there’s lack. Where they see you dropping the ball, they’ll think they need to take care of it. We get all upset that the client is doing whatever they want, but that’s a short-coming on your part as the professional. You didn’t explain that or preempt it. You didn’t have a process for it, so the client is only going to do whatever they think is natural or needs to be done, which is going to be anything you don’t explicitly explain. Ultimately, that responsibility comes back to you as the professional and that’s why you have to have a process written down.

Is Your Client Self Ready?

  • 13:12 Again, we have to really distinguish our two selves here and think of them objectively. Is your client ready? Have you gone through your questionnaire process? You have to get a process in place and you have to get a questionnaire in place. That questionnaire is a part of the process and filtration. If the client is giving bad answers to the questionnaire or they’re not filling it out correctly, then maybe they’re not ready.

Your questionnaire filters out the bad clients and it prepares the good ones.

  • 13:54 Ben: Let’s assume you’ve got the process and questionnaire, so you say to your client self, “Before we get started on this project, I need you to do this,” but your client self drags their feet or does things that, had another prospective client done, you wouldn’t take them on. At that point, do you tell yourself that you can’t work with you?
  • 14:31 Sean: Pretty much. The reason for the filtration device is to determine if this person is going to be an ideal fit. If you’re scatterbrained, would you take yourself on as a client? Coming outside of being your own client, if you want to go hire someone else and you want to be their client, should they take you on if you’re scatterbrained, don’t have goals, and can’t communicate? If you’re not prepared, should you take yourself on?
  • 15:09 Ben: If you’re meticulous about your own process and you have healthy expectations, hopefully that translates into you being a good client. It’s also possible that you’re very professional and have all that in place, but when it comes to being a client, either through lack of experience or because you’ve always done stuff for yourself, you really aren’t a good client. You don’t know that about yourself until you’ve been subjected to somebody else’s process, or even your own process. You have to separate yourself and think, “How does my client self respond to being placed under somebody else’s process? Do I feel resistant to that for some reason? Am I having trouble getting stuff together where normally I’m very organized?”
  • 16:16 Sean: You have to be honest with yourself. Sometimes you really want to do a project, like redesigning your website if you’re a web designer, and maybe you do. Maybe you’re tweaking things arbitrarily but you’re not really purposeful about it—maybe you’re not at the point where you’re where you really should be redesigning your site. Do you actually have new content and goals? Are you ready to be pursuing this project?

If you’re not ready to pursue a project, you shouldn’t take yourself on as a client—just like you shouldn’t take on an outside client who isn’t ready.

  • 17:06 You have to see yourself as a potentially bad client. Maybe you don’t want to take yourself on in this stage. Maybe you need to say, “Come back when you have content, because I can only design with content.”
  • 17:26 Ben: When you’re honest with yourself about those things, there’s a benefit to that—you get to see the kind of client you wouldn’t want to work with you. You get to see those red flags and the things you require and expect of a healthy client. It clarifies further what it is you’re looking for from your outside clients. That way, when you’re receiving clients, you’re able to be more selective based on real information.
  • 18:01 Sean: I thinking of it as an opportunity to almost audit your own process. You realize what it’s like to be a client and work with you.
  • 18:14 Ben: Maybe your client self can also poke holes in your process so your professional self can see where to plug them up.

Content & Goals

  • 18:32 Sean: Content and goals are the two things clients are responsible for. Even when it comes to being your own client, your client self is responsible for content and goals. Your professional self is responsible for the execution and accomplishing of those goals. If the client self doesn’t have any goals, like you want to redesign your site just because it’s cool, that’s not a good sign. If they don’t have any content, that’s not a good sign either. Say you’ve decided to work with this client that’s yourself, and suddenly the client is butting their head into the project. It’s you, but they’re butting their head into the middle of the project wanting to change things and that’s a problem.
  • 19:39 Nobody should be butting their head in where they don’t belong, and that’s not the client self’s fault—it’s your professional self’s fault. You didn’t set those expectations. I know it sounds silly how we’re talking about the two selves, but you really have to be objective. Take the time to discover what we’re trying to accomplish and the content we’re working with, then Mr. Client is done. He’s done his job and the professional self is going to let him know the deadline. “Deadline? But Sean, I’m working with myself!” Is this a real client project or not? You have to get a deadline in there and write it down. This is either something you’re taking seriously or you’re not.
  • 20:26 Ben: It’s the same thing we talk about with pro-bono clients.

If you’re allowing deadlines to slip because there isn’t money involved, then you’re saying your work is only about the money you make.

  • 20:43 The dollar is what defines what you do, but the dollar shouldn’t be what defines what you do. The fact you’re a self-identified professional is what defines the process you take, whether or not you stick to deadlines, and how important it is to you that you meet your client’s expectations. When we’re working with a pro-bono client, we follow the same process because we’re professionals. When we’re working for ourselves, we follow the same process because we’re professionals.
  • 21:20 Sean: There’s the defined roles: the client self is responsible for content and goals, while the professional self is responsible for the execution. A lot of people think we’re excluding the client from the project by doing this, but we’re not. We’re getting all of the relevant information upfront where it can actually affect and impact the work we’re doing, not in the middle of the project when we’ve already done work on now erroneous information. Defer to the client’s industry and knowledge upfront. In the middle of the project isn’t time to be getting arbitrary feedback from the client. If they know the answers to everything, then they can do the project themselves. You’re either hiring me as a professional to apply my expertise, or you’re not. It’s the same with yourself as a client. If you’re being objective in marginalizing, then your client self doesn’t have the same expertise as your professional self.
  • 22:45 Yes, your client self is inside you and you’re one person, but you have to separate it. Think of it this way: your client self is able to see through your eyes because you’re one person. Let’s think of it as a real project, if in the middle of the project the client says, “I have some thoughts I want you to incorporate,” that’s a problem because you’ve already done work based on prior information. You’ve explained to them upfront that the upfront information is what you’re going off of—there can’t be changes later on—and that should be in your contract.
  • 23:31 If they’re coming to you in the middle of the project, it’s a sign you haven’t communicated effectively upfront, you didn’t set the proper expectations, and you didn’t explain the process. You need to tell them how things are going to go, the information you need from them, what you’ll work on, and what you’ll present to them. There should never be a time where the client has something to say in the middle of the project that’s going to change the work you’ve already done and you need to think of it that same way when you’re working with yourself.
  • 24:04 Ben: If something does change and there’s new information the client receives in the middle of the process, you start all over. It’s not scrapping everything you’ve already done and starting all over—you need to get paid for the work you’ve done. Recognize you’ve produced value based on the information you had prior—that contract still stands but you have to start the process over again.
  • 24:36 Sean: The contract may or may not stand. If the project didn’t conclude, then what the client is requesting is that we stop the current project and start a new project. They won’t actually say this, they’re just going to give you arbitrary changes. Let’s use the example of a newspaper going out. It’s printed, it’s loaded on the trucks, and they say, “Stop the press! The information we gave you is wrong. There’s new information to print,” then we’re still owed money for the printing. If you want a new job with new info, we need to draw out a contract and start from scratch.
  • 24:41 Ben: When I said the contract still stands, what I mean is the contract runs it’s course either way. The course could take different paths depending on what happens during the project.
  • 25:52 Sean: The course could take the path of a default. If the client quits, that’s a default so it ends and you follow whatever process is involved with the default.
  • 26:10 Ben: As a professional, your client shouldn’t be surprised the contract is going to take a specific course based on what’s happened. Part of your process is going through all of those terms with them upfront and making sure they understand those things before they sign and move forward with the project.

There’s No Such Thing as Clients From Hell

  • 26:37 Sean: Your professional self is always responsible for everything that goes wrong. If your client self gets upset or tries to butt in, the professional self is always responsible no matter what. When things go wrong in a project, you’re not making progress, you’re frustrated, the results are compromised, you wait until the last minute, or there’s no content it’s always the responsibility of the professional. There are people in the chat room saying, “I had no idea how bad of a client I’ve been to myself.” Well, I have news for you—there’s no such thing as clients from hell, because only professionals from hell take on those type of clients.

You’re not a bad client to yourself, you’re a bad professional for taking yourself on.

  • 27:39 This is harsh, but professionalism is objective. It’s a discipline. If you can’t be your own client, you’re a bad professional. Objectivity is required for professionalism. If you can’t be objective when you’re your own client, what makes you think you can keep your own personal preferences out of a project with a client? If you can’t be professional with your own projects, you don’t have any business taking on any client.
  • 28:26 Ben: I want to clarify something here. You said, “If you can’t work with yourself as a client, then you’re a bad designer,” which means if you take yourself on when you shouldn’t have, it’s because you’re not being a realist and objective about the shortcomings you have as a professional. A lot of designers will say there are clients from hell. They’ll say people are bad, selfish, subjective, and want whatever they can get at the cheapest price, but you’re the one who’s taking those clients on.
  • 29:16 You can say no! If you feel like you can’t say no because you need to pay your bills, did the client put you in that position? No, it was your circumstances and maybe you’re not ready to be taking on clients right now because you can’t afford to work without compromising your values. The professional mindset is about taking the finger you’re pointing out at everything else and turning it inward. It’s not about feeling ashamed, guilty, or sad, it’s about saying you can be responsible and powerful.
  • 30:16 If you’re being a professional, maybe the right decision is to stop taking on clients and get a day job until you get to a place where you can be as selective as you need to be in order to work as a professional. That’s hard though; I say those things but there’s a part of me that goes, “Come on man.” Really, if you’re going to complain about bad clients, you’re the one who’s making the exception that’s causing you to take on those clients.
  • 30:59 Sean: Even if you’re thinking that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as bad clients, they could just go to someone else and be a bad client, but they’ll only be a bad client if that other person takes them on. At that point, they’re that person’s responsibility. This professional responsibility isn’t easy or always fun.

In order for you to do your best work, you need to have an uncompromised process.

When it comes to working with yourself, that means being objective.

  • 31:38 That means getting the information, doing the work, and finishing on the date you promised. Even if you’re designing your own website, that means you’re going to do the work based on the information you got and you’re not going to take new information. It’s time to see the project through to it’s completion and if you want to do another project, you can do that. You’ve got to start over.
  • 32:12 Ben: As the client, maybe you do have your goals and content together, everything is ready to go, and in bringing that to your professional self, you might realize that your professional self isn’t capable of delivering on the goals you have as your client self. That’s another piece of self-awareness. It’s not just self-awareness of you as a client, it’s also self-awareness of you as a professional and what you’re capable of delivering on. Knowing what you can and can’t do is part of professionalism.

Should You Fire Yourself?

  • 33:44 Sean: Let’s say you have a bad client, a.k.a yourself, should you fire yourself as a client? I’m not saying there’s never any circumstances where you fire a client. I don’t want to define those right now because I have the mindset of focusing on what I want to focus on and letting exceptions be exceptions, rather than defining the boundaries. You shouldn’t have to fire a client, because who’s responsible? If you’re wanting to fire a client because a problem came up, that’s the professional’s responsibility.

As the professional, every project is an opportunity to improve your process.

    34:53 I think you can always find something that could be better. Professionalism is a journey, not a destination. If a project went well, but there was a point when the client had a moment of uncertainty, then ask yourself how you could preempt that. How could you communicate better with them ahead of time to put them at ease? Always look for opportunities to improve. Don’t see problems as defeat. Maybe you took on the wrong client, but see it as an opportunity to improve. How can you avoid taking on that type of client in the future, or how can you keep this problem from ever occurring?
  • 35:45 Ben: Those are worthwhile and fun problems to solve. Too many of us suffer those issues. We think, “This is what freelancers have to deal with,” but the mentality I would encourage you to take on is everything is worth being called into question if it’s causing you not to do your best work. Don’t just accept this is the way it is. If it’s an “industry standard”, but it’s not allowing you to do your best work, don’t accept it. Call it into question and ask yourself: how can I not deal with this issue and be able to do my best work?
  • 36:46 Sean: Let’s get real here for a minute—we’re talking about firing your own client because a problem came up and maybe that client is yourself. Even if it’s a client you took on, this applies. We’ve already established that the professional is responsible for any problem that occurs and if you don’t like that, get out of the industry. You can conduct your business however you want; I’m not here to say you have to do it a certain way, I’m saying if you want to do your best work, this is what you have to do. Be a professional if you want to command rates that seem absurd to you right now that real clients will pay because they want to pay a professional, have peace of mind, and it’s worth it to them to work with someone that might seem to harsh.
  • 37:40 A certain type of person is looking for that harshness. Harshness equals professional to some people. They want someone to say, “No, we’re not going to do that because of these reasons, which is in your best interest.” You have to conduct yourself this way if you want to get clients that pay well, if you want to do your best work, and if you want to enjoy your work. None of those are requirements of a profession—you can take on any type of client you want. My goal here is to help you take on great clients, do your best work, and get paid according to the value you’re creating.

If the professional is responsible, then the reasons you would fire a client are actually your fault.

  • 38:30 Anything that goes wrong is something you should have prevented, explained, or set the expectations for. There is never a case where you can, should, or want to fire a client where it isn’t your fault—take ownership. That’s hard and it hurts, but if you want to be able to command that kind of professionalism when it really counts, that comes with a lot of responsibility.
  • 39:23 Second of all, because it’s your responsibility this project went wrong, is it really fair to the client to fire them in the middle? Once again, I’m not telling you there’s never a case to fire a client, I’m just putting out this though piece. You can make the exceptions where you want to make them, but I default to: finish the project you promised and didn’t set the expectations for. If things are going wrong, that’s an indication that you set poor expectations. I would say, “We’re in a bad spot right now. We’re not where I want to be and it’s my fault because I didn’t convey things to you.” The immature professional’s inclination is to fire the client because things suck right now.
  • 40:27 Ben: Or to totally let go of what’s in the client’s best interest and go with whatever the client wants.
  • 40:36 Sean: The thing is in order to be able to deliver good work that’s in the best interest of the client, you have to set a certain foundation and I’m not sure that can always be set in the middle of the project. It may just be that you need to finish the project, even if the circumstances in the middle are otherwise unprofessional.
  • 40:58 Ben: I would say the professional doesn’t let that go without a fight, and by “fight” I don’t mean arguing with the client. I mean coming into the conversation in the spirit of trying to do things in the client’s best interest. If they’re not seeing it, at least you stood up for that, and then you proceed to finish the work. Don’t just throw up the white flag immediately when there’s a disagreement. You can even say, “I didn’t communicate this up front and that’s my fault. I can see why you would have this expectation now and I understand why this is what you want. What I should have communicated to you is this because this is the result it’s going to create for you. That’s what I want for you because I believe that’s what’s best.” The client can accept or reject that if they want to, but at least you presented it.
  • 42:02 Sean: Do your best job to reset. Take ownership and say, “I should have done a better job at communicating expectations. Let’s finish out the project and this time, I want to make sure to set really good expectations. You’ll know exactly how we’re going to do this, when things are going to happen, etc.” Finish out the project and see it as a learning opportunity. You’ll have to swallow it because you set it up in the first place.
  • 42:45 Ben: This is similar to the customer experience thing (Related: e195 The Customer Experience). You’re providing an experience to the client, what story are they going to tell about what happened when things didn’t go the way they expected? That’s an important question to ask in light of brand experience.
  • 43:27 Sean: Bringing this back around to being your own client: if you are in the middle of a project and it’s bad, should you fire yourself? I would say finish the project and learn from it. Become a better professional—that’s not something that happens by accident or by default. You have to actually be purposeful about that.

The One Concept Approach

  • 44:13 Ben: There’s this competition mindset of, “If I want to get more jobs, I need to out bid this other person,” but if you outbid them, then you have to make exceptions. Exceptions just lead to more exceptions. You’ve got this landscape of designers who are very professional and work with high-quality clients, but then you’ve got the ones who aren’t professional and break a lot of their values just so they can get what’s left. It’s like being a bottom-feeder.
  • 45:04 This whole thing exists because of the people who are making those decisions. I would ask you, as the designer, if no designer would take on a bad client, the client would have to adjust their expectations and behavior. You either follow the process or nobody is going to work for you. Right now, the mindset is, “I can have whatever expectations I want because I’ll find someone who will do it, because people are desperate, afraid, and competitive.” You’ve got to think differently and if you don’t want to contribute to that issue, you’ve got to focus on professionalism and hold yourself to a higher standard. Maybe you can influence other designers around you to do the same and you might see some change.
  • 46:19 Sean: I think we’re starting to see that. I get emails from people that say the “Professional is always responsible” stuff, has changed things for them. They’re talking to their friends and other designers about it. I feel like there’s a movement happening and it’s exciting.
  • 47:07 Ben: People don’t just wake up and choose intentionally to be unprofessional. It’s being taught in universities and demonstrated by industry leaders. People get into it and they don’t think purposefully about if those practices are going to allow them to do their best work or what’s in the best interest of their client. I want to encourage people to think critically about what otherwise seems like it’s just “the way we do things.” Challenge that status quo.
  • 48:24 Sean: I wrote an article called the One Concept Approach and a lot of people didn’t like it (Related: e037 The One Concept Approach: How a Professional Designs A Logo). People teach that you should make revisions and multiple concepts in logo design. You have a design that’s the best, but “you have to make multiple concepts” so you try to make the choice clear, but the client always picks the other one. Then, you post it on Dribbble and say, “This was an unused concept,” and everyone comments, “Boo! Stupid client!”
  • 49:12 That’s not professionalism! That’s throwing a pity party and those are designers are technicians. Technicians make options, professionals design solutions. We’re not just making pretty pictures for the client’s personal preferences, what’s the solution? People got mad about that because I said a professional objectively designs a solution instead of giving the client options. If you’ve distilled it down to two concepts, who is more qualified to pick the one that better accomplishes the goals the client has, the client or the designer? The client is responsible for the goal in the first place, but the designer is designing the solution that best accomplishes that goal.
  • 50:20 How is the client going to know when they look at it? They’re not a designer, that’s why they hired you. If they are a designer and they hired you, and they’re harping over that, then tell them to design it themselves. You should be able to tell them there’s a subtle difference that’s not about preferential whim, what the client likes, or their favorite color. It’s that we conducted exhaustive preliminary discussions on so we know the primary application is on mobile devices or in reduction. You need that logo to perform well in reduction at different scales, and maybe because of different developments in design, one performs better than the other.

The professional is the most qualified person to make design decisions.

If you have two concepts, it means your work is not done.

  • 51:06 Don’t present those two concepts. People say, “There’s not always a ‘best’ design,” but if there are two, one is better. I guarantee you, for reasons you should find, one is better than the other when it comes to accomplishing the goals. You as the design professional are the most qualified person to determine that and it’s your responsibility to convey that to the client. They need to understand you’re doing this for their best interest.
  • 52:05 Ben: Even in that process, someone might say, “At that point, why wouldn’t the client be the most qualified because nobody understands their goals better than the client?” That’s true, but as the professional, you should strive to be as familiar with the client’s goals as the client is. You may not understand their industry quite as well or what the client has a firm grasp on, but what you know that the client doesn’t know as well as you is how certain design elements work together to accomplish those goals.
  • 53:06 Sean: People don’t like this and designers got very angry at me for that article. Those people don’t get it though, I’m not neglecting the client’s expertise—I’m seeking it. It’s about when I’m seeking it and when I’m seeking it is not in the middle of a project. If the client has expertise that is pertinent to the project, you have to get that in the beginning.
  • 56:36 Not everyone is going to get it and that’s ok. It’s not fun to be someone who’s worked in an industry for 10 or 15 years and have someone say you’re not a professional, that you’re a technician, but if you’re not solving real problems and you’re just giving someone options, you’re not being a professional.