Thinking in Systems:
Rules and Tools for the Independent Creative
By William H. Goff III
May 2019 • 7 Minute Read
With respect to the business of design, we can define systems as processes and instruments that are built and organized to move projects forward in rhythm with your team’s workflow. Simply put, systems are a set of rules and tools. Creating the right systems will help you collect the right client information, set your client's expectations, and frame your project decisions to forge a deliverable that resonates with their audience. 
Now, it’s not difficult to set-up a system, it just takes a little time. I’ve listed a few rules and tool I’ve picked up along the way, and hopefully they’ll encourage you to rethink your approach to client acquisition and management.
A RULE
Finding the Right Match
Plenty of clients have asked for things that are not within my realm of interest or specialty. In one such case, someone wanted my company to create hand-drawn illustrations for a children’s book. At this point, I only wanted to work with small and mid-sized nonprofits in need of visual identities, print pieces, or digital product design. I could’ve taken the job and hired a contractor but I passed.
Learning how to decline projects saved me a great deal of frustration. After all, there was a time when I accepted every opportunity. I didn’t know how to refuse and was unnerved by folks who were persistent. In these instances, I’d find myself immersed in humdrum projects led by demanding clients. I quickly learned that I needed to qualify leads just as much as folks were qualifying me. 
Just be weary of self-imposed limitations, though. Don’t let fear hinder you from tackling new challenges. Enrich your skills and remain thirsty for opportunities that will push you forward—but always, always stay true to your mission and what you do best.
A RULE
Take Out Your Magnifying Glass
When a client seems like a match, you should ask specific questions about their company’s background, the project's scope, their budget, and how the design deliverable will support their business goals. For example, if you’re tasked with shaping a brand’s visual identity, you’ll need to dive deep. Learn about their brand, the people they serve, and pinpoint what they their audience likes and doesn't like. Your research will help you understand your client's preference for creative while ensuring it speaks to their core audience.
Doing this allows you to take your client from an intro conversation to a substantive consultation. It’ll help your clients see your design process as systematic as opposed to being fraught with artistic whimsy. When you’re first qualifying leads, try using a fillable PDF or an online tool like Google Form, Survey Monkey, or Typeform to facilitate your research process.
A TOOL
Crafting the Consulting Agreement
When I know enough about my client’s project, I’ll craft an agreement—and sometimes I include an open letter to the client, a section that recaptures my company’s philosophies and values, or a creative brief (in addition to a standard engagement summary, rules of termination, and pricing). Here’s a contract for designers written by the The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA).
That said, in the design industry, it’s a bit unusual to include a creative brief in your proposal because it’s seen as an internal document. But, I think it’s valuable if clients know what’s inspiring my design team. My briefs are written with the intent of igniting creativity, so they’re provocative, and have proven to be remarkably effective in sustaining my artistic juices as projects move forward. They’ve even served as a reference for my clients when reviewing deliverables.
But, it's on you to figure out what to include in your agreement. Once you do, build a template, so when you’re presented with a new project, you’ll be able to quickly plug-in relevant information about your client. Remember, this is an important tool in your utility belt and can turn new leads from doubtful to confident—so be thorough and be ready!
A TOOL
The Premium Presentation
My brief stint in advertising taught me that every concept or idea, big or small, deserves a presentation. It might seem annoying, but it separates the amateurs from the professionals. Every interaction with your client is sacred, so make it count. Sometimes, it’s not the content of the presentation that matters, but the fact that you’re even giving one. And unless you tell your client otherwise, they should expect a nice presentation every time. Amidst many ideas and long projects, your eye for quality will remind your client about why they hired you.
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