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There comes a time when it happens to the best of us, and it can happen for different reasons. A fumble in the client’s accounting department that takes weeks to sort out, a bankrupt organization or business, or you found the wrong client. It’s a hard pill to swallow. Worse is when you have to pay a subcontractor with your own money because the client didn’t pay.

This happened to a colleague recently. His situation falls into the third category, but my guess is, the wrong client doesn’t think of themselves as such. And for good reason. Problems in business relationships are rarely about business, but we have to pretend they are. In other words, the human condition is at work—fear, confusion, ambivalence, lack of clarity, insecurity, guilt, ignorance, shame, to name a few. As soon as one of these conditions sets in, it is hard to solve the problem by reviewing agreements—however clear and in writing they are. A creative person managing a project might have explained the entire process. But there can still be assumptions made on both sides that weren’t communicated. A project gone awry does not mean it wasn’t well planned. Stuff happens. Visit AIGA’s Design & Business section of their website for good information on business practice for creative professionals.

A challenging client might trigger a gut-level reaction early on. But we ignore it for the multitude of reasons we ignore signs and signals. Maybe the client suddenly became worried about spending money or they lacked a clear vision (and embarked on a project before having clarity). There’s nothing like getting any ball rolling to highlight uncertainties! Hope is a wonderful thing, but not if it prevents us—client or creative person—from speaking up. This is not to excuse bad behavior, only to explain it. There is no choice but to take responsibility.

This post is not about all the steps to take to avoid nonpayment (future posts). It’s about what to do next if a project is cancelled and/or the client just won’t pay. The course of action is not necessarily different from dealing with a flaky accounting department or a bankrupt company. But it does need a different kind of reflection. Note: this assumes you were clear about process, had an agreement, provided a written estimate with terms and developed a clear brief about the goals of the project.

Clarify the client’s position. You may not get paid but there might be useful information to carry into your next project. The client’s reasoning—whether you agree or not—will determine your next step. Ask if there was something specific they did not understand about the process. If they were confused, was there a reason they didn’t speak up earlier? This shows you are eager to understand, and, at the same time, the client reflects on their part in the process. You may find out if they lack funds (and are ashamed to admit it) or are choosing to withhold payment.

Own your part. A martyr is a person who takes more than 100 percent of their share of the responsibility. A victim is one who takes less than 100 percent of their share. Note the emphasis on their share. Taking 100 percent of your share may only mean 30 percent of the total shared between parties. Put your part into perspective. Review it objectively. Mistakes are golden opportunities (you’re laughing now) to improve. If you were clear verbally but didn’t put something crucial in writing, note that, and do it differently next time.

Send an invoice and follow up with a late one. It may not get paid but this is an important step because carrying out your normal business operations takes the personal edge off and gives you some confidence. Describe the work done. Attach the original agreement with terms, if one existed. Follow up, multiple times if necessary.

Clarify your intellectual property rights. If you have provided tangible solutions, explain that their use is a violation of your copyright. Even if it was your intention to allow the client use of or alteration of the design work, that right is understood to be transferred upon receipt of final payment. This is important, not as a threat, but as an education. You help pave the way for future creative consultants by having educated a client. You won’t get a “thank you,” but you’re saving the client embarrassment or a possible law suit. Perhaps you’re not feeling generous, but the good will come back to you another way.

Negotiate partial payment. Restate your case and appeal to the client’s sense of right and wrong. You might just settle on an amount you can both live with. It may happen that the amount is a reflection of each party’s responsibility for the situation going awry.

Surrender attachment to getting paid. I’m not certain what amount of money would cause me to sue for nonpayment but I know that the psychological cost of a law suit, however justified, would be too high. Bad psychic mojo would wreak havoc on me. Sometimes there is power in walking away, but not until after you’ve done due diligence, of course.

There are true creeps but they are few and far between. I have friends who live to tell it. It is little comfort, but a nonpaying client is most likely feeling shame or fear, or both. You can always find more money. It will be harder for the client to bounce back from their actions. If this kind of thing has happened more than a couple of times, your instincts may be in need of a tune up. If you’re sure you were professional throughout, you are better off walking away (after taking the above steps). Gather up the pieces quickly and put that otherwise wasted energy into your next project.

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Starting a project without a design brief is a bit like setting out on a long backpacking trip with no map or compass…only worse. There’s really no harm in wandering aimlessly in the wilderness, especially if you have no destination in mind and there’s no fear of getting lost. (This might be called fine art.)

But daily, designers go into the wilderness without a map or compass (some of their own volition), often pressured to begin work without a sense of direction. While no-parameter design might sound like every designer’s dream, this approach is a recipe for failure. (More benignly, a designer loses the satisfaction of doing effective work.) Even the most innovative, risk-taking client has specific goals to achieve and audiences to speak to. Many fear the delay caused by developing a good brief. The opposite is true: There is nothing like no brief, or an incomplete one, to stall a project. The stall is just later, when it’s more costly to start over.

Clear direction describes the project’s purpose, hoped-for results, audience, core message and any procedural requirements. The result is broad enough direction that leaves room for creativity, but unique and specific enough to paint a clear picture of who the client is (and isn’t). Together, these foster relevant solutions for that specific client.

As designers, our frustration working without client direction might be tempered if we consider that clients don’t knowingly want to sabotage the process. The client contact has bosses to satisfy, budgets to mind, deadlines to meet—and sometimes egos to satisfy, not to mention hiring and managing a designer.

Here are some possible reasons why it might be difficult to get a solid creative brief before starting work. By understanding what might be happening, you can direct questions and the conversation better.

It is easier to comment on what already exists than shape what does not. This is just basic human nature. Explain to the client that the information collected in a brief is what drives the design solutions. Without it, you wouldn’t be designing a solution that was unique to their needs.

Not understanding how the designer goes from point A to point B. Clients might wonder how exactly the designer will go from, We want to be the leader in widgets, being recognized for our exceptionally unusual customer service, to developing a cool-looking symbol. Sometimes we designers can’t say how we lept from one idea to the next, arriving at our final solution. Imagine how hard it might be for a client. If a client can’t fathom the leaps, they may not understand the value of taking time to create a meaningful brief. How we designers get there is why we’re in this business. But how is murky. And people don’t feel comfortable with murky.

This land between the logical business/marketing objectives and the tangible final design solution is the murky place. The designer had a good map, but wandered down side paths, looked up, looked down, looked around, sniffed the air, scribbled, turned over some rocks, took a good nap, and bingo, ideas emerged. Clients have to get comfortable with murky, which is possible if the client starts out making the right choices: designer, planning and budget (topics for future posts).

Eagerness to see ideas. The project might be a long time in coming. The client may love your work and trust you (This is great but dicey). The key people who should provide direction might be too busy to contribute. As humans, we are hopeful that things will turn out okay. Deep thinking requires thoughtful time set aside and that’s pretty hard to come by these days. Explain that you, too are eager and enthusiastic and want to produce the best possible work and to do that, you need the proper tools.

Self examination is hard. Settling on what you are also means settling on what you are not. Eliminating possible attributes and strengths from one’s business offerings might seem like shutting doors. This especially holds true for identity work, where the entire organization’s reason for being, and their values and attributes must be solidified and articulated. This is not an easy process. The result can be a conflicting or contradictory design brief, resulting in the wrong solutions. Explain to the client that trying to keep all doors open can lead to a confusing identity. And that it’s better to communicate clearly to the few important people rather than sort of communicate to the many.

Internal politics. Too often, personalities foil the potential of a good design process. There might be either no key decision maker or too many. The project “owner” doesn’t have the full authority they want or need, departments have conflicting goals, personal likes rather than business goals drive approvals, the unheard voices wait to be heard when it’s too late to change course…or to costly to.

Belief that good planning and staying within budget aren’t related. Good planning is too important to skip, especially where budgets are tight. Most designers’ estimates are tied specifically to a projected amount of time spent. When that time changes, so does the cost. As the designer, going over the risks and implications in person or on the phone can be especially useful, even if it’s in writing.

Not understanding the value of good design. It’s up to designers to articulate the difference between what they can deliver if a good plan is in place, versus what they cannot deliver without a plan. We all have a different way to describe what good design is. Now is your chance to put forth your philosophy.

David Airey has a great blog post about working with a design brief. Another excellent post on the subject in How magazine covers the importance of a creative brief and how it leads to success.

If you’re a client, how have you responded to a request for this information? Or have you found that designer’s didn’t ask? If you’re a designer, have you been asked to work without a clear plan? If so, how did you address it? Share your thoughts.