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October 19, 2016

How to do your best work as a design contractor?

Digital Experience Designer. Playing with shapes, animation and interaction. Helping various clients craft experiences for users.

A user interface is like a joke. If you have to explain it, it’s not that good.”

The first time I was hired to re-design a company website I thought I knew it all. With a confidence of an Olympian, I barged into the meeting room and went one by one through what I thought was wrong with their previous design. The only person who acknowledged my notes was the CEO. But the product team felt hurt, because they've been working on this for so long and now they (together with me) were supposed to start all over again.

It didn't take me long to realize this is not the way to deal with customers. Just because the rest of the team isn't paying my bills, doesn't mean that I shouldn't include them in conversations related to their previous work. The minute I showed interest, the team members noticed it and started to be willing to adjust, tweak, and acquire new ideas.

Here are 3 rules that I use ever since then

1. Don't ever criticize previous work

Always avoid talking bad about the work of others. They have been working on the product for a much longer time than you ever will. It's their baby, show some respect. The reason you got your foot in the door is that the client already knows that something needs improvement – that's why you're there.

Let the company send you all of their previous designs and related materials. Spend a weekend on it – do you homework and come back on Monday with precise questions. Questions like:

  • Why did you choose this visual language? What led you to this and that?
  • What were your goals? How did you measure success?
  • What are the parts that must (for whatever reason) remain the same? (This will help you build foundations for your project)
  • What do you need help with and what can you do on your own? Who will be on this project team? (Establishing this in the beginning is particularly important during bigger projects.)

When it's your turn to talk improvements, discuss things you found in their materials and how you would move from there. And when you're asked for feedback, at least give them the sandwich or something.

2. Make friends not just ex-co-workers

From the moment you know all stakeholders of your project, do your best to get to know them well. You don't have to befriend everyone, but realize that in each company you work for you're building a network of professionals.

Even when working temporarily with people, you have an opportunity to connect with them more deeply. Talk to them, ask them for help. Always stay humble to their work. You never know when your paths cross again; heck, you might be colleagues one day.

3. Do not fake it until you make it

Sure, this general rule saved me a couple of times. Though it forces you to learn and deliver things that you promised, it's a double-edged sword. But when the stakes are high, it's better to just come out with the truth than risking failure. Be honest and your client will appreciate it.

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