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Working for design agency is one way to start your design career. Some designers decide to work full-time others choose freelancing. Still, working for design agency can teach designer valuable lesson she can apply almost everywhere. In this two-part article I will share with you nine key lessons I learned from working with one of the top Czech design agencies, as a freelancer. I hope you will find these nine lessons useful for your career or business.
Lessons 5-9 are in part 2.
1. Clear communication is the key
Communication is probably the number one skill one can develop. And, this is true not only in case of working for design agency, but life in general. We are in contact with people every day, or almost every day. This means two things. First, we have to know how to communicate our thoughts in a way other people can understand what we mean. Second, we have to learn to listen to other people so we understand what they mean. Sounds simple? I wish this was as simple as it sounds.
In reality, it is often very easy to misunderstand person we are talking with. As a result, this can lead to troubles of various weight. When it comes to working for, or with, a design agency or clients, clear communication is the key. Imagine you start working for design agency and you get assigned project for important client. You finish the project on time and prepare it for a handover. Everything seems to be perfect and you can’t wait to present the results of your work to the client.
Since you are working for an agency and not directly with the client, you hand over the results to your employer. Then, you just wait. Soon, your employer gets back to you and announces a bad news. Client is not satisfied with the result. The upside is that it is not your fault. There was some communication issue between the agency and client during the initial meeting with client. As a result, the description of the project was not accurate.
The good news is that client is willing to give the design agency another shot. You can take back the project and change what’s necessary to meet clients actual requirements. There is some chance that you will have to throw most of what you have to the trash can and start almost from scratch. Sounds bad. You wasted a lot of time for nothing. Still, it is better than losing the client.
Clear communication is crucial for one’s life, work and business. Maybe we are talking about client’s requirements, picking up kids from school, asking for advice on a good book to read or what to cook for a dinner. The subject doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we communicate our thoughts, ideas and requirements clearly so other people don’t need a dictionary to understand us. This means that we have to do two things.
First, we have to start using simple language other people will understand. It is okay to use design lingo with your colleagues and people from the industry. And, sure with your employer if he knows the lingo as well. However, we should not use it when we talk with clients. You know what? Maybe we should not use it even when we talk about the project with design agency we work for. Even though you may think you understood everything, there is still some probability you didn’t.
The only way to reduce this probability is to use the simplest language possible, without any lingo. Otherwise, it can happen that some we may understand some concept or word a bit differently than others. And, since we think that we understand it, why should we ask for further explanation? This is how we usually get into trouble. You say X and I hear X. However, I understand X differently than you. In other words, for me, X is not X but Y. As a result, the result is different. Keep it simple!
Now, let’s get to the second thing. When you are in doubt, ask. Or, even better, ask every time. Let me explain what I mean. When your employer or client says X, rephrase it in your own words to make sure you understand it correctly. Then, it is also a good idea to ask for more information. This may sound like a waste of time, but it isn’t. It is the opposite. Doing these quick checks and deep dives will help you avoid potential troubles caused by misunderstanding some information.
What if you are afraid of looking stupid? In most cases, you will not. Instead, you will look like someone who is thorough, someone who wants to have all information right. And, even if you will look stupid, it is better to look stupid for a few minutes than be stupid for the rest of your life. Also, by digging deeper, you can find information, issue or solution others missed. You may find that what client thought is the main problem is not the main problem, that there is something bigger.
So, let me repeat it. In order to keep the communication clear, use simple language and ask additional questions, especially when you are in doubt. Remember, Always dig deeper. You never know what can you find if you ask.
2. Be honest
A lot of people like to “wrap” their opinions in a nice package so they don’t hurt anyone. This is as common in personal life as it is in work and business. Maybe, it is actually more common in work and business. Since you don’t want to lose your job, project or client, you are trying to voice your opinions in the softest form. Or, you may decide to skip some information as it could cause some troubles. There is still some chance you can clean the mess without anyone knowing about it.
I think that this is a bad idea. When you conceal or hide some information you are not honest. You basically lie. And, if you can lie in this thing, why should people believe you don’t lie in other things? Because, well, if you can lie in one thing you can lie in anything else. I know that this is a very simple logic. However, simple logic usually works very well. Also, like it or not, it is quite easy for actions to become a habit. You lie once, then again. And, before you realize it, it is something you do automatically. The best way to prevent this from happening is to never start with it.
So, does it mean you should say things as they are, in their pure form? Wow. Does it really sounds so crazy to tell the truth? Anyway, yes. My suggestion is to tell the truth without any decoration. It is like removing a patch. You do in one quick move. On one hand, it will probably hurt. However, it will hurt only for a while. On the other hand, people will trust you more. They will know that when you say something, it is the truth, in the most sincere form.
The value of honesty
It is true that, some people will not like this because they can’t handle the truth. However, that is not your problem. I believe that it is better to be honest and maybe piss off some people than to be a liar because you don’t want to hurt someone. Or, because you want to make some friends. Being radically honest will probably not win you a popularity contest. However, doing so will help you gain trust and respect in the people around you. Ask yourself, what is more important for you?
I know this because when people ask me for my opinion, they know the will get only the truth. Interesting thing is that they are asking more, instead of less. Why? It is all about trust. You are not decorating your opinions or hiding some information just to be nice. As a result, people know that when you say something, it is exactly as you say it, no confusions or mysteries. They don’t have to think about how did you mean it.
Also, your word has a much higher value. When you say that something is really good, people know that you are not trying to be nice and trying to not to hurt their feelings. It is simply really good. The same is true if you say if it is bad. People always know where they stand.
This is probably why clients like to ask me for my opinions, even though we may not be working together on a project at the moment. They know that I say what I think, honestly and without any decoration. They know they can trust my word. This also works great with deadlines. When I say something will be done at certain time, they know it will be done. See? Trust. Sure, it happens that client, or someone else, call me a jerk or an asshole because of what I said. I am okay with that.
For me, it is important that people can trust my word. And, I know that they know that they can. Embellishing the truth, and being dishonest, may help you get more friends. It will also help you in your life, work and business in the short term. However, in long term, I think that truth and complete honesty will always be the champion. Strong partnerships and friendships are built on truth, not “soft” lies. The question is, can you handle the consequences, especially the bad ones?
3. Deadlines are sacred
I have to admit that, in the beginning, I wanted to make this lesson number two, or one. Deadlines are definitely among the most important topics in the daily life of design agency, or just any agency. For agencies, deadlines are often the center of the universe. Everything else spins around them. When I started to work for design agency I quickly realized that missing a deadline was not an option. This was also something my employer and agency CEO told me the first day.
I know that there are many different types of agencies, CEOs and management styles. However, setting and meeting the deadlines is always on the top of the list of priorities. It is either number one or number two, usually number one. This often made the work very comfortable and stressful, especially in the beginning. It is one thing to get the chance to work with international brands. This is the upside. The downside is that the demands are adequate to the reputation of the client.
In other words, the better client you get the tougher and tighter the deadline. And, the harder you have to work to meet that deadline. If you miss it … Don’t even think about that. That could result in design agency losing the client and you losing your job. Or, at least in making one client angry. Trust me, your employer doesn’t want or like any of these things. In other words, you had better learn to work hard and hustle, even do miracles if it is necessary. Do you want a concrete example?
My first encounter with tight deadline
Let’s say you are working on a project, such as creating a web design. The deadline is on Monday. Today is Friday, it is evening and you are already working overtime. The problem is that your project is still not done. There is still some work you have to finish before you can hand it over to the client. You told your employer abut the situation. His answer? You had better finish the project over the weekend. Otherwise, you don’t have to come back to work on Monday.
Then, he gives you that look to make sure you got the message. Your work and future depends on finishing your project. What can you do? Only one thing. Accept the fact that you will work on the project over Saturday and Sunday so it is finished and ready for handover on Monday. I would love to tell you that this is a fairy tale I came up with just to scare you a bit. No, it isn’t. This happened to me right at the first project. It was also my first seven-day work week. Did I make it on time? Yes. I finished the work on Monday morning about two hours before client arrived.
Our team, looked at it, made some corrections here and there and prepared it for handover. Fortunately, client liked it. So, that sleepless weekend didn’t go to waste.
This quick story is not supposed to scare you. Well, maybe just a little bit. I just want to give you a clear picture of what “deadlines are sacred” is about. It doesn’t mean that if you miss the deadline, you simply call the client and ask for more time. If you want to do something similar to this, you will not last for long. Instead, you have to grit your teeth and do whatever it takes to finish the project on time. This is as true for agencies and people working for there as for freelancers.
When you decide to pursue design work as professional, you have to act like it in every situation. When something gets wrong and you get under strong pressure, giving up is not an option. Your client relies on you and trusts you. He is paying for results, not excuses and postponement of deadlines. I these situations, you can retreat or cancel the project. Otherwise, what will you do the next time something similar happen? Run away again?
Running away every time the situation gets tough is not a solution. It is only a sure way to destroy any reputation you might have. Instead of running away, find a way to get through it. This will help you become more resilient. Trust me, I know this. Every tough situation you deal with makes you tougher and better prepared for the future. It also becomes less stressful. Today, I work seven days a week, every week, the whole year. And I love it. If I am not working, I don’t know what else to do.
Does this mean you should adopt this type of work ethic? No. I’m not suggesting you start to follow my example and start working 7/365 (6). How much you work is your decision. However, I want to suggest that you start dealing with obstacles and higher pressure situation. Stop running away from every situation when your backs are against the wall. Use it to toughen up yourself. Show that you can handle it, that you own it. Do what it takes to finish the project like the design agency depends on it.
4. Only results matter
This brings me to the fact that only results matter. It is easy to talk the talk and seduce clients with your skills, recommendations and promises. However, in the end, only results are what really matter. Is there anything more I can tell you about this topic? Remember, words will take you only so far. And, they will not save you. Whatever you say, always make sure to back it up with results. You get paid for delivering results, not promises or excuses. Done. Next.
Closing thoughts on working for design agency
It is interesting to look back on that first experience of working for design agency now. Back then, I thought I will not be able to handle it. I thought that that pace and pressure will break me. It didn’t. Instead, it taught me a lot about design, hard work and doing business. All those high pressure situation also taught me a lot about myself. It showed me that I can handle much more than I though. It was a pretty tough school, but I learned more and in a faster pace than ever.
Today, I am grateful each of these lessons. And, I would never even think about changing anything, even if I could. Every lesson was an opportunity to grow and get better. The only difference is how we look at things and events. We can see them either as an opportunity, to grow and become more resilient, or we can see them as misfortune, act as victims and complain how hard our life is. In the end, the truth is that all events are neutral. Only we interpret them either as good or bad.
There is a quote by Jim Rohn I like a lot: “Don’t wish it was easier wish you were better. Don’t wish for less problems wish for more skills. Don’t wish for less challenge wish for more wisdom.” So, will be a victim and cry for how tough your life is, or will you take every obstacles and high pressure situation as an opportunity and turn it into your advantage? Don’t look at this as a self-help crap you hear almost everywhere today.
The truth is that whatever happens to you, you decide whether it is good or bad. You decide whether it is a burden or an opportunity, obstacle or advantage. What will be your choice?
Do you have any questions, recommendations, thoughts, advice or tip you would like to share with other readers of this blog, and me? Great! Please share it in a comment. Or, if you want to keep things more "private", feel free to contact me on twitter or send me a mail. I would love to hear from you.
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