Get to work

Design is a Job

a book by Mike Monteiro

Six months ago I said goodbye to my colleagues at Weather Underground, took one last bike ride across the Golden Gate Bridge, and moved to Pittsburgh, PA. The move was due to personal reasons rather than professional ones, but it still afforded a unique career opportunity: working for myself.

While my little family got settled in our new town I took on a couple clients for freelance work. The idea was that I would freelance for a couple of months before I found a “real” place to work. That was six months ago, and the longer I spend working for myself the more I can’t imagine working for anyone else.

But that doesn’t mean I have it all figured out — far from it. In the past six months I’ve had a grand total of four clients and I think I’ve fucked up at least 1276 times. For example, I have…

  • worked without a contract in place.
  • started work on a project before coming to an agreement about money.
  • completely low-balled estimates to ensure getting a “yes, we’ll take it” rather than the money I deserve for working my ass off.

…and many *many* more mistakes. (I don’t even want to list them because it is, frankly, embarrassing.)

So when I started reading Mike Monteiro’s Design Is A Job three weeks ago I felt like I was reading it at the absolute right time for my career. This book has provided the missing instruction in my design education, that being everything that is distinctly not design but designers still have to do anyways. The book covers how to get clients, how to choose clients (did you know you could choose them?), and how to keep a healthy relationship with those clients. It covers how to sell your work and how to charge for your work. It covers how to work with other designers and how to work with everyone else. It covers all of the mistakes I have already made in my short freelancing career and many more that I can now happily avoid.

One of my favorite chapters was on “Presenting Design.” I feel that there is this unspoken suggestion that “good design speaks for itself,” and that only bad designers need to explain the decisions they made. Monteiro succinctly sticks a pin in that balloon. The chapter starts…

A designer who does not present his or her own work is not a designer. Presenting the work, explaining the rationale, answering questions, and eliciting feedback are part of the design toolkit. If you sit at your desk while someone else presents work to the client, you don’t get to complain about the feedback. The failure was yours. — p.66

He then goes on to cover why *you* need to be the one to sell your designs and how you can structure your presentations to garner the best, most useful feedback.

And this guy is funny. Like, really funny. For example, in Chapter 5: Working with Contracts, Monteiro uses “the talk” as a metaphor for talking to designers about why they need contracts for all the work they do.

Talking to teens about sex is a lot like talking to designers about contracts. ‘We’re being careful. We’re in love. We trust each other. They have an agile process. He promised there wouldn’t be any backend development.’ A contract is like a prophylactic. It wont keep you from getting fucked, but it may keep you free from additional liabilities down the road.— p.45

If you don’t get the joke, then I’m not going to explain it to you. But perhaps you should ask your parents.

Overall I would recommend this book to anyone who has decided to give freelancing a shot, works at a design firm, or wants clients, managers, and customers to take their design work seriously. So that’s everybody. I recommend this book, whole heartedly, to everybody.

Book Club Discussion

What professional, not-design-but-designers-should-know-anyway lessons have you learned?

What freelance rookie mistakes have you made? (Let’s start a support group.)