I recently heard someone say that you don’t get to do your best work for clients. Is it true? Can you not do your best work for clients? How exactly do you define and know what your best work is?
Today I want to talk a little about working for clients and working on your own projects and think out loud about which provides greater opportunity for doing your best work.
Working for Yourself
When I work for myself I get to play every role in the process. I get to make every decision and I can do anything and everything I want. I get to take every step toward the finish line and design and develop a site however I think best.
If I only have to answer to myself I can put more time into the details and even spend time shifting things a px left or right and strive for perfection.
I usually start with a plan, but I can and do veer from the path I’ve laid out at any point to see where it leads. I can take detours and experiment with any idea I want without fear of going over budget.
If I don’t think the site is finished I can hold back the launch. If I think it’s ready sooner I can launch early. There’s no budget in the sense that I’m not locked into anyone’s time frame. I can’t necessarily spend anything I want, but the majority of costs are my time and that has no arbitrary limit.
Working for myself doesn’t mean I’ll do all the things I want, but it means I can. I get to do my best work in the sense that I get to try everything I think will help me create the best design I can and I get to make the ultimate decision on everything.
When I’m my own client I get to take time and money of out the equation for the most part so the only thing left is to work on the quality. With one person in charge and making every decision the finished site should show more unity and follow a clear and single vision.
Making all the decisions and exploring every avenue I want doesn’t mean I automatically do my best work. I have received great suggestions from clients that improved their site immensely. Is that my best work then?
I’ll always have the most passion working for myself. No matter how good a client project, it’s unlikely it’ll ever mean the same to me as one of my own sites. It doesn’t mean I can’t feel passion for a client’s site, but all else being equal I’ll feel a greater sense of purpose and want to put more into a site that’s mine.
With every decision the client makes that’s different from the decision I would make, the site becomes less mine and more the client’s.
Working for Clients
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never gotten to do everything I would want to do on a client’s project. That’s in large part due to budgets. Clients have budgets which immediately constrains all the things you can do. I may think it best to hire some people to test the design in progress, but if the money isn’t there to hire them, then it won’t happen.
Constraints are important. They’re essential for design. They do tell you what you can and can’t do. A budget immediately sets constraints, some of which may keep you from doing your best. A budget adds constraints you might not have added without the budget. They’re constraints imposed by someone else.
Clients aren’t looking for your best work. They’re looking for the most value they can get for their money. They’d like your best, but happily accept less to not have to pay for your best.
It often means you’ll go 85%, 90%, 95% of the way toward your ideal and leave you skipping that last 5–15% It could mean skipping a layer of fine details or having to leave out a feature.
The lower the budget, the less you’ll do that you’d ideally like to do. The greater the budget, the closer you can get to your ideal and the more time you can strive toward perfection. You have more time to explore and do what is your best work.
Working with clients is more of a collaborative process. It certainly has been for me the last couple of years. Unless the client is me or thinks exactly like me and would make the same decisions as me, I’m going to do some things I disagree with. It means having to do things I don’t think my best work.
The goal when working with clients is to do the best work you can do together. The goal is to do the best work you can in collaboration. Perhaps my best work for clients is an evolving process which helps get the most of the collaboration between client and myself.
What’s Your Best Work?
I’ve danced around some important questions. What is your best work? How do you define your best? How do you know when you get there?
Is your best work really about doing anything you want and exploring every possibility? Is it the work you do in collaboration? Maybe we think our best work comes about when we’re 100% in charge, but the reality is the sites we design for someone else turn out better than the ones we design for ourselves.
Maybe conflict while working with a client ultimately drives you to do better work. The result may be different if there were no client, but the results might be better with the client. The client could challenge or anger you enough to motivate you to show the client who knows best.
Clients can offer new avenues to explore that you haven’t considered on your own. A collaborator who complements you could bring out your best. They might strengthen your strengths and improve your weaknesses.
Perhaps you have greeter potential working for yourself because of all the singular control, but you do your best work under budget and deadline. Maybe you need the constraints to do your best.
Clients might offer you better projects increasing your potential to do your best. Their sites might offer more opportunity to show what you can do than any of your own projects. Odds are the projects you select for yourself are aligned with your strengths. A client might offer you a project that challenges you to grow by improving your weaknesses.
I would think designing the whitehouse.gov site would be more challenging than anything I would build for myself and present opportunities to do more and do better. A site like that could get more out of you because so much has to go into it. It could bring out your best despite how much less control you inevitably have over what you do.
In the end I don’t think there’s a one size fits all answer to the question of when you do your best work. I feel like my best work does come when I work for myself. I think it comes when I get to make the decisions and take the risks I think best. I think it comes when I get to experiment how I want, without fear of going over schedule or budget. I think it leads to my most unified designs because every decision arises from a single voice.
My clients tend to be micro businesses and individuals. They’re unlikely to ever send me a project like whithehouse.gov. Their budgets constrain projects in ways that generally won’t lead to my absolute best work.
That’s not to say I can’t do great work for clients. I generally end up with a site I like and more importantly that my clients like. Still there will always be things I thought would work better, but the client overrode my decision.
If you have different clients you might get to experiment more and make more decisions and do more of the things you think lead to your best work.
Ultimately I think your best work is making the best decisions you can within the context with which you work. The specifics of the project set theoretical limits on how good your work can be, but they don’t determine what is or isn’t your best. Is your best work your best design or your best design within whatever context you’re working?
In sports the manager or coach of the year usually isn’t the one who’s team saw the best results. It’s more often the manager who was seen as getting the most out of the team. It’s the manager who exceeded expectations the most.
Working for yourself or working for a client is like being in charge of different teams. You can do great work for either. What constitutes your best work changes from project to project.
The project and client determine what your best can be under the circumstances. The context of the project and the constraints from the budget and client preferences set a range for how good your work can be and they provide the means for measuring, quantifying, and qualifying.
Once that range is set it’s up to you to do your best work.
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