10 Things to Consider When Working with your First Client

Below are 10 things to consider and be aware of when working with your first client as a web designer. Some of these tips may even broaden to other forms of freelancing professions.

1. Let them Know Exactly What You Do

You’re hired because you know what you’re going, and the client doesn’t. Oftentimes a client that is unfamiliar with web design misunderstands exactly what a designer does.

From the client’s perspective, it may be assumed that you know how to set up a full-functioning custom PHP application to their specifications, just because you’re a web designer. This oftentimes not true, and it should be clear within the first few conversations with a client that you don’t offer programming services to that extent. Of course, it can work the other way too. If you don’t design websites, but rather create web applications, let that be clear.

To let the client know what you do, you have to know what you do yourself. If you’re a designer, how much graphics work do you do? Logo design? Graphic Design? Or do you just focus on web design? What is your level of coding? XHTML and CSS? Or do you only offer PSD and template files? Perhaps you’re willing to code a bit more and deal with a WordPress template or create a custom CMS.

It can extend past technicalities too–do you provide SEO services? Marketing consultation? Optimized designs?

Whatever it is you do, make this information clear in the beginning, so there is no confusion as to what the client is getting in the end.

2. Determine Form(s) of Communication

A client will probably contact you via email at first, but it’s up to the both of you to determine a permanent form, or forms, of communication after the first initial emails.

Chatting may be more efficient for you, or providing a phone number. These can add a personal and live touch to the communication between you and the client. Let them know of your schedule, and discuss theirs as well, so the both of you can set aside a time to chat and get some real work done.

However, If you and the client have very different schedules, email might be the best option after all. The trick to email communication is to be as detailed as possible and to get as many questions answered per email since there will not be as many communications back and forth.

3. Discuss Exactly What They Want

Don’t ever let your first client tell you, “You’re the professional, do what you feel is best.” Most professionals dream of a client like this, but it can backfire quite easily. Once all is said and done (or so you think), the client finds a ton of problems, or needed alterations, to their new project. This requires much more work on your part, and it is best to just determine what they want at the beginning.

To find out what they want out of the finished project, you’ll need to get the following information to get from your client, if not more.

Information to Get from your Client

  • Text, images, and other forms of content
    This may be hard to get out of some clients. They may not understand the importance of designing around the content’s needs, so make it clear to them.
  • The navigation setup and details
    Ask where they’d like the navigation, what words should be used, and how it should function.
  • Overall ‘feel’ for the site
    Dark or light design? Content-heavy or design-heavy? Elegant? Fun? Simple?
  • Some examples of other designs
    It may be helpful to share your favorite design showcase with them, and share your thoughts on usability considering the type of website they want to have.
  • The goal of the finished site
    Is it to get more customers, give visitors information, or get visitors to donate or take action?
  • The form of the finished website
    Blog? Simple coded pages? Or another form of content management?

Explain each of these needs in detail to the client, and explain to them the benefits of their possible decisions. For example, a client that knows nothing about websites may not understand the significant benefit of a blogging platform.

Make Suggestions to the Client

There is no doubt anyone without experience in web design is going to have some very bad ideas, concerning both design and usability. To combat this, there is an art to persuading a naive client into an effective design.

Here are some tips when making suggestions:

  • Explain, in detail, why your suggestion matters.
    If they don’t understand, they’ll be more likely to assume their idea is still the right one.
  • Go on about how it could benefit them.
    Go ahead and let them know you’re not saying all this to be a hot head. You’re working for them and you want to make this project a success with them.
  • Tweak the client’s so they still feel in charge.
    “That’s a great idea, but let’s make this small alteration to that plan…[much better solution here]”
  • If possible, approach the idea with a personal experience you had.
    Tell of an example where their idea went very badly on your turf. They’ll look into a more personalized experience more than other ‘designer suggestions.’

Know that it is always a good idea to at least confront a client of a bad idea, because the success of their website, in the end, may depend on it. If they don’t listen to you, it’s their loss, but it’s always worth a try.

Other Resources for Communication:

To read more on the art of effective communication between designer and client, check out the following articles:

4. Set up a Formal Payment System

A new designer with their first client is offering their work at a cheap price because they are looking for experience and to start a working portfolio. However, most new designers underpay themselves dramatically with a first project and find themselves frustrated throughout the process.

Create a payment system for yourself, and discuss the options with the client. Do this after you truly find out what the client is looking for, and how much work it’ s going to take. There are two options to getting paid for a freelancing project:

Get Paid by the Hour

Getting paid by the hour can be an excellent option for a new freelancing professional because oftentimes we don’t know how much to pay ourselves for an entire project. Breaking up the project into hours can combat this.

The first step is to decide upon an hourly rate and a few other agreements with the client. To get started, find a timesheet or make one of your own to share with the client. You can download timesheet templates for Microsoft Word or other similar document software.

When setting up the details for this time of payment agreement, be sure to include the following details between you and the client:

  • Work with the client to decide on an hourly rate. Set out your initial request, and work from there.
  • Keep in mind this your first client, so don’t pay yourself too much.
  • Don’t pay yourself too little either. Keep it above minimum wage for sure.
  • Share the timesheet template with the client, and the details of how it will work.
  • Explain the process of how you’d like to share the timesheet back and forth. This can be as simple as e-mail, or you could set up a more formal invoicing system through an online service.
  • Set a minimum or maximum charge for the entire project. This way, your client can be confident that their budget will not go over a certain amount if you choose to work slowly.
  • Clarify when you would like to be paid. It can either be at the end of the project with all the timesheets compiled, weekly, or bi-weekly. Depending on the client’s budget, and your personal needs for income, this can vary and should be a well-thought-out plan between the client and you.

Get Paid for the Entire Project

Picking a price for an entire project can be a bit deeming to a new freelancer. However, once the initial numbers are worked out, a full payment plan can be much simpler.

In order to be accurate, be sure you know all the details about the project. How big is the website going to be? What is the extent of programming knowledge? How many scripts or visual techniques will need to be implemented?

After this taken into consideration, think about how long the project will take you. To put it in better perspective, compare the estimated time to a month. Now, how much do you think you should get paid for a month’s worth of work? Are you working full-time or part-time on this client’s project?

If you guessed the project would take two weeks, divide those estimates in half. Two months, double it. As you may have guessed, depending on all these factors, this work could range from a few hundred to over a thousand. In the end, it will take a bit of discussion with the client to come to an agreement.

When everything is agreed upon, determine when you will be paid and with what method. Look for invoicing templates to send out when it’s time to be paid for all your hard work.

5. Set Guidelines for Future Maintenance

This project shouldn’t be a full-time job for the rest of the website’s life. Make this clear to the client. Set guidelines for what future maintenance you will do, including what will happen if something is broken within the design, or new additions or alterations.

What does future maintenance include?

  • Errors on your part noticed in the future
    Fixes should always be free, but are you going to charge for maintenance after a certain point?
  • Errors on behalf of the client
    If a client messes up some code and doesn’t know how to fix it, do you charge for fixing it?
  • Updating text, images, and other forms of content to the website
    If you’re willing to keep the client’s website updated with content or alterations, let them know that, and the guidelines for doing so. How much will it cost? How long will you do it for?
  • Changing details on the design
    Do minor details in the next few months or so cost extra? Do you change the design at all after the project is finished?
  • Consultation for design, usability, or marketing of a website
    A client may keep asking questions and advice from you on how to maintain their website. It’s nice to provide tips along the way, but at what point does it become a consultation session? Do you offer a more professional consultation service?

Be clear and specific as possible when laying out these rules, so you don’t end up doing a bunch of unpaid work over the next few months.

6. Set and Write Copyright Agreements for your Work

Discuss with the client about copyright agreements, so there is no confusion later. Most clients will understand that taking credit for their own is illegal, but just to be safe, lay out some basic rules in a document. This document can be one of the many documents that can be sent to this client and reused in the future.

Things to Outline in a Copyright Agreement:

  • Does there have to be a link to your portfolio somewhere on their finished design? E.g. “Design by…”
  • Explain creative rights and define what content is copyrighted to you.
  • Define what components the client can manipulate and/or take credit for.
  • Explain how copyrighted material given to you by the client must be legal. If the content is stolen and given to you to work with, explain that they are liable.

Resources on Copyright for Designers:

For more information on copyrights for designers, look through the links below:

7. Create a Formal and Final Contract

Once all the final details are worked out between you and the client, it’s time to create the final contract.

What a final contract should include:

  • Payment system and details
  • Policies on work strategy and future maintenance
  • Copyright information
  • Terms of Use and Disclaimers
  • A spot for an agreement paragraph, signature, and date

You can include all this information in separate files or in one. The final contract should state that the client agrees to the guidelines on the current document, or the guidelines on each separate document.

You can find a great template for terms and conditions in the following PDF:

8. Use the Information they Give you Effectively

Once all the agreements are worked out between the designer and client, it’s time to start the design process. When beginning, it’s important to remember that the audience, uses, and purposes of this website are going to be completely different from anything you’ve probably worked on before. You are now designing for a different audience, with different content, and for another person that’s not as website-savvy, to maintain.


To start, look up other sites in the website’s genre. Are they clean and simple? Design-focused? Fancy? Look at the typography, images, layout, and colors.

Take notes and compile a few ideas. This can give you a better idea for the look you’ll be wanting in the end.

Look at the Given Content

Now, look at what the client gave you. If there is a lot of content, you’ll want to create a website that’s able to handle that, and able to handle more in the future. There might be a logo that is needed in the design, and you’ll have to consider the colors and style of that. Consider the navigation, and the layout of the navigation if the client specified.

With the content the client has given you, you can really think about usability. What content should be easily found? What should be seen first? Determine the needed hierarchy of this design, in terms of the client’s needs.

9. Consider Usability for the Target Audience

You’re not designing for your own niche anymore, so your target audience has changed in definition. Any design should try to reach a large audience for maximum compatibility, but when working with a client’s website, this aspect should be focused on even more.

Things to Consider When Working with a New Audience and Usability:

  • Fixed or fluid page design?
  • Extra features, like text resizing, should be available.
  • Color, contrast, and spacing could affect how a visitor reads the page. Certain design styles are not for larger audiences. For example, people that have a hard time seeing light on dark text, poorer contrast, or certain colors may be part of the target audience.
  • What type of design is the target audience most interested in? Is a beautiful design needed to make this website work, or is usability the biggest concern for its visitors?
  • Typography is a huge part of usability. Make it easily legible.

A design should always be created to accommodate almost all visitors in the client’s audience, but also should aesthetically lead them to do something on the website, such as make reservations, stay while and read up on information, make a donation, etc.

10. Get Advice from Other Web Designers

When you’re all finished, you really shouldn’t be finished. When working with your first client, you’re bound to make mistakes, and you should improve on them as much as possible. Go to forums and post your new working design. Let other designers and freelancers critique the design, it’s functionality and usability.

When doing this, be sure to take every comment into consideration. After making a few needed alterations from other designer’s critiques, go to your client with the final design. From there, you’ll hear more critiques and/or suggestions.

This the final process of working with a client, and it may seem never-ending and daunting– but you’re almost there. Soon you’ll have your own wealth of knowledge about how to work with a first client.