• Advice

How to make every project a dream project: An interview with Sean McCabe

Name your favorite client project ever.

Chances are that the project was interesting, the client respected your process and opinion, and you were paid fairly. What if it were possible to have this kind of project every time?

Last week, I was lucky enough to talk to Sean McCabe, a Hand Lettering Artist from San Antonio, TX who also teaches lettering and podcasts on creativity and business in the design industry. Not only is he a master artist, but he’s a true design professional. (There’s a difference -- read on to learn what that is.)

Sean builds a trusting, respectful relationship with each client, on every project. How does he do it?

1. Build a relationship with a client before they’re even a client.

Freelancers typically think the client relationship and work process begin when the contract is signed. Sean plans every aspect of this process long before the client even sends an inquiry.

“As the professional, I design this process from the moment a client lands on my website, reads about my work ethic, views my case studies to see how I work, and ultimately submits a quote request by filling out an extensive questionnaire,” Sean told me.

The information on your website -- your portfolio, case studies, podcast, and blog -- should all be carefully designed to ensure that your clients understand your level of expertise and know how you works. Case studies “articulate the problems you solve” and show that “you possess objective design thinking skills that are beyond a mere aesthetic that is applied haphazardly to a project.” This builds trust and communicates that you are a professional, not a technician, Sean says on his website.

What does Sean ask in his questionnaire? Check it out here.

2. Be very selective about the clients you accept.

By investing significant time in designing this pre-client process, he weeds out the worst clients. The ones who fill out the questionnaire most likely are pretty determined to have Sean work with them. “They are coming to me because they want the same kind of quality they see in my work applied to their project,” Sean says.

You might be thinking: It’s easy for him to say, since he’s already successful. What about the rest of us who are struggling to make ends meet?

“The sooner you learn to turn down projects that are not a good fit for you, the sooner you will be in a position where the type of work you regularly do is the kind that you enjoy,” Sean says. “This goes against the common advice I hear from everyone else. I always hear people say that you have to take what you can get when starting out. This is simply not true...It’s a choice. It is not from a position of privilege that I speak. I’m able to be extremely selective in my client work because I’ve consistently chosen to be...especially in the beginning when it was hard.”

3. Have a clear idea of what the right client looks like.

The right client is not necessarily a big-budget company. “The right client respects your process and trusts you as a designer. This is how successful projects are enabled. When you insist on starting with that kind of foundation, it doesn’t matter who the client is: every project is a dream project.”

Before you accept a client, are you clear about what you’re looking for and what your expectations are? If you think that this doesn’t matter because you can’t be selective, you will get stuck with bad clients, Sean believes.

“What you allow in moderation, your clients will do in excess,” he said in this podcast.

4. Get the client on board with your process.

After a prospective client submits the questionnaire, it’s time to talk about project and process. “In these preliminary stages, I also spend a lot of time discussing the project with the client before any work begins. I’m working to establish a foundational relationship,” Sean told me.

What information does he gather? Everything from the organization’s goals to their background to their target audience. This not only allows him to understand the purpose and scope of the project, but also gets to the heart of the problem he is solving for. Again, he’s not looking to just apply his aesthetic to a project, but to understand deep-level project goals.

Then, importantly, he makes sure that this is all in writing. He sends his clients a detailed explanation of his process, what is expected of each of them at different deadlines, and the project goals. For a sample of this, visit his blog post about it.

5. Put the needs of the project above your personal preferences and the client's wishes.

Sean prioritizes discussing the project goals, not the client’s preferences. When you work for the best of the project, it makes it easier to support your decisions (“This is for the good of the project for X reasons,” not “because I think it looks good”).

“Designers habitually allow compromise into their projects and commonly work as merchants or technicians rather than professionals. They merely crank out options at their client’s whim instead of providing the best solution,” Sean told me.

Instead of backing down and revising something because the client wants it, Sean spends the time explaining why a certain decision is good for the project and educating the client. He refers back to the initial discussions they had about the project goals (which he got in writing).

As you can imagine, this means Sean’s projects turn out pretty awesome -- both for him and for the client.

“It’s about doing your best work, and having your client accept your best work,” Sean told us. “The way you do that is by setting clear expectations and adhering to your process; every time without exception.”

Once the foundation is laid through the 5 steps above, it’s smooth sailing. As Sean explains: “Since these clients are the cream of the crop, there’s little-to-no friction in terms of me being enabled to do what I do best. They’re invested in my professional results and what I am able to deliver, and less about trying to tell me how things should be done. It comes as no surprise that the work produced from these types of projects receives the greatest recognition and appreciation from a general audience when published.”

Sean even started a Community of designers looking to take their freelance careers to the next level.

Freelancers, what do you think of Sean’s process? How can you carry it through to your own life?