Lessons I learned over 19 years as a freelance web designer.

I built my first website in 1997. In that time I’ve worked on a huge amount of small projects and several multi-million pound projects. We all learn from our mistakes so here are my top tips for anyone starting out as a freelance web designer

Don’t put it live UNTIL you’re paid

Locked out

Back in 2003 I was approached by a travel agency to create a website. At the time this was a fairly big project for me and I spent quite a few weeks working on it as well as hiring another developer to help.

Everything was going really well and he liked what we had created on the test server. He said he was very worried it wouldn’t work on his server and wanted it live on his server before he paid because… “he wanted to be sure”.

So I naively did what he asked, I uploaded everything to his live server and fired over an email saying congratulations, it works perfectly on his server. A couple of days go by and I receive no contact from him. Emails weren’t being answered and answer phone messages were being ignored. I try to log into his server and I get the “Access Denied” message. He had locked me out.

I never received the money for the work and that was the very last time I ever put my work on a clients server before I was paid in full.

No matter how convincing the client sounds and no matter what promises they make, don’t give them the final code until you’re paid in full.

Timescales and Deadlines

Deadlines and timescales

You will have projects with deadlines. These deadlines are part and parcel of the business but you need to be very aware that there are circumstances beyond your control and you must make these clear in the deadlines and time-scales.

Have you ever created a stunning website, user flow is beautiful, colours blend throughout the site… to be told by the client that he wants bright green text on a bright red background, photos of cats all over his site (which sells noodles) because “everyone loves cats”? Before you know it you have weeks worth of changes to do that were never factored in because you didn’t get joint agreements at the initial meeting.

The Timescale / Deadline Solution
Be very clear about the stages of the project and make them agree to it before you start a single thing. Make it clear that the wire-frame will take xx amount of days, the visual mock-up xx amount of days, they have xx amount time for changes to the visual, the build requires xx amount of days and testing / bug-fixing up to xx amount of days.

The total time for those stages may be two weeks but you should keep it broken down into stages and days. If the client holds up any of those stages (i.e. not supplying logos and text on time) then they are responsible for the project over-running, not you.

You MUST give a fixed time period for changes they can make. I give them a fix amount of ‘my hours’. They are allowed 8 hours of changes. When it reaches the half way mark I warn them that the time for changes is running out and they need to focus. From the initial questions the visual should already be 80%-90% what they wanted. You cannot waste days and days making change after change.

If you struggle knowing how long the above may take then you aren’t asking the right questions at the initial meeting! See my questions to ask a client before you start building the website page. This will help you immensely in understanding what it’s going to look like before you even start.

Make it VERY clear that once the visual mock-up has been signed off by the client that’s it!

I do a rough wireframe first and get that signed off. I then create a visual design and this is the ONLY time they can change things around for free. Set THEM a deadline for changes they want to make. Once they have signed off that visual and I start building the site all changes cease. If you don’t stick to this you’ll end up spending weeks on a project that you quoted days for.

Scope Creep

Scope creep

This sort of follows on from the above but it’s so important it needs its own mention.

Scope creep can be very innocent but it can also be an equally devious way to get way more out of the project than it should have. This is why it is SO important to have a clear scope from the very start. Again, the questions to ask your client before you build the website should help you pretty much eliminate scope creep because you are clearly defining the project from the start.

YOU need to be in the position of control. If the client says to you half way through the project “I’m sure I said I wanted a blog on the website” you can rightly answer “It wasn’t in the initial scope of the project that we both agreed on”. You can then get the scope of the new requirements and tell them “For this new requirement it will take an extra xx amount of days to code and cost an extra xx amount to the project”.

Always be in the position of power. Clearly define everything before you begin so there can be no doubts on either side.

In the above example where they ask for a blog. Don’t just assume you’ll add the default WordPress theme and forget about it. You MUST scope out what the requirements are, just like you would any other brand new project. This goes for any and all changes or additions.

Know thy limits

Know thy limits

If I client approaches you and wants you to do something you’ve not done before be honest with yourself and them. If you have the time spare then take a look at how you might achieve their requirements. If the payoff is worth it then maybe even create a real basic test version to see if you can do it.

Getting involved in something outside of your skill set is risky. Deadlines can suffer and so can your reputation. I would rather turn down a job I knew I’d struggle with than risk taking on a project that could take weeks of unpaid time (because I couldn’t figure out a quick way of doing it) and it still not be exactly what the client wanted.

We should all push our limits as often as possible but it’s ‘when’ you push them that’s important. I like to push my limits but I do so in my own time and on my own projects, before I pass that on to clients.

Build for free and share out profits

Percentage instead of paying.

I used to get a lot of enquires from people who didn’t have any money to pay me for the weeks of work their project would take, but they would share out profits when it became a success.

Back in the day it was sometimes worth the risk. It was much easier to get a website to rank high on search engines. Most of us now know how hard it is to get a really high ranking unless the content of the site is worthy of that high ranking.

I personally stay clear of them. Crowd funding and getting investors for a really good idea is much easier than it used to be. I would suggest to the person that once they have the funding in place and they have paid me for my work, I’d be happy to help them build on the project for a percentage of sales.

Give yourself extra time


During the initial meeting and after asking all the right questions you’ll probably be thinking “This is only going to take me a couple of days”. For projects with no set deadlines try to give yourself some breathing space in case you come across issues like…

  • Computer / Internet problems
  • Code bugs like tricky JavaScript conflicts
  • Designers blank
  • Kids sent home from school with illness

Having that time buffer has been a godsend on a few occasions where something outside of my control required my time. How much extra time you give is entirely up to you. If you do finish it in the time you thought it would take, the client will always be impressed and happy that you’re ahead of schedule. It’s a win/win every time.

If there is a tight deadline then you’re out of luck but if it’s only the deadline projects that put you under pressure, the rest of the time you don’t feel like you’re always racing against the clock.

I hope these lessons will help prevent you from going through the same types of problems.

Simon specialises in website design and mobile-friendly, responsive design and he’d be more than happy to provide you with a consultation. Contact him on 07828 467 753 or fill out this contact form for more details.

Image Sources:

Access Denied: http://mobile9apk.com/

Deadline: http://www.westernstates-rx.org/

Shares: http://www.abukhadeejah.com


Simon Day

If you have a wedding, portrait, event or festival coming up please contact me. Likewise for portraits. Check out my social media channels: Instagram | Facebook | Twitter