How a Design Firm Works

All a design firm has to sell is time — time to create artwork. Clients don’t always understand the full scope of the design process. All parts of the project must be billed. Here is a list of billable items in a typical presentation project, in timeline order:

  • Discuss the project. Often free, but it depends on the time it takes. If it’s just a few minutes on the phone, it may not be billed. If a face-to-face meeting is necessary, it will probaby be billable.
  • Draft a proposal. The time to draft a proposal for relatively simple projects will probaby be done without charge. If the project is complex, requiring research and in-depth details, it may be billable as Project Coordination.
  • Initiate the proposal. Get the proposal signed, get the deposit check, enter all details of the project into the system, add it to the project database. These steps fall under Project Coordination.
  • Kick-off meeting. Not all projects require a kick-off meeting, but more complex projects generally will. The meeting usually involves at least one member from the client side and the design firm’s Project Manager and Art Director. The kick-off meeting is usually billed under Project Management and Art Director time.
  • Internal design meeting. Complex projects or projects with new clients may call for an in-depth internal design team meeting to make sure all goals, expectations and design issues are clear and on the table. The design team discusses the overall project, design, brand, strategy, look tone and feel — all the details that will be used to create the new project. The team also goes over the project timeline, team coordination, and flow of the project from start to completion. There may be possibly two or three internal design meetings to keep the project on track and moving forward. Internal design meetings usually involve the Project Manager, Art Director and Designers assigned to the project. For animation or video projects, a Programmer or Technical Director may also attend. Larger projects may require an Executive Producer, who will oversee the entire project and be responsible for all parts of the production.
  • Project start. The project is divided into phases and a production schedule established. Depending upon the deadline and scope of the work, the project may begin immediately, or it may be necessary to gather additional materials first, such as logos, previous artwork, design briefs, brand guidelines, client photography, or other details provided by the client. A purchase order may be required.
  • Project management. The Project Manager manages all project details and acts as interface between the client and design team. An official timeline may be distributed to keep everyone on track and provide the client with the overall picture of the project milestones.
  • Initial design approval. In order to make sure the design team is headed in the right direction, the Project Manager may choose to show the client initial design concepts.
  • Review meeting. At a later point, the design firm shows more designs-in-progress to the client and gets feedback. The review meeting is essential to staying on track and keeping within budget, and helps determine if any part of the design direction is wrong or needs to be rediscussed and clarified. Otherwise, it’s possible that many hours of expensive design time will be expended and then the work have to be redone, increasing the budget.
  • Continue or revise. The design team meets to go over the client’s comments and either continues on the current path or revises direction.
  • Continue with additional phases and review meetings. The design/review process continues as necessary until the project is near completion.
  • Additional revisions. The proposal/estimate establishes a specific number of revisions. Generally, most project budgets provide for one major revision and two minor revisions. If the client requires additional revisions, it’s usually fine, but these revisions may need to be billed extra. This is an important area to track for any client because revisions can significantly drive up project costs. Many clients assume that they can revise and revise and revise without having to pay extra. This is generally not the case with any professional design firm.
  • Rights to use the artwork. Design firms are much like photographers or musicians: whatever they produce is art and ownership of the artwork is not necessarily transferred to the client. For this reason, the design firm and client need to establish very clearly up front who has the right to use the artwork after the project is finished. Most design firms want the first right to revise their work at a later time, if the client decides to make adjustments. In this case, there’s usually no reason for the clent to own the rights. Some larger clients already own their artwork, and the design firm then uses the existing client artwork to create new layouts or designs — which can be a gray area. So again, it’s essential to make sure the rights-to-use issue is understood by all parties before the project begins. Often, the client can purchase usage rights for the artwork; the cost will vary depending on usage. The purchase right to a logo for a one-person firm will cost far less than a logo for an international firm with multiple offices and thousands of employees.
  • In addition to the above. Meetings, travel expenses, postage, courier, delivery, etc., may also be charged to the project. In many cases, these expenses are built into the budget up front.
  • Delivery of final files. Handover of final files may be done via email if the files are digital and small enough in size. Larger digital files may be delivered fia an FTP site or other large file delivery service. If files are delivered electronically, sales tax can be avoided. If items are delivered on CD or DVD or other hard copy format, sales tax will be charged.
  • Final wrap-up and invoicing. The Project Manager or Project Coordinator documents everything, enters the project into billing, and wraps up all final details, including backup and safekeeping of the electronic files. Most firms will keep all artwork forever, just in case the client needs it again in the future.

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