Sam Brown

Do you book work in advance or fly by the seat of your pants?

“Almost all of the jobs I turn down are due to lack of time. Most designers are booked up for months in advance. That’s just the way it is. If you want to work with a top notch designer, then you should expect to wait a while to work with them. The exception to this is if you have a rush project with a huge budget.”

This quote is from a fantastic article by Josh Pyles How to work with a professional designer that I would recommend everyone reads, clients and designers alike. (Guest Edited by TVD).

Andrew Wilkinson brings up an interesting counter point to strict scheduling in the comments that I feel is worth discussing. Andrew notes that it is almost impossible to predict how long a project will take and that clients rarely come to them needing something done in several months time, but that they need it now.

While Andrew’s situation is a little different (they have a team of designers and developers available), as a freelancer myself who is currently fully booked for the next several months I often find myself turning down jobs merely because the deadline is unachievable within my current workload. Often times these are projects I would be jumping at the chance to work on.

So freelancers, what do you do? Do you book jobs well in advance or do you work on a first come first served basis and fly by the seat of your pants?

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Doug Aitken 13 July 2009, 05:12 #1

I’m technically a Free lance dev, I haven’t done anything yet but my plan is that when I get enough interest I’d take bookings but also leave a day per week for “urgent but easy” projects.

Jason Cale 13 July 2009, 05:16 #2

Not that I’ve been a freelancer for all that long .. so far I’ve kinda just been ‘flying by the seat of my pants’ ..

That said, I’ve had fairly long contracts most of the them longer than 3 months at a time ..

This has led to me taking on too much, turning down work I’d love to do, and working way too many hours.

I’ve now become more ruthless, don’t take too much on .. unless something super awesome comes up that I’m willing to sacrifice my evenings and pub time for ..

It’s definitely hard, and because I try to not retain clients (i try to just have a relationship based on actual work – which leaves me to bugger off if i so wish) its hard to schedule stuff up front ..

I have a few contacts who come to me way early in their pitching process and say, we probably need this doing in x months time .. and I can keep my options open for that .. but this is rare.

Most of the time it goes like this ‘Hey I need this doing’ – ‘Ok I’ll be free by this date’ .. and they either go for it, or they don’t.

So I guess I agree with the original quote.

Michael Dick 13 July 2009, 05:21 #3

Although I don’t do freelance full time anymore, I say I do a little of both. When I do do freelance, I only book a max of 2 months in advance…so things can feel crazy at times.

Something that I’ve always lived by is: “a lot can change in three months”; you may lose interest, get a job offer, have a product idea, or whatever else.

I also don’t book work that I can’t complete within 2 months, because like before, a lot can change during that time.

I suppose it all comes down to allowing yourself to be flexible.

Juan 13 July 2009, 05:30 #4

I would say it depends on the size of the projects you usually take on and the size of your business. I have never turned down work because I didn’t have time to do it.

As there are 2 of us working in partnership, he designs and I code, my side of things take longer, once he has designed a new site, I get on with building it, he then moves on to creating the next design for another client.

But we have only taken on small projects – that method won’t work if we took on bigger projects.


kevadamson 13 July 2009, 05:33 #5

I like to think of my schedule as a bucket of pebbles. A pebble being a nice, solid project (either in terms of price / client / exposure).

Once the bucket is full, I turn down work of a similar size / type. But, being that pebbles are pebbly in shape, there is often some gaps for “gravel” and “sand” type jobs, that can be taken on “as-and-when”, to fill the spaces and pay a few bills.

I also: rarely pitch, stage things as much as possible, add a decent amount contingency planning where I can, and make time for cups of tea and sneaky naps :)

Josh Pyles 13 July 2009, 06:55 #6

I’m glad someone’s bringing this out into further discussion. Thanks for posting this Sam!

I personally try to book in advance, but I usually only get a few months ahead with several other projects in the box that haven’t committed yet. I’ve also been working with a client non-stop for the better part of a year now. I’m curious how many clients most people have at a time. I try to keep it to 2 (or 3 max), but it’s a tough balance.

For instance, when I have a single client at a time, there are times when i’m just sitting around waiting for things from them and not getting paid at all. When I have multiple clients the reverse happens, and I get super busy at times.

Anyway, great to see this discussion continuing!

Garrett St. John 13 July 2009, 07:32 #7

Great follow-up article. I tend to fall into the “fly by the seat of my pants” model. Not always by choice but rather because potential (new) clients are rarely willing to wait.

As Josh mentioned in his article, clients should expect to wait for a great designer but I think they are rarely willing to do so. In my opinion, it’s because of inexperience. Their priority is a deadline over a high quality result.

It’s unfortunate for sure, but perhaps this mindset has already pre-qualified them as an undesirable client in the first place.

Albert Fama 13 July 2009, 07:34 #8

At this time, I tend to take on shorter lived projects taking a few weeks to complete, rather than a few months. I guess in essence ‘flying by the seat of my pants’. This is because I am current trying to build up a client base, after working as a full-time independent contractor with one company for approximately a year.

I thought moving to full-time contractor with one company was a better option, than floating from one client to next and learning everyone’s idiosyncrasies constantly. This was a huge mistake. My past client base soon dried up, which was to be expected. Then after a year the company I was working with decided to reorganize and my hours were cut from 40 a week, to about 10 with no advance warning, just an email that came in Sunday night.

I consider the situation a learning experience and would like to eventually be scheduling clients at least a month in advance, but at the moment I need to ‘see’ as many clients as possible.

Abraham Vegh 13 July 2009, 07:59 #9

I mostly freelance, and I generally like to stick to the “first come first served” policy, although I also regret having to turn down potentially lucrative opportunities because I’m already busy.

Josh Pyles 13 July 2009, 08:19 #10

Was thinking… it would be great to do something like a “queue”. Basically, just make a list of all the clients who have committed in the order of who committed first. Then you’ve got a list of who’s next, etc, but it’s not really based on dates. It would take some work to find clients who are ok with whenever you’re truly next available, but it might work.

Does anyone use this sort of method?

Nathan Smith 13 July 2009, 20:26 #11

Chiming in a bit late here – Since I have a 6-month old infant, and work in-house as a UX designer / dev, it takes a really intriguing project to make me want to any sort of freelance. Typically, I work only with people that I’ve had good dealings with in the past, be that collaborating with another designer / developer, or working for a client with whom I’ve had a solid, ongoing working relationship.

kat nevile 14 July 2009, 02:51 #12

I think I’m in the same ball park as everyone else here… I may plan my “freelance” time, but when clients come along, they want it “yesterday”, and when I tell them what they need to get started, it takes them up to a month to get back to me. When I push them, they, again, want it YESTERDAY.

The only client that seems to be doing anything in a timely fashion lately has been me (on personal projects), but then again, just last week I had to reprimand myself for taking so long to get moving on something I promised myself a few weeks back. :)

Jason Cale 14 July 2009, 04:09 #13

@Albert Fama – tough break on the contract, when I take on large contracts (and I’m a little bit defended by not trying to retain clients), I try to have a mutual agreement that x amout notice is needed (usually a month) before the contract can be terminated.

This allows me enough time to put the word out that I’m available for some love, and means I’m not sitting on my ass with no money coming in..

Not always easy, but its worth doing when your other ‘clients’ can’t get access to you.

Another thing I try and only have one client at time, and I only work for a day rate, preferring projects where possible. I will take on extra work, but only if it doesn’t get in the way of my day rated job — that ultimately could damage my quality of work, and therefore my business.

Sam Brown 14 July 2009, 06:11 #14

@Josh – That’s an interesting idea, but I’m not sure how many clients would be willing to wait until you are ready without giving them at least a ballpark date. That said, I’d love this approach! :)

@Jason – Taking on one client at a time is another interesting topic, for you only freelancing in your spare time that’s probably the right number. Like @Josh I try and only work with 2 clients at any one time, max 3.

Damien Buckley 14 July 2009, 15:38 #15

Depends on how much work we have on – I book in advance and always give clients an estimate (and explain that estimate means estimate) of when we’ll be able to start on their project.

We prefer to work content-out and insist on having the content assembled prior to starting ANY work on a project (comes from too many revisions in the early days when people sent you content that in no way resembled the site we’d built from the proposal and scope). Taking this into account, having a lead time is no bad thing – the client places their deposit and has some time to work on getting their content together and to us – we can review it and start working on design comps. As we mostly know, the design will likely undergo some revisions.

I’ve found that this process will usually get done in the timeframe for me to be free to work on their project – organising things in this way puts the responsibility with the client – they all ask how long and I usually tell them that more often than not, that will be down to them…

All of that said, lead times can vary from a couple of weeks to over 6 months – just depends how big a pile we have at the time.

Catherine Azzarello 15 July 2009, 16:05 #16

I freelance full-time and do a little of both. I have a solid print client with seasonal projects. We were able to schedule out the year in advance based on mailing dates—awesome for my calendar!

Then, I’ve got various web and small print jobs. All over the ball park on scheduling. I start work when I’ve got the signed contract and deposit in hand. I like to start well in advance of any special due dates…and often do. But then, things always take longer than foreseen. Why? Because the client(s) don’t stay on track. I end up project managing (ie: nagging) to keep things moving—and be open for the next project I’ve committed to. In fact, I just blogged about this very problem today: and tried to be lighthearted. But, sheesh—it messes with my planning!

I guess the next step is to include sign-off due dates tied to required payment markers. It’s a tricky path booking the right amount of work when you’re a solo designer.

Jordan Dobson 15 July 2009, 22:17 #17

I think that getting a project request for “rush” work just tells you that your client is not doing their job properly, or someone down the chain… That just sounds like a bad situation to get into and you should avoid it as much as you can.

From my experience owning a small studio for ~7 years, if a client can’t prepare for a project properly you can’t expect the project to anything more than putting out fires the entire time. If you have to take it on… make sure to budget for that time! You’ll be happy you did.

If we’re talking minor enhancements or updates that’s another story though. So I’d say fly by the seat of your pants for the small stuff.

Ross Chapman 28 July 2009, 03:12 #18

Great post – there really aren’t enough of these! I, like some, aim to have 2-3 clients on at the same time and try to get at least the coming month booked up. I’m then safe for the coming weeks, and I can book new enquiries in ( “book in my pants” if you will!)

My only issue now is delivering projects on time. Because each website or design is unique – it’s often difficult to accurately estimate a completion date. What I do do is record the time and when putting together a plan, often add on a week (I’ve gotten that bad!).

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Sam Brown co-founded Iterate, and was previously VP of Design at Foursquare. Based in NYC.