15 Awful Mistakes Made by Designers in the Music & Apparel Industry – 3 of 3

Designer Fail

In an effort to help further educate designers about things they should NOT be doing, here is the last installment of the popular 3-part Mistakes series. Part two talked about staying original, following directions, utilizing the medium to its fullest, showing respect to fellow designers, and when to release source files for your projects.

If you missed the first two parts, you can catch up here:

I’ve picked the brains of 10 great designers:

Rob Dobi Dan Mumford Derek Deal
Jimiyo Geoff May Justin Ryan
Laurie Shipley AJ Dimarucot Jimmy Heartcore
Chris Sandlin

My apologies to Chris Sandlin, who I seemed to have left out of this list in the last two posts. He’s a very talented artist and his contributions definitely helped shape these articles. Sorry Chris!

So let’s get right to it. Here are the last 5 mistakes that designers are making in the music and apparel industry:

11. Working for “Exposure”

Exposure is good right? Yes of course, but “exposure” is how many designers get into trouble and wind up getting screwed.

This is a double edged sword. I’ve done pro-bono work for exposure. We all have. It’s difficult to determine how much “exposure” you’ll get and how that exposure will translate into new work. But a smart designer can weigh his options to determine if that exposure will be real and the chances of benefiting are high.

The mistake comes when designers are tricked into working for free by “buster” clients who offer “exposure” as their form of payment. After being a victim of this many times I realized that these busters are easy to spot.

Bill says in his Designer’s Guide to Pricing article:

“Busters” is the term I use for people that have no money and want you to do work for them. They will do everything in their power to convince you that their idea is the next big thing. They will promise you great riches, fame and success beyond your wildest dreams. If you’ll just do this first job for free they will pay you triple on the next job. Or, if you do the design – they’ll pay with royalties when their product starts flying off the shelves. – Bill Beachy

How do you know if the exposure is worth it? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Who will be seeing my work? What kind of people?
  • How many people will see my work?
  • Will those people be likely to hire me or purchase from me?
  • What is the real benefit of the exposure? More work? Fame? Respect?
  • How much work do I need to put in? Risk/Reward?

The only bonafide circumstance that one should allow the possibility of exposure being a main reason for working with a client, is when it is with an established company who’s customer base is so large, that working for them will allow your work to be seen by many people. – Jimiyo

Bands will not name drop you on stage

Ironically, just about every project in the music/apparel industry can be considered an “exposure project.” Meaning every client can try to offer you “mass exposure” instead of cash. Bands will tell you that they will “promote you everywhere they can” and name drop you on stage. Seriously? Yes they will tell you that, but they’re not going to do it.

A band is not going to name drop a graphic designer in between songs unless they’re already friends and happen to be at the show. Fans don’t care and would greatly prefer to hear another song over listening to an out-of-breath singer name drop and rattle off a random website URL. And even if they did, chances are slim to none that people will remember and then contact you for work – let alone be willing to pay you for it.

Rob Dobi shares some insight on working for shady bands:

Don’t bother working with bands who seem shady unless they bother to pay upfront or want to work out a kill fee. When I was younger I would spend countless hours pumping out designs for bands that would ultimately pass on every piece I made, it ends up completely frustrating and a total waste of time. Discuss your concerns with the band’s management before you spend an entire week working on something that goes nowhere. – Rob Dobi

As a designer, you’ll have to learn how to judge which projects are actually worth it.

Good exposure situations are:

  • Doing editorial illustrations for a magazine
  • Writing a tutorial for a magazine
  • Tagging your name/url or logo on the piece (credited)
  • Good cause or charity.
  • Branding – will it enhance your brand to be associated with the client?
  • Writing an article for other popular blogs (something we need to do)

12. Failure to Research the client

Find out who your client is, ask them questions, research the company or concept they present to you. The ultimate balance as a commercial artist is delivering the needs of your client while still being true to yourself as an artist. – Laurie Shipley

This is similar to not following directions.
It is crucial to have an understanding of who the client is and what they’re looking for. Usually, they will explain it in a brief, but it’s also good to do a little reasearch yourself. If you’re working for a band, listen to the music! Find out what the client likes or is inspired by.

Nothing is worse than having a progressive metal band who focuses on being different and obscure, get a shirt design filled with trendy hand drawn swirlies and neon colors. This should be obvious, but I’ve seen it done.

Just ask questions

In my friend Jimiyo’s experience, he finds his clients are very picky and on the conservative side. He offers this bit of advice:

Do not neglect your client’s market. It’s one thing if the client requests that you do whatever you want, but in most cases there is a specific market the client is requesting for whom you are to create artwork as well as at least a slight idea of what they want. Designing for yourself is fine with your personal work, but client work is a job, is a job, is a job. Absolve any aspirations of making anything totally original. Most clients are on the conservative side, as most consumers usually do not take to total abstractions and new ideas easily. They like their generic honey toasted Cheerios, so don’t go wild in being artistic and go make chocolate sprinkle covered Cheerios because you think it will be a great seller. That is the clients job to decide. – Jimiyo

I agree with Jimiyo to an extent. I do not believe clients are only after what they want and are not open to any creative ideas the artist may have. I encourage designers to speak up to their client and let them know you think their idea is generic. Offer a solution that will help them increase their sales. Just do it in a professional manner and you should be ok.

13. Unclear Communication up Front

Designers run into trouble when they fail to specify the terms of the project with the client. I’m talking about costs, time estimates, payment schedules, and deliverables.

Having unclear terms or terms up in the air is a very big mistake. Make sure you are clear with your clients about payments, deposits, direction, revisions policy, rights, etc BEFORE starting a project. No one wants to make 10 major revisions on a $150 tshirt design, or go a month over schedule on a web project, without getting extra money. – Chris Sandlin

Go Media has a strict policy on receiving 50% payments up front before we start a project. This works for about 80-90% of our clients. However, not all of our clients agree to this. We have a few that pay us on THEIR terms. Those clients are usually bigger companies or agencies with strict policies who hire outside vendors all the time and have implemented their own policies to pay them. We’ve got to play by their rules sometimes if we want to continue working with them.

I had a client who I was doing a couple designs for and totally forgot to set the price at the beginning of the project. When I invoiced them, they were shocked at my price. So we had to haggle back and forth to arrive at a price we were both happy with. Sometimes it doesn’t work out at all and you just wasted a lot of time and energy. – AJ Dimarucot

Don't screw yourself

However, in most cases, you’re going to want to get a deposit to weed out the “busters.” Designers will be eager to get started and are afraid to lose the job if they ask for money up front. But you should be confident in your professionalism and happy to reject clients that don’t play by your rules (of course, be smart and understand where an exception might be needed).

Always get a deposit first. This insures you against the client pulling out of the job. You’re going to get paid something for your work, at the very least. 50% of the total expected invoice is pretty standard. – Jimmy Heartcore

It’s a good idea to have these terms laid out in a nice PDF that you can send your new clients so they understand your policies. Or this could even be on the invoice you send them. Whatever it is, you want to cover your bases so that in the time things go wrong, you can refer back to your terms.

Some designers suggest getting your clients to sign a contract up front. But in the music/apparel industry, this sometimes scares clients away because it’s not a standard practice. Most of the designers working for bands and these upstart clothing companies are young and do not fully understand the business side of design. They consider doing a design for a band a privilege and would never think about making them sign a contract.

This usually changes once the designer starts feeling taken advantage of. It seems every young designer learns the hard way in this industry. That’s fine, but this article is hoping to remedy that some.

14. Letting One client be 40% of your income

This happened to us and we learned the hard way. One of the jobs we had last year earned us just about 40% of our income for the year. We were ecstatic. However the project was incredibly demanding and took up all of Go Media’s resources for a few months. We could barely take on any new jobs and had to increase our staff as demand was too great.

Big Fish. Big Problems.

The client was such a big fish that we had hardly any control over what deadlines were feasible and how to handle a project of that scale. It seemed our timelines for when we could achieve what they wanted were always unacceptable and never fast enough. We ended up working a ton of OT and even through Christmas break just to meet their demands. It’s hard to say no when 40% of your annual revenue is waving in your face.

Needless to say, the client didn’t have a great experience and they left us. In fact, we’re still working to try to get paid for a few months worth of work. We basically got screwed big time and we’re now overstaffed and struggling to pick up where we left off.

Lesson learned, big fish are not always a good thing.

Don’t let a large amount (40%+) of your monthly income come from one client. They may give you a lot of work and pay well, but you never know when they may eventually stop needing your help, go out of business, etc, leaving you struggling to fill the void to help pay your bills. If you have a contract with a set period (x months), that is, of course, a different story. – Justin Ryan

15. Thin Skin – Unable to take Criticism

Young designers are usually looking for approval by their peers and are often insecure and still maturing as a person. The first sign of an amateur designer (aside from a mediocre design) is one that gets upset, cries and gets defensive when something negative is said about his or her design.

On Emptees, this happens daily. Threads are even started complaining about those that complain about getting their feelings hurt. The point is, be strong, take the constructive criticism and improve.

I’ll take my latest, super sweet, design for that hot, new Swedish Death Metal/Jazz/Pop/Funk band and post it up on Emptees and it gets ripped to shreds! Instead of getting all hurt and dejected, I take the criticism and try to make the piece better. If you can’t take criticism about your work then you’re in the wrong field. – Geoff May

When working for clients, they’re going to be a lot harsher and aren’t going to try to butter you up and make you feel good when their money is on the line. The client can easily be seen as the bad guy that is cramping your style, but remember, graphic design is a give and take relationship. You and the client need to work together as a team to come up with the best result. Part of that process is being able to accept feedback well.

After spending hours and hours on a design it is easy to get bent out of shape when someone questions the work you’ve been doing. However, getting feedback is a part of the process and important to improving your skills. If you can’t take simple criticisms, it makes you look childish and unprofessional. – Jimmy Heartcore

Not everyone likes a chef's signature dish

Revisions are just a part of the design process. A smart designer knows this. And to be successful in this industry you need to check your ego at the door. At Go Media, our Prooflab software was designed specifically to encourage feedback/revisions. We want to make this easy for our clients. Sure it’s nice when clients love your stuff immediately, but it doesn’t always happen.

Sometimes you might feel that the client doesn’t understand your artistic vision. Or that your personal integrity is being shattered. If you feel that way, you need to communicate this with the client in a professional manner. But sometimes, your ego needs to take a backseat:

Sometimes the revisions make sense and help the piece. Sometimes the revisions make no sense and hurt the piece. Either way, you have to decide if you want the job or do you want your artistic integrity. Artistic integrity is always nice to have. But last time I checked, the bill collectors don’t accept artistic integrity as a form of currency. Sometimes you have to do what the client wants, right or wrong. Feel free to call it “selling out”, I don’t care. I always tell myself that as long as the client is happy, then I’m happy. – Geoff May


This post concludes the three part series of 15 Awful Mistakes Made by Desginers in the Music and Apparel Industry. I hope you learned from it! Remember, these are not exactly “rules” and even the most brilliant and successful designers are making these mistakes. The best we can do is learn from them and move on. Thanks a lot to the awesome designers who helped contribute to this article. It wouldn’t have been half as good without you.

In case you missed it, here are links to the other two parts to the series.

Part One – Mistakes 1-5 | Part Two – Mistakes 6-10