Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, the founder of typography magazine 8 Faces, one half of Viewport Industries, and an electronic musician.

Learning lessons

Posted on 07 May 2008 13 comments

Article illustration for Learning lessons

I screwed up. I made a mistake. I didn’t think.

Nothing that bad; nothing to cause too much extra work and stress; just a simple matter that I’d basically forgotten to address: in booking in new projects, I haven’t give myself enough time for each one to run over, as they inevitably will. I’ve got a pretty good feel for giving project estimates by now, but I haven’t allowed myself any leeway between each one. And in fact it’s not just about things overrunning: it’s about affording myself a little time to wind down before rushing full-pelt into the next deadline.

But that wasn’t all that I’d forgotten about. Then there’s the fact that I’m on a working holiday in Norway, and shouldn’t I really be giving myself some time to enjoy that? And what about the whole wealth of ‘personal’ projects I’ve been aching to do for so long? Wasn’t this one of the main reasons I went freelance; to give myself this kind of freedom? The ‘free’ is in the word for a reason, after all…

Luckily, I’ve learned my lesson very early on, and before anything went horribly wrong, too. So to counteract my poor planning I’ve made a very important decision: I’m going to take June off.

Ok, that’s not entirely true. What I mean to say is that I’ll be taking most of June off (basically only as much as project overspills from May permit), and I’m only releasing myself from client work. There are several personal projects I’ll be working on feverishly, I assure you. And no, this is not just me sitting back in my little wooden house and putting me feet up for a month. These projects are important and will eventually become staple parts of my income (I hope!). In fact the work that I do on these projects now will probably inform some fairly major plans for the rest of the year. I’ve alluded to the possibility that I may, perhaps, be writing a book, maybe. And if, per chance, this happened to be the truth, then I might, perhaps, possibly need to do some preparatory work… maybe. Is that aloof enough for you? ;)

(By the way, the article illustration is of my current working area: my landlady’s desk in my temporary Norwegian home.)


  1. James Mitchell

    James Mitchell

    07 May 2008 @ 05:22PM #

    I have a confession to make: “I too am guilty of planning in the same fashion.” It is a lesson that one only needs to learn once. As soon as one project gets beyond the schedule you have very few options:

    1. Work like a mad-man and crunch it all in and still complete on time.
    2. Contact the client for the next project and explain that due to unforeseen circumstances the project time line needs altered.
    3. Outsource some of the next project to stay on schedule.
    4. Cross your fingers and hope no one notices.

    In any event, there is a good chance that you’ll get behind.

    Great article and reminder. Thanks!

  2. Rachel Andrew

    Rachel Andrew

    07 May 2008 @ 05:32PM #

    It’s a tough one, and still sometimes bites me after almost 7 years of running edgeofmyseat.com. Projects get delayed, get put on hold and then suddenly reappear – and of course you don’t want to have to turn round to a client with whom you have a good relationship and say, “Sorry, you’ve missed your spot in the queue, we can fit you in 2 months on Thursday …” :)

    Putting time for personal/internal projects into the schedule can actually be a good way to deal with it. If you are the client for a project it is easier to switch around when you do that work when a client project gets delayed or extended.

    It also helps to keep checking in on projects that you haven’t started yet but that you need things from the client to be able to do. That way you can find out early if they aren’t going to be ready to start and juggle some other project (get someone else’s work done early if they are ready) to give the client with the delay time to sort out their stuff. I have got more of a sense as to which projects are likely to have this problem as time has gone on!

  3. Adii


    07 May 2008 @ 06:23PM #

    Elliot – Do you normally just book one project at a time? I’ve got the exact same problem when it comes to booking & planning client work; and I always seem to overextend myself in this regard (as I can’t say no to either fun or profitable projects)… I do however book a handful of projects to run simultaneously, so that I have enough work in the quieter times (i.e. when waiting for one client to send feedback).

  4. ben


    07 May 2008 @ 11:57PM #

    Now Adii is cookin’ with gas.

    The challenge is manifold, and poses three questions:

    • How do you keep timelines from going off the rails?
    • How do you make sure that someone, somewhere, always has an outstanding invoice?
    • How do you have a life when things get crazy?

    Sometimes you manage traffic, and sometimes you don’t… but when the client knows their boundaries, when they know they’re about to go one change request too far, when they see how many hours they’re gonna be billed because they’ve been indecisive, those things all tend to keep things on schedule.

    The one area where overruns can help is in the revenue department. For reasons of sanity I don’t advocate time overruns, but as long as you’re working you can afford to spend incrementally less time on business development. Given that your bottom line is web work, which is easier for you?

    Someone, somewhere always manages to pay late. Or people take two months to reach a decision that they promised in two weeks. Or… well, there are all manner of reasons why you can find yourself making much ado about nothing, at least from the perspective of your accounts receivable. Overloading and having a group of other folks you can count on to help pick up the slack is often the best way to establish balance there.

    And then there’s the question of having a life. All I can say to that is, don’t skimp on your recharge time unless the payback justifies it (getting the big break, staying out of court, having the money to make a timely investment). It might be different if you were painting the Sistine Chapel, but… let’s face it. No matter how much whupass it dishes out, it’s nothing more than a Web site.

  5. Alain


    08 May 2008 @ 12:16AM #

    Very interesting article. Also, these comments help a lot. Thanks a lot.

  6. Chris Garrett

    Chris Garrett

    08 May 2008 @ 03:24AM #

    Interesting you should mention personal projects, I’ve been freelancing for over two years now and the personal projects I wanted to start on two years ago are still waiting for me to start on them :S

    I think the only way to actually get more time to work on stuff like that is to actively turn work down, just wish I had the balls to do that :)

  7. kevadamson


    08 May 2008 @ 03:32AM #

    Heh! I can certainly empathise with your article and the comments. I’ve got a few personal projects I would love to get my teeth into, not to mention the re-design of my new site and the population of content on my .co.uk site!

    Having been freelancing now for over 3 years, I would definitely recommend taking a risk/slight hit and putting some time into your personal projects ASAP. Otherwise you could find yourself totally reliant on client work your whole career, which isn’t the end of the world, but it could potentially eat into time spent doing other things, and also drain your enthusiasm if your working time is spent churning out client driven projects over and over.

    Good luck with finding the balance that works for you ;)

  8. cat


    08 May 2008 @ 06:13PM #

    I had a devil of a time when I first started out. First off, I wasn’t sure how long projects should take when I was in total control of photographers, illustrators, printers, the lot.

    Combine my main client not getting their act together along with my not knowing enough to say “no”, and it was a real mess of a start.

    So I did what a lot of other first time freelancers did. I worked long hours and all weekends. Until I lost it.

    Being forced to sort the problems out, I was faced with firing my PITA client. After that, it all fell together nicely.

    As nice as possible anyway. Over the years there have been sick web designers, clients changing project managers midstream, Internet connections going down at bad times, etc. And of course the given, clients not getting items in on time (but that was their problem, not mine).

    And now I’m 100 percent personal projects and no clients. Yeah, I like.

  9. James Mitchell

    James Mitchell

    08 May 2008 @ 06:39PM #

    @Chris Garrett – I’ve found that the best way to handle personal projects is to treat yourself as if you are a paying client. Otherwise they are continuously looked upon as ‘when I get time’ type projects.

    There are a few excellent reasons to treat yourself as a client for projects:
    1. You have creative freedom.
    2. Like @kevadamson said above it gives you true client freedom (non-reliance, except for the income part).
    3. It’s your chance to put something really awesome into your portfolio.

    @cat – that’s an excellent point. Not knowing how long things take can create a huge problem. If you don’t know how long a project will take (each element), then you’re setting yourself up for failure. I suggest using tools like slimtimer.com to track each aspect of your projects, from which you can draw an average over the course of several projects.

    Wow this article and everyone’s comments have really turned into quite an education and reminder. Thanks!

  10. Tim Van Damme

    Tim Van Damme

    08 May 2008 @ 08:44PM #

    Ghaa, I’m going through the same problem! I’ve planned projects back to back for the coming 3 months, AND I’ve double booked myself for the coming month. By day, I’m working 8 hours on location (which, BTW, takes an hour to drive to, so, together with lunchbreak, I’m out of the house/office for 11 hours), and by night, I try working another 4 hours on other projects…

    Maybe it’s not all bad, I mean: It’s good for a beginning freelancer to have lots of work. This way, I’ll be building up some insurance for less busy times, and I’ll be able to finally buy myself a car (I lost the luxury of a company car when I quit my dayjob to become a fulltime freelancer).

    Elliot, I’m sure you’ll have a big part of June free to spend some quality time with personal projects.

    PS: I expected some pictures on Flickr of your trip to the far far North :-)

  11. Estate


    11 June 2008 @ 02:02AM #

    gotta learn for sure, good article.

  12. Blue


    29 June 2008 @ 11:52AM #

    : ) this is a subject very much in my thoughts right now, as my freelance web design business [developing artists online portfolios] is currently expanding exponentially. I had to really fight myself to give out a longer deadline on Friday, because speed of turnaround is one of my selling points. Now I’m getting busy, I have a choice, change that selling point, risk outsourcing, or put my prices up. Oh so tricky a decision.

    I do also give my clients a deadline, rather than the other way around, with the rider that if a project runs late, it is usually due to the client going slow, not getting content over to me etc. They usually get this, and it usually helps them focus. Being artists, they hate doing organizational stuff, and actually prefer to get it out of the way quickly. On the whole.

  13. Chris


    17 July 2008 @ 05:19AM #

    I’m a bit of a latecomer to this article, but it is absolutely timely for me. I’m relatively new to the “freelance” game and have become a victim to working every weekend into the wee hours to complete projects.

    While I am so appreciative that my clients like my work, my work is now impeding on life and important personal projects. You find yourself in the face of a problem, raise your prices or work even more.

    In these trying financial times, one finds it difficult to raise prices, however, time is of great value and my time is of equal value to that of my clients.

    Some great suggestions in the comments from some really great and respected designers.

    I’ll do my best to put them into play.

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