The day the finished annual reports arrived was one of the worst of my career. Receiving printed samples of a graphic design project is usually an exciting moment. Seeing all the ideas and hard work come together, the images you conceived and photos you art directed, and the colourful graphics brought to life through ink on paper can be so gratifying. It’s often the first time you’ve seen the clever embossing and foil stamping designs applied and the book bound in its finished form.
Such was the expectation when the courier delivered our box of 25 annual reports. I tore it open and grabbed a handful from within, passing them around the office for all to admire. They were indeed beautiful. The printing was exquisite. The images gorgeous. The finishing perfection. And then someone sheepishly pointed out that the client’s name was misspelled on the cover. Absolutely true story: after weeks of production and numerous proofs, no one had noticed two letters in the company name transposed on the spine. And we had just delivered 20,000 printed copies.The client signed off on digital proofs, hard copy content proofs, and was even at the press check. Should they be mad and threaten not to pay? This wasn’t our fault, was it?
While part of our job as graphic design producers is to pay attention to important details—and getting client approvals is a critical part of that process—it’s not a great idea, even in that scenario, to put the blame squarely on the client. It won’t result in more work and could hurt your reputation. This is especially true if client responsibility wasn’t stated and repeated throughout the project. As a freelance designer or a small firm, without the deeper pockets a large agency might have for a do-over, process and paperwork is crucial. It gives you ground to stand on should you be faced with this unfortunate situation.
Here are some suggestions for you so that responsibilities are clear. These steps won’t necessarily mitigate the emotional fallout, but they’ll certainly help manage expectations and give you some legal standing.
Terms and conditions
First of all, have some terms and conditions to protect yourself regarding various aspects of your business. Make sure they include language stating clients are responsible for printed artwork and for approving artwork and copy. Furthermore, state in plain language that you are not responsible for errors in final materials the client has approved. Note that the client is responsible for approving the accuracy of any data supplied.
Remind clients about the approvals process
It’s a safe bet clients don’t read documentation carefully nor pay as much attention to the fine print as they should. When was the last time you read the terms and conditions on a new app or web tool you downloaded? In a kick-off meeting, reiterate your key terms and conditions verbally, and gently remind the client that they are responsible for checking content and that they need to sign off on anything that goes to print or gets uploaded online. Web is easier to revise than printed materials of course, but treat all mediums as equally important in terms of accountability and ensuring accuracy.
Sign off on collateral
After a few rounds of revisions, once you’re close to completion of a brochure, or any piece of collateral, send the client a PDF with an approval slug. Make sure they sign it if the piece is approved, or, at the very least, email back with the word “approved” somewhere in the communication thread. Save or print that email or document. Content management systems have made updating websites much easier, but clients should also approve online content before launch. And make sure the person signing the approval is authorized to do so!
Get them in front of the client. If it’s an electronic proof, send it along and get the client to approve it. Clients should be invited to press checks and be the ones to sign the box stating they approve the production of the item. Understandably, clients don’t always want to interrupt their day to attend a check, but if you don’t invite them, they might use that against you later. If you must be their representative at press, having client-approved colour proofs is crucial. Always get them a printer proof they can review in advance for things like typos, layout and colour that you can use to match at press. Don’t put yourself on the hook for errors that can be checked in advance to help avoid any potential fallout.
Budget for blunders
Large retail outlets typically have “customer service” budgets. These are the discretionary budgets that enable them to take returns or fix a client relationship without question. They are there to enable those businesses to service the client and not lose the relationship. If your margins allow or you can increase your rate, have a customer service budget you can put funds into in case of blunders that need to be fixed, or even to stabilize cash flow if a client doesn’t pay. If you never need it, even better.
There are a thousand things that can go wrong along the way, so set yourself up for success as best you can. In the case mentioned above, we did all these things and still ended up with 20,000 annual reports printed with the client’s name spelled incorrectly on the covers. We honestly considered not saying a word, but we did the right thing and informed them of this embarrassing error. Luckily they realized this was something they should have caught during proofing and instead of getting angry and insisting we pay for the mistake they actually ordered 5,000 more, so we got the chance to make it right. But we got lucky.
Even the best planning and production process will not guarantee avoiding costly or embarrassing errors, but if you take a long-term approach to client relationships, the way you address and solve problems for your clients will flow from this, and the right—and fair—path will be obvious to you both.