Andi Best Freelance Designer

Probably My Worst Client Part 2

  • Published 09-12-2021
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Probably My Worst Client Part 2
It was the summer of 2009.
My sister had just died, my final major project for my degree had reached maximum dilapidation and I was ready to distance myself from pretty much everything. At some point I walked across a stage in a cathedral or somewhere, wearing a rented gown and collected a plastic tube to pose stupidly with, pretending it was a scroll upon which my past three years of academic achievement were outlined and my future foretold. I don't remember much about that day or the end of term in general. I was disenfranchised with the course amid struggling with grief, and was pining to move on. To what, to where, I didn't exactly know.
Nobody hires a full-time illustrator, I knew that. There truly is no entity that requires a constant stream of illustration from a salaried worker and so my BA Hons Illustration course leaders would heavily push the agenda of a solo career; that if you were going to make it, it would be under your own extensive steam. Your portfolio would be your only weapon to wield at the world, so it better damn well be captivating, unique and showcased far and wide.
I really didn't fancy punting my physical portfolio around which was the size of a small bungalow and had a shoulder strap that cut into my flesh like cheese wire, so a digital equivalent I could serve online without effort was more favourable. As a student who regularly peeled gravy off the plastic film of microwaveable Sunday roasts purchased from Iceland, I wasn't exactly flush with cash, so hiring a hot-shit agency to produce a website for me was out of the question. Instead, after my lessons and lectures once a week I took a supplementary evening class to familiarise myself with web coding. In a matter of weeks I put my first (shoddy, oh my was it shoddy) portfolio website live to the world. Yes it was clunky, yes it was difficult to use, but it was perfect for me at the time. And it was thanks to that ungodly assemblage of pixels, and the unintentionally great SEO power it evidently possessed, that I had the misfortune of meeting Barry.
Barry, through some miracle, had managed to engage what few brain cells he had and successfully marshalled them into performing a basic internet search that led him to my door. Literally to my front door; the man pulled up in his horrendously large Range Rover outside my house one afternoon.
He looked like someone had attempted to wrap a butcher's shop window in a T-shirt, resulting in a lumpy, meaty mass, adorned with sunglasses, car keys and neck chains so sparkly that magpies were passing out in shock.
I'm not sure a whole minute passed in my hallway before I'd concluded that Barry was exactly the sort of person under any other circumstance I'd have nothing to do with. His intimidating swagger, his condescending arrogance; it all washed into my house as he crossed the threshold and made me instantly uncomfortable. Little did I know he'd targeted me for exploitation and his sycophantic charm would only worsen from here.
It was apparent that Barry frequented the gym; in fact, he frequented several and this was the genesis of his big venture-capitalist idea. He was attempting to corner the market on the alleged demand for people wishing to access multiple gyms without paying their memberships individually. Instead, Barry's extensive research(?) suggested that his audience were supposedly keener on paying him for a plastic membership card which would grant the beholder access to the complete pool of whichever gyms he had managed to convince to enter into his scheme.
I wasn't compelled by the idea as I know nothing about the gym community and I also wasn't convinced it was a profitable idea. It's possible I was woefully underestimating how many people had an appetite for travelling beyond their most conveniently located gym full of heavy things to lift, to go and lift the same array of heavy things in a different one further away. Nevertheless, as this was to be my second professional project as a newly established freelancer, I made every effort to take it - and the client - seriously.
Barry commissioned me to bring the material components of his scheme into existence. I was to design the membership card plus the Welcome Pack booklet it would be affixed to.
I had the good sense to formally contract with Barry and it was agreed I'd charge an hourly rate, keeping a log of all the time spent generating his products to be paid once complete. This was a grave mistake. As I was just starting out in business with no strict training or first-hand experience I had no concept of my own value, or any idea of industry rates, so could only draw reference from my Saturday job which paid hourly - a model that made sense to me at the time. I totally overlooked stipulating a payment plan against that timesheet where a regular balance could be generated each month.
Were time-travel an option the much wiser and more experienced me would have stepped in at this point and whispered into the ear of my younger self explaining that as we had a theoretical scope of the complete job I should be charging a fixed sum, taking part-payment up front, and charging additional hours for any objectives beyond scope that arise during the course. (Actually, the time travelling me would have turned up a few minutes earlier, drawn the curtains and pretended we weren't home).
With the terms agreed, scant as they were, I set to work.
Barry liked revisions. He loved them. He'd revise everything - the work I'd done, the work he'd asked for - he even revised his own revisions. He was revision crazy and that timesheet was inflating like a microwaveable Yorkshire pudding. Despite this we somehow arrived at a final concept for the membership card and at our next meeting I was practically giddy when he produced the finished article from his wallet. There it was; my design manifested into a real-world tangible item, sleek with light catching its laminated surface, professionally rendered, ready for public consumption. My design work in the wild to date consisted of a half-arsed logo or two, some forgettable custom wedding stationery and a few meaningless business flyers, so seeing for the first time this card that was only a theory until I'd gotten involved was quite something to behold.
Designing the Welcome Pack was where proceedings veered sharply off course into pretty surreal territory. Barry briefed his content page by page, I designed it page by page and he revised it page by page - as had become our format. He'd decided that to sell attending seventeen gyms at once, people needed to see photos of other people who already attended seventeen gyms at once; attractive, toned, healthy people that others would desire and emulate. Barry had a small surplus of just such photography for me to include in my designs. I'm not sure how he'd come about them but he seemed to know the individuals posing in them. They were professionally shot, decently edited and looked fantastic in the spreads I was laying out, but he hadn't supplied enough - several of the spreads were still blank and so more imagery was needed.
"Have you got a camera?" Barry asked.
I glanced furtively to the palm-sized digital camera on my desk, the kind that back in those days you'd decant the full contents directly into a Facebook album the morning after a night out irrespective of how many shots were just underexposed mysteries or luminous blurs.
Eyeing the camera, I remember panic rising in me, fearing that Barry might spontaneously remove his shirt and have me capture snaps of him hoisting my sofa in a fireman's lift or bench-pressing my wardrobe.

"OK, we'll go to the high-street" he insisted. "We'll go to the high-street, and find some attractive people".
"I'm not sure that will work." I interjected, somewhat relieved we weren't measuring up my furniture. "We'll need release forms. Maybe real models? Plus, this camera is far from professional, and we haven't planned anything - no backdrops, no—"
My protests went unheard, so gripped was Barry by his revelation, already marching out of the room and puffing himself up in readiness to exude charm all over the innocent bystanders unfortunate enough to get locked onto.
Out in the midday sun he stalked the pavement, eyeing up unsuspecting victims, with me tottering along behind like an unwilling personal assistant. He threw his arm around women, gave men a light ribbing, coercing each and every one to pose with his card whilst trying their best to not look confused and/or terrified. I felt sick with each click of the shutter.
One burly bloke Barry had collared exploded into a smile whilst holding up the card, revealing that his teeth were largely absent.
"You can fix that in Photoshop, right?" Barry hissed quietly in my ear.
I'd have to fix everything in Photoshop! There were shadows all over the place, glare from the sun, the high-street had to be knocked out of every background... it was likely all unsalvageable and a huge waste of time. Not that I minded too much; this day and the subsequent days of editing would certainly become welcome timesheet fillers, but would also produce some of the least compelling visuals in all of human history. When it was over, the whole episode left me with a lingering, cringe-inducing shame. I may have been very new to the industry but I recognised gross unprofessionalism when I saw it. And I was about to see a bit more...
A week later Barry was back in my room, leafing through the proof of the Welcome Pack he'd printed at home. He was admiring each spread as they tumbled open, bristling with annotations of fresh amends he'd like made scribbled and crossed-out and rescribbled in biro. He was truly happy with the design, he told me, and just needed these "last bits" looking at before signing off for print. As he walked me through his changes, he paused on one of the pages bearing a woman posing with a bottle of water and an exercise ball.
"That's Natalie, from the gym" he said, practically drooling before cooing her name again in a babyish sort of voice. That was weird, I thought, a little vomit effervescing at the base of my throat. He cooed her name twice more and as he did, he stroked his index finger across the image in both her chest and crotch regions, tilting the book towards me to ensure I noticed. A sharp snort escaped the grin he'd struck up, vying for my approval of his simulated molestation. The best he could encourage from me was immensely uncomfortable wide-eyed static. It was easily the most heinous encounter with a client I've ever had.
I can't even recall what shreds of professionalism I managed to scrape up from the tatters to wrap up the meeting amicably and get him on the other side of my locked door, but I remember feeling wholly unsurprised to learn that on top of all his other abhorrent traits, Barry was also a sex pest.
Several days later, having completed the project with flatlined enthusiasm and glad to finally be rid of Barry, I issued my invoice against the hefty timesheet. That final total landing in my bank account would be the only redeeming quality in dedicating so much time to this achingly unpleasant individual. So imagine how immeasurably deflated I was when it became clear that that wasn't going to happen.
Barry explained that my invoice needed to be forwarded to somebody called Michael who dealt with his finances. Michael was evidently on holiday in Spain at the time so I was told there would be a delay of an undisclosed length in processing the payment. Days passed to weeks, then months, and with them Michael's holiday became a jaunt, then an excursion, then a relocation, and finally an expedition through time and space to whichever dimension it was that Barry had conjured him from. Needless to say, I never heard from Michael, Barry had become uncontactable and I received no remuneration whatsoever.
I was able to solicit one last curious response from Barry via the Small Claims Court, through which I'd issued a notice of impending action posted to the address he'd originally given me when signing our contract. The address, it seemed, was at least genuine as the letter was received and read, though not by Barry, but rather his disgruntled, rent-deprived landlord. According to this man - who was unequivocally not a friend of Barry's put up to the task of phoning me and was definitely his ex-landlord - Barry had absconded suddenly some time ago and had not left a forwarding address for his post. The alleged landlord decided he should open each and every letter on the doormat addressed to Barry which is how he came across mine threatening legal action. As someone sharing the same grievance as I at the hands of Barry's deception, I found the landlord to be taking an odd stance in advising me to drop pursuing legal channels, that I'd never find Barry and that I should just let the debt go.
Regrettably, this was in fact the only option left available to me. By this time I had already moved onto the next stage of my career, some hundred miles away from that disaster, working with a crop of decidedly more competent and less repulsive clients. I'd become too busy to remain invested in what was now clearly a set up from the start. I have no illusions that the amateurishness of my early website, combined with how candid it was about my status as a recent graduate, made me a prime target for someone like Barry, looking for a young, inexperienced designer to take advantage of.
Writing all this would have been in vain if I hadn't learnt a lesson from the experience, and thankfully I have. Several, in fact. Firstly, and immediately, I refined my contracting process. Contracting is a science with a lot of variables, conflicting data and experimentation that ultimately takes years of trials before the right balance gets struck. I had to fumble around with a lot of templates, snippets of best practice and (bafflingly) break through a lot of closely-guarded secrets about how to draft an effective contract that protects all parties involved, which only in the last five years or so I've felt confident that I have. The most notable adaptation was adding a deposit policy.
I've also learnt that the adage "the customer is always right" is up there with "carrots help you see in the dark" and "I don't know anything about a Christmas party." It's a baseless, apocryphal expression empowered only by its being bandied around so readily. Being too eager to please for fear of an earning opportunity disappearing is what makes a freelancer lose sight of when a client starts to skew a project scope and its agreements, making the exchange unfair and unenjoyable. Here's a more imperative expression: "put your foot down". If you don't feel like working the extra unpaid hours, changing a project from the agreed scope, or photographing strangers because a gobby narcissist tells you to, don't.
Ultimately, this was also my induction in client red flags. Barry probably made a habit of sniffing around existing business models for exploitation points he might insert himself into, by fabricating roles that'd require minimal ongoing input from himself (in this instance, acting as a gym recruiter) and creaming off the top. Some may think that smart. In my experience if someone with little aptitude for applying any real skill or value, regards sitting back and collecting dividends from doing next to no work to be credible, it's always worth pondering what other corners they might potentially cut, and what/who else they undervalue.
Oh, and the most valuable lesson of all: people who openly caress photographs are probably best avoided.
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