The Never Ending Project: How to Prevent Scope Creep

Have you ever worked on a project that would… not… end!? Me, too. Poorly organized fixed-rate projects quickly turn into hourly-rate eating monsters that even Falkor couldn’t save you from.

What is Scope Creep?

Scope Creep is any work requested by the client that isn’t included within your original agreement. It can happen at any point in the project. The smallest little rabbit trail conversation with a client can lead to a whole list of to-dos that are way beyond the budget and deadline. Just because the project isn’t finished, doesn’t mean that all client requests are fulfilled. Consider the context of their requests. If the requests do not fall within the services you’ve agreed to provide, those requests are scope creep. You don’t want to waste precious time on tasks that are out of scope without getting compensated. There is no reason to work for free, and it’s no fun to see your hourly rate diminish as you burn the midnight oil over and over to finish that one last client request.

Let’s solve this problem.

1. Get a signed contract for every project.

Your first line of defense is a solid contract that explains the exact process and deliverables for every project. State clearly what this project includes, how long it will take, and how much it will cost. Also, and most importantly, make sure you include how much you will charge for any work outside of the project scope. That’s right, a Scope Creep Fee! This has saved my tail on several occasions. Tell them that their request isn’t covered in the current contract, but offer to create a new contract for the extra work. Or simply charge an hourly rate to cover anything outside of scope, like I do.

2. Enforce the contract throughout the project.

The best most detailed contract in the world is worthless if you don’t enforce it. At the end of the day, you have to AT LEAST deliver whatever  is written in that document. Refer to it often. You both signed it. It’s legally binding.

3. Get proof of their approval.

This is something I could probably get better at. I don’t have a formal signature-based process for approving each phase of a project. But it wouldn’t hurt. This came up while I was chatting with a designer friend who asked me this question:

“How do you typically send design proofs to clients, especially when there are a ton of on-going changes?”

My response:

“Email… and I have it spelled out in the contract how many changes/revisions are allowed before additional charges are added”


“I was thinking there might be a website that could upload a proof straight out of photoshop/illustrator… the client gets a link that they can keep checking back with”


“There are services like that… for example, or


“Nice. Exactly what i’m looking for.”


“I’ve also used Basecamp‘s messaging system to send proofs since you can upload images”


Do yourself a favor. Don’t work for anyone without knowing exactly what they expect of you, when it’s due, and who gives final approval.  Getting these administrative details out of the way allows you to focus on what you do best… your job.

Do any of you expert freelancers have some wisdom you’d like to share? How do you prevent scope creep? Any methods or tools you can suggest?


Book Review: The Four Hour Work Week


Overall, my mental and emotional experience reading the The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris felt something like this:

I’m having a chat in a coffee shop with Tim, the author. He suddenly flips over the table, screams “Eighty Twentyyyyyyyyyyy!!!!!!!!!!”, punches me in the face, injects an adrenaline shot into my neck, and throws me into a Ferrari that flies off into space.

In other words, it was moving.


I finished a this book sitting at the foot of my pregnant wife’s hospital bed listening to the sound of the IV machine pump fluids into her dehydrated veins while she got some well-deserved rest from the effects of Hyperemisis Gravidarum. Because of her condition, she wasn’t able to care for our 2-year old while I was at work. We moved in with her parents. Life was hard, but good. Hated to see her that way. As she fought to give life, I pushed even harder to work for a better life for our family. Tim’s book entered my life at the right time.

Take Aways

I had an idea of what the book was about from friends and reviews. My general impression was something about traveling, business and four hours. I was pleasantly surprised to find more depth than I expected. Yes, there were business tips and travel how-tos that were very helpful, but what stood out to me were Tim’s ideas about lifestyle design. Here is a brain dump of my lingering impressions of how the book affected me:

  • gave me hope
  • opened my eyes to a new world of possibilities in business
  • made me feel like I CAN do something different with my career if I choose to
  • revived dreams I’d almost completely let go of
  • gave me permission to pursue the life-STYLE that I think is best for me and my family instead of accepting what someone else expects of my time
  • informed me about how to start a product-based business
  • informed me about traveling smarter
  • explained the power and purpose of automation
  • helped me understand the reason big businesses outsource parts of their business to other countries
  • made me realize that I’m not alone when it comes to ideas and feelings I’ve had about a drastically different work and life style
  • inspired me to be more focused while working
  • made me question my current lifestyle
  • confirmed ideas I’ve had about restructuring my work life because the current 8-5 structure that keeps you away from family all day doesn’t seem natural (most people were in the “family business” a short few hundred years ago)
  • confirmed ideas about the benefits of fasting from media and information

Live Smarter

Although I don’t agree with all of Tim’s philosophical ideas, I appreciated his honest logical approach to everything, including spirituality. Whatever Tim’s spiritual beliefs are his book came into my life at the perfect time. It may even have been a God thing. I could see his book being extremely helpful to missionaries because of the international lifestyles they live.

I recommend it. Read it: Buy The 4-Hour Workweek here

The 4-Hour Workweek, Expanded and Updated


Fitts Architects Website Design Process

fitts architects office building

Fitts Architects in Tuscaloosa, Alabama hired me to redesign and rebuild their website. Here is the story behind the project and the process we went through to polish their brand on the internet.

Respect at first sight

In college I lived within 100 yards of the Fitts Architects office. Every time I drove by I would think to myself, “I really like the look of that building.”

The simple modern lines resonated with me. The design stands in stark contrast to the Classical, Victorian, and Early 2oth Century Style homes that surround it. I respected their boldness.

Fitts Architects office building front steps

A few years later I drove by and thought it would be awesome to have them as a client. I sent a cold email to the owner of Fitts Architects… Fitts himself.

I simply told him I was a fan of their work and that if they ever needed help with their website or other graphic design services I happened to be skilled in those areas.

Fitts Architects metal sign on brick wall

To my surprise he was very gracious and told me to come by the office. Several meetings later,  we signed a contract and I was officially the web designer for one of my local design heroes!

The Design Process

Here is a look inside the process I used to go from concept to finished product.

Phase 1: Set Goals

The first step involved meeting with the client to figure out the purpose behind the website. What goals were they trying to accomplish with this project?

  1. Basically, they wanted an updated version of their current website that was easy to navigate and elegantly designed.
  2. The design and functionality of the original website lacked the sense of high quality professionalism the Fitts brand stands for.
  3. However, there was a certain simplicity and elegance about the original site that the client wanted to carry through to the new design.

Fitts Architects original website

Considering their goals for the functionality and design of the new site I moved on to the next phase.

Phase 2: Get Exposed

Exposure to as much information about the client’s business, competition and industry at large is critical. I began scouring the internet for the websites of other modern architecture firms, taking note of how they solved similar problems to what my client faced.

Then I collected benchmarks, including  local competitors and global peer, and sent them to Fitts. He reviewed them and sent me valuable feedback and his vision for their new website. I’ve found several benefits of involving the client in the research process:

  1. Helps them compare their current site to others in their industry, reinforcing their need for my services.
  2. Helped answer questions that I never thought to ask by getting their feedback on the design, features, and functionality of other websites.
  3. Keeps the client and I in an ongoing conversation about their website throughout the project.

Phase 3: Find the concept

Phase three is basically visual brainstorming. With information from my research fresh on my mind I take out my sketch book and a mechanical pencil, or an ink pen depending on my mood, and spend at least an hour sketching out everything that comes to mind.

The goal here is not to create perfectly rendered illustrations, but to sift through the ideas that started to form during the first 2 phases. Sometimes I’ll draw random stuff to help kick-start my creative juices.

The Fitts sketches above include random lines, logo ideas, and even a sketch of their building – none of which were part of the website design I was hired to create. You might think this is a waste of time, but while exploring ideas like this I uncover valuable perspective and unexpected inspiration.

Until I have a strong conviction about a specific idea I keep scribbling. I think finding the right idea, or concept, is the most critical step in the design process. I’m a firm believer in pencils before pixels.

Phase 4: Mock it up

With sketches in hand I start bringing my favorite concept to life in Photoshop, or Illustrator. Depending on the project I may show the client some of my sketches to make sure we’re on the same page.

Fitts Architects Website Re-Design: Concept 1

The first concept I created for Fitts Architects strongly resembled their business card at the time. The header section shares the same logo placement and color scheme as their cards. My attempt to create consistency among their existing branding materials was rejected in the end.

After reviewing Concept 1 the client stressed how much they enjoyed the simplicity of the current website and wanted to see something in that direction. Happily trying to please the client, I presented Concept 2:

Fitts Architects Website Re-Design: Concept 2

Another meeting, another concept down. Concept 2 didn’t quite hit the mark either. They offered some more ideas, including the integration of a new gold-ish color into the design. I obliged and presented Concept 3:

Fitts Architects Website Re-Design: Concept 3

When this third concept failed to excite the client I got worried. Were they going to fire me? Not quite. The project continued but with some unexpected twists.

At the meeting to discuss the third concept pictured above, the client had literally built their own concept for what they thought the site should look like using construction paper and previous concepts I sent them. This was a first in my experience as a designer.

Client concept for

They wanted the logo bigger and suggested the use of some decorative colors and shapes in a kind of modern art/abstract way. Architects are fellow creatives, so I understand the urge to just show me what they wanted. Still, this was one of the more awkward moments of my career. Dutifully, I agreed to digitize their mock-up:

Fitts Architects Website Re-Design: Concept 4

While presenting their idea to them, I suggested they give me one more chance to take their design and add my own styling to it. They easily agreed and I breathed.

This time, I wasn’t holding back. I axed the color, and made the shapes more of a subtle accent than a feature. For the logo I recreated their metal sign. The photos are the main feature of the site so I didn’t want random design elements to compete visually. The work is what the client wanted to feature. This design would do that.

I felt good about Concept 5. I sent the email with the concept attached and hoped for the best.

Fitts Architects Website Re-Design: Concept 5

With a simple, “That looks great!” the design was approved.

After building the site with HTML, CSS, Javascript and WordPress, the new site was launched: Fitts Architects Website


Goodbye, office ninjas.

Office Ninjas

I was looking at the asphalt walking slowly to my car, thinking, “This is it. This is the end.”

I’m not dying. But, it’s true. I’m moving to a different company. Starting Monday morning I’ll be sipping coffee, about 15 minutes across town from the people I’ve worked with the last 3 1/2 years.

Good people.


Office life is an odd thing. After sitting next to the same group of people for most of your waking hours everyday, you become part of a community. Inside jokes, office enemies, team victories, Internet Explorer bugs; over time these experiences build a micro-culture. Different rooms have different auras. Each personality adds a unique flavor to the mix. No office is exactly the same.

Only those in the region around your desk belong to your tribe.

Outsiders are received with cynical squinted eyes. Sales people are watched with ninja laser beams. Only your eyes move, following them as they stroll gingerly past. Your heart sinks as they pause at your comrades desk.

“Be strong, my friend!”

But it’s too late. You can only watch in horror as they learn how the feature being requested has already been sold to the client.  Your fellow warrior is bleeding from the face.

You quickly send instant messages mocking the situation to ease their pain.

“… yeah, we’re gonna need this by the end of the day. Thanks! See ya later.”

More blood.

You resort to some hilarious tweets.

Your friend smirks.

Its working.

With a screech and a clank the gears of productivity jerk back on task.

Its battles like these that create soldier-like bonds between office mates.

Now I face the challenge of becoming part of a new tribe. Are they ninjas? Robots? Ninja-bots?

Whatever they are… I’m ready to fight.

Adventures Ideas Inspirations

What’s the best computer for graphic design: Mac or PC?

WARNING: This post contains completely biased opinion from a Mac user.  You may experience entertainment and a desire to purchase Apple products. If symptoms persist for more than 30 days, save your money and call your local Apple dealer.
Mac vs PC ad guys

Nick Elam, sent me a controversial question that inspired this post:

What kind of computer do you suggest for graphic design? Mac? PC?
My laptop is too slow to handle my graphic design work lately so I’m looking for a new computer. Lots of people say “go with a Mac”, but I could build a PC with a faster processor and better video card for a lot less. What do you think?

I’ll answer Nick’s question with pure opinion. I don’t feel the need to regurgitate a balanced Mac/PC debate. That’s been done, and that’s what links are for:

Quick summary: I use Macs.

  1. As a graphic designer, the tools you use daily will influence your work on some level.
  2. Apple is able to “design” the entire user experience of their products since they build the hardware and software themselves.
  3. If your budget is an issue, find a refurbished or used Mac. They hold their value extremely well. I bought a 2006 iMac 24″ as a family computer in 2009. After we replaced the video card in 2010,  it functions perfectly, even with the latest Mac OSX installed. It’s definitely not as swift as my 2011 Macbook Pro, but it get’s the job done.

Let me start by saying buy a Mac

Apple Mackbook Pro 15 inch early 2011
My current laptop 2011-2013

And let me follow that up by saying buy a Mac now. I don’t care if you can mine silicon, weld transistors, and engineer the motherboard yourself. Using a Mac is better than using a Windows PC for graphic design, like using a pencil is better than a rock and chisel for drawing portraits.

I’ll explain.

Space defines action

I believe your environment influences your work. As a designer it makes sense to use things that are well designed. Interacting with a well designed product actually teaches you how to design better.

User experience trumps hardware specs

Apple Vs Microsoft Switchboard
Now that Intel Macs can run both Windows and Mac OSX there is no need for other hardware. If you are only interested in comparing hertz and bytes, then there isn’t much difference between a Mac and a Windows PC. However, by only comparing hardware specs you’re missing the bigger picture. As a graphic designer your computer is your business partner. You will spend hours everyday interacting with this machine. Designing your latest masterpiece, communicating with clients, sending out invoices, getting lost in a Twitter/Facebook hole; all of this happens on this one device. That’s why I believe the software on your box is a little more important than the metallic bits inside.

This is where Macs move way ahead of PCs. The Mac operating system is an intuitive streamlined environment. It simplifies basic interactions, and doesn’t get in the way productivity. This efficiency will pay big dividends in the daily grind of being a graphic designer.

Modern Macs can do it all

I use a Mac for all computing purposes, except for the occasional website debugging that I have to do for Internet Explorer. Internet Explorer isn’t made for Macs anymore. This means I must traverse into the nether regions of darkness to find a cheeto-encrusted Windows-based PC to test my website. Even testing Internet Explorer bugs. I simply open Parallels and can swipe between Mac & Windows easily.

The necks of PC fanatics are thick with veins by now. I haven’t given a lot of statistics, references and bar charts to prove my theories. But as I said before, I’m simply voicing the opinion that’s been formed in me after years of working with both Macs and Windows-based computers.

I choose mac. What do you use?

UPDATE! Windows 8 is a game changer and definitely put the Microsoft Windows' UI in a better place. Definitely check it out, use it, learn from it. But as of 2013, I'm still leaning Mac. After a few iterations on some of Microsoft's new concepts in Windows 8, I may be singing a different tune.
Adventures Ideas

Why freelancers should use digital contracts with esignatures


Word of mouth agreements are too risky

There is no reason to waste time and money by running your business on word-of-mouth agreements. The risk is too high, and the cost of integrating contracts into your business is getting lower everyday. I use a simple PDF e-signature contract that is sent to the client through email using a service called EchoSign. This allows the client to sign digitally. They can sign online, with their iPhone, with a fax, or whatever they want. It’s a really cool service that is becoming part of the way I do business. Here are four reasons to use digital contracts with esignatures…

  1. Save yourself
  2. Save time
  3. Save the world
  4. Save money

1. Save yourself.

I’ve noticed something mysterious  about projects without a written outline that both parties agree on. They always seem to go way beyond the scope of the original project. In my experience in the corporate world and as a freelancer I’ve discovered that some form of written agreement is critical to the success of any business. I’ve cringed while projects at the corporate office go waaaaaaaaaaaay beyond scope, I’ve slapped myself as the victim of “scope creep” in my early days as a freelancer, and I’ve cried with my designer friends as sly businessmen weasel out of paying for their work.

To protect myself from the evils of miscommunication I’ve set a new standard for my business: If someone is not willing to sign a contract then I will not work with them. The only exception is for existing clients who have a history of being honest and dependable. If I’m working with someone for the first time, I’ll be sending them a contract. I recently lost a job because a potential client didn’t want to sign. No problem. I don’t want to work with them. Actually… “Thank you, potential client, for filtering yourself from my work life. There is no telling how many hours I would have lost by working with you. Please excuse me while I attend to profitable clients who sign contracts and pay on time.”

2. Save time.

The internet is fast. Use that to your advantage in business. Why wait for the client to send contract papers back to you when you could have it in your inbox in seconds? Your time is precious. Especially if your billing hourly.

3. Save the world.

That’s right. Signing your contracts digitally saves paper, gasoline, ink and everything else involved in getting a paper document to and from your client. By the way, paper comes from those tall green and brown leafy things that filter CO2 and produce the oxygen I’ve become so fond of. I mean I don’t know about you, but I breathe the stuff daily.

4. Save Money.

The 3 reasons listed above all boil down to saving you money. Less time working with bad clients means more time pursuing your ideal client. Less time waiting on contracts to be delivered, signed, and sent back means more time for billable work. Less money spent on paper, gas, and postage means more money to grow your business.


My current contract is based on a template I found here.

A contract doesn’t have to be complicated. Check out Brian Hoff’s simple post about What to include in Your Design Contract.


I loved EchoSign so much, I recently partnered with them so that I can resell their service to my clients. They rock.  Clicking the EchoSign links in the article to sign up will help me earn a small commission from EchoSign. Never worry about scope creep again.