Learning how to place boundaries it's the professional way to set the conditions for a healthy relationship between you and the client. Most of the problems when working on a project are born from bad communication between the 2 parts. Learn your limits -and your client's- and work together for success.

I still remember how excited I was when I landed my first freelance client. I was over the moon that I was going to get paid for what I knew I was good at, even though I wasn’t that experienced!

The project was to create a packaging system for a gourmet food product for a market I was not familiarised with, so the challenge got me all pumped up. And I wanted to prove I was the right designer for this: not only I was going to deliver and outstanding result, I also wanted to reciprocate the trust I felt the client placed in me when he hired me for the job.

I was really prepared to go above and beyond… and boy, did that backfired.

You see, sometimes what YOU think is over-delivering, doesn’t match what the client thinks you should do. Client-Designer relationships are pretty much like any human relationship in general: communication is key if you want it to be healthy or in this case, a successful professional relationship.

At the time I didn’t even know that professional boundaries were something I could place, and how much good they were going to be for my business.

And to be honest… I was scared shitless that I was going to be perceived as rude or inadequate as a freelancer for nor complying with my client’s demands.

This of course, ended up in me working way outside office hours, during weekends, answering emails at odd hours, and basically being at the beck and call of my client.

I started resenting the project, and the person that had hired me.

But the truth is… it was all my fault. I wasn’t placing boundaries and playing my role in this whole ordeal.

How to set boundaries

Boundaries are the limits of the client-professional relationship. They set up the stage on how you want to be treated, and how you are going to behave regarding your client.

These limits are also KEY for a successful project. I cannot emphasise that enough: nurture your communication skills if you want to be treated as a real professional.

Setting boundaries means that is up to YOU to allow -or not- certain treatments. Stop blaming the client and take responsibility.

Knowing your boundaries

The first step is, obviously, to know what your limits are. Nobody works the same way, so don’t be surprised if your boundaries are not the same as your peers.

Some questions you can make yourself to start defining your limits:

  • Do you have working hours?
  • Do you work on weekends?
  • Do you communicate with your client through e-mail, phone, text messages?
  • Do you respond immediately, in 24 hours, a week?
  • Do you do revisions? How many?
  • Do you require certain type of feedback?
  • Do you work with milestones?
  • How do you get payments?
  • Do you offer support?
  • And a long etc.

You also need to know why you are setting this boundaries. It may be because you just want to work a certain way, or because there is another reason behind them, like having dinner with your family or turning off your cellphone during meetings.

Knowing this will allow you to communicate them better, and make it easier for you to hold yourself accountable for placing them.

But what if the world is ending?

Which is something that many clients seem to think happens on a daily basis. It doesn’t end with knowing your boundaries: you also need to know which ones are flexible and when you can make an exception.

I can recall several occasions when I had to work during weekends because of circumstances on the client’s end. Working weekends is usually one of my no-no boundaries, so unless it’s my fault, this limit also comes with a price tag for when this particular situations happen.

How to communicate boundaries

Let me get this straight: as far as I know, nobody reads minds. Your client can’t know your boundaries unless you effectively communicate them.

Not thinking.

Not hinting.

No subtle indirects that you don’t answer emails at 4am.

You need to be very clear about them because it’s your responsibility to set them in place. This doesn’t mean you have to be rude, just firm. And if you can get them in writing (hello contracts!) all the better.

When to set boundaries

Boundaries are best set before they are violated. Personally, I start setting them during the screening process and reinforce them before signing the contract. I believe this works best because you are in the negotiating phase, so the client is more open to listen to your limits instead of you trying to set them after the beginning of the project.

I also repeat them in my welcome package, and have them outlined in my website. As you can see, I take full responsibility on letting the client or potential client know how I run the show and how that benefits them.

Be Positive

The word ‘limits’ can put your client in alert. And I get it: there’s a lot to say about control in a client-professional relationship.

So how can you overcome the negative perception of placing boundaries?

You communicate them through their benefits instead of their hard limits.

Is not the same to say: “I only reply to email from 9am to 12pm’ than going with ‘Your project is very important for me, and I want to design the best result for you. That’s why I have set aside my mornings to exclusively develop the solution for you without any distractions, and that includes email. That’s why I don’t check my inbox from 9am to 12pm. This ensures that your project will have my attention 100%!”

The benefit approach has positive connotations and doesn’t put you in a place where it seems more like a tug-of-war between what works for you, and what works for the client.

Learn the Client’s boundaries

Remember that the point here is to establish a healthy relationship, not just making yourself comfortable. And as in any relationship, there are 2 sides.

Learning what your client’s boundaries are and come to an agreement on how to work together is the secret not only for a successful project, but to also have someone who will refer you to others once the job its finished.

Ask the client if he or she has any policies you should know about, if there’s a specific time for communicating with them, and most importantly: ask about the expectations for the project and the professional relationship you are trying to create.

How many times clients complain about ‘bad designers’? Pay attention to their previous experiences, and learn what really went wrong. Were the designers really that bad, or was it all a result of bad communication between both sides?

How to make Boundaries work

Place and communicate your limits is a very important first step. But it doesn’t end there, my friend.

If you want your client to respect them, you first need to do so yourself.

I’ll say it again: it’s your responsibility, not your client’s.

Boundaries are a 2-way street: if you don’t take calls after 5pm, then don’t call your client after that hour.

Boundaries as Company policies

Stating limits is incredibly important in a working relationship. Don’t stress about being rude. The truth is that it makes you look like a professional who has the client’s best interest in mind.

Having a working plan will let you plan ahead for meeting deadlines, and respect your mental health. Nobody works best if they don’t enjoy the project, or who is it for.

Your boundaries should become business standards. Learn why you place them and respect them

What boundaries do you think can be most beneficial for you and your clients? Share them in the comments!