For the past several years you’ve known them as Wade Jeffree and Leta Sobierajski, two graphic designers and art directors with solid independent practices who often collaborate on projects, but not always; who share a studio space and apartment in Brooklyn. And, oh yeah, they’re married. The longer they’ve been together, the more their work overlaps with one another’s, and with the rest of their lives, too. Follow them on Instagram, and it’s hard to tell where their design work stops and their personal lives start. If you’re confused, imagine how their clients might feel.
Their new studio, Wade + Leta, officially puts their freelance days behind them and clarifies their working relationship. But this isn’t just a branding exercise or an excuse to churn out a new logo. In fact, I don’t think they have one (gasp!), just a cool new site (designed by Sons & Co.). But websites and name changes aside, Jeffree and Sobierajski have taken this moment to up their game in a major way: they’ve hired a business manager, and it’s made all the difference.
“It feels a lot more streamlined now,” says Sobierajski, “where before I feel like we were kind of flailing until we got to the actual execution of the project. There’s an overall calmness and feeling of confidence… that we can secure a project or find a way to work with any kind of client.”
While running the business side of things was never Jeffree and Sobierajski’s favorite part of being designers, it was clear to them both that it was more than just a pain—something wasn’t clicking and it was becoming a real problem. They had no shortage of incoming projects and exciting offers, but it was always that first client dance, when you share your proposal and discuss rates and terms, that kept tripping them up. Just because their work feels easy, breezy, and bright, doesn’t mean the process of getting those jobs, locking in the contracts, and getting paid fairly was. It’s a problem for most small design shops run by people engaged full-time in the creative work, not business operations. But at some point, issues around pitching, proposals, timelines, budgets, contracts, and usage rights grew too large for Jeffree and Sobierajski to ignore. That’s when they called in Dan Cingari and everything changed. Sigh. If only every designer had a Dan.
Cingari met Jeffree and Sobierajski on a project at the game design studio, Dots, where he worked as the director of brands after a long stint as a creative producer for artistic director Nicola Formichetti. Cingari now works independently with a roster of clients, from designers and art directors to large fashion brands. All of which is to say, he understands the many complexities that go into any creative project, from the brand side, the agency side, and crucially, from the artist side.
“He knows all the right questions to ask,” says Jeffree. “He knows that if a client asks for X, that means we need to factor in Y. And [Sobierajski] and I don’t have to get involved. Before working with [Cingari], we’d get excited about a project, accept the rate [the client] would toss out, and then somehow during our subsequent conversations that rate would get smaller and smaller, but by then it would be too late we’d just want to finish the job.” Cingari understands that “creatives get excited when people approach them and they like their work. They see it as an opportunity to do a cool job, and they may jump at a fee assuming that they can make it work.” His job is to step in very early on, lay down some ground rules, and make sure the work and the fee match up.
“People in this business will draw blood from a stone.”
After years working at large creative agencies, Cingari sees the set up at Wade + Leta, which is to say a very lean, two-person team, as the future that will replace the old, bloated agency model. The typical structure at an agency—with a design team, ECDs, CMOs, and COOs, who have to hire out photographers and directors and producers on top of everything else—“is just a crazy hierarchy of people,” Cingari says. Not only do most brands not have the budgets to pay for that kind of overhead anymore, but there’s no reason for them to. “With the technology and resources we have today, skilled designers can do the full gamut for a brand, from identity through to execution.” Plus, Cingari points out, the more layers you add to the process, the more distance you put between the original creative team and the work. “There’s a purity there that gets lost.”
While Wade + Leta don’t have aspirations to staff up and become a huge agency, they’re at an important juncture where they’re doing bigger and bigger jobs that require more than just two people to execute, and they have to be able to outsource talent quickly and efficiently. To that end, Cingari has helped them establish a core network of trusted people who they can turn to when they need a coder, or website designer, or photographer, or any number of specialized skills. It also means they have to hand off some of the manual labor they used to do themselves, like prop making, to people who may be less familiar with the materials they’ve grown so accustomed to working with over the past several years. As any designer knows, ceding control is both a blessing and a curse, but the payoff is worth it. “I think we’re able to move sort of amoeba-like,” says Sobierajski, “in which we contract and expand depending upon whatever the challenge is and whatever the brief requires.”
“Just like you, clients love having everything spelled out in black-and-white. Leave any gray areas in your proposal, and that’s where you’re likely to get screwed.”
How they manage that expansion and contraction is something Cingari very much has a handle on. Until you get a Dan of your own, there are some basic rules of engagement you should abide by in order to get paid fairly and get the work done on time and to everyone’s expectations.
Establish a day rate—never an hourly rate. Because any given project will likely include different types of work, you need different day rates for each: design, art direction, photography, set design, illustration, etc. as well as a rate for image usage, which will depend on the scope of the project (the number of images you’re making and the number of platforms they’ll appear on). It’s worth noting that your design day rate is not just for the time you spend putting stylus to tablet, but for the time you spend on your initial creative concepting, exploring ideas, moodboarding, and everything that goes into coming up with the ideas that you’ll present to the client.
One of the very first things Cingari did was raise the studio rates for Wade + Leta to current market rates. It was a sizeable bump. Jeffree and Sobierajski aren’t new to the game, but like so many designers they were operating in the dark when it came to putting a price tag on their work. Setting your base rate is a simple, protective measure, and the clearest way to indicate the value of your time and expertise to a client. “People in this business will draw blood from a stone,” Cingari says. “If you don’t know the market rates, people will take advantage of you.” Unfortunately, those market rates aren’t published online or made publicly available (something that would change if there was a designers union, just saying…), and finding them out is “nearly impossible,” says Cingari. “Agencies protect that information so carefully, because that’s how they make money.”
If the scope is big enough, you can negotiate a package rate, but make sure each deliverable or fee is itemized so that if a client asks for something additional later on, you can point back to the contract they signed that states you’re agreed upon rates. “I call it metering expectations,” says Cingari. It’s great for those moments in a project when the client asks for another round of revisions or wants to “do some video.” You can point to the day rates in your contract and say: sure thing, that’ll be another $10,000. None of this needs to get contentious if you lay out the foundation of a working relationship at the start.
Establish a timeline, including the rounds of revisions. This should be a specific number, not a range. State the minimum amount of time different tasks will take you to complete. While designers are good at working within constraints, they often have a really hard time setting parameters when it comes to dealing with clients. Also, it can be tricky for the person hired for the creative work to also face off with a client around contract negotiations. That’s why having someone like Cingari looking out for your best interests can be a game changer. But if you’re still managing the business side of things on your own, know that just like you, clients love having everything spelled out in black-and-white. Leave any gray areas in your proposal, and that’s where you’re likely to get screwed.
When you know how long your process takes, you’re in a better place to negotiate if your budget is coming in a little high. For Wade + Leta, their design process is pretty much set. For example, if they don’t build in the time to concept and meticulously sketch out every single shot, as well as variations on each shot, they know they’re not going to be able to do their best work on a job. But the client also gets to see what the finished result will look like ahead of time—it’s a win-win. Where they can negotiate is on things like photography and production, jobs that involve variables that can scale up or down (the number of days on set, the size of the crew that’s needed, fabrication, cost of materials and labor, etc.).
Some rules about requests for proposals (RFPs):
One area that continues to trip up designers is the RFP. You can spend a lot of time on a proposal, only to lose the job to another designer. While you can’t guarantee the outcomes, there are some steps you can take to make the process a little less painful.
First, you might not know this, but it’s the responsibility of the client to tell you how many people you’re bidding against: single-bid, double-bid, or triple-bid. If it’s a triple-bid, ask for an RFP fee. They might say no, but they might also say yes. If it’s more than a triple-bid, you should strongly consider refusing. When there are that many cooks in the kitchen, there’s a chance that the creative in your proposal will get shared around, signed off on, and then commissioned to someone else (maybe someone who’s less expensive).
There are steps you can take to safeguard against having your ideas stolen, like putting a copyright mark on each page of your proposal and only sending it over after you get a signed NDA. But even then, an agency can still alter your work by as little as 20% and be in the clear, legally speaking. If you feel uneasy about a client, ask around. The whisper network of bad actors in this industry is strong, and chances are someone can give you an unbiased referral. Or you can save yourself the heartache and get yourself a Dan.