How to manage scope creep in your design projects

by | Jun 24, 2022 | Finance Tips, Project Management

We’ve all had the client that just thought of a ‘tiny little thing’ they’d like you to add to their project. But that turned into two. Which turned into seventeen…Say hello to scope creep!

If you’ve been a creative freelancer for even a second, I’m sure you’re more than familiar with it. It’s when changes to a project get slowly added in that weren’t previously agreed upon. The effects of scope creep can cause projects to run over time and over budget, not to mention damage client relationships.

I learnt about the stress of scope creep the hard way. From dealing with late-night and last-minute requests to getting feedback from multiple stakeholders that I had to compare and clarify, I know all too well that ‘one small change’ can create a lot more work.

Scope creep is unfortunately an issue that many of us aren’t prepared to raise with our clients. Which is why the best way to manage it, is to simply avoid it. To help save you some of the misery, I want to share my tried and tested ways to prevent scope creep before it raises its ugly head…

Talk through your project process in your initial discovery call

Because a lot of clients aren’t familiar with the design process, I recommend taking the time to explain it in the discovery call. When people are in unfamiliar territory, they often attempt to take control or might unknowingly become a needy client because they don’t know what comes next. Explaining your design process not only demonstrates you are the expert but it sets expectations for the project and puts you in the driver’s seat!

Be super clear in your proposal

How can you keep your design project within its scope, if you don’t know what’s included in the first place? To stop scope creep in its tracks you need clearly defined and agreed-upon inclusions in your proposal. Some things you can consider include:

  • How many revisions are included?
  • What file formats will you provide?
  • Will the client have access to your design working files?
  • Do you include review meetings? How many? How long will they be?
  • Do you source the images? How many images? Who pays for the licensing of these images?

Ok… you get the point! Put simply, the devil is in the detail. If something isn’t included, but may be added on (for example, additional rounds of changes). As a bonus, it’s also a chance for you to upsell other services you might provide and stops you having to overthink what to charge for the extra stuff.

Set your boundaries early on

An effective way to outline your boundaries in your proposal is by including a ‘Working with me’ section. This can include everything from how you communicate to specifying the days of the week you work. You can also outline what you expect from your client (for example, adhering to the project schedule or only dealing with one primary contact). Setting clear expectations helps build trust with your client AND protects yourself at the same time. Win-win! And since it’s in writing (and they’ve agreed to your proposal), the next time a client tries to text you at 11pm on a Friday night, you can politely refer them back to how you work on Monday morning after a coffee.

Get organised

Knowing where to find the latest information (and be able to grab it quickly) will help you identify when scope creep is starting to surface. Whether you use project management software like Asana, Dubsado or Plutio, or simply keep track of it in a spreadsheet or in your filing system, make sure you have a way to keep track of iterations and client requests.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!

There’s no such thing as over-communicating! Active listening, setting meetings when necessary (if they are included of course) and asking for specific feedback are all vital pieces of effective communication that can help you ensure your projects run smoothly. A few things I do to ensure an open line of communicate include:

  • Get the client to physically sign off each project phase. This ensures they understand the repercussions of further changes once the project moves to the next stage.
  • Remind them where they are in the project every time I send across a design concept or iteration. I always include how many changes they have left, when I need to hear back from them to adhere to our timelines and how I would like to receive feedback.

What do I do if my project ‘creeps’?

Nip it in the bud! If a client is requesting something that is out of scope I write back with a:

‘No problem! Just to let you know, we didn’t include ‘x’ in our proposal. To add this into our scope will cost an additional $xx / be charged at my hourly rate of xx. Can you let me know if that’s ok before I proceed?’ 

At the end of the day, things change and even the most meticulously planned design projects sometimes don’t go to plan. If these moments aren’t handled properly, scope creep can come in and obliterate budgets, kill collaboration and leave you feeling anxious and resentful. While we all want to please our clients, it’s our responsibility as designers to manage them and our projects. Yes, there are clients that are assholes, but most of them don’t realise that their project is ‘creeping’. If we keep them aware of the boundaries early on, everyone knows as soon as they’re asking extra!


Brand Proposal Mockup

You can handle scope creep professionally and smoothly like the prepared and confident freelancer you are with my proposal template.

Sarah Linklater

Hello! I’m a graphic designer from Melbourne, Australia, and I’ve been operating a graphic and web design business called Slinky Did It for the past 10 years. I started Designer Admin because I noticed that while there is a whole lotta very talented designers in our industry, the admin side of the business isn’t everyone’s forte. After all, we didn’t become designers because we were good at writing invoices and managing clients! I strongly believe that if you have strong business foundations in place, your projects will run more smoothly and you will have more time and headspace to focus on the creative side of your business. So... let's admin!