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Set milestones and eliminate stress in the design process

Table of ContentsUpdated Sep 27, 2010

When I first started working for myself, one of the hardest things for me to do was finish a design project in the amount of time that I had anticipated. Projects that I hoped to finish in a week, took 3 weeks, those that I hoped to finish in a month, took a few months. And it wasn’t necessarily my fault. Actually, it wasn’t really the client’s fault either. The problem was, we hadn’t sat down to set milestones for our project, so there was no timeline. Technically, we weren’t “falling behind” on a project because there was no definite point we were supposed reach at any given point.

It was chaos.

What I would like to suggest to all designers is that you set milestones with your clients so that you can finish your projects on time. This article will discuss what milestones are, offer suggestions on setting reasonable and effective milestones with your clients, explain what to do when you don’t reach your milestones on time, and more. It’s going to be fun so hang in there.

Mille Bornes

When I was in high school (secondary school), I took a French class and we played a popular French card game called Mille Bornes (pronounced meel born, if my french education serves me correctly). The game consisted of gathering the correct cards in order to reach a certain point score. The first one to reach 700 miles was the winner, but the game consisted of plenty of roadbumps, road hazards, speed limits, stop lights, etc. that makes it difficult to reach your goal as quickly as you hope.

Such is the life of a designer who sets milestones. You have a particular goal and a timeline in which you’d like to reach that goal. But then road blocks and bumps get in the way. Maybe your client forgets to provide you with content, perhaps your computer crashes or your client goes on vacation. Whatever the cause, sometimes we don’t always finish our projects on time.

But milestones are vital in any design project because they give you a point of reference. They allow you and your client to understand where you are, how much longer the project should take, what needs done, and when it should happen. Milestones are a definite must for effective communication between designers and clients.

When to set milestones with your client

After you have had a preliminary meeting with your client, you have both signed any necessary paperwork, and you are ready to get moving on the project, sit down together and establish milestones. Talk about when you will meet (whether weekly, monthly, etc.), when you will complete certain responsabilities (when the client will provide content for a site, when you will provide proofs for a logo, etc.) and then mark them on a calendar together. I like to use Google Calendars, because you can give your client access to Google Calendars and each of you can update information on the calendar.

More often than not, your clients will appreciate the extra “mile” (pun intended) you go when setting milestones with them. They will appreciate the organization, responsibility, and professionalism that you demonstrate by setting achievable goals and identifying ways to work toward them. Review your milestones frequently with your clients to make sure the project is on schedule.

Seeing the bigger picture

Setting milestones also gives your client an opportunity to see the big picture. I have had many clients who, after weeks of not answering my phone calls, not providing me with feedback or other necessities, finally call and say something like “Now that we know what we need, let’s try to get this done within the next week or so.” Many times I have to explain that a week to get an entire site online just isn’t feasible and they end up disappointed.


90% of client problems could be solved if designers would establish solid milestones with their clients.tweet this

When I set milestones, they understand that, if they do their part, a particular project will take a certain number of months. This way the see the bigger picture from the beginning and don’t end up frustrated, confused, or angry when the site isn’t live, the printed materials aren’t finished, or the log isn’t designed. 90% of client problems and miscommunication could be solved if designers would establish solid milestones with their clients.

Stick to your milestones, but if not, adapt

In a perfect world, both you and your client will always get things done according to schedule, but, just like in the card game referred to earlier, there will always be setbacks. Sometimes these setbacks may make you miss a deadline or fall short of a milestone. In such a situation, don’t panic. Don’t despair. Don’t lose hope. Just adapt. Be quick to adapt by contacting your client about the missed deadline and setting another deadline. Remember to keep it  realistic. If you haven’t completed a major portion of the project and you move the milestone to tomorrow, it’s likely you’ll fail again.

Your turn to talk. What do you think about milestones?

The day I realized that I needed to start working with my clients to establish solid milestones was a complete business-changing decision for me. Have you had any similar experiences in using milestones, goals, or whatever nomenclature you choose to employ? Let us all know what you do to make sure your design projects get finished on time by leaving a comment on this article.

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Written by Preston Lee

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Preston Lee is the founder of Millo where he and his team have been helping freelancers thrive for over a decade. His advice has been featured by Entrepreneur, Inc, Forbes, Adobe, and many more.

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  1. I perfectly agree with you. Setting milestones helps you organize your time and considerably increase the chances to get your work done as scheduled, not only in the design area, but in any activity field. It helps you seeing the big picture and also seeing each item of the picture and the order in which items must be completed. Very important is to stick to deadlines.

  2. I really think it’s huge to set Milestones with clients too. More often than not my clients miss deadlines, but at least they can see why there project is later than initially discussed.

    (One thing I love about my project management system Basecamp is that it let’s you push all remaining milestones back at once. So if one milestone gets missed by 3 days it’s easy to push all subsequent deadlines back 3 days.)

  3. wordpress designer says:

    I also vote setting milestones added i give myself challenge to complete milestones.

  4. I like setting up milestones. However both parties have to stick to their responsibilities. Also certain additional work, features etc.. comes up in the middle of work, aside from other interruptions personal or business related that will deter reaching milestones.

    I tend to set completion date and many time I have delivered earlier because of my work schedule and my client playing their part of delivering their content on time.

  5. Shawn Johnston says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Ever since 3 or 4 years ago when I started establishing clear milestones and deliverables as part of the project planning with clients, many of the miscues, dropped balls and communication gaps disappeared.

    About 2 years ago I started using Basecamp for all my client work and with the Milestone and To-Do Lists built in it helped me solidify that process even further.

    The process runs the project, not he client, I always say! 🙂

  6. For smaller jobs I have just 2 milestones: the mockup design and then the coded template. For something bigger, I go with more. It’s indeed important to set these, even if most of the time my clients are interested only in the delivery date. I found out I can work better and less stressed out if I have some milestones for myself. This way I don’t miss deadlines and I don’t have days when I cannot sleep from all the work I need to do.

  7. Josh Rucker says:

    Absolutely. Clients want to know when they can see what. For the most part, they are excited to see progress. Let them know from the beginning and you will likely have a better working relationship with that client.

  8. Paul Galbraith says:

    I really enjoyed this article Preston. It’s so easy for projects to overrun when only a deadline has been set without any milestones. And as you said, it’s good for clients to know how long each part of a project should take for their own understanding. That way they are far less likely to make requests, that seem unreasonable to us, but aren’t to them because they had no idea how long it should take in the first place.