Estimates can be really challenging to put together. There are so many variables that go into creating an estimate, and most of them are unknown, particularly when working with a new client.

To start, I have to estimate my own time on a project. At best, I have similar projects to draw from. At worst, I just have to make some educated guesses and hope I’m in the ballpark. This isn’t an exact science—I can’t account for getting stuck on a particularly challenging problem. I can build in a small buffer for that, but too large and I scare off potential clients.

Let’s say that I’m pretty accurate with estimating my time. Here’s where it gets tricky—I can never estimate how many rounds of revisions a client will want, how much important information they will forget to tell me at the beginning, or how much time I’ll spend going back and forth over email (or on dreaded conference calls). Some clients are great at outlining what they’re looking for, are super prepared for the project, and the whole thing goes really smoothly. Some clients struggle with this (for whatever reason—too busy, too many stakeholders, inexperience, etc). Some clients like to bounce a lot of ideas back and forth, which means I spend a lot of extra time “trying things”, or explaining why their idea won’t work.

This is how estimates get annihilated. Bit by bit. A combination of scope creep, over-communication, tons of revisions, and “what ifs”. And then to make it more difficult, I have to decide when and how often to communicate these kind of overages with a client. Sometimes I feel like a broken record—”Yes, we can do that, but it will incur additional hours”, followed by “Yes yes, that’s fine.” It’s a delicate balance, because I don’t want it to seem like I’m always saying no to requests, but I also can’t be sure that a client is consciously tallying up all of these additional requests—it’s easy to forget one thing here and another thing there and suddenly there’s an extra 5 hours tacked onto the invoice.

It’s important to remember that estimates have no time-traveling capabilities. Estimates are guesses. They’re only as good as the information I have, and since I’m not psychic, you have to assume that there’s always a margin for error on an estimate. Even if everything goes exactly as planned, I can still easily be too high or too low on my estimate. It’s difficult to estimate how long a creative process will take, because the number of solutions is infinite. Sometimes the best solution comes quickly, and sometimes it doesn’t, no matter how much experience you have. Every design presents new challenges and I have to take them as they go.