Real jobs have deadlines.
As a designer, I hear "As Soon As Possible" an awful lot. Most people are shocked to learn that ASAP is actually my lowest priority. Jobs with concrete deadlines are always in line ahead of jobs with no real deadline.
Understanding why the client needs something ASAP is the first step in understanding whether you are dealing with a crisis or a "crisis." There are a couple of reasons why clients avoid giving you a real deadline:
When can you get it to me? If the client is asking you to set a deadline, the project probably doesn't have a firm due date. It likely needs to be done quickly, but they don't want to look stupid and throw out a date that is impossible. Or they are hesitant to suggest a date that is too far out in the future. So they throw it back to you. In that case, sit down and start developing a schedule that works for everyone. If they need it faster, they'll let you know in the process of setting the timeline.
Everything is a rush! For some clients, everything is a rush. Every email is marked high priority. So don't overreact and rush into the project. Ask for a specific timeline. This is client's normal operating procedure so stick to yours. If it's a real rush, they will tell you.
It's going to take forever! Some clients have no idea how long a project is going to take. So they are anxious to get started. Asking for a deadline will diagnose that immediately. I once had a client call in a panic and rushed over to meet them only to find out that we had four months to complete a simple poster series. Crisis averted.
My boss wants it now! Sometimes, the client is panicked because their boss is on their back. They may not even know when the project is really needed. Work with them to set a schedule to share with their manager. Have them confirm the schedule will meet the manager's needs and get back to you. 99% of the time, the manager will be fine with the schedule.
I need it yesterday! Some clients ask for the world. And the ability to travel back in time. Setting a timeline is important here, but so are problem solving skills. I've seen clients ask for 50,000 brochures on a very short turn, only to find out it was because they needed 1,000 for a trade show. (We ran the 1,000. Then ran the larger print run later.) The clients are typically panicked and aren't thinking straight. By focusing on the timeline, you can help them figure out what they really need and give them the best solution for their problem.
Sometimes, the client really is asking for the impossible. Tell them. But here's the key, after you tell them that you can't meet their deadline, tell them what you can do for them.
Oops! Sometimes the client makes a mistake and forgets to make a request or communicate a deadline. And this is where you can play the hero. Set a timeline for how to get them what they need and do your best to help them out.
Designers drop the ball sometimes, too. If it's your fault, apologize and own the mistake. Then, move heaven and earth to make it right.
In every single one of these scenarios, communication is key. Be up front about the schedule, challenges and costs. Remember that the client is often under a lot of pressure and may not be thinking straight. Most importantly, don't take the ASAP request personally. Just view it as what it is... an opportunity to save the day and build a better relationship with your client.
Bob Wertz writes about design, technology and pop culture at Sketchbook B. Bob is a Columbia, South Carolina-based designer, creative director, college instructor, husband and dad. He’s particularly obsessed with typography, the creative process and the tools we use to create. In his spare time, he writes blog posts and then refines them for over three years before publishing them. Follow Bob on Twitter and Instagram.