(For the purpose of this article, I will refer to the business/provider as the designer, and the customer as the client. For Part I, I will address things the client needs to know. Part II will discuss what the designer needs to know.)
First, why choose custom work?
-As a client, custom work means getting a product that is especially designed for your needs - whether it's a unique design (such as a logo), a portrait, song, or special work of art, clothing made especially to fit you. There's a thrill to have something made especially for you, that very few or no one else will have anything quite like it.
What to know as client:
-Choosing a Designer: Look for someone whose work/portfolio both appeals to you and is in alignment with your project. It's important that your project and the designer are a good fit. If you're looking at getting a full color logo digitally made, but your chosen artist does only black and white work drawn by hand, that's not going to work well. Likewise a designer who makes clothing specifically for large men might have a difficult time making a dress that fits properly for a petite woman. Also, if they do indeed tell you they don't do what you're looking for - don't take it personally. A good designer knows what they are capable of, and what they are not. Similarly, if a designer's portfolio doesn't reflect the kind of project you are looking for, but they say they have done that sort of work before, ask to see it/hear it/reference their client. Also, be sure to look for reviews or get feedback from other clients.
-Are you compatible? A custom order is indeed a kind of relationship, so it's important to feel you are able to communicate effectively with the designer. If you don't feel comfortable or understood, don't go there, no matter how much another friend or famous person may say they're awesome. Trust your gut! I have seen plenty of folks who have made names for themselves by getting their work seen/used by someone famous. Little does the "regular" person know that some designers often give away or sell their work at a discount so that it can be seen...then the famous person or friend wears it once or twice (if that's as long as it holds up) and boom they have a reputation.
-Pricing: Custom work can be expensive, and it can take a while, depending on the designer's schedule. First peruse their regularly available work and consider if the price matches the quality of the work. Many designers charge more for custom work, because it can take more time and investment of materials on their part to create your project. So expect to pay generally 10-30% more depending on what you're looking for, make an investment upfront, and for it to take some time for the project to be completed. Similarly, if a price seems too good to be true, it usually is.
-Time: And ah yes, timing. Deadlines are important, for both parties. Very rarely will you be the only client a designer has - and orders are typically addressed accordingly to access to materials, order dates, and other details. Work that is done by hand definitely takes longer to be done right, so exercise patience and listen to projected dates when discussed. If you are in a rush, let the designer know that before you place an order, and if they say they can't do it, don't push them. I would also suggest adding a 1-2 week buffer for your deadline. Confirm in writing or in a contract when the project needs to be done/delivered. If you say "oh no rush" or "whenever you feel like it" - some designers take that as a cue to keep pushing your order off when someone else has something more pressing. Or that you're not serious about your project. Yes, I know you're trying to be supportive and polite, but it's better to be specific.
Here I would like to take a moment to talk about the almighty triangle of cost, quality, and time. I first heard it when I worked in a high end frame shop and it applies to all custom projects. Out of those three terms, you could only choose 2 out of the 3 at any time:
Time + Cost = A project done quickly and inexpensively, but the Quality will be lackluster.
Quality + Time = A fantastic project delivered quickly, but it will Cost you more.
Cost + Quality = Great work at a reasonable cost, but will take a longer Time to finish.
Now that you've chosen a designer, and begun to work out the details, let's look at getting down to manifesting that project successfully:
-Follow directions carefully. Read all instructions, contracts, etc, carefully and repeatedly. Make sure you understand them and what is needed from you to get started. If not, then ask questions!
-If you need help with determining size, color, etc - then get it. Don't wing it - you will only be disappointed, and have only yourself to blame if you give the designer the wrong information in the first place.
-Get ALL the requested information to your designer in a timely manner, in order to meet your deadline. If you have a troupe of 12 dancers getting custom tops, and you only give the designer 10 of those sizes up front, and then 4 weeks later send along the other 2...and expect it all done in 5 weeks total, it ain't happening. Anything that involves physical materials and multiple steps - a designer MUST HAVE that information up front before starting. "I think they're a small" won't cut it, especially if you come back with a medium and a large. The designer needs to know how much material to buy (determined by the sizes), and then will cut all the pieces in one stage, then sew all the pieces together in the next, then embellish all the pieces, etc. Rarely with such an order will a designer make one piece at a time for a large order. It's a poor use of time and energy.
-Be sure to get all of the details in writing. Many designers will have a contract for you to look over and sign - which protects BOTH parties. If there isn't some sort of project order or contract, then compile an email that you both agree to all of the details on. "I'll remember what we talked about (6 weeks from now)" isn't the best way to do business!
-Material Girls....When dealing with multiple orders/troupes, it's important to realize that a designer calculates how much fabric/materials are needed by the sizing, and typically work in steps....all the pieces cut, then sewn, then embellished...so providing two troupe member's sizes 3 weeks after placing the initial order...is typically pushing your order back 3 weeks. The delay is your fault, not the designer's. Likewise, if the project relies on you sending materials, do so promptly and be sure to follow up with the designer that they have received it. If there is going to be leftover material, outline whether the designer should keep it or send it back to you.
-Expect to pay a deposit UP FRONT. Personally, my project deposits are typically 50% of the total cost upfront. As a designer it means that my client is serious about their project, understands the terms/contract, and I have the means to invest in any necessary materials for the project. Other designers may charge another percentage or a flat amount for a deposit. The client pays the remaining balance when the project is ready to be delivered. Also note, additional changes may cost you more (again, read the details), and shipping or tax may not be included in the initial project total. Be sure to work these details out in advance so you're not surprised. I also would recommend exercising extreme caution regarding anyone who asks you for the full amount up front. Consider the balance as an incentive. If for any reason YOU decide to cancel the project or can't pay for it after it has been started/contracts signed, then expect to lose your deposit. It's only fair for the work the designer has put in. Similarly, if a designer fails to work on a project or deliver it within the time discussed, they risk forfeiting the deposit.
-Lastly, remember that poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on the part of the designer. Be realistic in making your choices, exercise clear communication, follow directions, and you'll be on the way to manifesting the best outcome for your custom order!