Friday, 14 September 2012

Custom orders: strategies for sanity

If you are at all creative you have, at some point, been roped into doing something special for someone. Some of those times, at least once, things snowballed and you ended up with a much bigger commitment than you had originally intentioned.  At least, I know it has happened to me.  Automatically such projects garner a PITA* factor in their pricing down the road.

I was part of a discussion today about a custom order and some of the pros and cons.  I won’t discuss the specifics as it’s not my place to say, but a difference in colour expectations came up.  I immediately thought of the difference between how a creative person, (one who creates with colour) will describe a colour versus another, less-inclined,  person.  I thought of the time my husband and I both took a little test on how many colours you could name in five minutes.  Now, I was frustrated most of the time because it wouldn’t accept many of the names I was entering, I’m a poor speller so that didn’t help.  He won’t mind me telling you that I had him beat in no time flat.  I just found it again and tried once more.. not too impressive but there it is. (I thought I had 80ish the first time?hmm).

Created by OnePlusYou - Free Dating Site

The point I’m heading towards is that many a customer who would like you to make something “blue” has a shade of blue in their head and may not have the vocabulary to tell you which blue.  Enter my secret weapon of custom order success: The Color Scheme Bible by Anna Starmer


Not only does it help you narrow down the shade of blue they may have in mind, but the variety of palettes can help lead the conversation about other colours you may bring into the design.  Frankly, sometimes people don’t know what they want until they see it and I’ve found this to be a useful tool as a block of colour they can point at.

custom order strategy

For instance, I’m not much of a yellow person so I find that section very helpful for talking about a warm yellow versus a cold yellow and what it might pair nicely with.  Top right above I actually found a little post-it note from a vase I made for a work colleague. The little circle you see is a sample mix, cured, so I can see the match.  Bottom right, you can see some of the mixes I sampled from the pendant to create my BSBP piece.

Custom work can be so rewarding when the expectations are clear on both ends.  I’ve been lucky that all my customers have been thrilled with what I have made for them.  Perhaps lucky is the wrong word though, because I’ve been choosey about what I take on for custom work.  I’ve had the chance to meet people at shows, they’ve seen the style and quality of my work and have given me a wide berth.  I’ve also had the liberty to approach the work as an opportunity to work in a different colour scheme or design than I normally would. With the future end result uncertain I have been comfortable to embark on the work without initial deposit from the customer.  I’m not saying that’s the way to do it.  It is a strategy though that has worked for me, to give the customer complete freedom to walk away if it’s not what they are looking for.  In return, I feel I gain more creative space to explore the idea and let me make something that fits with my aesthetic.  You see I’ve only taken on creating things I’ve been drawn to in some way.

It’s a delicate balance of course.  No one really ever wants to say no when a customer is asking for you to create something special.  Certainly, a flat NO has never crossed my lips.  I have discussed ideas with people and politely explained that either due to time constraints, practical limitations, or some other honest reason,  I need to decline.  I stress honest since I think everyone has a BS sniffer, take a deep breath, find a way to say no nicely if you need to.

I haven't had custom work come up yet online but I imagine Design Seeds , and their palette search tool may be a good virtual replacement for my trusty book.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences!

*In case you aren’t familiar PITA is the “Pain In The Ass”  factor - the magical number where you may consider doing something you aren’t too keen on doing for you “regular” type rate.


  1. Thanks Miss Emma~ Very helpful perspective on this situation. I think you are right about expectations being different.
    I know this gal because her husband used to work for my husband and we are in touch via FB. She contacted me and asked for this order. I was very flattered and after some calculating offered her what I thought was a great deal.
    I looked back through our messages yesterday at what she asked for (colors, glass style etc) and I did do as she asked. I think the problem is that maybe she didn't really know what to ask for??? Or perhaps put into words what she REALLY wanted. I'm not giving up on her yet by any stretch, but I am glad that I didn't accept a deposit (& that I still have the receipt for the glasses I bought) so if in the long run this doesn't work out I am only out some time and a few bars of clay. I think I will try the Design Seeds route and see if that helps her with colors.
    Lastly I LOVE the 'PITA' reference, I will be adding that one to my vocabulary LOL :-)

  2. Very informative Emma! Thank you. I have done some custom work and have struggled with style and color. I have used online pictures to get ideas going. Thanks for the linke to Design Seeds!

  3. Back in the day, when I worked as a seamstress, I had a sort of "sliding scale" on charges for different components when I did custom work... and, yes, the PITA factor tended to push up the price! But I never called it that LOL. There would be a starting estimate, but I used to have a form that stated something to the effect: "...additional consultations/fittings/changes over and above the customer's initial specified request may incur additional charges... yada, yada, yada..."

    Bottom line, if you do a lot of this, sometimes putting expectations in writing, if you aren't already doing that, can clarify things for both parties, and result in better time management. Even just keeping good written notes for your own use (which I imagine you are good at, Emma) can keep the whole process from becoming a negative experience.

    The issues related to colour choice and internet orders are new ones to me. In a way, the internet can be an ideal conduit for custom work, as there is a "paper trail" which both parties can access at any time for clarification, like the situation Tammie describes. Colours, being so subjective and varying with different monitors, I would find that harder to deal with.

    Emma, I think it's wonderful that you are willing to work with special orders when the situation is right. Yes, I agree there is little luck involved in a successful custom venture. If you have worked with a customer to define their expectations, and you both agree that the extra work involved is to be compensated, you can anticipate a good outcome. I think a crafts-person who views custom as an "easy sale" is bound to be disappointed, and to disappoint.

  4. Very helpful! Thank you! I've only done a few custom orders and each time I've learned things I should have worked out in advance. Most of the people I have worked with been easy going and open to ideas so that has been terrific, but I know it could have been different and I could have been out a lot of money. This gives me even more suggestions on ways to clarify expectations before beginning, and also confirms that it's okay to say "no thank you" if the situation just doesn't feel right to me.


I'd love to hear what you think, thanks for taking the time to join in the conversation