Welcome to the first installation of “Ask a Designer”, presented by yours truly, Will Focus. Let’s talk about the business side of things. Most people aren’t aware of “who” is the right type of client to obtain and “who” isn’t. This goes for both freelance and full-time jobs alike.


Most designers/creatives jump at the opportunity to retain a new client. New clients mean new money and new money means one less bill and one less worry on your plate; however, quite often, designer’s don’t take the opportunity to calculate time vs money. Is the job or client you’re taking on, really worth the time? We all believe time is money and with that being said, it becomes even more of an issue for people who have to negotiate their worth. Although you can come across and utilize this process in many fields, designers/creatives face this in almost every instance of a project/job.

Who are the clients that you should take on and who are the clients you should leave by the wayside? Here are some tell-tale signs of who to avoid:

  1. The Nudist:

    This is the potential client who loves nothing but free work in return for “exposure”. You know, the client that promises that the project you work on will be seen by massive amounts of people and that alone is payment enough. No… no it is not. I cannot pay mortgage or rent with exposure. This is the equivalent of telling a doctor that if they just fix that broken leg of yours, everyone will see it and surely it will bring them broken leg clientele!
  2. The Negotiator:

    “If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.” This is the potential client who you can’t quite acquire as a client because before you get down to discussing the project details, they end their inquiry or message with one of these many statements:

      1. “I don’t have a huge budget”
      2. “Don’t break my pockets”
      3. “I can only offer *insert pitiful amount here*”
      4. “I’m looking to get a lot of work done, so what can you offer me discount wise”

    Anyone who approaches you looking for a deal, is someone you need to stay FAR FAR away from. There may be times where a deal may ACTUALLY be more than what you are looking for, but the probability of that is slim to none. The most common cons of Negotiators are late payments, unfinished projects, and brokering final costs after a project has been started. Those who are usually pesky about their budget are also keen on pestering the designer every chance they get to make sure they are getting their “money’s worth”. The headache these clients provide is NOT worth the money you will probably earn from the project. They are looking for a deal and as long as they come out on top, they are not concerned with the amount of time that you spend on the project. If you ever find yourself in a situation with a client like this, be sure to state explicitly from the beginning the scope of the project, set up payment intervals, and insure that you also implement a proposed set of revisions, with a revision fee for anything that steps outside of the original scope of the project or agreed revisions. Revision fees also deter unlimited revisions (something you should never practice as a designer), because when they realize their grand ideas cost money, they’ll slow down on obsessive compulsive revising. From a creative’s perspective the word unlimited says, I’m willing to do anything for work and money, no matter how long it takes and this alone devalues the designer’s skills and craft.

  3. The Referrer:

    I promise you endless fields of clients! The Referrer is the bastardized cousin of The Nudist. This client will promise to tell their friends, family, and coworkers/associates who happen to ALL need designers, about you! Isn’t that wonderful toto? No… keep your promises of imaginary referrals, I can think up fake clients all on my own… it’s called mock projects! At least with a mock project you get to design something you want and add to your portfolio on your own time, but with The Referrer, you will find yourself waiting… like a concerned parent looking for their child to walk through the door when they’re late for curfew for the first time. Like a baby praying mantis looking for daddy… sorry kiddo, not happening… Those amazing referrals will never show up. There are the few who will actually provide you with good leads, but these people don’t preface conversations and dealings with promises of big payoffs via the ever elusive “referral”. Dealing with The Referrer is a fool’s errand. Run far away… and don’t look back… but be sure you look forward so you don’t fall into the lap of our next culprit.
  4. The Dreamer:

    Everyone has run into this person at some point or another. The big dream, the huge payoff, the womp womp womp. Yes, I actually typed that in the sentence because when this person starts talking, I’m surprised we don’t hear the teacher from the “Peanut Gallery” talking to her class.  This client insists that they have some unique idea that is going to be the next Facebook, Instagram, or Flappy Bird. How… how Sway? How is this possible? Yes there are people with large payoffs, but the chances of this are practically non-existent and knowing this you should stay far away. The Dreamer tends to be the hardest to fend off because they truly believe in what they are doing. They will have the most convincing arguments as to why you should help and you can sense the intensity of their passion, but… theirs will be the most disappointing of failures. The Dreamers usually require the most investment of time, thus resulting in the largest sacrifice of money and if they manage to pull you into their dream… the waking up from that dream can be the hardest thing of all. A lot of times dreams turn out to be just that… dreams. Not a reality. Because of this, the pain of failure will always hit you just as hard as the client, seeing as you will have done most of the heavy lifting as a proper visual aesthetic is the first thing needed in order to present said dream to potential investors or the general market. Designer’s beware… The Dreamer is a broken heart and empty wallet waiting to happen.
  5. The Sniper:

    The Sniper… I think this is my least favorite of all. This is the client who you never see coming. This client is perfect at first glance, emails are clear, phone conversations good, and  money is properly negotiated up front AND paid! The problem only arises mid project when the inner “Negotiator” in them comes out. Suddenly a straight forward project turns into a completely different animal. They now have a ton of bells and whistles which weren’t in the original brief and now require this, for the same price, with a threat of none payment if you don’t finish the project to their liking. Why is this so bad? Usually this happens as you feel a project is nearing completion and they have approved of just about everything so far. Just when you are tackling the last items on their to-do list and are ready to send an invoice, BOOM HEADSHOT!!! Now you suddenly have “a few small changes”, as the client puts them, to implement before getting paid. These few small changes are nothing more than client-brief cancer waiting to spread. So the question becomes, how can you avoid them? Easy. Make sure you have a payment plan in place that pays ENOUGH up front that you are not dissatisfied with your invested time if the project is not fully paid for. Another way of avoiding is to never share high quality files with a client. Never send any form of a final product before completion but offer mockups or low res options. This will insure that you are not losing out in the process. These clients/employers often will utilize the work you have done to provide to another designer willing to do the job for less pay in order to see the project through. They are evil incarnate, stay far far away from them as well, unless you’re the type of glutton for punishment who enjoys dancing in a gasoline filled swimming pool with matchstick hands.

I know there are some instances when these don’t apply, but the chances are so slim, probability of their deviation from the normal so small, that it makes no sense to take the risk. Take your time, search for the signs before jumping in with a new client or job. You can save the time spent dealing with these “risk” clients/employers by simply saying “No”. The word no is a powerful one that most don’t exercise. A lot of clients will enter a situation assuming you need the money and that they are doing you a favor by offering you work. The word “No” takes the power out of their hands and places it back into yours. This effectively allows you to control negotiations and feel out a client/employer’s true intentions and maintain the integrity of your craft.