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Earlier this week, a member of the Resourceful Designer Community was seeking advice. A potential client contacted her asking if she designs book covers, which she does. Before replying to this unknown person, she decided to investigate who they were. She discovered that this potential client is an author. And the subject they write about is something the design is strongly against.

The Community member wanted our advice on how to proceed. Should she turn down the client, or should she wait to hear more about the project before deciding?

As always, when someone asks a question in the Community, she received lots of great advice. The consensus was she should hear them out before deciding what to do. After all, their new book might not have anything to do with the subject of their previous books.

But this posed a bigger question. What reasons are there to turn down a lucrative design project?

In episode 133 of Resourceful Designer, I shared 12 Red Flags For Spotting Bad Design Clients. Most of those Red Flags only become visible after you’ve started working with a client. Stuff such as the client being rude to you or inconsistent communication.

In the episode after that one, episode 134, I shared ways to turn away clients politely. It included sample scripts you can copy and paste for yourself. You may want to refer to that episode after you’ve finished listening to this one. Some of those scripts apply to today’s topic.

It’s one thing to spot the red flags once you’ve started working with a client. But how can you avoid ever working with them in the first place? And why would you want to turn them down? After all, we’re in this business to make money. And when you’re first starting, it may seem like a foreign concept to turn down a paying gig.

What I can tell you is that after 30+ years of working with design clients, knowing when a client isn’t a good fit and how to turn them down becomes a top priority whenever you meet a potential new client. You’re better off putting your time and energy into finding better clients to work with.

If you’re a long-time follower of Resourceful Designer, you’ve heard me many times before say that you don’t work for your clients. You work with them. You need to consider every client relationship as a partnership. At least for the duration of the project. That may be only a couple of days or weeks. But it could also turn into something much longer. So you need to ask yourself every time you meet a potential new client. Is this someone I would like to partner with, yes or no?

Reasons why you shouldn’t work with a client.

There are many reasons why you shouldn't work with a client. Some of them are nefarious reasons.

  • They want you to do the work for “exposure.”
  • They have an unreasonable deadline they want you to meet.
  • They undervalue you and want to pay below your regular rate.
  • They’re unclear of exactly what they want or need.
  • They’re asking you to do something unethical or illegal.
  • They’re not comfortable signing a contract.

There could also be legitimate reasons for not working with a client. These reasons have nothing to do with the client persé and more with you.

  • You have current obligations to existing clients and don’t have time for this new project.
  • The project they’re asking you to design conflicts with your values.
  • The services you offer are not a good fit for their project.
  • Their budget is too small.

All good reasons to turn down a client. But, ultimately, the biggest contributing factor to whether or not you should work with a client is your gut. Trust your gut. It’s seldom wrong.

Mike, a founding member of the Resourceful Designer Community, gave the best answer to the original question. Whenever Mike finds himself in a situation where he’s uncertain about a potential client, he asks himself three questions.

1. Am I giving up anything that I am more passionate about or that would be more profitable if I choose to take on this new project?

Think about that. Any time you say yes to something, it means you’re inadvertently saying no to something else. There’s always something that has to give, even if it’s your personal or family life.

If taking on this new project means neglecting another client’s project, it may not be a good idea, especially if the existing client’s project is more profitable.

Likewise, if taking on this project means you’re going to lose out on time with your spouse or kids, it may not be a good idea. The extra money may be nice, but is it worth it if all your child remembers is mommy or daddy missed their game, their performance, their school outing?

Only you can weigh the options.

2. Will the new project be harmful to others?

You may recall a story I’ve shared on the podcast before. I had a huge client I had worked with for years. They owned many different companies ranging from restaurants to car washes to a telecommunication company.

During my time working with them, they ended up acquiring a tobacco company.

According to a study by an anti-smoking organization, the biggest demographic increase in smokers was among girls between 12 to 18. My client wanted to use that information to their advantage and asked me to design a poster depicting their cigarettes that would appeal to girls in that age range.

I refused. There was no way I was going to be complicit in enticing young girls to start smoking. The client threatened to pull all their work from me and find another designer if I didn’t comply. So I fired them.

If a design project will be harmful to others. Turn down the job.

3. Will taking on the project jeopardize an existing and valued relationship.

Think about that. Are you willing to put an existing client relationship at risk to earn some money from a new client? I hope not.

Of course, this one is a bit tricky. There’s a fine line between what could jeopardize a relationship and what wouldn’t. To some, having two clients who are competitors might not be a good idea. To others, it's not an issue.

In my opinion, the best way to interpret this third point is on moral grounds. For example, a designer with ties to the health industry may not want to take on a design project that discourages people from getting vaccinated. It’s not worth jeopardizing that relationship.

It's up to you.

I encourage you to copy down and remember Mike’s three rules.

  1. Am I giving up anything that I am more passionate about or that would be more profitable if I choose to take on this project?
  2. Will the new project be harmful to others?
  3. Will taking on the project jeopardize an existing and valued relationship.

If a project fails any of these three criteria, it’s not worth taking on.

Brian, another member of the Resourceful Designer Community, also had a good suggestion. If a project is something you would be ashamed to have on your monitor if a child walked by, then it’s not worth taking.

I’ll add to Brian's statement by saying if it’s not something you would want to tell your mother you’re working on, then maybe you should take a pass.

Should you ever find yourself having to turn down a client or a project. Remember to look at episode 134 of Resourceful Designer, where I shared different scripts you can use depending on your situation.

 

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I want to help you.

Running a graphic design or web design business all by yourself isn't easy. If there are any struggles you face running your design business, please reach out to me. I'll do my best to help you by addressing your issues in a future blog post or podcast episode here at Resourceful Designer. You can reach me at feedback@resourcefuldesigner.com

 

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