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Choosing Clients as a Creative Professional

Often times when we are starting out as creative professionals, we often feel we need to take all the work we are offered. However this is not always good advice. I am going to go over some of my experiences to help you figure out when you should and shouldn’t take on new clients and give some advice on how to say no to paid work.

Recently, I had a potential client contact me for some freelance work. They were overly insistent on getting some type of personal information from me, in this case my cell number, to the point they got too pushy to the point of rudeness. That coupled with the lack of email etiquette along with their overall tone of the email, told me this person would have been a nightmare of a client who would have constantly been texting me and, due to the tones of the emails, wouldn’t respect my profession or my work. This has inspired me to share some advice to all young and new creative professionals and hopefully help you understand some of the potential pitfalls and hazards that are out there and how to avoid them.

Spec Work

Especially when you’re starting out as a creative professional, some people will approach you to  “audition” for your design by creating the design, presenting it to the employer or individual, and if they like yours they will use it. This is called speculative work, or spec work for short. I personally am very skeptical when it comes to spec work, especially if they ask for a finished design, because there is no guarantee of getting paid for your hard work. The employer may not like your design and go another direction with another designer or in some cases, the potential employer may just steal your design and have someone recreate it.

When starting out, it is very tempting to do spec work because it helps get your foot in the door. My honest advice would be first and foremost, trust your instincts about the employer and if you feel like something about the project or deal is not feeling right, just walk away from it, but do so politely. I will go over the best way to turn down work at the end of this article.

Friends and Family

If you’re a creative person, I can almost guarantee that at one point in your life you had a friend or family member ask you to create something for them, or draw something for them — and often times they don’t expect to pay for it. If you are a creative professional, you need to start practicing the professionalism that goes with that which includes getting paid for your work. I know it might be hard or awkward to discuss price and money with friends and family, but if they respect you and your profession, they will not balk at the thought of you charging them.

Friends and family are a great way to start building up reputation because they are your immediate network. To build your professional network (which leads to more work), you will start with those closest to you, and from word of mouth your network will grow. This is why it is imperative to charge and to charge appropriately, because you do not want to establish a precedent of underpriced work, and then you have the sob stories coming in of “you only charged Johnny X amount,  why are you charging me more?” You will save yourself a lot of time explaining and headaches by figuring out your standard prices and using those as a guidlines.  I will go over how to price your work in more detail in another article.

Pro Bono / Volunteer work

Sometimes you will be approached to do free work for people and it is ok to do free work. Whether it is a poster design for an animal shelter you volunteer at, or a bulletin for your church, it can help you out in the long run to do a simple projects for free. I always recommend to again use your best judgement, but think about what you have to gain and lose from free work. If you can gain the valuable network growth within your community and even more paid work in the future, that free poster might be worth doing. If however, the client is being way too demanding and taking all of your creativity out of the design, you might be better off walking away.

When doing free work, before beginning the project, always sit down with the client and create a written contract detailing everything you both expect in the project. If you are working for free, you should always have full creative choice, within reason, in regards to the project. By within reason, I mean, if you are designing a poster for an animal shelter, you don’t want to be putting cars all over the poster. You want to make sure you meet the client’s needs, because if  you don’t do a good job, that will tarnish your reputation.

That is why when doing free work, always make sure you DON’T over promise and under deliver. All you have to lose is time and your reputation as a creative professional, and those are both more valuable than money. You can never get time back and it is hard work to repair a bad reputation and sometimes impossible to do so.

Right Type of Work

Sometimes when choosing a client, it is not so much about the client, but about the type of work they want. If you want to go into web design, and your client needs print material, they might not be the client for you. You know you can help them with the print material needs but you have no passion for it. If you need the money, and you know you can do a good job, sometimes you do what you have to do to pay the bills. However, if you are not desperate for the work and can be a little choosey when it comes to taking on new clients, it is ok to turn them down and try to get the client who needs something that you are passionate about doing.

When you are already somewhat established, you can start to pick and choose clients who fit your end goal. If you want to establish yourself as the go-to person for web design, start taking on only web design jobs and clients. By doing that, you can begin to establish yourself as an authority in that particular niche, but only if you do a good job and only after you have established yourself financially.

Unexpected Work Offers

As a creative professional, you will (or should anyways) have your own website showcasing your work and generating other potential clients. This will lead to emails from potential clients you don’t know. Sadly, we live in the day and age where we have to be careful about what information we give out, so when approached by an unexpected offer from online, treat the situation with optimism but caution. Always ask the potential client how they heard about you and your services, and ask questions about the potential job. If the client cannot provide you with certain easy requests like a Skype meeting, or answer basic questions they should be able to answer about their business or project, the offer might not be legit. Always trust your instincts and never ever give out your personal cell number or address to a client before fully vetting them and making sure they are legitimate. If the client is legit, they will be happy to provide you with basic information and be able to at the very least have a phone call (not texting, but actually talking) with you. If however the potential client seems too eager to the point of rudeness (as I recounted above) or cannot answer basic questions about their project needs, you most likely don’t want to deal with this potential nightmare.

I have said this before in this article but I cannot overstate it–ALWAYS trust your instincts! If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Ethical Conundrums

Sometimes you might be approached by a client whose business goals and ethics don’t fully align with your own. Tread lightly when taking on clients like this. We have already established that sometimes you need to do what you have to in order to pay the bills, but if something goes against your core values, it isn’t worth it. Above all things, be true to yourself and your own ethics because if you work for a person or company who just goes against everything that you stand for, you are not going to to be doing good work, and you’re going to damage your own reputation because of it. Money and clients are not worth compromising yourself and your core values.

Now everyone has their own set of values and it is not my place to say who is right and who is wrong. Remember, it isn’t your right either, as we are all entitled to our own set of beliefs.. So if you are put in a situation where you have to decline a job because of an ethical reason, do not be pretentious when turning down the offer, but rather offer a true but polite reason as to why. Tell them something along the lines of “I am afraid our goals are heading in different directions, therefore I must politely decline.” Remember that humility is better than looking down your nose at people.

Bad Clients and how to get rid of them

We all make mistakes. Sometimes that mistake is going into business with a client who is just awful to work with. He may micromanage everything you do, or call you ten times a day with new changes he just thought up. You might wake up in the morning and check your phone and have 15 text messages or 10 new emails every hour. This client will just suck the joy and creativity out of your job and you just dread working with them. If you have a client like this, and you can afford it, it might be time to let them go.

We all at some point will have to work with a bad client but when that happens, I’m here to help you through it. The first step in working with those clients is to protect yourself with a good contract. I will go over some specifics I like to put in my contracts in a future article, but I am not a legal professional in any form, so consult a lawyer if you’re really concerned. If however you are under contract with this client where you cannot exit early, you have to suck it up and grit your teeth till the job is done. But to come out on top, do your best work, no matter what. Always do your best work because it will reflect that much better on you. If you find that a client is intolerable to work with, chances are other people feel the same way about them. But, if you still produce amazing results other potential clients will recognize your professionalism and you will look that much better in their eyes.

If you do have a clause in your contract where you can exit the deal, and cut your losses, you should consider it. If this client is costing you other paying clients due to the time they take up, it might be better to cordially let them go and acquire new clients.

Etiquette of letting clients go

When you have to stop working with a client, I cannot stress enough to always maintain a professional demeanor, no matter how much you might want to complain about the client. When speaking to the client directly, tell them in a courteous way that you will no longer be able to work with them. Be honest about your reasons why, but never resort to unnecessary harshness.

Especially when you are working with other creative professionals or clients, and you are recounting tales of bad clients or discussing previous employment, never mention them by name, as it is in poor taste and can hurt your own reputation. If it is necessary to discuss why a client was awful to work with, do so without naming the client. No one likes to be gossipped about behind their back–this is true in personal and professional lives. Always treat people with the same courtesy you would like to be treated with..

On occasion, the client might not take the news well and may start to bad mouth you a bit. Always take the high road and never bad mouth them back. If they start damaging your reputation to a point where they are affecting your business by spreading lies, there is always legal action you can take, but it hopefully won’t ever come to that.

Take Away

Sometimes we choose wrong and take on the nightmare clients. However, by being aware of the pitfalls of the different types of clients and work out there, you can be better prepared to face them and have the knowledge on how to handle yourself in those situations. Always trust your instincts to not put yourself in a situation with a bad client but if you find yourself in that situation, always take the high road and conduct yourself with professionalism, manners, and class.
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