Turning down a client

I’m always surprised at the reactions I get from clients when I turn down their jobs.

This past week, I was contacted by a prospective client to design a relatively simple 12-page booklet on a small budget. During our first telephone conversation, he asked me if I could work up some ideas for consideration before we signed a contract. (That was the first red flag.) I told him no and that I didn’t start work until a contract was signed.

He followed that up today with an email asking if they’d still need to pay me if his board of directors didn’t like my ideas. (The second red flag.) I wrote back saying that I always did my best work but that I still needed to be paid, even if they didn’t like my work.

He wrote back saying he needed more proof that I could do the work in the style he had in mind (Third red flag). I pointed him back to my portfolio, saying this was the quality of work he would get, but that I could work in most any style that was best suited for the job.

He responded by saying his board of directors wouldn’t sign a contract before seeing the work I would do for them. (Fourth and final red flag)

My wasted time on this small job was adding up. I wrote back politely removing myself from consideration and thanking him for contacting me.

His next message said he was shocked and disturbed that I would turn down work and that I was being foolish, unprofessional and insulting toward him. He went on to say that nobody would buy something without first seeing the work.

Yeah, okay, whatever. I considered writing back asking if he only paid for meals at restaurants when the food matched his personal tastes or demanded his money back when he didn’t care for a movie. I finally decided there was no point in responding.


It’s great you were able to recognize that you were wasting your time, I think it’s a trap a lot of designers fall victim to due to sunk cost bias and they end up feeling compelled to take the job after a protracted back and forth.

Yeh people are weird. It’s like saying, I’m not going to pay you fixing my car until you fix it and I’m happy with the work, if I’m not happy with your work I am not paying for it. How can I know you can fix my car?

To be honest anyone looking for sample design work I quote them for the work of the samples, say it’s €200 - then that has to be paid regardless.

If they want to go ahead with you after that - then great, it’s just minus €200 you quoted already.

This doesn’t affect me anyway, as I’d usually give 2 cover and 2 spread proposals anyway.

The 200 quid basically is a downpayment for the spreads.


It was that very kind of deposit that he was asking whether or not he’d get back if he didn’t like the ideas I showed them.

If it had been a larger job, I might have played it out a bit more, but there were just too many sequential warning signs, so I bailed out.

Yeah, I think you’re right. It takes a few times of getting burned early in one’s career to realize that the gut feeling pointing to a problem really ought to be listened to.

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Yes, a lot of red flags. I wouldn’t ask a painter to paint a partial wall to see if I liked their work, and if not then not paying.

I started charging for spread designs and cover designs years ago. Weeds out the dickheads.
I can’t genuinely recall when someone turned down the work after I presented the spreads/covers. They pay a nominal fee for the work. And once they are happy with it they proceed to the final work.

If they don’t, and I don’t think anyone has, I would still get paid for the initial work.

In no way is it a deposit. It’s a downpayment, as such.

For example, my quotes often look like

12 pp A5 brochure

Cover Design…€xxx
2 options *
3 proofs** on the chosen design (alterations not redesign)

Spread Design…€xxx
2 options*
3 proofs** on the chosen design (alterations not redesign)

Final Design
Remaining pages …€xxx
3 proofs** (alterations not redesign)

Then some disclaimers
*per stock images charged @€
*per illustrattions charged @€
*per charts/tables etc @€
** alterations limited to 50 per proof, any amends over 50 per proof are charged at hourly rate of €xx

I love the last line - cos it makes people supply copy that’s approved.

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I can sort of see people’s reservations, though. They want to be sure they’re making a good decision on an important purchase — even when it’s just a few hundred dollars.

I don’t think they’re seeing it from a designer’s perspectives, though, where we’d be out several hundred dollars worth of our time if the work failed to strike their subjective fancy.

It requires a small leap of faith from the client in the same way that is required when buying a book. You might research the reviews ahead of time, but you can’t get your money back just because you were disappointed in the way the book ended.


Well that’s what the portfolio is for. I have one for signage, brochures, logos, etc. a different one for whatever people are looking for. If that’s not proof enough, the fine.

I’m not sure I turn down jobs. I just tell people that’s the price.

They can take it or leave it.


That’s roughly the way I break things out in my contracts too, but my last line gives a price per hour for anything that exceeds the scope of the contract.

At any point, they’re free to not move on to the next milestone, but they still need to pay for work that’s been done up to that point. I don’t give refunds unless through some fault of my own, something goes wrong. Them just not liking it is never a good enough reason.

Yes, pretty ironclad quotes I send out. I’ve been burned before. That’s why I put in the 50 amends per proof. There was one lad that changed the entire text on every proof. I was livid, but I was bound by my quote.

Do. you have them pay in advance for each step or just the first one? Does that differ for new clients as opposed to ones with whom you’ve established a longer-term relationship?

It’s up to them. If they want the spreads and covers the price is there.
If they want to go ahead and do the whole lot, the price is there.

I’ve also been burned giving free cover samples, and then they didn’t go with me, but still used my covers to get a cheaper designer to recreate them, badly.

If I don’t know the client, it’s upfront for the spreads/covers, no compromise.
And/or 50% deposit of the whole price.

If I have worked with them before, and I believe they are going to pay, it’s no issue going ahead, knowing they’ll pay step-by-step. Usually, I have an SLA with the usual reliables.

I might have stopped at “board of directors” LOL…but it’s tough not to have to deal with the “committee” these days. No one takes responsibility by themselves any more.

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It’s not completely the same situation, but I’m reminded of Paul Rand working on the NeXT logo for Steve Jobs. Steve asked Paul if he’d provide multiple options for the logo. Paul’s response, and this is the Steve_O paraphrase, was, “I’ll solve your problem. You don’t have to use it. You’re welcome to have another designer work on other options. But I’ll solve your problem.”

Red flags are wonderful things, but one has to accumulate enough years to acquire them.

I once had someone, out of the blue, contact me about a new “high end” magazine she was about to launch in a month’s time (spot the red flag?). In the middle of the exploratory conversation, she mentioned her printer insisted on receiving final art in pre-imposed format. She was adamant that this was the way. The red flag that broke the camel’s back. I gladly turned it down.

What imposition did they want? Work and turn?

Not that I can remember. But, why? What if page count was to be changed? A new ad asked for specific position? Articles needed to be moved?

All pages were to be DPS as a single page. It was messy.

One might assume that a “high-end” magazine would warrant a “high-end” printer.

You’ve described the type of client that I always think of as “The Amateur.”

The first red flag being when the job appears to be a client’s personal passion project. A second and related red flag is when it becomes apparent that this person is in over his or her head. The third red flag (that almost always accompanies the first two) is when the client believes (or tries to make me believe) that he knows what he’s doing and begins providing hair-brained advice or assuming that my role is to implement his preconceived ideas.

I’ve gotten so I can usually spot this kind of client within the first paragraph of their emails or within two or three minutes of the initial conversations.

When all these signs show up, it’s, more often than not, reason to assume things will go badly. They will almost always turn out to be micro-managing amateurs with practically no budget and who will be difficult to work with. Every now and again, they’ll put enough money into the job up front to keep my interest, but even then, the signs point to an ultimately bad experience for everyone involved.

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In the earlier part of my career I might take her on, and live to regret it.

Gotta be honest, I don’t see anything wrong with this. I am assuming by a “pre-imposed” format the printer is looking to get the files in single pages rather than imposed into printer’s spreads or a press sheet. I do quite a bit of work with one particular sheet-feed, offset printer. They are a great shop and keep on top of the latest technology. Their preference is to receive art in single pages with bleeds on all four edges (even the gutter edge). Their electronic prepress software does the imposition and adjusts for page creep.

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