Protect yourself by watching out for these freelance red flags

monty python run away


I’ll admit that, as an artist, we could be better at explaining what it is we do. It’s our responsibility to lift the veil of mystery around how we go about our work.

What follows is based on my 30+ years of experience as a Graphic Designer, but the principles are the same. While we should do all we can to educate clients, and potential clients, we are unlikely to change their bad behaviour.

If you’re just getting your first paying gigs, congratulations. If you’ve been doing this for awhile, I hope some of this is still helpful.

Here are six freelance red flags to watch out for with a potential—and current—client …


Before you start a project …


1. It’s only about the money
  • “Another artist we worked with gave us a discount.”
  • “We can’t pay anything, but you will get great exposure.”
  • “You’re outside our budget.”

This is the race to the bottom. Price overrides all other factors, and the client only sees you as an expense.

Commoditization is also here to muddle things up. From the client’s perspective, why should they pay hundreds or thousands for an illustration when they could buy some clipart for $5? Or even get it for free? I understand that companies have budgets and are constantly under pressure to reduce costs. You have the expertise, and it’s only fair that you be compensated for that.

Offering discounts sets a bad precedent. It can be difficult to walk away from a cheque, but what happens next time? It diminishes your value, and you won’t be in a strong position to discuss price.

While I will never offer a discount, I will occasionally do pro-bono work.


2. They won’t agree to a terms and conditions
  • “We don’t do things like that.”
  • “We’ll only sign if we can make changes to the agreement.”
  • “No other artist has asked for something like this.”

It could be that they’re not used to seeing something like this. At first blush, it may seem overbearing or intimidating. Anything that speaks with that legalize can put people off. It’s one reason I’ve specifically written my terms and conditions in “regular” talk. I make it easy to understand and not threatening.

I typically ask for a 50% down payment. Be prepared for some pushback with things like, “Well, how do we know you won’t just bugger off with the deposit?” Ok. Valid point. However, as an independent artist, it’s not in your best interest to run off with the deposit. You’ve destroyed any good faith with the client, plus you damage your reputation in the industry. It’s also a creepy thing to do.

This is a line in the sand. If the client is unwilling to sign your terms and conditions, then walk away. Hope is not a strategy.


After you start a project …


3. They change the scope of the project
  • “We need to change the concept of the illustration.”
  • “Can you show us a few more options?”
  • “We’ll let you know when we see something we like.”

Another term for this is project creep.

Revision: “Can you change the colour of the person’s jacket?”
Project Creep: “We need an additional illustration.”

On those occasions where the client starts to make sizeable deviations from the brief, I’ll tell them that we’re going outside the scope of the project. In that case, I would have to generate a new estimate, based on the additional work. Often, the client would re-think the revisions, and we would be back to the original project scope.


4. Feedback is haphazard
  • “We like it, but my manager wants to make changes.”
  • “Let me pass this around the office”

It wasn’t uncommon for me to receive hand-written notes (scrawled) from multiple people on a printed PDF, which was then scanned and sent as yet another PDF. This resulted in a lot of back and forth as we tried to decipher each note. Often, revisions would conflict with one another, burning up more time in sorting things out.

Have the client choose a single representative to co-ordinate all communication. By all means, let them pass it around, but all feedback should be consolidated.

Your client should be sharing the project with all stakeholders in their organization. Unfortunately, this isn’t something you have control over. It’s not uncommon to have a project come off the rails because someone came in at the last minute and threw cold water on everything. This can be tricky. That’s why it’s important to document everything. If the project had been running smoothly until late in the game, and a new stakeholder makes significant changes, I would consider this grounds to generate a new estimate.

The other thing that can sometimes happen is a complete halt to all communication. Despite your emails and phone calls, no feedback comes your way. This may be out of your control. In those cases where a project has had a lengthy delay, I consider the contract to be in default.

Too many cooks … well, you know.


5. They’re not respectful of your expertise
  • “This isn’t so hard. I could do it in PowerPoint.”
  • “My daughter likes to draw. Maybe she could take a stab at it.”
  • “I’ll just hire a student to do it.”

This plays into the misperception that design and illustration is only so much window dressing, or making things look “cool”.

Clients should recognize the contribution that your expertise can make for their business. It should make the user experience for their product or service more enjoyable, valuable, and memorable.

While I may have questions for my mechanic, accountant or doctor, I don’t question their expertise. The client should not be micromanaging the project. You’re hired to solve problems, not be an order taker. You need the client to be the expert on their business. They need you to be the expert on illustration.

If the client doesn’t value what you have to offer, do you really want a relationship with them?


6. They’re not respectful of your time
  • “I need this right away!”
  • “Can you drop what you’re working on to do this for me?”
  • “This will only be a quick change.”

I remember getting a phone call one night from a client. “I’m running to catch my plane. Are you in front of your computer? I want to give you the revisions!” Or the other classic phone call, “I just sent you an email. Have you read it yet?”

Disrespecting your time is bad.

This also plays into the misperception that creative-types are used to—and like—working weird hours. Or, that we’re perched on the edge of our chairs, eagerly waiting for their call and ready to drop everything to work on their stuff. It reduces us to being minions—a commodity.

Not only is it disrespectful, but it also interrupts your train of thought. One study showed it takes, on average, 25 minutes to get back to where you started. Interruptions also increase error rates.

When I would receive a call like this, I would respectfully ask that they put their revisions into an email. This is a good way to track things. Despite our best intentions, verbal changes can be misinterpreted.

Remember, there are no “quick” changes.

Another sanity-saving measure is to put your phone in silent mode and turn off your notifications.


In the next post, I’ll share some tips on how to write an effective terms and conditions document.