Co.Design

Freelancers: How Not To Get Screwed By Clients

Far too many designers are told they need to work for free to build their resumes. Here are 10 tips for getting paid what you deserve.

The overarching business problem designers will face early in their freelance careers is navigating the waters of how to get paid for things. There are so many potholes, nightmare scenarios, and snake-oil businesspeople vying to get free work that, when combined with the “you must first build your résumé while not getting paid” notion that is wrongfully being accepted as normal practice today, it can seem impossible to understand how to protect yourself. Here are 10 tips:

1. Get it in writing.
Get project scopes explained fully and make sure both sides understand exactly what’s being done (specific constraints, milestones, revisions, changes, pricing, timeframe, etc.). Use a contract if possible, or at least get it all in email.

Contract samples:
Smashing Magazine Contract Samples
Contract Killer 3, open source contract by Stuff & Nonsense

2. No spec work.
If you ever see something like “We’re asking for examples from different firms/people” or “We’d like to see what ideas you have first,” politely explain to the client that you don’t work for free. You’ll run the risk of not getting paid and--worse--the possibility that the client uses your work anyway. You don’t get to sample the steak before you eat it.

Check out NO!SPEC for more.

3. Upfront payments.
Those who argue won’t pay after anyway. 50% upfront, 50% at end (or 1/3, 1/3, 1/3) is standard practice; anyone who doesn’t think that’s fair is going to treat you poorly with money. This rule and the next are the two most important in protecting yourself from being screwed over.

4. Never send final work before final money.
"End of project" means "once the client gives the okay, but before final work is sent." Don’t send a website live before you have the money, and don’t send vector/hi-res graphics files for print. Use your own hosting (mywebsite.com/projects/project_name), and send low-res/raster files.

5. Look for red flags. Run for the hills.
Look out for warning signals. A client who tells you they have design skills or experience or an "eye" can be trouble because he or she will likely not respect your ideas. Design by committee--that is, a group of people who must approve your work, rather than a single point person--is trouble because it invites the too many cooks to the kitchen. Watch out for things like “this will look great in your portfolio." That generally means “we don’t want to pay you." Also, in job listings, "Code ninja," "Design warrior," or other meaningless phrases tend to signal the person who wrote the listing doesn’t understand much about the topic and wants the reader to feel like their firm is hip and trendy. Other notables, and their translations:

This will lead to paid work.
I don’t want to pay you, and I will have an excuse later as to why it didn’t lead to paid work.

It won’t take long.
I have no idea how long it should take, nor do I care; I just know that I want to pay for 10 minutes of work.

Feel free to just be creative.
I’m not sure what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it.

Let your creative juices flow.
I have no direction for you and want to see a billion styles for the price of one.

Think outside the box.
I’m under the illusion that “different” automatically means “better." Also, I was born in 1937 and haven’t updated my idioms.

Frankly, there are a huge number of things that could fall under the “red flag” heading, and an entire list could be dedicated solely to it. Just be aware. Don’t turn away clients automatically, but also be cognizant of things that will cause you headaches and be more trouble than they’re worth.

6. Avoid working for friends and family.
Money is a touchy subject with some people, and it isn’t worth ruining a relationship over work. If you’re going to work for friends or family, make the constraints all the more clear. If you give friends a great price because you know them, you might get bitten in the ass later and be asked to do more work than you than you expected.

7. Pick your battles.

Something you’ll face a lot is the large disparity in clients with regard to creative control; some will give you too much freedom (open-ended, no direction), some not nearly enough (telling you exactly what they want designed). Don’t argue every time someone doesn’t like what you make. Err toward accommodating their wishes, but also explain your design decisions.

8. Sometimes, swing for the fences with pricing.
Some people want something for nothing. Don’t work for them. Be fair with your pricing, but understand that in design, clients are not paying for labor and time, but for skill and the end-product. Try to glean what a client can pay, and make that part of your decision. You shouldn’t be charging a nonprofit the same as a big company.

9. Learn all the things.
Don’t be nervous about taking on things that you aren’t sure you can do, because you’ll figure it out--necessity is the mother of invention. Try to imagine a giant web of every skill/profession and their interconnections. From your master skill--design--you should at least know a bit about all the skills that touch it. It will make your work better.

10. Reputation is everything.
Get good clients early on, and you can choose your work down the road. Think of the kind of designer/worker you want people to think of you as. Be that.

Conclusion
There are inevitably going to be times that you’ll feel stuck between two bad choices: the appearance of a good opportunity, and not being paid (or being paid something that isn’t worth the cost). Learning to make the hard decision of sticking to your guns and swallowing the loss of potential work is invaluable, especially when you’re in business for yourself.

A version of this article originally appeared on Question Design.

[Images via Shutterstock]

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38 Comments

  • Excellent Article. One more point...beware of scammers on sites like Craigslist.org. Although the site is great for many opportunities, it definitely has issues from people looking for ideas/content/creative work for free. Pointing to #2 in your article. Thanks for the reminders of how to protect ourselves!

  • Mariana Idiarte

    Good summary! Definitely your #1 is my #1 when I advise designers on doing business. I'd add another one: don't start working before you've signed a contract. Or at least before you're agreed on some basic conditions, like you said, on an email. Or, if contract's still under negotiation, before you've got a first payment. Once you've starting producing, you loose negotiation power and clients know it!

  • I know I have..... or should have.... used every tip you've given. When a project will not pay my fees I look at the intangibles and what opportunities that project may provide. If you find inspiration in a low paying project and you create inspired work that's far more valuable. You can't buy inspiration. Keep an open mind, consider the value to you, don't be afraid to say no.

  • Bruce Koren

    Great tips, but one correction. In tip 5, Look for Red Flags, under the translation for "Feel free to just be creative," you said, "I'm not sure what I want, but I'll know it when I see it." In my experience, its more like, "I'm not sure what I want, but I'll tell you what I don't want when I see what you've done." Bad input from a client means bad work back to them. Also, forget the 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 payment plan. Get 1/2 up front and 1/2 upon completion (before delivery, as you suggest.) The most important part of the up-front payment isn't receiving the money, but whether the client has excuses and problems or whether he writes the check.

  • Great read. Lots of great points. Leave the spec work for those in other countries that charge $5 to $10 an hour. I've been steadily increasing my prices since I started about four years ago. Be fair but as your skills grow and your value of product improves step up. That may take courage but as you point out in the end. Feels good. I've said no and turned away a customer and it felt really good. I've also charged more because a company makes good money. That felt good too :) Thanks again.

  • "You shouldn't charge a non-profit the same as a big company." Perhaps, but don't assume that non-profits have small budgets (or that big companies have large ones). Most of the work I do is for non-profits, and I've found that the best ones take design seriously and consider me a critical decision-maker, which is what I'd expect from my favorite big company clients. Those favorite non-profits pay well, because they realize their fundraising depends on smart, intuitive design. In fact, the clients who've paid me the best are the non-profits who I did your 8th tip with: Swing for the fences with pricing.

  • It's a good point but personally as a freelancer and someone in the early stages of pricing, wouldn't seek out the big budget charities. There are plenty of non-profits with a very low budget and a great need for good design. My advice to people starting out would to find an organization who really needs it. They either have no site or a really bad one that would give someone a great opportunity to display their skill and even see it help that org..

  • Cody Schatzle

    A good point. I should have been more clear on that point; I mean those terms as a way of saying "no 2 organizations are created equal" -- I think it's smart to make "what can the client pay?" part of the equation when figuring out what to charge.

  • Great post, Cody. Never work on spec. 1/2 up front, 1/2 on delivery always works. You have to pay to get the project rolling. If client doesn't wish to proceed to final stages, then they can walk. It's a contract via payment instead of lawyer speak.

  • Cody Schatzle

    With small jobs, I often don't use a contract, and this one rule almost single handedly replaces it/protects me. I'm not sure what the order of importance here is, exactly, but that's #1 for sure (well, perhaps #2 behind final work/money).

  • These red flag rules also apply to small-medium and even large design and creative agencies.

    If I could add a #11 it would be: When it comes to paying your fees, money is like sex - those talking about it the most tend not to have any.

    We've been hit by non-payers who have boasted about their wealth and amazing growth projections. They tend to be liars at worst or fantasists at best, except they take you and your fees along for the ride. Avoid like a computer virus.

  • Cody Schatzle

    Ugh, rough spot. I've been there too. I suppose that can sort of fit under the "red flags" thing. That's why I put "an entire list could be dedicated solely to it." There are so many more that I notice, but it's hard to think of a way to title/categorize. It's liek a new muscle you grow. It's like gaydar...but for potentially shit clients. Shitdar doesn't work though. More time needs to be spent considering a name.