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 (, 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.

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]

Add New Comment


  • Awesome advice! Love this post. Reputation is everything! I've found it's key to have a really professional portfolio website and send professional invoices. Just found Workweek the other day and plan to use them when they're live. Subscribe at

    Again, great post!

  • Tony Dennell

    Hit the nail on the head with this article!

    I often think to myself 'would I be anymore successful now, as a designer, if I'd have been given this advice when I first started out'. To be perfectly honest, I really don't know! It's pretty harsh the first time you get ripped off, especially my first time, when it was worth a lot of cash for several different projects from the same customer... there's no greater lesson than experience!

  • Dave Yates

    My advice is to avoid the 'sweat equity' start-ups.

    You will, from time to time come across a person with some business concept and he is going to make a fortune out of it. All you have to do is your piece along with everyone else and you will get a share of this amazing venture. Of course this equity is in lieypu of pay.

    I have been caught on these things a few times, not least because I have a relative who is a serial entrepreneur, of the penniless variety.

    Avoid them like the plague. The ideas don't work. These people can be very persuasive but you need to find a way of saying you are a designer, not a junior partner in a business.

    The aforementioned David Thorne blog has a brilliant post about this sort of situation. It happens to us all. Learn from our mistakes, don't make them yourself.

  • Alice Labonte

    Excellent article! Actually I found it because I searched online for answers to: "why is it when I do work for free (yes,I volunteer my services), the same work I get paid to do, the free work is under appreciated?"

    My paid work is never edited, cut or returned.

    If I put effort into finding paying work, instead of offering my skills to nonprofits, I think it would get easier to stop doing jobs for free. I guess I needed someone to give me permission. Thanks again - I think this is a bigger problem than most people realize.

    ~ Alice LaBonte

  • David Colburn

    Being nonprofit doesn't mean they have no money, though they may not have a lot. It only means they put all earnings into delivering whatever service they do. Your work is part of that service delivery and deserves compensation -- cash or a tax receipt.

  • Navid Sakhai

    Well done, a good fact simply put.

    Being "Financially Mature" is a must for any successful business person.

    If you are doing something of any value for someone, you should be paid for that. It's the reason why money is here at the first place, so people could pay someone who can do things they are not willing to do themselves with the money they made from the same procedure.

    Thank you and be victorious!

  • Mariano Eckert

    Work for free (charity) or charge full price (depending on client budget) – never go for discounts or other hustle!

  • When I get a freelance opportunity that isnt going to pay much at all (if anything) OR is gonna take some considerable time to achieve and complete it - I weigh up the odds.

    I think: 'is this opportunity worth putting my life and family on hold for', or, 'is this job gonna give me an end product that will boost my portfolio, for something better that could come along'.

    It is no different than if you went for an interview for a full time job. You would find what you need to know about the job and make your decision based on how it will improve and/or affect your life and can you survive on the salary. Money comes into it of course, but is there an amount of money that is worth putting your life on hold for? My kids are still young but growing up fast, so I can make that decision easy and well paid jobs are rare. Maybe if I didnt have these responsiblities or felt work was more important than life, at that moment in time, I might put my life on hold for that nugget on the horizon.

  • Thanks Cody for posting this valuable information. As a newbie I appreciate articles such as this that might help me avoid some of the pitfalls of this profession.

  • Upfront payments: Every client should accept that. If they don't, the logic is easy to explain: They want their work done, so you are allocating time for that. You may have declined other work for that time. Some clients will cancel a project before it begins, and then just expect you to deal with that. That's not fair. I have always gone with 1/3,1/3,1/3, and it has worked very well for me. And for my clients

  • Excellent Article. One more point...beware of scammers on sites like 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.