The Types of Freelance Design Clients You Should Avoid

Once they have dropped out of design school and are struggling with it in the real world, designers may find themselves in a rather skewed situation.

Maybe your teachers warned you to be as picky as possible when accepting new customers (or maybe they told you the opposite, but you knew it was BS), but the reality is often a rude awakening from what you expected , when you first started working.

Bills pile up, the rent due date is approaching, and suddenly the shady guy who wants you to design his $ 200 logo and website and “exposure” doesn’t look so bad.

We all know that it can be hard to hold on to our weapons and seek quality work that will improve our careers rather than dragging them down in the mud, but think about one thing for a second.

When you receive a terrible client – someone who, for example. Refusing to pay you in full or in part, or someone who has a million and a change to make in your designs, you actually spend far more in payroll costs – and sometimes even in attorney fees – to complete the job than you would like, if you had eaten a few instant meals and committed to finding a good client.

A bad client is bad news, period. It will always cost you more to maintain a bad client than it is worth.

Avoidance of Micromanager

Customers hire you for a reason: to improve the profitability of their business, whether it’s an information site, a product or a personal brand. At least in the first place, they know that they need a professional to step in and create something useful, and that contributes to their overall goal of making more money.

I have found that reminding clients of this in a polite but firm manner is incredibly effective in getting them to slow down and give you back on the reins of the project.

Your ultimate goal as a designer is to find customers who will trust you. If there is no trust there, your clients may become overwhelmed with anxiety and start micromanaging.

In general (but not always), the higher you price your design services, the more often you will find clients who respect your judgment and who will trust you, and the more you drive away those who will only play dictator.

Make sure you always charge what you’re worth – if at some point in your career you compromise on your prices, it’s exponentially harder to make a difference later.

See No Evil

Today, more and more designers are working remotely rather than in person, and many may never even meet their clients face to face. This is good and bad. If you get a good client, it’s great to just receive the design description, communicate via email and work on your magic.

If your client is a little more difficult, it can be a nightmare. There is plenty of research that points to face-to-face interaction and body language as two of the most important factors in building a relationship of any kind — especially one that involves business.

If you work virtually, there is no way to measure the chemistry between yourself and your potential client. This is where Zoom can be a huge help, but if you can meet in person, it’s even better.

Whether you do it in person or on the computer, for long-term projects, it is important to see your client’s face and hear from their own lips whether their personality is something you can handle or not.

You can learn a lot about what kind of client someone will be from the way they talk to you, the words they use to describe their work, and the nature of the work they would like you to do, and even from the state of their desk or office.

If someone is a slob, it could be a red flag. But more importantly, if you get a bad feeling from a client, take it as a clue about getting the heck out of the dodge.

red flag warning

Warning signs

If your client does not respect what you do, they will let you know in subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways, especially in the way they discuss the project they have for you.

The most obvious red flags are clients that promise you “exposure” or “more customers” at an indefinite time in the future. If you have long hung around the online design community, you know that doing specialist work is one of the most damaging things you can do for your own career and for the design industry in general.

But even paying customers will use this when they know they are offering you payment that a service provider in any other industry would consider an insult. You will not work for “exposure”. Yes, it’s a good thing to have, but potential customers who say this never mean it the way you mean it.

For you, exposure is concrete references. If your client can give you a list of actual paying clients you can contact for future paying work, then that’s great; “Postpone” away. But if they do not do this, it means they are trying to play you, and getting paid from them is likely to be more trouble than it is worth. Race!


The next big warning sign is potential customers who downplay the amount of time, effort or work involved in a project.

“Oh, it really shouldn’t take you that long,” or “a student could do this,” or my favorite: “it’s just a simple little thing – I would do it myself, but I do not have real time.” (By the way, if they do not have time to do a “simple little thing”, what makes them so sure that it only takes you five minutes?)

A client who automatically assumes that what you do does not take very long is a client who does not understand what is involved in the design process.

This is a client you want to run from quickly. Why? Because these are the kind of clients who will always quarrel with you about your rates or fees, as they are convinced that you have obtained extra hours just to cheat them.

Of course, you should get your clients to sign contracts to prevent legal failures, but why should you deal with headaches when you do not have to? Just walk away.


The last and possibly most insidious of “red flag” clients is the “designer” or “art director” client. You know the kind. The divorce lawyer or communications start-up CEO who secretly wishes they had gone to design school and who actively wants to play a role in the design process despite having no knowledge of design at all.

These types of clients are also known to be impossible for most sensible designers to work with. Therefore, they often have unfinished design work that they will hire you to complete.

They might call you at 3 in the morning with “urgent” changes or ideas they’ve had about your work, or they may be greedy about what they actually want you to do or what they like.


Long before any problem ever arises, you can use these simple steps to ensure that you are not caught by an unpleasant whirlwind of broken contracts and attorney fees. Always remember that when you meet a first time client, you value them as much as they value you.

The right customers will always respect your time and expertise; they will answer your questions or concerns in a timely manner and they will be realistic and professional in their expectations.

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