How not to get cheated by your design clients

Well that’s an odd headline, isn’t it? Calling out the almighty clients like that?

Don’t get me wrong, I’d much rather live in a world where every project reaches its completion and no party gets the short end of the stick at the end of it.

But unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen, so we should probably think the possible scenarios through and find some ways to protect ourselves from the ugly.

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Here’s how to make yourself un-cheat-able.

1. Have a contract?

I know, the topic of contracts has been talked about more times than you can shake a stick at, so forgive me for mentioning it here again. But the simple fact is that contracts are crucially important … usually.

The thing is, a contract in itself won’t save you from getting cheated 100 percent of the time. Let’s face it, if someone wants to cheat you, they will regardless. A piece of paper won’t stop them.

So a contract actually brings other benefits:

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  • It helps you do your work. It explains what, how and when something needs to be done.
  • It makes the situation seem serious.
  • Should anyone cheat you, it helps you go after the person.

Let’s expand on the thing in the middle – making the situation seem serious.

Most of the time, you getting cheated isn’t a result of some deliberate intrigue. It’s just that a certain sequence of events happens, and at the end of it your client doesn’t have the money to pay you. That’s all.

Remember, at its core, this is still mainly business for them. If you fail to deliver, or if the funding dries up for one reason or another, they will drop your project. Just like that. No matter how much they like you personally.

Therefore, if there’s been no contract then the general idea in the back of your client’s head is that even if they don’t pay, you won’t be able to do anything about it. And they’re right.

So save yourself the possible pains, make the project a serious one and always have a contract.

There’s already a number of great posts talking about contracts on this site (about 15 pages worth), so I’ll just stop here and point you to some of them.

And if you’re serious about contracts but need a jumpstart, check out our ebook bundle complete with contract templates, the ebook, a legal glossary, and more.

2. Avoid spec work

Spec work, is just a more subtle term for work you do free of charge before being actually hired.

In theory, clients use spec work to determine if you’re going to be a good fit for the project. Well, at least honest clients use it for this purpose. Crappy clients use it to extort free work.

The practice is all too common in the freelancing space if you ask me. And it’s not only design. Literally everyone’s affected, writers, designers, SEO professionals, even consultants.

The difficult thing is that dealing with spec work requests isn’t actually that straightforward. Obviously, you don’t want to do it. But at the same time, you don’t want to scare the client off if they happen to be an honest person.

So what you can do is either of these:

  • (a) Find a gentle way to explain that what they can find in your portfolio should be enough to assess whether or not you fit with the project they have at hand.
  • (b) Deliver the requested spec work with watermarks or other anti-theft protection.

Note. I only advise to do the latter if the client seems like a valuable one and if your investment is likely to pay off.

3. Get half of the money up front

This is by far the best way to secure yourself, at least partly, from anything bad that might be coming your way.

It’s simple math, actually. Think of it this way, even if the absolute worst case scenario happens and the client vanishes mid-project then the most you lose is the other half of the money.

Getting half of the amount up front is also beneficial for other reasons:

  1. You have the money, which is always good.
  2. It makes the situation serious (just like a contract) and ensures both parties that things are already in motion.
  3. It motivates you to do the work.
  4. It motivates the client to have the work done. (This one may sound counterintuitive, but not all clients are actually that eager to see their project completed.)

The thing about advance payments is that almost all honest clients have absolutely nothing against them. More than that, they will be happy to pay you, precisely because of the reasons listed above.

If you’re not sure how much to charge, we can help with that too.

4. Pay attention to the red flags

Most client relationships start kind of normal. Everything’s fine, everyone’s excited and ready to get started with the project, but then something unexpected happens – a client says something that’s a bit odd.

That’s why we call those things red flags. Red flags indicate possible trouble, especially if you ignore them.

Let’s go over some of the more common ones:

  • “This will look great in your portfolio.”
    Sounds innocent, but what it actually means is that the client has no money and will almost certainly be late with your payments. After all, you’re doing the work to be able to put it in your portfolio, not to get paid, right?
  • “We’ll have more work after this project.”
    This is meant to get you excited and willing to work for lower pay today just because there’s more work coming your way in the future. Granted, more work might indeed be coming your way, but almost 100 percent of the time you’re better off assuming that it’s a one-off thing.
  • “Help me with ______. This will only take you a minute.”
    In this case, the client wants you to do some additional task for free, purely because your experience allows you to get it done quickly. On the contrary, the fact that you’re experienced is precisely why you should get paid for this.
  • “We need a design ninja for this project!”
    Phrases like “design ninja,” “WordPress extraordinaire,” “Photoshop magician,” are meant to achieve two things: (1) make you feel good, (2) disguise the fact that the client doesn’t really know what your work is about.
  • “Let your creative juices flow.”
    This in plain English means, “I have no guidelines and absolutely no clue what I want you to do in this project.” This can create problems later down the road when you start presenting some designs and the client has no way to evaluate them.

In general, whenever any of these happen, just treat it as a sign that some problems are possibly just around the corner. Whether or not you should turn away the client automatically is up to you.

Do you need to be extra careful about this?

I really didn’t want to make this post sound overly negative, so if that’s your impression, I’m truly sorry. In fact, I’m really grateful for everyone I’ve had the privilege to work with.

After all, clients are the reason why I’m here, writing an article and not sitting in a cubicle somewhere.

That being said, every once in a while you will stumble upon someone who’s not entirely honest, or someone who, at first, didn’t want to do you wrong, but it just turned out that way. You just need to be prepared for that.

In a sentence, the best rule of engagement I can give you is this: Be positive, but cautious. Expect things to go great, but at the same time be ready for them to go bad.

What’s your take, have you encountered any serious client problems in your career so far?

Conversation here.

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Millo Articles by Karol K.

Karol K. is a blogger and writer, published author, and a team member at Check us out if you don't like converting your PSDs to WordPress by hand, we'll take good care of them for you.
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  1. Great post! I was scouting for clients and did some spec work for a candidate just to get things rolling. I even provided a second draft. I always asked for a 50% deposit to complete the remaining half of the job. Afterwards the candidate attempted to lowball me into doing the rest of the work without payment upfront. I pointedly communicated that I was concerned. The candidate attempted to reverse-psych me with similar concerns. I stood my ground after reading your post, and expect the candidate to now crawl back under the woodwork. Your post reinforced the importance of getting the deposit, and I appreciate it, truly!

  2. Bhupendra Powale says:


    Well explained & very its very true. People can afford expensive home but always try to put their money at the time of spending it on Interior Designer Consultancy fee. Experiencing the same with an well educated old man who is master in his career ( got nothing to do with his degree) as he has come across with reference of my uncle. I have explain this *#[email protected]^% attitude his behavior towards me. My uncles explain to if you aren’t comfortable then collect the fee amount any how & say good bye to him. Unfortunately that Old man is my Uncle’s boss.

  3. Aamrapali Bhogle says:

    Only 3 out of every 10 clients may turn out to be cheats. But each project typically involves several months of efforts. And eventually getting shortchanged in even three such projects consecutively could mean loss of one working year. That one year of serious losses scores high above all positive memories on a freelancer’s list of experiences. It’s in no way exaggerated, nor casual… like the dishonest clients would like to pretend it is.

    I’m an interior designer. I get paid only for my design services. But very often there’s this one client who’ll try to pretend that s/he doesn’t know it. They’ll insist that I invest my personal money in purchasing luxury lifestyle products for them and that they’ll compensate for it “later” along with my design fees. And a polite refusal to oblige is also taken as non-cooperation to complete project.

    “I’ve put in so much money to renovate my home, so now it’s your turn to invest in the purchases. C’mon, we’re into this project together!” Unbelievable but true!

    Much needed article. Thanks!

  4. In response to the question of an email serving as a legal contract:

    In the U.S. at least, acceptance of an offer by email is every bit as binding as a signature. So is acceptance by phone or in person, although it is harder to prove in court.

    There are just 4 requirements for a contract to be legally binding: Agreement, Capacity, Consideration, and Legality.

    You can read more here:

  5. Just a quick question. Would emails and all other correspondence between client and designer not act as some sort of contract?

    Thanks for following us 🙂

    1. (Not a legal advice.)

      It can help you should you take it to court. But act as a contract? Not really. 🙂

  6. Scott Wetzel says:

    Another red flag phrase is “how much do you charge for a simple _____?” To a client “simple” means cheap. To the designer, it means we will be spending several hours trying to work with very low res jpgs in a large format capacity…none of which work well together and will eventually have to be drawn on our dime…

    1. You can always say that a “simple” something will cost more than a “normal” something because “simple” requires additional work to make the thing simple. 🙂

      1. Scott Wetzel says:

        I often have to explain that simplifying artwork generally means more thought, sketches and effort so my pricing stands. They usually bounce after that 🙂

  7. Thanks Karol K for this piece. I will definitely put it to good use, especially when dealing with new clients. I have had my fair share of clients that came with stories like “We are only starting out now so we aren’t able to pay you as well as your other more successful clients” or “Lets grow together. You help us with this and we will tell everyone who designed it for us”.

    Unfortunately I fell for some of them, hoping that they will eventually pay up but nay! I agree with you, the best is to let the client make a decision based on your portfolio.

    Thanks again!

    (Lusaka, Zambia)

    1. Thanks, Lee!

      The “let’s grow together” thing is very common. While it may all sound great at first and even if they offer you shares of the company, 10% of 0 is still 0.

  8. Great post! Some wise words indeed. I love the “Be positive, but cautious.”

    As for the phrases “design ninja,” “WordPress extraordinaire,” or “Photoshop magician” – if they’d kindly take “kick-butt” anything out of the mix I’d be oh so happy!

    1. Yep, that’s a good one too. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  9. This isn’t a red flag that you’ll be cheated, but a red flag that the job will take twice as long as necessary and be twice as painful: clients that cannot stop talking. My pet peeve is in the introductory call, where the client pitches YOU nonstop for 20 minutes about their project, and they can’t even pause long enough for you to interject a question, such as “How can I help you with this?” I sense there’s no room for dialogue, and that any future communications will cost you a lot of time which would be better spent doing the actual work.

    1. You are indeed right, that happens a lot. But I guess it’s just a personal trait some people have. Probably a good way to handle this would be to switch to email communication. People are not nearly as eager to write you 3-4 pages worth of text.

  10. Great piece. Especially liked the Red Flags and have experienced most of them first hand.

    Another Red Flag I often encounter with clients is the dreaded, “Hey, can you do me a favor …. ” plead. This enters the quasi-amiguous land of working for free. I generally inform my clients (politely) that I don’t do favors professionally and that I, like any business, exchange my labor for some form of compensation (mostly US Dollars). This usually is followed by an uncomfortable, yet polite, chuckle from the client who professes, “Of course. I never meant for you to not charge me. He, he, he.” Then I whisper in my head, “Yeah, right.”

    Not that I don’t do the occasional “favor” for a client. “Hey, can you send me a copy of my logo?”, or can you send me another PDF of the layout?”. Those things are part of the job and over delivering, to a point, is good for client relations.

    Just be careful out there in freelance land. It’s a jungle.

    1. “Hey, can you do me a favor …” that’s a nice one. Thanks for sharing!

  11. I think when we’re starting out, we all take on projects that give us that dodgy feeling just because we need the work, or think that everything will work out fine — but almost every time, that gut feeling has proven to be correct!

    I’m familiar with all of those red flags you mentioned – and as time has gone on, and I’ve grown more experienced (both as a designer and in dealing with clients and potential clients), they are becoming easier to spot, and easier to say no to.

    I completely agree with the “positive but cautious” approach. I think that even now, I’m still a little *too* trusting, but that’s just because I like to give clients the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes this comes back to bite me, but I do use contracts and set up payment plans etc to negate this as much as possible. As a whole, I’ve had a pretty positive experience with just a few clients who have soured things a little along the way.

    1. What’s your current approach, do you always say “no” when any of those red flags appear, or do you try to work things out at least at the beginning stages of the project?

  12. Deepesh C says:

    My personal favorites, “Let your creative juices flow.” & “We’ll have more work after this project.”

    At first when I started off fresh after ma design school, I didn’t have much to show off to start with so ended up with a lot of spec work which cost me many hours without any returns, monetary and emotionally. It was only after I secured a Day job, as an Designer in a software start-up did I find the courage enough to weed out those clients with contracts and advance payouts. This way I didn’t have to worry about chasing away customers and holding onto them even though I knew that they would not be paying promptly. This way I was always working with clients that came in with interesting projects that actually kept my “Creative juices flowing”

    1. Saying “no” is always the most difficult “task” for freelancers. But in the end, it’s the only way to make room for good clients and get rid of the (potentially) bad ones.

  13. Thanks so much for your helpful article. Having that contract is so important and precisely for the reasons you mention.

    Lately I have experienced clients expecting me to provide (for free) and advise them of peripheral services such as SEO and explanations why their website (for website projects) is not immediately appearing on google or other search engine result prominently. I end up spending a lot of time (no charge) educating them. Additionally there is the assumption that we should know how their computer system and applications have been set up is also frustrating. This has lead to being the scapegoat when they are not able to perform a basic function such as saving a file attachment to their desktop from an email.

    You live and learn and in addition to an itemized contract of services I will now specifically point out what is not included such as comprehensive SEO
    and a guarantee of high ranking search results on Google or other search engine. I realize it IS a matter of education and recommend they research service providers in those specialty areas. There are no red flags as such to indicate this situation will arise, it usually comes well after project completion.

    I would love to hear from designers that are experiencing the similar situations. Thanks again for your good discussion topics and helpful information.

    1. When it comes to the education-related problems I encourage you to spend one afternoon looking for the best possible resources on things like SEO, online marketing, etc. that you can find online. Basically, anything that your clients might ask you about. Then use those resources to educate your clients. Simply send them the links, so you don’t have to explain everything yourself.

      PS: Contacting a designer when they don’t know how to save a file attachment to their desktop is just wrong. 🙂

  14. watermark idea id good. but wont it dishonor good clients?

    1. I doubt it. Honest people want you to do spec work only so they can see the quality of the result. They won’t mind the watermark, purely because they don’t intend to use this work anywhere.

  15. Hi,
    great points. these are indirect ways to mean that this client is a tire kicker.

  16. Wonder what others do when it comes to printing. My policy is to collect all before going to press. I also do not provide refund or return.

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