How to spot a rotten design client before signing the contract

It has happened to me one too many times:

A potential clients calls me, we talk about their project, we meet and discuss the details of the project and sign the contract.

And then the client turns rotten.

Of course, they don’t violate any terms of their contract, but every time I communicate with them, they seem to get offended, ignore my advice, or demand I add something to the project (increasing my scope without offering more pay).

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And, of course, in retrospect, I never would have signed on with a client like that if I would have known how our relationship would turn out. So today, I want to try to rescue you from potentially rotten clients before you sign the contract. I’ve done a little brainstorming and come up with a few traits of a potentially rotten client. Add your opinion by leaving a comment.

Traits of potentially rotten clients

They hired you because you’re the “cheapest option”
Watch out for clients who hired you because you’re a “cheap freelancer”. I have had clients who think they have have an entire web site with full CMS capability for about 1/5 or less of what I usually charge for something like that.

If phrases like “We wanted to hire a design firm, but we didn’t have the money for it” creep up too often, reconsider the option. Make sure they have money to pay you before jumping into a relationship together.

They seem to talk down to you
This might seem obvious, but I am surprised when designers decide to work for clients who talk down to them. If you’re freelancing especially, don’t waste your time with clients like that.

If they think you are less important than they are, your opinion will never matter to them, you’ll never be able to request prompt payment, etc.

They keep using phrases like “This shouldn’t be too hard”
One of the most common traits of potentially rotten clients is when they use phrases that demonstrate a complete lack of understanding what a design project entails.

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Most people take design for granted.

We see it all around us every day, we all have a cousin or an uncle who used Photoshop 7 in 1995 or whatever, and many potential clients think design is mostly a matter of having the right software. If a potential client is assuming a project won’t cost as much or take as much time as you know it will, you may not want to team up with them.

They are reluctant to sign your contract
Here’s an easy sign of a rotten client: they won’t sign your contract. If they aren’t willing to agree to your terms, then they are most likely planning on not following them. Steer clear of these kinds of clients.

They have a family member who “could do it, but they don’t have time”
Have you ever had a potential client say “Yeah, my uncle is a web designer guy, but he’s so busy at work that he can’t do it right now.”?

I’ve heard it to.

And more often than not, clients with this mentality undervalue your skills as a designer. They see you as the next-best option and as someone who, like their uncle, is probably kind of good at design but works as a financial clerk at his day job. Either help them understand what you bring to the table, or ditch them before they go rotten.

What other warning signs of rotten clients have you seen?

These are a few examples of potential rotten clients I can recall. What else would you add? Let us know what you think by leaving a comment on this post.

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  1. A relative got me to design a logo for his company. He mentioned ‘help’. In my opinion, help can be rendered with payment. But in his opinion, ‘help’ meant FREE. I never would have ‘helped’ if they didnt want to pay.

    And so i provided them a first draft of some ideas in PDF. With that, they took it and proceeded to use it on their letterheads and namecards. I was not even informed about this until i asked my relative about the progress.

    And my mean relative merely just fished out a $50 note from his wallet and apologised, as if to appease me.

    I felt robbed and raped. I was so pissed i didnt speak to him for months.

    My bad for handling this too casually without drafting out a T&C initially.
    And, i’ve learnt to send out low resolution jpgs instead of PDFs in future.

  2. If they do not return your first phone call then they do not value you or your time. I always say if you have time to go to the bathroom then you have time to make or return a phone call. I don’t like dealing with people who are lazy, dishonest, or unorganized. They are nearly impossible to please.

    I absolutely require a 50% up front kill fee for all work. This includes repeat customers. Fortunes change.

  3. These are all major red flags – thanks for writing them up! I’ve been in business for 13 years now and being a “yes” person in general have found myself in many situations where I definitely should have said “no” before we ever got going. I’ve honed my skills a bit through the years but every now and then a bad one will still get through.

    Some of the worst are the ones who want to play “designer” for a day. You don’t always spot them right away, they can be tricky. They want to see what you can do first. They give you some murky direction and say “let’s see what greatness you come up with!” But when your concepts are not exactly the picture they have in their head they start sending you sketches that they’ve drawn and ask you to “make them work”. At that point they’ve just turned you into a monkey with computer skills and they may as well go to Kinkos.

    Several years ago I actually told one guy to “go to Kinkos”. Charged him for my time to that point but refused to continue with the logo design he’d drawn out. I explained to him first, in several different ways over several discussions, why his idea simply would not work as a logo. It was very complicated drawing with the name of the company very small – about 1/8 the size of the rest of the logo, and skewed back in perspective as well making it very hard to read. The name of his company would have been totally lost when printed on a business card.

    I offered him several solutions incorporating his concept in a way that would make a good logo – but he kept insisting his bad idea was what he wanted. So…finally I realized there was no point going on and I gave up. “Go to Kinko’s, sir. There is no need for you to pay for a professional designer when all you actually want is someone who knows their way around Illustrator.”

    He was really angry and didn’t want to pay, but finally did and off he went. I never heard from him again. Somehow, I don’t have a problem with that.

    1. @Rochelle Weiner, I learned the hard way too about disrespectful clients and payment. My client was super suspicious of me from Go but I was a very young freelancer and eager to pad my portfolio so I thought I could “win her trust” – in turn she killed mine.

      Fortunately I had presence of mind at the time for a basic contract; after 6 months she still had not okayed the initial sketch for the website but kept demanding new and different designs, the project was way out of scope. I tried talking to her about this but finally I had to remove myself from the project, as professionally as possible. I kept her measly deposit as compensation for the 6 months of trouble and left her with the files we developed – seemed a fair trade, I wasn’t stopping her from working with someone else. She didn’t see it that way.

      Several months later she took me to court for 3x the deposit citing I had cost her all sorts of business loss. It was a terrible experience. The judge fortunately shut her down at the first hearing (I could not be held responsible for expenses I had never agreed to be held responsible for) but the experience derailed my confidence for a long time.

      I have learned to listen to my gut and take initial signs seriously. If someone doesn’t exhibit trust (and I take ethics seriously) I need to question where they are coming from. First impressions really are everything.

      1. @Hthr Im so sorry that happened to you! Something similar happened to me through Paypal. My client was a “celebrity” stylist with a lot of public influence, so i thought that this was going to be an amazing opportunity and compromised on my pricing. in the beginning her budget was small and then it grew and grew and we ended up being way over scope, but i let it go. 1 month later after the project was over, 1 of her items never arrived and she wanted me to find a replacement. i told her i could but it would be at my hourly rate since the project was over. Well she did not like that and filed a claim on paypal to get all her money back that she paid me. Paypal shut her case down in my favor TWICE! then she did a chargback with her card company on one of the payments and of course she won. PLEASE never ever use paypal to get paid for your services, they won’t protect you.

    2. @Rochelle Weiner I literally have to stop myself from rolling my eyes when people say “they have a designers eye” or whatever. They literally are the WORST people to work with! I seriously want to fire my current client because she has completely taken over my job. She has ignored my professional design advice many times, she has re-specified almost ever piece of furniture and decor i have presented to her, and she claimed her budget was small but she has gone behind my back purchasing items that would put us wayyy over budget. I would send her an item and she would send me back a totally different item that she purchased instead saying “I liked this item better so i purchased it.” …………. I think i want to fight her.

  4. Love this article. It’s easier when there are tell tale signs but more often than not, these type of clients seemed to have master the art of camouflaging their nasty sides until the job is awarded.

  5. I totally agree with this post. I went through the process of getting a full time job recently. It was for a supposed creative job at a marketing company. When I got there for the second interview I was suddenly hired and needed to start ASAP with out regards to working all of the details out. Red Flag. First day of work I was told to go on blogs and comment as much as possible but don’t look spammy. Red Flag. They had hired a person but they had quit after a day, so I was a replacement. Red Flag. Suffice it to say I did not come back for a second day. I don’t what is with people and creative. Is there an invisible sign on our backs that say we don’t care if we are disrespected?

  6. This is great! Thanks for putting all of this into words. My favorite is when they say this shouldn’t take too long. You are absolutely right. They don’t value design or understand the process.

  7. I always make sure that client sign the contract first and then only the client should ask for the things that they want to incorporate in website designing.

  8. Rang lots of bells for me. I’ve lost lots of clients this way over the years but you learn from your mistakes and now I have a refined process that nds with the client receiving a functional spec, project scope & Ts& Cs.

    I usually accept a mail or even verbal response to start a project but if I get one of the above I insist on a wet signature.

    Thankfully, in the last 5 years I have only lost 3 clients this way (maximum).

  9. Quite a few of these scenarios can be nipped in the bud with a good project management system (we use activeCollab). And most good clauses in contracts were borne of a few bad experiences. After so much client foot-dragging toward the conclusion of a project, I had a clause put into our contracts (with our lawyer’s blessing, of course), that if after x number of days from submission of the final product for review (generally anywhere from 15-45 days, depending on the scope of the project itself), we did not hear from the client one way or the other, we had the right to declare the project “final,” and demand all monies then due and owing. That seems to keep most of them on track and coupled with our PM system, pushes things through the pipe pretty smoothly. It also cuts out that he said-she said battle when you could have sworn you told your client one thing, and they heard another. When it’s memorialized in the PM system for all to see, there’s a lot less of that nonsense. 🙂

    1. @Joni Mueller, Yes i agree that is positive initiative and keeps client very much under control and ethical environment.Another thing to consider is that we have keep away our emotional attachment from professional dealings in order to save our future dealings and relations.

  10. Whenever a client tries to get me to use a template and have me be the “cut and paste” guy, I run. Any client that doesn’t respect your creative freedom, doesn’t deserve your creative respect.

    I find these types of clients tend to fail down the road anyway, leaving you without a good reference.

  11. A good post, it’s always difficult to tell the “Rotten Client” before signing up and I (as would any freelancer) have had it a couple of times!

    In my experience with a recent client who turned rotten, his initial ability to be in contact with me, rippled through the entire project, leading to wasted time chasing, and being expected to drop everything because he is on the phone there and then.
    It got to the point where I was being blamed for his lack of contact, and eventually the project ended incomplete with only half the payment, for a site that went well beyond the initial bounds of the agreement.

    Bottom line, if they can’t keep in contact, don’t contract.

    1. @Terry, Similarly, notice their style and method of contact (Preston sort of touches on this above with “talking down”)… I was negotiating with an upbeat client who was happy to heap praise on me but decided not to work with her because she only ever text messaged me, sent poorly worded emails that made little sense and always responded days later with apologizes – and this was the negotiating phase! I went with my gut and decided it wasn’t worth the pay (also “doesn’t have a lot of money”) for what would continue to be a hassle.

  12. “I never would have signed on with a client like that if I would have know what it would how our relationship would have turned out.” ??? What were you trying to say here? Proofread, proofread, proofread. Otherwise, great points.

    1. @Joni Mueller,
      Thanks for the help. Sorry for the grammar. Sometimes my brain gets ahead of my fingers.


  13. I have a client that anytime we meet, forget everything we sad in the past meetings (or even what we wrote via email! Dude, it’s wrote!). That turn me crazy (even if he pay).

  14. Great timing on this article. I am in battle with a client currently to get payment. And all of these warning signs were there. When (if) I get paid, he’ll also be learning I will no longer be available for his work.

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