4 Red flags you’re being hired by a control freak

The last thing you want is to have a control freak hire you as a freelancer.

To a freelancer, that’s like death.

Of course you should always try to make your clients happy. And you should work with them to design a final project you can both be happy with.

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But there’s “working with” and there’s “being controlled by.”

Am I right?

You know the kind of person I’m talking about. You’ve worked with them before. Or at least, you’ve heard the stories.

And there’s always one thing freelancers who work with control freaks say once they’re finished: “I wish I had known they would be like that.”

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Well, today, you’re in luck.

I’m going to to cover a few red flags to look out for. None of these in an of themselves mean you should walk away from the job, but add a few of them together and it’s possible you’re being hired by a control freak. (PS: add anything I missed in the comments.)

Red flag #1 – Challenging every single term in your contract

There’s being responsible by reading a contract before signing. And then there’s the control freak who doesn’t like one single thing you’ve included in your proposed terms.

If a potential client can’t get on board with one single point in your contract, take a hard look at the relationship and ask yourself if you want to work for them.

Red flag #2 – Showing signs of intense impatience

Yes, you should call back potential clients back as soon as you can.

But if someone calls you 20 times in one weekend just to see if you’re available for work, how are they going to act on milestone days?

Chances are, you’ll spend more time on the phone with this client than you will working on their project.  Be cautious if you see intense signs of impatience.

Red flag #3 – Complaining that other freelancers “didn’t get it”

If a potential client can’t help but complain to you about other freelancers they’ve hired, telling you that the others just “didn’t get it,” use caution.

Saying other people just “didn’t get it” is a common fallacy among control freaks. The truth is, the people they hired probably did “get it” and simply tried to use their brain to solve a problem.

The client likely didn’t like their process, regardless of the end result being positive or not. The truth is, the client doesn’t “get” that you have to let people think, reason, and solve problems for themselves.

Red flag #4 – Claiming to have all the solutions

Speaking of which, if a potential client claims to know exactly what they need, how to achieve it, and they just “need someone with Photoshop or a Mac,” then turn and run as quickly as you can.

Unless you want to spend all your time harboring your creativity and simply clicking a mouse or clacking on a keyboard because your client doesn’t know how to, stay away from potential clients who don’t want to consult with you in any way.

One good thing about freelance sites like Upwork is that you can see a potential client’s proposal before you decide to take on a project. I immediately cross them off my client list if I see anything about how they already know what colors, style and typefaces they want. That is just my rule. It’s not worth the money if you’re constantly responding back to emails from your client that say things like “Change the background to a lime green color.”


Was I right?

So, how did I do? Leave a comment on this post and tell me if you agree or disagree. And of course, add your own red flags.

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  1. This is so true! Especially the last point (I think maybe because it’s one of the most obvious). One good thing about freelance sites like Upwork is that you can see a potential client’s proposal before you decide to take on a project. I immediately cross them off my client list if I see anything about how they already know what colors, style and typefaces they want. That is just my rule. It’s not worth the money if you’re constantly responding back to emails from your client that say things like “Change the background to a lime green color.”

  2. this article made me feel SO much better about not working with a potential client. We couldn’t even get past the contract which we’ve been going back and forth on since August. Thanks

  3. This article hits home! One of my clients is a major control freak. The first project I did for him started out well enough. The page I designed looked really nice but by the end it was a complete joke and I was embarrassed to even be a part of it. It’s a shame when clients control the freelancer so much that the end result suffers. It probably shouldn’t get to that point but if they’re paying a price worth their incompetence than so be it.

  4. You are SO SO SO right. Doing work for some friends and family would possibly be the only thing worse (there you get controlling, entitlement, and no empathy). The other thing I discovered, is that whilst I was working at a big organization people treated you a certain way, but as soon as that organization is outsourcing, and they hire you, suddenly the same people treat you differently – i.e. like an errant child that must be taken to task whenever possible.
    I think people have been so dis-empowered by life in general, that they snap control and power wherever they can get it.
    After 30 years in the business, I still don’t know how to deal with these sorts of people. Often they put you in a “damned if you do or don’t” position. And I will be honest, working in Australia, only with some of the big players and uber educated have I been able to run a job without at least one of those red flags. Yep people, it doesn’t get better.
    I still don’t think that many in other professions see ours as a real one, and perhaps that is where some of the problem lies.

  5. I just turn them down, period. No amount of money is worth the stress. Now, if they have a pink flag (not all the way red ;), I may still take on the project, but charge high. I only do this if I’m slow or the project looks very interesting to me. Hope that helps

  6. YES to all of these. ESP #4. If someone knows “exactly” what they want, run. I know every time I ignore a red flag, I end up regretting it. Thanks for posting, I’ll definitely be sharing this!

  7. Most of the time, I simply remove myself from consideration for the project. You don’t need a reason. If they ask for one, you can be semi-honest and say that you don’t think that your work style (or your schedule) will be a good fit and that you wouldn’t be able to give their project the attention they deserve.

  8. Love this, Preston. When a new print shop client brought me piles of paperwork and ideas from other printers, I knew it would be a whole bunch of work for nothing. And in the end, that’s how it happened.

  9. So true!
    For me 1 red flag is enough.
    But I think it’s easy to avoid them, because most of the times these clients don’t want to pay a lot. In fact, maybe they don’t want to pay you at all!
    Why should they pay, since they have all the solutions!
    I could add a few more, because 1 week ago I interviewed somebody with every red flag on him one could imagine.
    I am still not sure if he wanted to hire a designer or to find a girlfriend!
    At the end he admitted that I am more professional than what he is looking for!

      1. It’s true, because he looked like a nightmare, too!
        But gave me a lot of reasons to joke with my friends!

  10. I used to design elaborate funeral programs and on occasion I had to meet with the family to gather elements for the design. This one particular family took the meeting to another level and actually showed up at my home late one night and had an all out family argument in my yard before knocking on my door. Therefore since I billed the funeral home and not the families, I added an “Aggravation” charge to the bill. So, just add an “Aggravation” fee, but give it a fancy code name. For my actual item line called “Aggravation” Fee the funeral home laughed and agreed that the family members were difficult.

  11. “Didn’t get it” is spot on. I have found this out as a freelancer and an employee. Someone that seems to have a path of freelancers or former employees in their wake should be a big, shining beacon.

  12. I thought I might be a control freak, but now I’m not so sure, haha. I would never dream of doing these things to anyone who wanted to work with me. I do have one client who is always “just checking in” and it can get annoying at times. I can get more done if I don’t have to respond to you checking in 100 times/day.

  13. ok then, so if you figure this out – what should you do? Charge them alot more to cover for all the aggravation and hope they dont hire you? And if they do hire you, you might get paid for feeling like a monkey?

  14. I would like to add one: If their current assets are less than stellar AND they like them like that, especially if you sense they might become defensive about them, they will likely not view your ideas with enthusiasm. There is no way to both please them and design something well.

    Oh here is another: They are used to getting free labor. Many non-profits run just like any ordinary business with marketing departments and significant administrative personnel. Others operate on shoestring budgets and consist almost entirely of volunteer staff. They do not always view a freelancer as a creative professional, but often a cheap way to get a project done. The volunteers they employ are not usually highly skilled in what they do and the partnership mentality that business people hold for fellow professionals is not at always evident between volunteers and facilitators.

  15. Right on the money Preston! I’ve encountered all red flags! Have some more to add:

    A client who says he has a 20-page word doc and ‘just wants it fitted real quick’ in an InDesign doc to about 30-pages with hardly any changes—-is a real “Barney” and I mean Barney Rubble—Trouble! They will harass you with a few hundred changes for the coming weeks and will not be worth the time and trouble you go through. I avoid that phrase from any person like the plague. Real quick design doesn’t exist and never will..unless you want it to look like crap and both parties don’t care and just want it done and printed.

    The other point of doing numerous revisions and amendments to a single design varies from client to client and cannot be exactly pigeon-holed, because everyone’s perception of design and colour is different. I have one I regularly work with and once got to ‘version 18’ on just one illustration. I would be happy to get to version 24 so to speak; for this particular client because he’s a fellow designer as well, working full-time for another company. Because he also understands time and thought-processes with respect to layout/ composition, is fun to work with, is always patient at the end of the day, wants it done right and pays well! So if you come across someone like that, it would be a good lesson in understanding pacing, your personal speed and self-improvement. At the end of the day, us all designers are somewhat minutely obsessive-compulsive when it comes to tweaking things here and there until we’re finally done…

  16. I agree with all of these red flags! Another one to add would be the client bringing the receptionist/office manager/do all person to the meeting and they to know exactly what they need, how to achieve it, and they just “need someone with Photoshop or a Mac,” They control every step yet they claim to hire you because they don’t have the time or knowledge to do the work.

  17. Ive recently taken on a client who fits into this category. Ive had several warnings about the guy and have seen him in action first hand. Nit picks everything. Expects it all now. Luckily though Ive taken him on with this in mind so when I meet with him everything is made completely black & white. The turnaround times, number of alloted changes to design, tries to take complete control of projects. On the flip side though he’s a well-paying client.
    I guess my only advice is to thoroughly research your potential clients before taking anything on. And talk to other designers that might have worked with them before.

    1. That’s some great advice, Adam. Talking with other designers who have worked with them in the past is a great idea.

  18. I agree with Mandi. Having a client that wants you to add to the project and then shuts down every addition. These are usually artists who don’t realise the work is still their baby. For my own sanity, I will not be working with them again.

  19. Wow, this article made me feel SO much better about not working with a potential client. We couldn’t even get past the contract which we’ve been going back and forth on since August. The client kept sending the contract to a lawyer, and the last edited version of it that was sent back to me had upped the number of revisions the client was allowed! Umm hello, I think that’s for me to decide lol. I’m glad we never made it happen because I have a feeling it would have been a headache!

    1. Sometimes a gut-check is the best way to know if a client’s going to be worth working with. Glad you made the right decision!

  20. I had to let a potential client go yesterday. I just wasn’t feeling the creative direction they wanted to go in and the logo they had just wasn’t going to work and didn’t inspire me to create something that I would be proud of. It was a good budget too but I feel great knowing that they can find someone who give them what they need instead of someone who just took the project for a check.

    1. Lenny,
      That’s impressive. It’s not always easy, but if we fall into the money trap too much, it sucks all the fun out of freelancing, right? Thanks for sharing.

    1. Mejla,
      Thanks for sharing. Sometimes that can be a red flag, am I right? But don’t always write someone off just because they’re trying to be frugal. Most business people are.

  21. I agree with Steve P. If you work with these clients, do it by the hour which I find cuts the revisions and annoying back and forth in 1/2. Something else I’d like to try is to budget certain time in the project for correspondence so that if the hours go over with communication, you can start billing without losing profit built in later in the project. Sound like a good idea?

    Either way, I have had clients like this who had none of the warning signs but did emphasize more than most that they wanted me to be creative and see what I came up with– only to shut down anything good I came up with. For me, any creative person is suspect. I have a couple exceptions, but my 2 worst nightmare clients were artists and I have seen an unfortunate bad pattern there.

    1. It’s hard working with über-creative people sometimes, isn’t it, Mandi. The only worse is when someone ISN’T creative, but they think they are. Am I right?

  22. The best thing to to in the cases is charge your client by the hour, not on project basis.
    And if they do want a project based contract, then mention in that contract how many revisions they can have. And if they go beyond that number, how much it will cost them (up your rates for this..)

    @ Gary Smith.. So true!

    1. A great solution, Frank. I always put these sorts of things in my contract. Without it, you don’t have a leg to stand on. Thanks for adding!

  23. Rings true! Usually this is the client that will send you drawings they made themselves on Powerpoint, or on a piece of paper. So you’re just the production gruntworker executing their vision (which often isn’t that amazing). That sucks the joy out of the project, for sure. And to top it off, these are often the clients that want to meet and call constantly – to think out loud while you’re listening and nodding. But of course they don’t like to pay too much – after all, it was THEY who designed and had the plan – you’re just executing it, because the client doesn’t have the software. Sigh. Nevermind the countless hours you spent on the phone. Your time is not valuable to these guys. They’ll haggle all the way through until you just give in to get rid of them!

    1. L,
      Better to find someone who truly values what you bring to the table. I agree. And, don’t worry, everyone, those kinds of clients actually DO exist. 🙂

  24. Another sign: They want to sit with you and “go over a few things while you work” to save time, etc.. This means they want to micro-manage your work.


  25. This article is right on the money! Unfortunately, I have experienced 3 out of the 4 red flags with one of my clients. Not a lot of fun! Now the question is, what do you do when you realize that your client IS a control freak? Do you graciously bow out of the project or is there a way to muddle through without losing your sanity in the process?

    1. Bree,
      That’s a great question. For me it comes down to profitability and sanity. If you’re able to finish out the project while staying both profitable AND sane, it’s probably worth a shot. If you’re going to lose your mind OR your money, I would graciously bow out.

  26. I love all your articles! This is right on the money. I’m more easily controlled than I thought possible. I’m glad to know it’s not just me… My creativity and professional performance and so much more suffers when I work with these types. What a learning curve that’s been…

  27. I find that clients that “have all the solutions” can be some of the most financially rewarding projects I’ve ever had. Constant changes, asking for things that take untold hours of Photoshop, or just untold hours of work to realize their “vision”. And then the changes. Did I mention the changes? Every time I hear “looks great but could we try . . . ” I see dollar signs. The finished concept may not be worth the powder to blow it up but the money is always great. Having one of these little money generators on your client list certainly won’t hurt your bank account. But more than one and you’re doing something wrong. But remember to control your time. Be very explicit about what you are giving them and what will cost extra. Better yet, do it buy the hour.

    1. Steve,
      A totally eye-opening way of looking at it. I like your way of thinking from a business point of view. The only problem I’ve had is that most of these kinds of clients also don’t want to pay a lot of money for your service. So it’s not always quite so cut-and-dry as you mention here. But I like your thinking. Keep it up.

  28. Ironically enough, just had the same experience as the one described above. They didn’t like the “very brief” creative brief of 6 basic questions. They thought it was BS. My theory as to why they declined “the process” is because the client came from MARKETING SALES not marketing communications. Since everyone uses the word marketing for everything that is out on the world wide web, it’s no wonder these terms make designers crazy. It may be prudent to ask what the client does at their work place. Are you in sales? Or are you an art director/designer/creative director that manages marketing communications initiatives.

    1. Great added insight, Cristina. Always good to get to know your clients background and working style. Thanks for sharing.

  29. Not to mention the a countless unpaid changes you’ll most likely be making with the “Control Freak client”. They are also usually conniving, cheap and disloyal S.O.B’s that have that annoying plastic looking smile on their faces or constantly tell you how wonderful you are!

    1. richART, I agree. Part of the trick is being able to just tell by the way they act, talk, treat you if they’re a rotten client.

    2. :))) just said good bye to one of them. Millions of free of charge changes + calls, emails… It was super stressfull.

  30. This is so true Preston. I always go with my gut on a client. Even still, sometimes you make the wrong choice and accept the project. Those are usually ones that take the longest and make the least amount of money. Another area a control client wants is to “help” you with your business when you haven’t asked for opinion. I’ve had a couple of those and it’s always hard to just bite your tongue, smile nicely and move on.

    1. Thanks for adding your pointers and opinion, Lisa. Sometimes it’s better karma to let it go and just finish the project once you’ve already started.

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