Protecting yourself as a designer

By Kendra Gaines Posted Aug. 09, 2011 Reading time: 5 minutes

Graphic design is one of those job that everyone needs but whose value perhaps not everyone appreciates.

People who don’t understand the true value of graphic designers will try to take advantage of them, especially if they’re newbies.

Others will try to calculate the time and effort involved in designing and then assume you’ll meet their expectations, however unrealistic.

This can wear on you both financially and mentally, so you have to find ways to protect yourself. Here are four ways to keep your work and your clients in check.

Have a look through them and let us know your experiences and whether you would add anything to this list.


1. Contracts and terms of service

Whenever you land a gig, be as clear as possible with the client so that they understand what will happen. I like to have a full consultation with new clients, and once we come to a basic agreement, I go over what they can expect from me and what I expect from them.

You may want to draw up a contract to get everything down on paper and to make sure everything is clear, just in case you run into trouble later on. There are a few essential things you’ll want to put in the contract or terms of services…


What exactly will you be giving them when all is said and done? This is usually specified by the client; they may want your PSD files or perhaps just a format that can be printed. Let them know what they will be getting so that there is no confusion.


In addition to the deliverables, let the client know a bit about your process and what you expect from them. One of my biggest pet peeves is clients who don’t answer emails in what I think is a timely fashion; if you’re the same, why not put that in your contract? Spell out (and agree on) what you expect from the client and what they expect from you. This alone will clear up much confusion and hold each party accountable for the duration of the project.


This is the cause of most headaches for designers. Spell out as clearly as possible what you consider to be a revision. This is key, because one person’s idea of a revision may not be the same as another’s. Is a revision moving the logo to the left or completely redesigning the page? Once you’ve come to an understanding, specify how many revisions you think are reasonable for the project (and the budget).

I personally don’t mind minor revisions, but complete redesigns are the death of me. To avoid this, you may want to provide several different designs at once and then narrow down as time goes on. But if you do this, make sure it’s contracted. Be up front when talking about revisions as well, and when you submit updates, remind the client what you’ve agreed on.


This is probably the most important part of the contract. How do you want to get paid? Do you want a deposit? If so, how much? Answer all of these questions so that the client knows what to do.

I strongly suggest some type of deposit before you start a project, just so that you know the client is serious about getting work done. Some designers require payment in full up front, while others have certain conditions depending on the total amount of the project. Figure out what works for you, discuss it with the client, and go from there.


We never like to think that someone would cancel on us. It’s one of the worst feelings in the world. But the truth is, it happens, and you need to protect yourself in some way. Perhaps give the client a time period in which they can cancel, or request a non-refundable deposit. Find something that works for you, and, of course, state it clearly in the contract. You never want to do a ton of work only to have the person back out on you with no consequences. Make no exceptions.


2. Say no

Some designers are so eager to stay busy with work or make money that they have a hard time saying no to projects. Too many projects coming your way is not the worst problem to have, but eventually you’ll get frustrated or burnt out. You’ll want to avoid certain types of projects…

Baby budgets

Be absolutely clear with yourself about how low you are willing to go on price for the work involved. You may have to pass on a ton of projects, but people who are willing to pay will eventually come forward. You don’t want to find yourself zipping through a bunch of cheap projects.

Outside your skill set

Be honest about your skill set. When I started out, I took on projects that were outside my skill set, just so that I would stay busy. I had no working knowledge of Flash, but I would guarantee someone a Flash intro or banner. That was a huge mistake, because I had to learn the skill and execute the task to the client’s liking by the deadline. That’s a recipe for stress.

Only take on work that falls within your skill set. Be honest with yourself and your client. Perhaps you could convince them of an alternative solution that does fall within your skill set.

Full plate

If you’re already up to your eyeballs in work, don’t take on more. You’ll just be getting more deadlines and more stress for no reason. Pace yourself; avoid burning out or getting into a creative slump. Give yourself some breathing room between projects so that you have time to rejuvenate and come up with fresh ideas.

Speeding through projects and working at your limit all the time is not good for your mental or physical health. Don’t be so quick to accept whatever crosses your path. Just let good work come to you, and do it on your own terms.


3. Charge more

Protecting yourself has a lot to do with the types of clients you attract. If you attract ones who you just don’t get along with or who are rude and hard to work with, consider increasing your prices.

The amount you charge correlates to the value (and quality) of your product. If you charge pennies for big projects, you might attract a bunch of clients, but they won’t necessarily understand the value you are delivering. When people don’t understand your value or feel you offer little, then they will treat you accordingly.

If you purchase a $100 digital camera, you can enjoy the product, and if you drop it or scuff it up a bit, you won’t be terribly upset because it was only $100. If you purchase a $1500 camera, you’ll be much more careful with it. That’s the kind of mentality most people have with service providers.

Unfortunately for us, working with people who don’t value our services can be very stressful. Consider increasing your prices in order to attract a different type of client, one who values your work.


4. Set barriers with family and friends

This is a touchy subject for most. We all cherish our friends and family, but we are often the only graphic designer they know. And when they come to us for work, they expect a deep discount or even no charge. Figure out beforehand where you’ll draw the line.

If you offer a discount, make sure that at least your time spent on the project will be covered. Beyond that, treat them just like a regular client. Of course, you might want to be a bit more flexible in the number of revisions you allow and things of that nature, which is fair.

Dealing with requests for free work is a bit more difficult. If I accept a project for free, I treat it as my own personal project. I retain total creative control, and once it is delivered, few or no revisions are allowed — and certainly no redesigns. Again, figure out what’s best for you and your business, and sit down and go over it with your relative or friend.


What have we missed? Are there any other essentials that designers should keep in mind when dealing with clients?