Protecting yourself as a designer

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?

  • Jerome Iveson

    I wholeheartedly agree with this article. I think most designers do the job because they love it. That’s fine by me, but I think at some point business sense need to come into the equation. Unfortunately a lot of the time it is after the horse has bolted. Maybe a nightmare client or money lost through non payment. 

    Most good clients should have no problem paying a deposit or signing up to some sensible terms and conditions. If they do alarm bells should be ringing.

    As for designing for friends and family, I don’t necessarily think its a bad thing. Just make sure you have 100% creative control, then you may get a good piece of work. If not there’s nothing worse than a quick project turning nasty because your friend/family member becomes the picky client from hell.

    Using a good project management tool to track your time and budgets will help. I recommend :)

    • Kendra Gaines

      I agree. Without business sense we would all be taken advantage of. I promise you, once I started doing deposits, it ended up weeding out so many waste of time clients.

  • Wardsandler

    FYI the link to Kendra’s website isn’t correct…

    • Webdesigner Depot

      Thanks, this has been corrected now

  • inserthtml

    Very interesting. I have thought of a lot of these things before, but it’s nice to see a list to put them in perspective instead of my messy memory. 

  • SayOverBrian

    I have seen hardcore designers who only go ahead and work with well trained clients, others will accept anything in order to get paid and move on.
    I learnt that the working with any type of client instead of selecting with care, could be very expensive and end up costing more than the apparent income that they provide to the freelancer.

  • Jerome Iveson

    I think my previous comment has gone missing.  I thought it was very insightful as well. I’ll have to remember what I said now.

  • Justin Aguilar

    I would still be pissed off if I dropped a $100 camera haha

    • Kendra Gaines

      I would (and have) too lol. But that’s because we understand quality

  • Writeonserv

    About two years into business I added a PITA (Pain In The Ass) charge of $100 to some clients who wasted my time with useless meetings or late night phone calls with”ideas”. It cost those clients $100 for the initial call…soon they either went somewhere else (which was a good thing) or wasted less of my time. Oddly enough, no one ever asked what PITA stood for…

    • Kendra Gaines

      I must steal this idea

  • Anonymous

    I’ve been experimenting with a couple of different tactics to handle the issue of giving out free advice and free work to friends and family. I’m not going to go so far as to call these “successful” though. Mainly because I usually don’t follow my own guidelines.

    #1 always invoice, even if you deduct the full amount as a discount ’cause it’s for your mom. It ensures people see the full value of your time and what you put into the project.

    #2 Set a budget for reduced rate projects for friends. Like, you can afford to donate 300$ worth of time per month (at whatever rate you bill it at) to non-profits / charities and the guy next door.  Budget it out as you would any other business expense, and when you’ve given away your time (aka money) that you have budgeted, it has to be rolled into the next month. Hell, tell “Dave” or whoever, that you’d love to do his project for 20 bucks / hour, but that time has been allocated to Save The Children or The Food Bank. It would be really cool if it actually *was*.

    #3 if my friend, neighbor, sister, or mom are going to make money because of work I did, I charge my full un-discounted rate. For example, setting up an ecommerce site, designing a sale flier etc. Yes, even for my mom. If she wanted me to design wallpaper for the dinning room, I’d do that for free though.

  • Rananazia11

    I’m a Designer, all this seemes very familiar. I learnt the hard way.. I have worked with very nasty ..ignorant clients.But I’d be still very carefull dropping that $100 camera. 

  • Daquan Wright

    If I felt it was touchy to do work for friends/family, I’d make a policy to not do work for friends/family. It’s too stressful to be worrying about how they feel. If they can’t see the value you provide, then they aren’t the ideal clients for you. I’ve dealt with a family member who wanted a website, treating me as if I started doing work yesterday and thought $200 was a lot. I just told her to go online and look at what they charge, I’m not undervaluing my services. And neither should anyone who wants to work with me. These are the first people you need to be steering away.

    I agree with the points, you need to be proactive. 

    As for revisions, I do unlimited paper and pencil/pen wireframes that illustrate’s the website’s layout and functionality. Once I begin the UI design in photoshop, I’ll start over with a fee everytime. Wireframes are simple, fully designed ui’s are expensive for time.

    • Jay Lee

      I have to agree about the policy about not working with friends or family.  At the same time it’s because they’re friends/family that you’re in trouble no matter what answer you give (a “No” being just as painful because everyone else will know you refused, and you’ll go down in family history as the one who wouldn’t do Uncle Bob a favor..).
      What I’d do is draw up a standard contract, put their name on it, and have them understand that if they’re serious, you’re going to treat them as a client and keep business and personal matters separate.  Nothing personal, it’s just the way you work.  Say it with a smile of course.

      Small world, Daquan :).

    • Kendra Gaines

      See, that right there is touchy, as far as friends and family. I wish I could tell a family member no thanks. I told my mother’s godsister no on a project once (we had bad history and she has a terrible budget) and I STILL haven’t heard the end of it. I think it really depends on the dynamic of your friends and family but I mean as humans, if we see our friend has something, we feel we should have it, too–do you agree? If your friend works at a restaurant, you’d like to get a discount, correct?

  • GADesign

    One other important safeguard I look into is who will be approving my work. If it is one or two people and they have experience working with designers, that’s no problem. But when it is a committee of several with no clear hierarchy of who gets the final word, you can count on making changes forever as everyone gets their two cents in. And if none of those people work with designers regularly, it is even worse. The best way to find out is to ask to see prior marketing materials and ask who was responsible for directing the project. You can be covert, “Oh, that’s interesting. Did you handle that job?” Lots of “I don’t knows” mean it could have been any one of several. Make sure you add plenty of extra time.

    • Kendra Gaines

      Very good observation!

  • Gerry L

    It can really be exciting to take on good projects as they will look good on your portfolio but be careful that you do not end up getting burned out and be at the losing end by the lack of a scope of work and a contract.

    Scope creep is one of the biggest problems in web design and development projects, as some clients want to add more features but are not willing to pay more.

  • Francesco

    Definitely get a contract of some sort . . . in the least, for small jobs (under $500) i will settle for an email . . . but anything that invloves more money than that i draft up an agreement and have both of us sign it . . . I title it “Agreement” instead of “Contract” because it scares the client less . . .!

    As for payments, again for large jobs that cost over $1000, i usually break up my payments into 2 or three installments. One when the Agreement is signed and the others over the course of the job or when i deliver the final materials. 

    I also have a “kill fee” in here . . . and this has saved my butt more than once already . . . the kill fee is usually based on an hourly fee that i state in the agreement instead of a percentage, because i feel it is hard to gauge what % of a job has been completed. This being said, i ALWAYS track my hours with some sort of time tracking software (Hourly or Task Time) . . . this allows me to honestly show proof of hours worked should the client cancel on me . . .most of these apps have a way to export the data to a text file or spread sheet.

    Francesco for

  • Devoratorul Byte

    As a web designer you have to combine your strong verbal and visual communications skills with your enthuziasm and excitement. That’s why you should respect your work, your nerves and accept only those clients who accepts your ideas, are flexibles and which you have an eficient connection. It’s enough to do a good job for one person and they tell others for you.

    And I think that is absolutely necessary to sign an agremeent at the start, in case of misunderstandings. I truly belive in that: “If you want to make things to please yourself, go be an artist. If you want to be a designer you have to learn to manage your client, explain why some things are good and others bad, fit their requirements, be flexible”.

  • Dom

    This is something I’ve been intimately personal with lately. I developed an app for an organization with which I volunteer. I was doing this as a favour and to help them out, and it quickly devolved to all to familiar project managers and ever increasing demands of when it was going to be due. It’s completed, but I’m definitely creating a list of T&Cs for myself. I’d like to consider taking more pro bono work, but I need these to protect myself in the future.

  • SooDonim

    I have recently learnt the hard way that you need to be especially wary of consultants who hire you to work on a project but don’t allow you direct contact with their clients. I took things at face value and neglected to find out whether an associate actually had any project management experience before I got involved in a project. Believe me, there is nothing more stressful and aggravating than discovering your project manager is rubbish at discussing design issues with their client. I wrote detailed emails with lists of the points for discussion – which were ignored – and regularly sent updates of where we were with reminders if the ball was in their court – also ignored.

    Three issues in particular stood out which are worth mentioning:
    • If you are dealing with someone who isn’t very visual, use Lorem Ipsum text rather than actual headings and content, or they will focus on the words rather than the design when giving feedback
    • Check, check and double check that they are using the latest version of your designs when they meet the client to discuss the project. I was instructed to make some changes to a set of draft designs before they had a meeting with the client. When I received feedback from the meeting I thought my go-between had gone mad …until I realised they had used the previous set of designs for the discussion, and the instructions were different. I had to redo the tweaks, which was extremely annoying.
    • Cover your back. Send regular updates by email, document the process, say what you are doing and what they are doing. If they are disorganised and screw something up, they will try to pin it on you. 

    I had spent many many hours helping to get this associate’s business going with a website and other design work for which I received minimal payment, on the understanding that I was the preferred designer, with a promise of regular lucrative work as the business grew.  The first big project turned out to be the last.

    So here’s my advice: Don’t work for next to nothing on a promise. Make sure consultants actually do know what they’re doing. Document everything. Insist that you deal with their clients directly on design issues. If they start showing signs of treating you as a scapegoat, be prepared to cut your losses and get out before it turns ugly. Remain cool, don’t get defensive, stay professional and send a final invoice. 

  • theComplex

    thanks so much for posting this, I’m trying to get these rules drilled into a fellow designer’s head.

  • TheArtofSense

    thanks … will be considered