Graphics, guts and glory

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September 09, 2014
Graphics, guts and glory.

I write articles about how to get a client to accept a contract, keeping your dignity and rights as a professional creative and, at times, how to really fight against a bad client.

I receive emails from people asking advice on solving a problem with a client and even write a “Dear Abby-type” column for creatives to write in about design dilemmas they face. Some people who know me personally will ask to “borrow some of [my] bastardness” when having to deal with difficult clients.

The truth is, deep down, I’m just as frightened by the prospect of confronting a bad client situation.

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. ~ Winston Churchill

As with most creatives I started my career getting stepped on by clients. What may have contributed to my ability to be confrontational was being raised in New York and my psychological need to destroy those who have wronged me, tempered by years of realizing the best way to deal with people is a smile and a firm belief that the agreement we made between us is what we should both strive to keep — and now, back to reality!

Negotiations made easy

By fighting you never get enough, but by yielding you get more than you expected. ~ Dale Carnegie

We all know that nervous feeling when it comes time to tell a client the fee for their wish list of design needs. We wonder if they will accept a high bid, expect a low bid or really want us to offer a website or other complicated design project for $50. This is when most freelance designers turn their underpants into a fudge factory.

The first step in gaining control of the delicate situation of pricing out a project is to tell the client that you’ll have to give them a fee after “researching the elements and cost runs.” It sounds odd when building a website yourself but if there are photos to purchase, copywriters to hire, etc., then you need to find out the exact costs so you can make a profit. It also gives you time to breath.

Moreover, it gives you time to reflect on the mannerisms and little tell-tale signs if the client is a serious design user or if he/she is looking for a bargain… and if you want to be the person to give it to him/her.

When coming up with a fee and not having to consider a “solid” offer from the client, all it takes is figuring out a fair fee for yourself and adding 10% you can knock off in front of the client. You also have to consider other things you might have to surrender during the project. How many changes are allowed and what kind of changes.

I had one client argue that he was not making changes when he wanted to start over again and add a dozen different peripheral items to the project. He claimed the project was “evolving!”

“So will the final fee,” I told him.

He was shocked and it took a little further negotiating of what I would do vs. what he would pay. In the end, we were both happy and he has actually returned as a client.

Honestly, when he smiled and tried to push past changes with a fancy explanation, I got a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach, as I do every time I have to exert control over a weird situation with someone who might go completely insane. In fact, I almost prefer they go insane so I can end the pain quickly by getting rid of them by insisting on the original contractual terms. It’s not knowing how each point out of my mouth will be treated. Even when I smile and offer fair terms, I have been called a cheat, greedy and some clients suggest I do filthy things with family members (mine, not theirs).

My response in this case was to increase the fee due to the scope creep of the project, it was my metaphorical punch to his face. I felt better and he knew how far I could be pushed. Luckily, he backed down and my feeling of nervousness turned into one of triumph.

So, a bit of a tense feeling watching that? Feel a little nauseous? Well, I haven’t had any client negotiations quite like that, except for the bat thing but it reminds us that confrontation usually escalates. As happens in the animal kingdom, of which we are part, sometimes there are challenges due to territory or mating, which is 100% like the design industry, but they tend to de-escalate even quicker.

How nice it would be if design was like roofing or plumbing; clients listen to what you say, take an estimate and stay out of your way until you’re done. Then, they give you a final payment. If they ask you to replace the toilet with a different color, they pay for you to do it. They might argue but they always end up paying or using a half finished bathroom. People tend not to care so much about half-finished websites. They won’t rely upon it being there and fully functional in the morning.

This is the daily existence of the freelancer. It’s nerve-wracking for most. If only there was a way of having a project run smoothly? What form of agreement would let both parties know the parameters of work equaling pay?

Contracts are made to be broken

Contract law is essentially a defensive scorched-earth battleground where the constant question is, “if my business partner was possessed by a brain-eating monster from beyond space and time tomorrow, what is the worst thing they could do to me? ~ Charles Stross

“Contracts are made to be broken” is an old cliché but you won’t find it attributed to anyone, although it was some dishonest person who said it and the same who use it now. I’ve had clients say the same thing when they want more for less. When it comes to agreements and negotiations, I remember the words of my friend and former corporate coworker, James Harmon; “it’s okay to cut a deal but not when it cuts your own throat!”

In a design survey WebDesignerDepot spotlighted in the article “Survey results: What designers want,” 39% of designers don’t require clients to sign on the dotted — or any — line, to take on a project. Most of those designers are too afraid to pin down the client to an agreement in writing. The most common reasons are:

  1. I don’t want the client to think I don’t trust him/her and don’t want to risk getting the project.
  2. I don’t want the client to get scared off by a contract and I’ll lose the project
  3. The client said he/she doesn’t sign contracts and insisting on one will lose me the project.
  4. I’m afraid a contract will hook me into a bad situation.
  5. I don’t have a contract.

These are all real fears and happen every day to designers, just like being cheated and used by the very same people who insist they won’t sign a contract, and those who do but later on claim “a contract is made to be broken” because they heard that somewhere.

We are no longer in a “handshake-is-my-contract” or “my-word-is-my-bond” kind-of-world anymore and anyone who says it has had trouble in court due to contractual terms by which he/she didn’t want to abide.

Are projects so scarce that we have to abide by taking less? Less respect as professionals, less as solution providers or less than full pay for a complete job?

If you’d like a good contract (for free), try They have several contracts for designers and more for niche designers as well as NDAs and other contractual agreements. If the word “contract” is too much for you to confidently push on a client, then try “work order” or “purchase order.” I’ve even heard people call it a “designer confirmation.” Just paste it into your email agreeing to the terms as you outlined in a meeting, on the phone, Skype or another email and let the passage that has the client agreeing to all terms by starting the project (no signature needed as the start of the project and delivery of a deposit payment is considered the electronic signature/agreement to terms).

Just being silly

A coward is a hero with a wife, kids, and a mortgage. ~ Marvin Kitman

I lost a good client the other day. They had paid on time, in full and even as a retainer for the following month’s work. Then, the day before the payment was due, the website’s owner broke the bad news. I had expected it for a while and told a friend I would keep working as long as the payments kept coming but I knew this client wasn’t going to make it.

Don’t get me wrong. I worked my rear off for this guy and had he not worked just as hard to negate everything I did, his website would be competing in a very crowded niche market. For months I would wonder when I would be told I was no longer needed but when it did arrive, I was numb.

At least he incorporated everything I begged him to do after getting rid of me. If it weren’t for the horrendous typos and grammatical mistakes, he might have survived. Still, I left, wishing him luck, keeping the bridge open in case something interesting and sane arose in the future. I doubt, however, my doing work for his competitors now will keep the bridge from blazing high into the sky.

It reminded me of my divorce; I was dumbfounded as to what I was going to do next but oddly relieved I was out of a bad situation. Still, that feeling in my gut was bad. It was the same feeling I have when I have to push back on client ideas for me to extend a scope of a project by, as put by a recent client, “doing it in [my] spare time.”

I have several clients that keep me on retainer, paying up front for a discount is a common practice. And still, despite knowing I do a great job for them, seeing results daily and having them sing my praises, I wonder if that payment will come in every month. The same goes for my singular freelance clients. Will they pay on time? Will they pay all of the invoice? Will they need to be gently nudged about payment one or two times before things get seriously frightening?

I still get that feeling — that odd feeling that there will be some kind of problem. It’s not just a gut feeling, either. It’s a full on panic attack! I build myself up like Groucho does in this scene from Duck Soup...

And then I am calm again. This may be a more serious problem than just feeling nervous when you’re about to explain to a client why following the crayon sketches his fifth grade daughter did after the website went live, redesigning the site, and not charging for it just won’t really work for you.

The FU place

I don't care what is written about me so long as it isn't true. ~ Dorothy Parker

At some point in the last few years, I had an epiphany that cleared my senses. I stopped caring about getting my name out there as a designer, to other designers. I also didn’t want to take crap from clients anymore.

I rarely get those weird gut feelings anymore as I avoid clients who start raising the red flags. I still get the “opportunity” offers from startups and small businesses and although I politely engage them in alternatives to their “opportunity,” how money can be paid. They bail and I feel great. I believe it’s just that I arrived at the “FU Place.” That’s the place in your career where you can be choosey about projects you accept. Of course, with every article I write, there’s another design job I can turn down. You may notice I write more these days. I also sleep better and stopped coughing up blood during client meetings.

Featured image/thumbnail, courage image via Shutterstock.

Speider Schneider

Speider Schneider is a former member of The Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine and has designed products for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, ESPN, Mattel, DC and Marvel Comics, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon among other notable companies. Speider is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild, co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee and a former board member of the Society of Illustrators. Follow him on Twitter @speider or add him on Google+

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