I lost $2000 because I missed the signs.

In the past few months I lost $2000 on a project that I spent over 26 hours on. There were so many red flags that this was going to happen. I had that gut reaction, those knots in my stomach telling me something was going to go horribly wrong. But no matter how many times that feeling of inevitable regret would resurface, I ignored it. And for what? Money.

As some of you know, I’ve just started freelancing full-time, and I’m still getting the hang of being my own boss. I was getting steady work, and yet I still took on a project that I knew I shouldn't have because I didn’t read the signs.


If only we could recognize these red flags before getting ourselves in hot water and avoid these bad clients altogether. No more late payments, endless revisions and spec work! Wouldn't the world be a better place if we could sniff out all the nasty nightmare clients before any damage could be done?

It’s not worth working on a project that doesn’t make you happy. All the stress from a bad client experience is never worth the effort. Under no circumstance should you work with some someone that doesn't respect the work you do.

So please, freelancers everywhere, if you get a bad feeling from a client, run away. Run very far away. Tell them you're busy even if you're not, always have an exit strategy in your graphic design contracts and most importantly, learn to read the signs.


Don't say yes to every client that comes a-knocking. There will be other projects and new opportunities coming your way. You don't have to settle. Set standards and avoid clients from hell with these warning signs.

Image from jimkeefe.com

1. Asking for a discount

If you have gone to the trouble of explaining your process, pricing, and experience, there is no reason a client should be asking for a discount. If they do, that could be a big red flag that they won’t respect the work you do.

Never negotiate your freelance rate. Next time a client contacts you wanting a bargain, politely say no and explain to them that the only way you can reduce the price is to reduce the scope of the project altogether. If they still don’t budge, let them find another designer, and they can be someone else's problem.

Image from smashinghub.com

2. Shaky on the details

There is nothing more frustrating then when a client approaches you with a new project but doesn’t have any info whatsoever or limited info, but still insists on a quote. If you can’t understand the content and goals of the project, there is no way you could possibly provide an accurate estimate.

This is why I have a detailed questionnaire that I have all my potential clients fill out first before I can give them an estimate. If they don't thoughtfully fill it out, then I know they weren’t really serious about the project in the first place. If a client doesn’t have the time to fill out my form, then I don’t have the time to give them a quote.

Regardless if the client is the owner of the business or a 3rd party agency, keep your foot down and repeat yourself if necessary until you get the answers you need. The worst thing you can do is box yourself into a price for a project that might be more trouble than it’s worth.

 Image from commandorgunisa.blogspot.com

3. Asking for things out of scope.

You're working on a project and everything is going great and then all of a sudden your client decides he wants more. Whether it’s more time, revisions or concepts you need to be charging more for it. Plus you'll need the ability to push back the deadline to make time to do more work.

This my friends, is called scope-creep and if left unchecked, it will turn you against freelancing altogether. This is why it’s so important to include these scenarios in your contracts so it’s crystal clear that if the client wants more, he is going to have to pay more for it whether he wants to or not.

If the client doesn't want to agree to the terms they have already signed over on in your contract then the only thing left to do is to give the client the option to cancel. Just don't forget to include a kill fee in your contracts stating that in order to cancel all copyright of artwork is retained by the designer and the client needs to pay for all work done up to that point, even if it surpasses the amount from your deposit.

4. Can’t show work in your portfolio

There is no reason why a client wouldn’t allow you to show work in your portfolio UNLESS they want to take credit for your work. This happens often when being hired through other agencies and design firms that for whatever reason didn't have the resources to create their own designs.

A big part of getting new clients is having a stellar portfolio full of past client projects. If the client isn't going to give you any recognition for your work, then you need to charge some serious bucks to compensate you for the potential work you could have gotten.

Image from hongkiat.com

5. Not wanting to sign a contract

This one is simple. You don’t do work without a freelance contract. Period. Even if you are doing a small project for a friend or family member, you still need a contract. Even more so if you already have a personal relationship because people that know you will most likely take more advantage of you because you are friends.

Think about it. Your contract outlines everything a client should know about working with you including all the do’s and don’t’s. Without the contract how will they know what to expect or what working with you will even entail? To set proper expectations, you need a contract, so each person knows what's what. Without it, you're asking for chaos.

6. Doesn’t want to pay a deposit.

Never give any client anything without a deposit, this includes low-resolution images of your process. Even if your client is on a net 30 or 60-day payment cycle, do not begin production. If the client can’t pay you for 30 days, tell them that you can start the project as soon as the check clears.

Whether you charge the standard 50% down or have a more long term payment plan in place, you do not do a single thing until you have money in hand. Don't forget that the whole point of getting a deposit is that it allows you to pay your bills and feel safe to begin production without the fear that the check won't come in time to pay rent.

Just because a larger company contacts you for work doesn't mean you just throw all your values out the window. The bigger the company, usually the longer it will take them to pay you. And unlike the people writing your check, you're not on payroll and shouldn’t be expected to begin work without being compensated first. 

Image from yourfreelancecareer.com

7. Wanting deliverables before payment

There is nothing worse than completing a project and dealing with clients who refuse to pay. No matter if the client has a good reason for not paying you or is going through financial hardship, do not cave.

If you have a signed contract and have produced a project that meets your client's goals, there is no reason for you to send any final deliverables of any kind without payment. Your work is your bargaining chip and without it, you’re not leaving much incentive for the client to pay what you're due.

For extra incentive, be sure to include a late fee in your contract. In my proposals I have a very clear line that says:

“If you fail to pay any of your invoices within seven days then you will have to pay an additional 3.5% late fee per month based on the total you owe for every month your payment is late.

If hiring a collection agency or attorney is necessary to collect your debt you will be responsible for all collection and legal fees in addition to your total late fee.”

So not only will the client have to pay me, but they will also have to pay a monthly late fee and any legal fees I accrue while trying to get paid. All that makes it really hard for the client not to pay you, unless they want to spend way more down the line if they want to play hardball.

 Image from theoatmeal.com

8. Work in exchange for exposure.

Every month or so I get an inquiry in my inbox asking for free work in exchange for exposure or more work down the line. The worst part is that the majority of the time these companies have the money but think that word of mouth is more valuable than cash. If I can’t pay my bills with IOU’s and promises of exposure, neither should clients.


Especially when you first start out freelancing full-time it’s important not to take on every job that comes your way. Be picky and give yourself permission to only work on passion projects with clients that can respect your process.

I always liked this saying from one of my creative heroes Sean McCabe;

“You have to say no to a lot of good things in order to be able to say yes to a lot of great things.”

Rather than getting booked up with every inquiry that comes your way, hold out for the worthwhile opportunities so that when they land in your inbox, you have the availability to take them on

So, if you see any of these red flags ask yourself, “is taking on this project worth the stress if it goes south?” Don’t compromise your values to make a buck even if that means having a day job on the side to cover your bills. There’s no amount of money that can pay for your self respect.


I know a ton of you have experienced a nightmare client before and I invite you to tell me all about it. What warning signs would you like to add to this list. Can we make it to 50 red flags?