4 minute read

If you’re a freelance designer, you’ve probably taken on a project in the past that you regret. Some designers fall prey to the allure of a high-paying client whose project quickly grows out of scope. For others, the nightmare client promises timely feedback and then disappears for weeks at a time. While not every designer has gotten stiffed, delayed or incomplete payments are commonplace in the freelance community. If you’re looking to expand your book of business over the next year, you may be wondering how you can avoid the bad projects so you can focus on the good, high-paying portfolio pieces.

In a recent episode of Obsessed With Design, Josh Miles interviewed Creative Tinkerer, Matt Stevens. Matt Stevens is a designer, illustrator, speaker, and creative tinkerer from North Carolina. His work has been featured by the biggest names in sports, tech, and even fast food. Matt’s biggest goal is always to do thoughtful and unforgettable work for amazing brands and make the whole process a pleasure. During his interview, Matt gave some really insightful advice on how to identify and avoid bad projects so you can focus on the design projects that will be the most beneficial for you. Here’s Matt Steven’s advice on avoiding bad design projects:

Pay Close Attention to Communication Style

The first red flag that Matt focuses on is communication style. When a prospective client reaches out to you, the way they speak can be really telling. 

“If the email is lazy, that tends to be a sign,” Matt told us. “I get a lot of these caveman talk, ‘me business need logo’ type of things.”

Your ideal client should be an effective communicator who has a solid grasp of the project they are hiring you to complete. Not only should their messages be clear and professional, but they should be comprehensive. If you find yourself asking too many questions, that could be a warning sign that the client doesn’t really know what they want. Depending on the complexity of the project, there could be a lot of nuance to this point, but some warning signs are more clear than others.

“Emails I get where the name is wrong,” Matt said. “They forgot to replace the last guy’s name with my name. That’s a pretty obvious one.”

Be Careful With Referrals From Other Designers

In addition to poor communication, another big warning sign can be the fact that other designers don’t want to work with them. While direct referrals can be a great source of new business, you need to carefully vet everyone that other designers send your way. “I’ve gotten in the situation where they don’t really want me, they just want a body,” Matt said.

Ideally, you want to be deliberately positioned with every referral partner you have. This means that other designers or agencies only send you work that would be a good fit for you. Here are a few ways to vet referrals from fellow designers: 

  1. Ask the person sending you the referral why they decided to pass on the project.
  2. Ask the prospect how they found the designer who referred them your way.
  3. Ask the prospect what made the original designer so appealing to them.

If you get clear answers to all the above and you’re not turned off from the project, it could be a good fit. Keep an eye out for generic answers or answers that lack direction. If it sounds like the prospect is just looking for a warm body that can use Photoshop, run away.

When in Doubt, Say “Show Me The Money”

Finally, if you can’t figure out whether a prospect is the real deal or not, insist on part of the payment coming upfront. “Asking for a deposit upfront really weeds out some folks that may be sketchy,” Matt told us. It puts you in a position where you force your client to buy in to the project because they have skin in the game. It also helps weed out prospects with no intention of actually paying what you’re worth. If a prospect is uncomfortable putting a deposit down or paying part up front, that could be a big red flag.

You can listen to Matt’s full interview and subscribe to the podcast here.