Let’s face it: Clients are the lifeblood of our creative businesses. And the majority of them are pretty great.
But there are exceptions. With the inevitability of red flag design clients, creatives need to be able to spot the early warning signs—and minimize stressful, steal-a-bit-of-your-soul type projects.
The intentional pursuit of limiting stress is vital to maximum creative output. Creativity can’t breathe when stress is choking it out.
But what do you even look for in a red flagger? What are some of the warning signs to be aware of before that contract is inked?
Over the past decade, I’ve learned a thing or 10 about this. And I’m going to share my insights here so you can spend more time working with the people you actually want to work with.
“Creativity can’t breathe when stress is choking it out.”
1. The dreaded “ASAP”
Let’s start with an acronym that makes me twitch a bit.
There’s a whole chapter in the New York Times bestseller, Rework, that explains how the word ASAP is actually poison.
Related: Setting boundaries with your clients
That’s a bit strong, but not too far off. “ASAP” implies a sense of entitlement: Your potential client is saying that they need something done before everything else. Not to mention the all caps makes it seem they’re yelling.
ASAP rarely accounts for the other design projects, calls, emails, and meetings you have lined up. More often than not, the client expects their project to be moved to the top of your priority list. There’s no room for empathy when it comes to ASAP. So use caution when this not-so-subtle acronym comes up.
2. “This shouldn’t take long” or “This should be a quick one”
By now, I hope you’re charging flat rates, since hourly rates actually penalize you for your expertise instead of rewarding you for it. The more expertise I have, the faster I can form ideas, craft designs, and get the job done.
This is why I see a red flag when clients say, “This shouldn’t take long,” or, “This should be quick.” They’re going off time alone instead of the distinct value you bring to the table.
3. “This shouldn’t be that tough” or “This should be easy”
This one may be the biggest red flag of the bunch.
With these words, your potential client diminishes not only the project and its timeframe, but the very work you offer. It’s often followed up with a request for the cheapest rate possible.
Be wary of this type of language and gather as much information as possible about the project before you decide to take it on.
4. “How much will this cost?”
If this is the first question out of the gate, tread lightly. On the surface, it can seem like a fair question. You want to get paid, and you’ll need to share your rates.
But I’ve come to realize that this often means a client views you as a commodity. If price is the only factor in determining if a client’s going to work with you, they can’t see the value you have to offer. It’s time to move on.
Us creatives aren’t off the hook, though. We have to communicate our value-add early and often. This will shift potential clients from thinking monetarily to realizing the expertise, quality of work, strategic direction, and advice you have to offer. You’re now a partner helping them reach their business goals—not just a hired hand.
“If price is the only factor in determining if a client’s going to work with you, they can’t see the value you have to offer. It’s time to move on.”
5. Asking for assets before a down payment is secure
Maybe not so subtle, but worth mentioning.
Your client should always have some skin in the game. Get your down payment, then begin work. They can hang on to the final payment until it’s time to send the deliverables.
Related: How to actually get paid on time
Many respected designers including Graham Smith and David Airey ask for a 50% down payment. I use the same model, but tend to send over digital assets before the final payment is received. I’ve never had a client take off with assets in nearly a decade of doing this, and it’s served me well as an added benefit to win more design projects.
In the end, there’s no right answer here. Just make sure your client commits before you dive in. If they refuse a down payment, it’s time to run.
6. Designer hopping
If a potential client is reaching out to you after previous designers “didn’t make the cut,” think twice.
Moving from one designer to the next could obviously be legit; it’s possible that multiple designers didn’t come through for them.
But if you can jump on a call or meet them in person, do it. Check their non-verbals. Do they come off like someone who’s power-tripping and disrespecting their previous designers? Or are they respectful despite negative past experiences? Do they seem to notice the value you bring to the table? Do they see you as a true investment? Getting answers to these questions will determine if they’re the right fit.
“If a potential client is reaching out to you after previous designers ‘didn’t make the cut,’ think twice.”
7. Using contest sites
This is an interesting one.
Oddly enough, I’ve had some of my best clients come to me after they use a design contest site. I often hear that the negative experience gave them a new perspective, and they wanted to go about their project “the right way” this time.
There’s the opposite side of the coin, too. These clients often think they should be pinching pennies because they’re comparing your services to the contest site.
It’s really apples to oranges. Either way, asking the right questions will come into play here. Why did they decide to come to you after the contest site? What kind of budget do they have lined up now? Is it different than before? What are their expectations for the project?
Getting these questions answered will be vital in your decision to work with the client. If they understand how valuable you are to their project, then it may be worth pursuing.
8. “What’s the name of your company again?”
This is rare. But I’ve called a client after their initial inquiry and heard this very question.
After chatting a bit, it quickly becomes clear what’s going on: The red flagger is doing some serious price shopping. They did a local search, found the top 10 results and copy/pasted their inquiry. This shows me that they have little regard for my brand. It’s the reason some employers don’t enable the “Easy Apply” option on LinkedIn Jobs. They want qualified candidates who believe in their brand instead of a quick copy/paste cover letter from someone who’ll take anything.
“If clients don’t care to learn how your brand is distinct from the rest, they usually won’t be the most qualified of leads.”
Bidding wars aren’t a bad thing. But if clients don’t care to learn how your brand is distinct from the rest, they usually won’t be the most qualified of leads. Quality design leads will always trump quantity.
9. “I needed this done yesterday”
I’ve learned to flip this around. I’ll say, “If you want me to put the type of excellence and creative direction into your project that it deserves, here’s my typical timeline.”
More often than not, they’re on board and we move forward without a blink. Sometimes, though, they stick to their guns with the unrealistic deadline. When it comes down to it, trust your gut in deciding whether you want to work with them. If yes, be sure to add a rush fee to cover the tightened timeframe.
10. Empty exposure
Some clients just don’t want to pay you what you’re worth.
They may say your work would be seen by hundreds of their customers, and that type of exposure would be great for your business. Free or cheap is their end game.
The irony here is pretty interesting. These red flaggers actually see what it means to have an exchange of value. In this case, they forgot the part where we’re the professional service provider with the acumen and skill set they need. Free or cheap for a bit of exposure? No thanks.
Protect your creativity
Thankfully these types of clients are few and far between. But now, you know how to easily spot the red flaggers from the beginning, and can make an informed decision on whether or not you want to work with them.
No matter how much they’re paying you, red flag clients will take the joy out of what you love to do. Keep these cautions top of mind and save your creativity for those who appreciate it.
What are some of the warning signs you’ve noticed in red flag clients? Tell us on Twitter: @InVisionApp.
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by Ross Chapman
Ross Chapman is product design lead at Etch, a user experience design consultancy. He runs design sprints and product design projects with partners including Equiniti, Brandwave and We Find Venues. He’s previously worked in UX design roles with Wiggle, Ericsson Television and Hult International Business School.
Kyle Courtright is an independent Branding and Identity Designer who runs Logo Wave Awards International, a logo awards platform rewarding and recognizing designers to bring positive career impact. His clients include the Detroit Lions, USA Swimming, Entrepreneur, American Cancer Society and National Parkinson's Foundation. He also created the Logo Inspiration Generator Tool and authored The Ultimate Guide to Logo Design. You can follow him on Instagram here.