DesignBiz: When Should I Decline Client Work?

Yes, Not Yet

The failure most of us frequently face in the business of design? The failure to recognize that a client project is something you should decline. Here are common situations where working designers fail to decline an opportunity that may be a poor fit.

The client thinks you want the work they’re offering, no matter what.

This is the beauty of establishing strong client relationships from your first contact—if you connect during those initial dialogues, there will be a strong reservoir of trust that will fuel your first projects. They like talking with you, and expect that working with you will be the same. They genuinely care about your shared success. They just don’t realize that what they’re throwing your way is not the best fit. Right client, wrong project. And we’re afraid to say no, for fear they won’t come back.

Your long-term client knows you need work badly.

The studio has been quiet, except for your primary client’s big project. This client, when they’re in the studio or communicating with you, is aware that the studio needs business. You might have even asked them directly for more business. And in return, they bring you a project that can keep the cashflow running, but is a poor fit for your short- and long-term goals. So, you take it.

The client doesn’t know that you lack competency in an area… and you don’t tell them.

Designers don’t like to admit weakness in a specific area, especially if they are hungry to keep work rolling in from a client. Example: You design their identity system. They’re offering you some motion graphics work to animate it for a video. You’ve never used AfterEffects or Flash. Now may not be the time to crack the manual and dive in. There’s too high a risk of failure. This holds even more true for facilitating development work. Are you really going to learn enough HTML 5 in three days to do front-end development for that hybrid mobile app? Disaster comes in many flavors, and this is one you don’t want to inflict on any client. Bring in the appropriate specialists. Mark up their time. Get it right.

The client doesn’t want to work with anyone else.

This is similar to the previous situation, except the client knows you don’t have the expertise they seek—and they still want to give you the work. They are willing to trust you with something they know you may not fulfill effectively, either out of trust or desired convenience. This is dangerous. Making an error on a project in a known area of weakness is still an error.

The client wants you to do work that’s part of their job responsibilities.

Designers are frequently hired to fulfill tasks that are outside their client’s job description. But sometimes design projects come along that are part of a client’s everyday work responsibilities, and you often don’t recognize that you’re doing their job until you’ve signed the contract and started the project. The risk with these kinds of projects is that you usually don’t get to follow your standard agency process and have to work through the same politics as your client to gain approval on the work. This can be a burn on your time and resources, making a prospective project an unprofitable venture.

The client desires your bid to establish agency selection criteria.

“If you say no, there are plenty of other agencies yearning to tackle this project.” This threat is always half true. If a client threatens to take the work to another agency, they’re taking this tack because they want something from you: your participation, your investment, your attention. Either that, or they just need a third estimate to see who is the best fit.

You really do need the money.

Yes, you need to pay rent. Yes, this work is not beneath you. Yes, the work will hopefully lead to better things. You have staff you need to keep busy. It’ll be over quick and then you’ll be on to better things. Projects stroll through the studio that are purely money-makers and never appear your portfolio. (Does the Regional Design Annual accept PowerPoint templates as a category?) But if word spreads that you are really good at the very projects you don’t want to specialize in, you risk being offered those projects over and over again. The old adage reads: “Be careful what you’re good at.” Can you afford to promote yourself as an expert in one area and end up spending your time working in another?


You will be continually thrown opportunities you don’t really need or have the depth of knowledge to fulfill well. You need to be prepared to walk away gracefully as part of any ongoing negotiation. So you’ve recognized that you should be declining a prospective project. How do you do it?

  • You need to show humility. Declining work is a form of power that you hold over your shared client/designer relationship. You should not let the client feel like you are declining the work because of ego.
  • You need to do it early enough in the new business process. Once you’ve moved too far down the sales cycle, such as the point where you’ve already generated a proposal, it can be unprofessional to say “No” to an extended offer on your part.
  • You need to leave the door open for the possibility of “No.” You should be honest that a project may not be a 100% perfect fit for your studio in early discussions, until you’ve gathered the necessary background information.
  • You need to encourage future opportunities. “The trick is to turn down work, but have the client remember you as a positive person/agency that they want to work with in the future,” says project manager Fiona Robertson Remley. “No” should never be the last thing a client remembers about their interaction with you.

Declining an opportunity is not a sign of weakness. It’s a continuation of an ongoing relationship. Use your refusal as a chance to describe what kind of work is a better fit, and be willing to make a reference to someone in your network who can fulfill their needs and return the referral in the future. Such a dialogue would sound something like this, delivered via a phone call or in a face-to-face meeting:

“I’m sorry, but it looks like the project we’ve discussing won’t be a good fit for us at this time. Let me refer you to another designer (or two) that would be able to help you out with it. And we should put something on the calendar for coffee in a month, as it was really great talking with you this week about our shared passion about Web analytics.”

There is a subtle art to delivering these words, especially in the midst of any critical negotiation with a long-term client. Be sincere, and remember: this is not the last project opportunity you will receive, if your conversation goes well.

I’d love to hear your stories regarding this topic. I’m sure we all have a few of them…

16 thoughts on “DesignBiz: When Should I Decline Client Work?

  1. Pingback: Designer Profile: Erin Flett — Imprint-The Online Community for Graphic Designers

  2. David Sherwin

    Thanks for the continued comments!
    @In a Pickle: If you said you can’t do it for the price, you can’t do it. The only graceful exit is the truth.
    @Heather: AWESOME ADVICE!
    @Tim: @Heather had great points on this. I’ll say that every so often, it can be good to take on a project that is going to stretch your studio’s expertise and teach you valuable skills, and bringing in a tertiary partner can be a way to do it. But be sure that you mark that project as a learning opportunity and budget it with a cap that will keep you from potentially turning away work that will keep your studio running in the midst of the learning.
    @Allison: I can see your point, but please don’t put words in my mouth and misread the intent of that single sentence—you’re responding in a manner that implies that I have a great distaste for designing presentations or specializing in presentation design in general. Did I really say that? Let me explain.
    I put together Keynote and PowerPoint presentations all the time as part of my day job, as like many designers, I’m responsible for crafting strategic narratives around my team’s work, for my organization, and to sell work into client organizations. So it’s not “clearly below”  me, as you so say in your response. I have people ask me all the time to design presentations for them, and try to help where I can.
    As you saw in the above article, the problem that this article was addressing is that most designers DON’T specialize, and often take on so many projects in so many different disciplines that they end up poorly executing a good number of them. I am fully guilty of this charge, especially early in my career.
    I have no beef with people who specialize, and if there is a market to support the clients you desire to serve with that skill, then go for it and rock it! It just so happens that one area I’ve seen that designers get drawn into is crafting client communications, when they aren’t good at it.
    There should be more recognition for designers in digital and communication design outside of the traditional print disciplines. And one of the few design competitions of note that I could think of that DOESN’T highlight digital design work was the Print Regional Annual, so that led to my statement. I could have chosen any number of fields to illustrate this point. Next time, I will point out that designers can’t win awards in the Print Regional Annual for websites built on WordPress or otherwise.

  3. Pingback: DesignBiz: When to Diversify Your Client Base — Imprint-The Online Community for Graphic Designers

  4. Allison Begner Cole

    Thank you for pointing out, albeit in a really snarky and insulting fashion, that print designers should not attempt to design and produce PowerPoint templates. Print designers usually lack the skill set and experience (not to mention the desire) to do it properly and well.
    Fortunately, there are designers who specialize in presentation graphics. We will be happy to assist you and your clients in creating this marketing communications tool (and Word documents as well!), and we routinely make them effective, easy-to-use and even attractive. As creating PowerPoint and therefore Keynote templates and presentations is clearly below you, I applaud your urge to not attempt it and suggest that you sub them out to a designer who can do the job.

  5. Heather Parlato

    To a lot of the “what to do” questions above, just being honest with diplomacy is best. When client budgets are unreasonably low, explain that tis is the true cost of the job they’re asking for. If the client is wealthy, talk to them about the value of the finished product to their business. If they can’t afford it, talk to them about smaller measures they can take while they budget for yours down the line. We’re more than visual designers for our clients, we’re often consultants, and it’s that kind of service that keeps the good ones coming back.

    To Tim’s question above, I think if you know enough about a tertiary skill set enough to effectively sell it, it’s a great opportunity to partner with someone who can develop the work and branch out. I have done it too, and I think the best way is to stay conscious of the most likely directions you might go, and seek out best potential partners for when the time comes to hire them.

    Great article! I’ve been needing to move on from a recession-era less-than-great fit I took, so these reminders are really helpful.

  6. Tim Lapetino

    Excellent article, David. We’ve experienced many of this same challenges in the first couple years of our firm, and it often is quite challenging to say no when a couple of those factors (or more) are in play. One of the scenarios you’ve mentioned is a current client asking you to do something outside of your skillset — and sometimes that’s a negative if you don’t have the time to do it well, or skill ignorance in an area. What do you think about using some of those scenarios to grow your skillsets (if it makes sense for where your firm wants to go) while you learn alongside your client? Has anyone else had positive experiences like this, as we have?

  7. Jonathan Patterson

    Such a good article! I definitely know the importance not working on projects that don’t suit my skills, however, I’ve found it hard to turn a potential client away. Not because I can’t say “no” but because I don’t want clients to feel like I’m too good for their project. Work begets more work so it’s critical to take on projects that you enjoy and are good at, as the article mentions.

  8. Emma

    My recent experience with having to say no was a perfect-fit project, but not a perfect-fit client. I could tell right off the bat that the client was going to require too much education on every step of the project. I could have made the website she was asking for, but I didn’t want to spare the time teaching her how to use her email first. (something she wouldn’t expect me to bill her for!)
    It was really hard to tell her no, after we had already discussed the details of what I do (and they matched her project perfectly). But in the end her lack of education in the field also made her ignorant of the appropriate budget as well, so that was the vehicle to saying no. I referred her to a local college so she could hopefully get the work done by students. (I hope I didn’t pass off the headache to an eager student!) But a more likely scenario is that she just decided not to go ahead with the project.
    This is a good article and made me think about being careful right from the estimating stage…before it’s too late to gracefully say no to a project. Thank you!

  9. In a pickle

    What would you do if you thought the project was a good fit until you’ve actually sent the price estimate to the client, and the balk at it, but refuse to take offered recommendations of other designers they could work with? If they still balk at a scaled down proposal, how do you exit gracefully and professionally?

  10. David Sherwin

    Thanks for your great comments, wonderful food for thought.
    @Valon, that’s a good point… potential conflict of interest may require you to say no.
    @Greg that seems like a good time to negotiate with the client. There’s no reason to accept their low budget just to get the work. You get to educate them on how much it will really cost for a quality design professional to fulfill the work they’ve requested. They may come back to you in the future when their budget matches what your services would cost.
    @Iko good luck with your decision!

  11. Iko

    Very interesting, and really true. In our small agency of 2, we often practice no saying, and we have seen benefits of it too often to count. But the same is true on the ither side: we were bitterly overworked/underpaid on some jobs, where we should have said no at the beginning.But I have another situation to add to the list: The client comes to us/you because they have a recommendation from someone else. They want you badly, as they have just had a failed project with a previous agency, and the client bitterly complains about the previous agency. They want to give you the same project now to bring it to completion.
    As a basic etiquette rule, we never laugh out, or mock the other failed agency, even if the client does so. We just do not know what happened between them. I/we found that in such situations extreme caution is required. If someone makes snide remarks about a previous agency, what is the guarantee, he is not gonna talk the same way about us. We have dropped a project already that started like that, but we did not heed this alarm signal at the beginning. We could get out of it without harm for us, and without doing the client real harm. Now we have a second project that starts like that, and the client really wants us, he is even ready to wait for us for two month, till we have capacity free to do the job, and ready to pay. But shall we take it? We are still uncertain.

  12. Greg

    Interesting and thought provoking article – This is a subject that is almost never discussed in print however often at the local watering hole amonst designers…
    One situation that wasnt’ mentioned;
    The client is eccentric / weatlhy and excited about a concept that is vibrant and viable – however – the budget thrown on the table is excruciatingly low. This is a new client and so you don’t really know is the budget a ploy? will more money be vested as the client becomes so in the process / product? and so – Do you take the job hoping to get the client to see the light on the funding and or come to the table with a REAL budget? or Unfortunately the project is so challenged by the budget contraints that you just refuse the work?
    Sometimes we’ve rolled the dice and the client wakes up to budgetary reality – others becomea disaster as the client comes to the realization that their dream is out of reach and THIS is BAD for everyone – AND can damage your business.
    It is a tough one to navagate – Cheers – g

  13. Valon Sopi

    Well. here’s a new one.
    A completely new client asks you to do something similar to that of a previous (ongoing) client — (as far as the business model goes). Now on this ‘previous’ project, you worked closely with the client in determining the best sales route for the website visitor, value proposition, etc.
    What do you do when a new client comes in and asks for the same consultation? Note: You will help the new client directly (if not better) compete with your previous client / with all the information you have at hand for the particular industry/field. Also, you’re in great terms with the previous client and loosely talked about ongoing future work.
    In reality, that’s the dilemma I’m facing now and wondering what you’re take on this one is? 
    Cheers for the great post.
    — Valon. 

  14. Mike Smith

    Really interesting read and something I needed to see today. I’ve been on the hunt for some new work and feel into a couple of the above categories. Learning to say no, even if I need the money is something I’m still struggling with. Thanks for reminding me it’s something that needs to be done.