Mark Busse advises young designers to develop a set of rules for the kind of work that builds their reputations and their portfolios, and know when to decline.
My design firm, Industrial Brand, uses six criteria to identify ideal clients and evaluate prospects and opportunities, and as a result we probably end up declining more new work than we accept. Crazy right? Wrong.
It took about a decade to get comfortable saying “No” to prospective clients—truth be told, I’m still not entirely comfortable doing it—but we’re convinced that design professionals should know the kind of work they want to do, the type of firm or client they want to work for, and be willing to make a stand and walk away when the fit isn’t right.
For those in the early days of their career, where portfolios, self promotion and business development strategies are fuzzy and unrefined, the idea of being picky about clients or walking away from potential work may seem like lunacy. But I believe it is more important now than ever to practice saying no as you define the kind of design professional you want to be.
The fact is that designers are defined by the very work we produce and by the clients we work for, so if you want to excel and be highly successful, you need to be thoughtful, strategic and diligent in deciding what opportunities you accept.
Most people feel like they have a clearly defined personal code—lines they just won’t cross—where they’d never work for an organization that knowingly harms the environment, puts children at risk, or any other issue that gets their hackles up.
Nobody wants to work with crazy people, right? It’s just not worth it. And as your reputation will be linked to those you work for, it’s important not to rush into opportunities just because you need the experience or money. Remember that you should be evaluating clients and projects as much as they are you. Ask questions. You owe it to your own sanity to poke around first.
Nearly every designer I know says that budget is a vital criteria for evaluating opportunities. I don’t know how much that applies when you’re starting out though, and although we have to survive as a business, my firm tries to avoid allowing the dollar value of an opportunity become a key motivator. Certainly one issue to be keenly aware of is whether the client is spending their own money or not—trust me, you will not enjoy working with someone who is emotional about how much money your services cost and tracks your every hour.
The best reason to decline an opportunity is when you just don’t have the resources to deliver on time. There is no faster way to gain the reputation of an unreliable designer than by saying yes to all requests without ever pushing back and then missing deadlines. Especially if the work isn’t exactly the kind you need in your portfolio and want to be known for, don’t do it.
Lastly, you’ll likely receive lots of advice about how best to approach this issue, but remember that there is no truth but your own. So if your gut tells you it’s a bad fit, walk away.
Six Practical Tips You Can Apply
- Start by considering whether you will be proud of being associated with this company and its product or service. Do whatever you can to determine whether the company treats its staff, customers and the planet well. If you’re not comfortable with it, walk away. Honestly. It’s just not worth suffering the feeling that you’re helping people do harm in the world in the name of greed.
- Consider your long-term goals in terms of the kind and calibre of projects you’d like to do and be known for. If an opportunity won’t attract the kind of clients you seek, or the project may serve as a distraction or inhibit you from taking other work, consider declining.
- Ask prospects about past designers they’ve worked with and why it didn’t work out. Or do a Google search to identify who has worked for them in the past and give them a call. Ask about how they treated them, how they made decisions, or if they paid their bills on time. You can even run a quick credit check at dnb.ca to determine a client’s credit history (this has saved us misery a few times). If they seem difficult, they will be. Decline the work.
- Practice talking openly about money up front. Ask what the budget allocated for the project is. If they refuse to divulge that information, that’s a red flag. If you are forced to be the first to offer an estimated budget before real scope is established, resist the urge to offer a low price to win them over—do the opposite and offer a higher budget range. You’d be surprised how often this positions you as a confident expert in the minds of the buyer and increases appeal.
- If you’re not already doing so, start tracking your hours immediately. Compare standard rates with advice from your network of peers and mentors to establish realistic project estimates and timelines—and then add another 20% (you know you’ll still go over budget). Before you accept a project, compare your available hours against the client requirements and if it looks implausible, then push back. Odds are the client was hedging their bet anyway and will respect your organized project management. If not, then either charge them a rush fee, right-size the project scope to work, or if neither of those options work, simply decline the work.
- Develop a loose script you can follow to reveal the above issues and any others you find important for evaluating projects, clients, or even design firms. But even if they answered all the questions satisfactorily, and your due diligence didn’t uncover any glaring red flags, listen to your gut. If it says walk away, then run.
For my team, it is when all six of these areas are aligned that we do our best work, enjoy healthy long-term relationships with clients, and build our reputation as the design firm we want to be known as. If more than two of these issues are a concern, we politely decline the work—and so should you.
To be clear, in the early stages of a design career, getting work—any work—is probably better than sitting on your hands, but developing a set of personal professional criteria by which to assess each opportunity WILL benefit you in the long term. It will help you understand who you are as a designer or design business, and demonstrate your purpose, professionalism and integrity to prospective clients or employers, who will treat (and pay) you like a well trained professional.
Oh, and speaking of declining work, never say no and just walk away. You never know when the people you’re dealing with might resurface at a different company. Keep a roster of freelancers and design firms you can refer clients to as a better fit. This will benefit you in the long run.