Avoiding Bad Clients as a Freelance Graphic Designer

Most clients are great to work with — but it’s inevitable that you will meet your fair share of bad clients as a freelance graphic designer. Here are some red flags to look out for so you know which ones to stay away from.

7 Types of Bad Clients to Avoid


Some clients will try to devalue your work by asking for cheaper prices. One way to avoid this situation is to ask for the client’s budget first so you have a number to work with. It’s never a good idea to negotiate on price as you are likely to lose more than you gain. Others will offer to pay you in equity or exposure which, in other words, means you won’t be getting paid. Avoid them as well.

Most clients with small budgets are going to nickel and dime you, and sometimes not even pay you. They usually don’t recognize the value of good design and aren’t interested in how much work goes into creating one. It’s hard to avoid such clients, especially when you are first starting out and desperate for any form of work.

However, if you hold your work to a high standard then charging more and finding clients who are willing to pay more shouldn’t be an issue. They are likely to be more interested in good results and open to matching your rates as they believe that you are skillful enough to meet their expectations.


You might meet ‘know-it-all’ clients who claim to know how design works, despite knowing nothing about the design process.

It should only take an hour!

I can do that in Photoshop, why am I paying you to do this?

Such clients are difficult to work with as they will try to undermine you every step of the way. However, no matter how frustrated you are never bash heads with them. Instead, try to help them understand your design process in an objective manner. For example, show them the rough sketches and notes you did during conceptualization and describe the rationale behind your decisions. If they still prove to be troublesome then it might be time to consider quitting the project altogether.


By now you should have understand the importance of contracts and why it’s a must to have them. Clients who refuse to sign contracts usually spell trouble. However, if you can get them to accept your terms and conditions in some way, then it’s up to your discretion whether to move forward with the project or not. For example, email can be legally binding depending on the context. Again, it comes down to how much trust you have in the client’s ability to keep their end of the bargain.


Sometimes a client is unsure and can’t give you direction on the design — which can be good or bad. You have creative freedom, but it will be hard to estimate the costs and time the work will take. At the same time, the client can demand as many changes as they like since they are paying for them.

It might get frustrating for you, especially if the project stretches on for too long. You aren’t responsible for their lack of direction so it might be wise not to gamble on it.


As careful as you are, you are almost guaranteed to run into bad clients who don’t pay up — it’s just a matter of when. To reduce such risks, be sure to always collect a deposit and divide payment into milestones. However, if the client still doesn’t pay you in full by the end of a project, is it worth the time and effort to chase payments?

It really comes down to opportunity cost — and oftentimes it’s not worth it based on my experience. Other than blacklisting the client you can’t really do much in most cases, so it might be better to just take your losses and move on.


Some clients will ask you to come up with a few concepts before they pay for your services. Called spec work (short for speculative), it’s considered bad practice by designers. While the request may sound reasonable, don’t be fooled. More often than not you will never hear from them again after sending them your ideas and concepts.

Even worse, they are free to use your ideas however they want since there probably isn’t any formal agreement or contract in place. Remember, your portfolio should be more than enough for clients to evaluate your skills and decide if you are the right fit for the job.


You might encounter clients who are very busy, so much so that they always don’t seem to be around when you have important matters regarding the project to discuss with them. Some of them will even take weeks to send you a reply, which can be frustrating and a test of patience. In such cases you can either highlight the issue to the client and hope he or she takes action, or just move on to the next project, keeping the deposit and any other payments they have made to you so far.


In the end, it’s about managing expectations. Whether you are charging a fixed price or going with an hourly rate, always reach a clear understanding with the client on what you will and won’t do before starting the design process.

So that means:

  • Clear contracts, with a limit to revisions (or clear language indicating you will charge more for revisions)
  • Making sure the client understands the terms and conditions before signing the contract.
  • Reminding the client when you are about to start revisions. It’s easy to forget what’s in the contract after time has passed.
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