Earlier this week, a member of the Resourceful Designer Community was seeking advice. A potential client contacted her asking if she designs book covers, which she does. Before replying to this unknown person, she decided to investigate who they were. She discovered that this potential client is an author. And the subject they write about is something the design is strongly against.
The Community member wanted our advice on how to proceed. Should she turn down the client, or should she wait to hear more about the project before deciding?
As always, when someone asks a question in the Community, she received lots of great advice. The consensus was she should hear them out before deciding what to do. After all, their new book might not have anything to do with the subject of their previous books.
But this posed a bigger question. What reasons are there to turn down a lucrative design project?
In episode 133 of Resourceful Designer, I shared 12 Red Flags For Spotting Bad Design Clients. Most of those Red Flags only become visible after you’ve started working with a client. Stuff such as the client being rude to you or inconsistent communication.
In the episode after that one, episode 134, I shared ways to turn away clients politely. It included sample scripts you can copy and paste for yourself. You may want to refer to that episode after you’ve finished listening to this one. Some of those scripts apply to today’s topic.
It’s one thing to spot the red flags once you’ve started working with a client. But how can you avoid ever working with them in the first place? And why would you want to turn them down? After all, we’re in this business to make money. And when you’re first starting, it may seem like a foreign concept to turn down a paying gig.
What I can tell you is that after 30+ years of working with design clients, knowing when a client isn’t a good fit and how to turn them down becomes a top priority whenever you meet a potential new client. You’re better off putting your time and energy into finding better clients to work with.
If you’re a long-time follower of Resourceful Designer, you’ve heard me many times before say that you don’t work for your clients. You work with them. You need to consider every client relationship as a partnership. At least for the duration of the project. That may be only a couple of days or weeks. But it could also turn into something much longer. So you need to ask yourself every time you meet a potential new client. Is this someone I would like to partner with, yes or no?
There are many reasons why you shouldn't work with a client. Some of them are nefarious reasons.
There could also be legitimate reasons for not working with a client. These reasons have nothing to do with the client persé and more with you.
All good reasons to turn down a client. But, ultimately, the biggest contributing factor to whether or not you should work with a client is your gut. Trust your gut. It’s seldom wrong.
Mike, a founding member of the Resourceful Designer Community, gave the best answer to the original question. Whenever Mike finds himself in a situation where he’s uncertain about a potential client, he asks himself three questions.
Think about that. Any time you say yes to something, it means you’re inadvertently saying no to something else. There’s always something that has to give, even if it’s your personal or family life.
If taking on this new project means neglecting another client’s project, it may not be a good idea, especially if the existing client’s project is more profitable.
Likewise, if taking on this project means you’re going to lose out on time with your spouse or kids, it may not be a good idea. The extra money may be nice, but is it worth it if all your child remembers is mommy or daddy missed their game, their performance, their school outing?
Only you can weigh the options.
You may recall a story I’ve shared on the podcast before. I had a huge client I had worked with for years. They owned many different companies ranging from restaurants to car washes to a telecommunication company.
During my time working with them, they ended up acquiring a tobacco company.
According to a study by an anti-smoking organization, the biggest demographic increase in smokers was among girls between 12 to 18. My client wanted to use that information to their advantage and asked me to design a poster depicting their cigarettes that would appeal to girls in that age range.
I refused. There was no way I was going to be complicit in enticing young girls to start smoking. The client threatened to pull all their work from me and find another designer if I didn’t comply. So I fired them.
If a design project will be harmful to others. Turn down the job.
Think about that. Are you willing to put an existing client relationship at risk to earn some money from a new client? I hope not.
Of course, this one is a bit tricky. There’s a fine line between what could jeopardize a relationship and what wouldn’t. To some, having two clients who are competitors might not be a good idea. To others, it's not an issue.
In my opinion, the best way to interpret this third point is on moral grounds. For example, a designer with ties to the health industry may not want to take on a design project that discourages people from getting vaccinated. It’s not worth jeopardizing that relationship.
I encourage you to copy down and remember Mike’s three rules.
If a project fails any of these three criteria, it’s not worth taking on.
Brian, another member of the Resourceful Designer Community, also had a good suggestion. If a project is something you would be ashamed to have on your monitor if a child walked by, then it’s not worth taking.
I’ll add to Brian's statement by saying if it’s not something you would want to tell your mother you’re working on, then maybe you should take a pass.
Should you ever find yourself having to turn down a client or a project. Remember to look at episode 134 of Resourceful Designer, where I shared different scripts you can use depending on your situation.
We’re lucky that we chose a profession where confidence beats knowledge. Before I dive deeper into that, we first have to look at what confidence is.
According to disctionary.com, Confidence is the belief in oneself and one's powers or abilities.
Without confidence, your goals, your intentions, your ambitions might as well be called dreams. Because that’s all they’ll ever be if you don’t believe in yourself and your abilities.
I fully believe that without confidence, you cannot succeed as a design business owner. I’m not talking about being a designer. Many designers lack confidence in themselves. I know and have worked with designers who fall into that category. I’m talking about running your own design business. Being a freelancer if that’s what you want to call yourself.
But I digress.
Confidence. If you want to succeed in this business, you need confidence.
But what about knowledge? Don’t you need knowledge to succeed? That’s a trick question. The definition of knowledge, according to dictionary.com, is an acquaintance with facts, truths, or principles, as from study or investigation. Acquaintance. What an interesting word to use. Most of the time, when you think of acquaintances, you think of people you know of but don’t necessarily know.
I consider Betty, the cashier at the grocery store I go to, as an acquaintance. She knows me by name, and we exchange pleasantries whenever I’m in her checkout line. If we run into each other in town, we’ll smile at each other and say hi, but that’s the extent of our interaction. We’re acquaintances.
Merriam-Webster defines knowledge as The fact or condition of being aware of something. Being aware of something? According to this dictionary meaning, that’s all that’s required to have knowledge.
So, according to two reputable sources on the meaning of all things. Knowledge doesn’t mean intimately knowing something. It just means being acquainted or aware of something. When you think of the definition in that way, you realize that you don’t actually need to know something to succeed. What you need is confidence in your ability to seek knowledge. And that's why confidence beats knowledge.
Now don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of times when knowledge trumps confidence. If I’m about to have surgery, yes, I want a confident surgeon, but I hope their knowledge of the procedure they’re about to perform supersedes that confidence.
If I’m about to take a trip, I’m less interested in how confident the pilot is and more concerned that they know how to fly a plane.
But when it comes to design or to run a design business, confidence beats knowledge.
You probably don’t remember, but there was a time in your life when you were very young when you didn’t know how to walk. You crawled around on all fours. Or maybe you were one of those butt dragging babies. Regardless, one day, after spending your entire life so far on the ground, you got up and walked.
At one time, you didn’t know how to ride a bike. Then one day, you did. You didn’t know how to swim. Then one day, you did. This applies to hundreds, or should I say thousands of accomplishments in your life. You didn’t know how to do something until you did.
I remember when my kids were young. Any time they would get frustrated and say, “I can’t do it,” I would calmly correct them by saying, “It’s not that you can’t do it. You just don’t know how to do it yet.” And once they learned, I would remind them how they felt before their accomplishment.
But what does Confidence beets Knowledge mean? It means that you don’t need to know how to do something before taking on the task of doing it. You just need to be confident that you’ll figure it out.
I admit I didn’t always feel this way. Back in 2006, I was approached by our local library to design a new website. They had heard good things about me from several people and had decided I was the one they wanted to work with.
This was going to be a huge project. In fact, I was a bit intimidated when I found out their budget for the website was $50,000. That was more than I made in a year back then.
The library wanted their new website to be connected to their catalogue of books. They wanted visitors to the website to tell what books they carry, if they were available for loan or already checked out. And if the latter, when they would be back. They also wanted members to be able to reserve books for pickup and put holds on books. All the typical things you expect of a library’s website today. But in 2006, not many libraries had integrated catalogues on their website.
I knew enough about websites to know that it was way beyond my capabilities. At that time, I was hand-coding websites in HTML and CSS. However, this website would require a database and therefore PHP and MySQL.
The problem was, I didn’t know PHP or MySQL. And even though I tried to learn it in a hurry, I just couldn’t wrap my brain around the concept. Where HTML and CSS were so easy for me. PHP left me stumped. No matter how many books I read or courses I took, I just couldn’t grasp it. Maybe it was the pressure I was under to learn it quickly to start on the website. I don’t know. But in the end, I gave up.
Now you may be thinking, you gave it a good shot, Mark, but at least you could hire someone to do the coding for you.
Well… I kick myself to this day for not thinking of that. No, that’s not right. I did think of it. I just didn’t have the confidence back then to follow through. I didn’t know what to do. I realized I didn’t have the skills required for the project, but I didn’t know how to find someone to help me. I knew what I needed to do but not the confidence to follow through.
Upwork’s former halves Elance and oDesk were around back then, but I wasn’t aware of them or any other online platform I could turn to. So, backed into a corner, I did the only thing I thought I could do. I contacted the library and told them I couldn’t take on the project.
I turned down a $50,000 job.
Several months later, their new website was up and running, I talked to my contact at the library, and he told me who they had hired to do the job. I was taken aback. I knew the person they hired. And I also believed their knowledge of web design wasn't much more than mine. So how did they pull it off?
I ran into them shortly after that and asked them. You guessed it, they created the design look for the site but had hired someone to do the actual coding. It cost them $12,000 to hire a developer to complete the site for them.
Presuming they were being paid the same $50,000 I had been offered, that meant they made $38,000 just for designing the look of the website. And I lost out on that money because of my lack of confidence.
That lesson taught me a lot.
1) I was an idiot for not thinking of hiring someone myself.
But most importantly
2) I lacked confidence from the moment I was presented with the website project. I figured I didn’t have the knowledge and, therefore, couldn’t handle the job.
If I wanted to succeed in this business, I would need to rectify that. I would need to be more confident in what I could get done.
Since that fateful day, I have never turned down a job for lack of knowledge. When a client asks me if I can do something that I’m unsure of or flat out don’t know how to do. I answer them with confidence that I can get the job done. And then I figure out either how to do it or who to hire to do it for me.
Confidence beats knowledge.
It’s great to be able to hire a contractor when you need one. We’re lucky that there are so many options with good talented people available to us. But nothing beats learning how to do something yourself.
You know that old saying, give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime. Providing he likes fish, that is. But the same concept applies to us as designers. I love hiring contractors to help me. But given the opportunity, I would much prefer to learn the skill and do the job myself.
There are ways you can do just that while working on client jobs. Not sure how to do something the client is asking for? Chances are there’s a blog article or YouTube video that will walk you through it.
But sometimes, it’s a good idea to be your own guinea pig.
If you’ve been following Resourceful Designer for a while, you know that I design websites in WordPress. Specifically using the Divi Builder from Elegant Themes. However, I just told you how I was hand-coding websites for clients.
I remember in the early 2010s, fellow web designers telling me I should try WordPress. But I had a strong aversion to WordPress. To me, the fact that WordPress used predesigned themes was an afront to designers. There was no way I would build a website for a client using someone else's design.
But in 2013, I was getting into podcasting and was told that I needed a WordPress website to generate the RSS feed for the show. Very reluctantly, I installed WordPress and bought a theme called Evolution from Elegant Themes. This was before they came out with Divi. In fact, the friend who was helping me get started in podcasting had an affiliate link to Elegant Themes. Hence, as a way to repay him for his kindness, I bought a lifetime deal through his link, even though I only needed one theme and had no plans on building any WordPress websites beyond my own.
That decision to buy the lifetime deal may have changed the course of my life—more on that in a moment.
So I built my WordPress website and had to admit that there was a lot more flexibility in it than I originally believed. The theme did restrain me somewhat, but at least I could control how each part of it looked, even if I had no control over the layout itself.
That was in June of 2013. December of that same year, Elegant Themes released Divi. And it changed my view of WordPress.
Since I had a lifetime deal with Elegant Themes, it cost me nothing to test Divi out. I installed it on a dummy site I didn't care about and really liked how it worked. Divi was a game-changer. Here was a theme that gave me full control over how each element of a website looked and how each element was placed out on the screen. I could make a website look like how I wanted it to look. Not like how some theme designer wanted it to look.
The next time I had a client website project to work on, I used my newfound confidence in my ability to make WordPress work for me and switched to WordPress and Divi. And I haven’t looked back.
If I hadn’t used myself as a guinea pig and tested out WordPress on my own website and then Divi on a dummy site, I probably never would have made the switch to what I do today.
Since then, there have been many times when I used myself as a guinea pig to test things and build my confidence. Be it new software or new features in existing software. Offering services I had previously never offered. Taking on projects I had never done before. Working on stuff for myself gave me the confidence to then use those skills on client work.
Even today. I recently started building a website for a personal project I’m doing. And even though I’ve been a devoted Divi fan since day one, I decided to build my new website using Elementor. Why? Because I know the day will come when a client will ask me to take over a website built using Elementor. So why not get my feet wet on a project of my own choosing. So When the time comes, I’ll have a better understanding of what I’m working with.
So all of this to say, without confidence, I don’t believe you can get very far as a design business owner. It’s nice to have the knowledge, but confidence in yourself and what you do with that knowledge will propel you. Look at any successful freelancer you know, and you’ll see that they exude confidence. That’s the secret to their success.
Confidence always beats Knowledge. Or at least, almost always.
Let me ask you a question, is an email a contract?
Last month, a Mississippi court took up an interesting case looking at what it takes to make a contract by email.
Spoiler Alert: Not Much.
As you know, a contract is just another word to describe an agreement. So when you exchange emails with someone and come to terms on a deal you both agree on, you ARE making a contract.
In the Mississippi court case, the two parties had done just that... agreed on terms for the sale of some equipment in a series of emails.
Now here’s the tricky part.
One of the parties, Jordan, had proposed the initial offer from his computer’s email, which included his name and contact details in the signature. The other party, Parish, then countered the offer. But when responding to the counteroffer, Jordan used his iPhone to seal the deal with a “Let’s do it.” reply. The trouble is that the message had no signature from his iPhone other than “Send from iPhone.”
Jordan later sold the goods to another buyer at a higher price. Parish sued for breach of contract, but Jordan claimed that there was no valid signature to his email and, therefore, the exchange was not enforceable as an agreement.
The trial court agreed, and an appeals court affirmed. But the Mississippi Supreme Court found the state’s Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) permitted contracts to be formed by electronic means such as emails. Then, the Court stated that the determination of whether an email was electronically signed according to the UETA was a question of fact that turned on a party’s intent to adopt or accept the writing and is, therefore, a question for the finder of facts. So, because there exists a genuine factual question about Jordan’s intent, the Court reversed and remanded for further proceedings.
Anyway. That’s a lot of legal talks. But the takeaway is. Emails can be the basis for an enforceable contract.
So be careful in wording your messages. Even something as simple as “sounds good” could be deemed sufficient to bind you.
If you consider your emails merely preliminary to a formal, written contract on paper, SAY SO. Add something to the signature of your emails, such as “this email message is preliminary and shall not constitute a binding agreement, which may only be made in a formal, written memorandum executed by all parties.”
Adding a simple line like this can save you a lot of trouble should a client ever try to hold you accountable for something mentioned in an email.
It makes you think.