If you’ve been in the creative industry long enough, you’ve experienced some bad clients. Sometimes it’s little things. Sometimes it’s much more noticeable.

These are my top warning signs of a client you may need to fire:

  • They are already apparently the expert: You’ll hear lines like, “This is easy. It shouldn’t be too hard. This won’t take you long.” If it’s easy, then they can do it. If they want to hire you, they need to respect your professional opinion on the difficulty of a task.
  • They’ve already worked with 2… 3… 4… 10… designers before you. There is a reason the other designers “just didn’t work out.” No matter how good of a worker you might be, chances are, the client is the reason the project fell apart.
  • They demand something on an intense turnaround. This is a red flag especially if this is the first time you’ve worked together. If it’s an established client that you trust, sure, you can try to turn something around over the weekend. But if it’s a new client and it’s an “OMG ASAP WON’T YOU RESCUE US?!,” take a step back and establish boundaries. Starting any new relationship with them dictating the schedule will create unnecessary stress in the long run.
  • When they don’t having a clear idea of what they need, but they need it yesterday. You might be amazing, but you aren’t a mind reader nor a miracle worker. Be sure to set expectations and boundaries with this kind of client. Walk them through the process slowly and push back on unrealistic expectations.
  • They underestimate or belittle your value as a designer. This will sound like anything from “It costs how much?! But my cousin can do it for $40!” to “This will be great exposure – can’t you do some work pro bono?” If you want to develop your portfolio, it might be a good idea to offer work pro bono. But let it be on your terms. Set clear boundaries on what you will do for free and for how long. Ten years into this and I still work for free, but it’s because I love to donate my skills to nonprofit organizations. I let them know what I will do and make sure it’s clear when the free work has ended. Otherwise, get your 50% upfront, and don’t start working until you get paid.
  • “Let’s just try a little spec work first to see how things go…” Depending on the client, you may need to do free spec work first. We’ve done free home page designs to compete with other agencies and were able to win the contract. But be very aware that this is a risk and you might not reap the reward of winning the project.
  • Be wary of profit sharing and startups. They are a huge risk that rarely pans out. The person trying to get you on board will probably be charismatic, encouraging you to “be part of the team to change the world.” Make sure if you decide to do this, that your equity is fair compared to what everyone else is putting into the project. And get a solid contract written up with a lawyer.
  • When they don’t understand the your works’ potential. If your potential client is showing too much reluctance, that’s a bad sign. They may cancel the project out early on or never really appreciate it once it’s done. They may be reluctantly getting a website because someone told them they needed it, even though they think their Flash website from 2002 is just fine.
  • When they don’t understand modern technology. “Can we print the page?” “Why does it look different on a phone? Make it the same as on a desktop.” It will take a lot of handholding to work with a client like this. Sometimes it’s possible and not too much of a red flag if they trust you and follow your lead. It’s when they argue back is when things will start to go downhill.
  • When they push you to not take the time for research and strategy, then blame you for it not being well thought through. This is your creative process to solve their problems. Do what you need to do.
  • When they try to revise the contract in the middle of the project. As long as they agreed and signed to it, you can create a new contract (with a new timeline and budget) for whatever they want to add.
  • When they hover over your shoulder. Never let a client watch you work. Unfortunate true story: They’ll be there for 4 hours, well past 8pm on a Friday, telling you where to move things.
  • When they are constantly making changes. Things get messy when you get 20 frantic emails of changes they must see now. Make it clear in the contract how many revisions they can make, and gently remind them when you’ve gone over on your hours. Label each email clearly with Revision 1, Revision 2, and so on. Label the files with it too.
  • When they verbally abuse and bully you. I mean bully you into work way, way beyond scope creep. These are the clients that go on screaming rants. These are the ones whose emails you are afraid to open. These are the ones that try to call you on nights and weekends. When your happiness and health start to become effective, fire this client immediately.

Hopefully your clients doesn’t hit any of those red flags. For every 100 projects, I’d say I have 10 challenging ones. I’ve had a few nightmare clients, but thankfully, those are few and in between.

Good luck!