Two Small Letters, One Big Word

Back when I was making the big switch from the safe nine-to-five desk job into the scary but oh-so-worth-it world of working for me, I was eager to take on any task, regardless of the proposed “return on investment”, let’s call it. I don’t think the word ‘no’ was present in my vocabulary.

I took everyone at their word, refusing to consider the possibility that anyone had anything but my best interests in mind.

Unfortunately, I found myself working all the time (averaging 18 hour work days with all-nighters scattered here and there) and yet somehow I was still struggling just to pay the rent. I was winning awards and getting new contracts every week, then borrowing money from family to stock up on Kraft Dinner. People loved me and they loved my work, but Ontario Hydro doesn’t accept second-hand love in exchange for heat (they really should).

Over the years I’ve learned a lot of lessons the hard way, including contract and deposit policies to (at least partially) protect me from con artists and deadbeats. That said, one of the most important skills I’ve had to develop has been the proper and ample usage of the word “no”.

Don’t get me wrong, I do hate having to say it. And it’s not easy. But it’s as vital to your professional success and personal well-being as the air we breathe.

Here are a few questions I almost always say ‘no’ to:

1. Can you show me a mock-up to help us choose a designer?

Spec work. I used to fall for this one all the time. I even used to participate in design “competitions” which are essentially the same thing. A lazy customer wants an off-the-shelf design that they don’t have to invest much time or effort into, so they get a diverse group of naive designers to work for free with the intention of only paying one for their time. I would often “win” these competitions, but it still left a foul taste in my mouth. Time, talent and ideas are our product - we don’t give them away for nothing. It’s NOT like “test driving different cars before choosing one”… it’s more like asking the salesperson to GIVE you a fleet of cars, and then only paying for the one you like best. Even if you don’t use the other cars, the salesperson doesn’t get them back.

2. I saw someone online selling logos for $99 - can you match that?

Yeah, and you can buy designer handbags in China for a buck. I do unfortunately get this question once in a while, and the response is always “no”, without exception. You can find stock and cheap design easily enough. The tradeoff is… wait for it… it’s crap. And if it’s not crap, it’s royalty free, which means you can’t trademark it, and anybody else with $99 can use the same design. You would think that more people would realize that you get what you pay for.

3. Can you give me a deep discount?

This is similar to number 2, but in this case it may be a long-standing client asking the question, or just someone who loves your work but can’t quite afford it. I get this question all the time. People are always out to save a buck, and while I’ll quite often apply a loyalty discount, it’s never more than X percent of our standard rate. I almost never agree to flat rate projects - they will suck you dry unless you’re VERY specific about the inclusions. Remember, this is your livelihood. It’s your mortgage, your grocery bill, your family’s expenses, AND your company’s integrity.

4. I really like X by Y company - can you copy it for me?

This comes up more than you’d think. A client sees something they like, and they want it for themselves. It’s only natural, but a line has to be drawn. You can use existing sources for inspiration, guidance, general style and the like, but a carbon-copy is immoral, illegal, and relegates the designer to more of a drone than anything else. Nothing good will come of it.

5. Can I have your home number?

I’ve given this out to precious few clients. It’s hard enough to keep that fragile line of sand that separates work from home from blowing away in the wind of my hectic schedule. While I work very long hours, and I always have work “with” me in some form or another, I do make serious efforts to be as fully present as possible, in whichever context I find myself. If I’m at work, I’m at work and I am immersed in it. If I’m stealing a few precious moments to have dinner with my husband, we both deserve to have that time to ourselves. If you don’t maintain some sort of balance, you’ll be looking at an early grave - or a mental hospital.

6. Can you design X for free in exchange for advertising or stock?

Um, no. I’ve reached the point where I get all the advertising I need through word-of-mouth. Everything I do that’s not covered by an NDA (and that I actually like) goes into my portfolio or my Flickr profile, and websites I’ve developed link back to my website from the design credit area. This is my career - I’m not your neighbour’s kid with a stolen copy of photoshop. And while I do appreciate the offer of stock, and I wish my clients the best, it’s rarely a wise investment on my part.

7. Can you do this by tomorrow?

I always have at least a half-dozen contracts on the go at once, with each one often having a multitude of different tasks to complete. All tasks go into a queue, with a constantly changing order based on an algorithm involving time, skill, effort, urgency, overall project scale and client seniority. Note that urgency is only one part of the equation. If I can do it, I will, but please don’t ask me to stay up all night to get it done. I’ll often do that on my own, but the generosity can end rather abruptly when you start to make assumptions. Remember, the more you bend over for a client, the more they’ll expect you to bend in the future. That’s not to say you shouldn’t do good clients a favour now and then (you should), but be mindful of the slippery slope.

8. Can I just pay the whole amount when I’m done?

I’ve been burned by far too many deadbeat and dishonest clients to fall for this one. All new contracts require a 50% deposit before any design work begins - and it doesn’t matter how big or small the contract is. At the end of the project, finals are only delivered AFTER final payment has arrived. The majority of your clients will be honest, and the majority will pay in full provided you’re good at what you do. But you always have to account for the jerk factor. These people don’t care about the time and effort you poured into the project. They don’t care if you can’t afford to eat because you devoted a month to a project that would never be paid for. Don’t fall prey to it. I do have long-standing clients on monthly billing schedules, but only agree to do this once you’ve developed a trusting relationship with the client.

So there they are, but remember, there are no absolutes. Depending on the situation, you may have different answers (and I may too), but the take-home message here is that you need to develop the ability to say no to your clients. The customer is not always right, and when they are wrong, your personal and professional success will depend on your ability and willingness to tactfully tell them so.


Chanie Pritchard is president and CEO of Sage Media Design, a premier commercial graphic design studio based in Ottawa, Canada. With clients running the gamut from individual entrepreneurs to corporate goliaths, Sage provides a highly personalized suite of services: Branding/Rebranding and Corporate Identity materials, Retail Artworking and Product Packaging Design, Publication Layout and Design, Marketing Collateral, Print and Online Advertising, General Design for Print, and of course, Web Des...

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