How & When Do You Turn Work Down?

As a new freelancer, it’s hard to turn down work, especially when you need it so much. You almost have to take all that you can get, especially in an uncertain economy. Being that I am only a part-time freelance designer, I have seen that it is in my best interest to say no to some freelance projects. The obvious reason is because of the age old “constraints” adage—Good, Fast, Cheep… pick only two, which I discussed previously. The client often wants all three. Has there ever been a client not want all three?

Although, another good reason to turn down work would be because certain projects might pigeonhole me into an area that I don’t want to specialize in. This is something that I have seen not in my freelance work but in my full time job.

I came across a recent article on Salon which reminded me of yet another adage—Be careful what you’re good at. See When A Designer Should Turn Down A Client by by David Sherwin.

When the work does not come as frequently as one would like you naturally grab everything that you can get. Often you gravitate to the projects that you can easily do to give the client something fast. Thus the pigeonhole predicament.

But what about the situations when the type of project is not an area of my specialization? What about something that would give me an opportunity to add a new specialty to my resume? Being a natural Problem Based Learner, I relish these instances to have a problem which will get me into practically using new programs of the Adobe Suite.  If this happens then the turnaround time is a function of the amount of time I will need to be on which could be a while depending on the task.

The article also lists some tips for a designer when informing the client that they are turning down the work:

  • You need to show humility.
  • You need to do it early enough in the new business process.
  • You need to leave the door open for the possibility of “No.”
  • You need to encourage future opportunities.

I like how the article goes further to point out that the client should always remember you as a positive person/agency that they want to work with in the future. “No” should never be the last thing a client remembers about their interaction with you. Such a dialogue would sound something like this, delivered via a phone call or in a face-to-face meeting:

“I’m sorry, but it looks like the project we’ve discussing won’t be a good fit for us at this time. Let me refer you to another designer (or two) that would be able to help you out with it. And we should put something on the calendar for coffee in a month, as it was really great talking with you this week about our shared passion about …”


About DaveHallmon

With experience in web, graphic, and instructional design, Dave maintains a balance between what is efficient and effective in every message. He always focuses on the why and how rather than "just doing it" to get the job done. By day he works at a leading university designing online courses that support 9,000 students in 64 countries. He works directly with faculty to brainstorm, design, and develop their online instruction utilizing the Adobe suite. He also teaches for the university as an adjunct faculty member in the area of web design. By night he is a devoted husband, father, freelancer, and adventurer of the outdoors. His other interests include LifeHacker, Science Fiction and Hayao Miyazaki movies, Settlers of Catan, and coffee with friends. He currently lives in St. Louis and has an M.S. in Instructional Design and aspires to pursue a professional degree in content marketing and strategy. Visit the links below for more information about his interests and design work.
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