pantone leavesPantone leaves by Chris Glass

Each project would get less of my attention.
The quality of my work would suffer.
Clients would be less satisfied.
I wouldn’t get as many future offers.

So it’d be a short-term gain for a long-term loss.

Because I often say “no” to potential clients, I place more value on my time and build a stronger foundation for my business. And the clients I do work with get a higher quality of service.

Don’t feel that you need to say “yes” to everyone who comes your way.

It pays to say “no.”

Self-employment advice for designers.

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November 25, 2010


It’s an interesting perspective and great to be in that strong of a position where you can turn work down. I agree that you have to think long-term but not always easy to do in practice in the here and now.

Also some people do the best work when they are under pressure.

It’s much easier to say “no” to potential new clients. The difficulty is managing the workload from regular clients who you simply can’t turn away as they’re a key financial support for your business. A good network of freelancers really helps when you get stretched!

Thanks for this brief, yet powerful, insight into the use of one little word “no”. Would love to have read more!

Blair Enns is another who speaks very strongly about narrowing your focus to deepen your knowledge in a particular field of practice and specializing in that one area. To do this though, you have to turn down work that doesn’t aide you in this quest along the way which can be difficult. It has nothing to do with worthiness of the project but the simple fact of becoming an expert in your field and in turn, having a stronger portfolio and increasing your end-value. All good things in the long-term.

Rob, true, I think there’s good pressure and bad. Every project brings some of the good stuff — to complete the brief on time, to create for client customers, to bring some delight, to design something that’s an improvement over previous projects…

Steve, maybe that’s where the identity niche helps. The majority of clients work with me for a set period of time before my job is more or less finished. It’s not like I maintain a client website, or produce a flow of promotional items.

Amanda, his book‘s a cracker.

Charles, at the same time, if you put more value on what you offer, you can find yourself working less, as well as worrying less about bills.

Words to live by for sure. Instead of being “okay” at everything design related, focus on what your good at and only accept jobs that cater to that specific need. That’s why I don’t do HTML because I don’t like to do it and I’m not passionate about it, even though there are tons of people needing websites. Happiness is more important than doing something you don’t truly enjoy.

I happen to agree a great deal with this business philosophy, although it is not for everyone.

It does take awhile to establish yourself as a ‘quality over quantity’ designer, but I find in the long run you are better off for it. Knowing when to turn down a project does take some seasoned judgement. In my experience, I end up spending (and often wasting) way more time with the quick and out the door jobs than the more sought after quality projects. I would rather use my time to create something that can help the client and expand my future business than just make a quick buck.

It’s much less difficult to turn down work now than try to change your client base later. Easy money usually never is.

Hi David,
We often get sucked into thinking we don’t have a choice, into worrying that if we turn work away that we’ll be sorry when things ‘dry up’. I think that getting more work is a consequence of doing great, not just average work.
Once of the secrets to your success, happiness and sanity I suspect.

Very true, No is my new YES and I love it. Before, I used to take every job. Some people would pay and I came to realise that the clients who give you more money (who value your work) don’t stress you out.

I agree with David 100%. Although I have had some issues with turning down work when people have expected me to turn work around to silly timescales and I simply can’t do it due to other commitments. You have to be brave.

I’ve also turned down jobs I don’t believe in. I had someone who had a product that was a toothpaste made out of a byproduct of making wine. They wanted to sell it next to the wine and package it as a wine in a wooden box as a luxury item.

I couldn’t persuade him to market it as a toothpaste and not to over package it. So I said I wasn’t interested in the job because I didn’t believe in the product, but good luck with it.

I have to believe the people and the product. You do better work when you believe in what you do.

I’m curious HOW you decide to say “no” to. When you first get started you’re at a pivotal point in your new business to drum up as much clients as you can. How do you switch gears and start saying “no” to some people. Way curious what you all think!

I do agree with some thoughts that said when we just get start, it’s hard to refuse a job. David, That would be great if you write a post in which case you should say “no.” for any reason specifically.

Ditto Lee’s statement. I used to accept every project. My business has grown tremendously this year, so now I’m targeting art, environmental, non-profit, and social good industries. When I turn away a client, I refer them to other local designers/agencies.

As your business grows, try to only accept clients with flexible timelines, decent budgets, and within the industries your targeting. Potential clients who only inquire about project costs are usually shopping around for a bargain, so beware and move on.

It’s also important to only show the type of work you want to continue pursuing in your portfolio. Don’t want it? Don’t show it. Above all, no matter how small or large the company is, always provide consistently high-quality work and the clients will come.

Amanda, that’s a great quote, “It has nothing to do with worthiness of the project but the simple fact of becoming an expert in your field and in turn, having a stronger portfolio and increasing your end-value.”

And I agree about Blair Enns. His manifesto is a worthy read.

Leighton, I think you’re better-off for it in both the long and short-run. Granted, not everyone’s in the same situation. I can definitely empathise with how you’ve ended-up spending more time on those “quick” jobs.

Lee “You Do Better Work When You Believe In What You Do” Newham. Your new middle name. Completely agree. Thanks for the little case study, too. There are way too many products being sold with a horrendous amount of packaging. Designers can influence the fact.

Katie, with experience, you can learn to differentiate potentially good clients from the potentially bad, making it easier to say, “no.” When I started-out, and in hindsight, there were plenty of projects that I let get out of hand (or ones I accepted when I shouldn’t have). As Amanda (who commented before you) rightly says, however, “It has nothing to do with worthiness of the project but the simple fact of becoming an expert in your field,” so you should only be accepting projects that appeal to your preferred niche.

Tin, thanks for the post suggestion. I’ll see what I can do for you.

Chuck, great to know that business is going well, and I like your thinking with the sectors you’re targetting, too. Some excellent pointers in your comment.

Good advice, David. I don’t know about you, but it took me a while before I felt comfortable enough to say ‘no’. It has helped both me and my clients in the long run, however.

Man is that so ever true, I’m smack in the middle of the worst project ever and it’s a simple one ; The design of a business card.

The problem is (and I should have picked-up early on the signs) that this particular client wanted total control on the design process. I’m usually very open to suggestions and ideas as they can put me on a more productive path but this has gone further than anything else experienced before. The result is a total waste of valuable time and money and all for a final product I do NOT want to endorse.

It actually got me to think about (and I would like your opinion on this David and all you readers out there) offering future clients the possibility of a fee reduction for giving me total creative freedom on their projects, lets call it the Carte Blanche Fee. Is this a practice that
exist and/or that you would recommend ?

Kind regards


As worthy as it sounds, Joe, I wouldn’t recommend it. Many of the suggestions offered by my clients have had a positive impact on the results.

Creative freedom can be great for your portfolio, but at the same time, if the client isn’t delighted with the result, you’ll miss-out on an excellent testimonial. On top of which, no-one knows the people you’re designing for better than the client.

Good luck finalising your business card project. I think we’ve all been there.

That’s something I’ve thought about, Dan, but for now, I’m happy not having to deal with payroll, employee insurance, etc. I hope the blog efforts work out well. Liking the clean look.

Have a solution for turning down works and not feeling bad about it – double your price. Maybe not double, but you get the point. Good luck w the blog.

I have to agree with David. I truly understand that finances drive many of us, but I think that taking on too large of a work load and compromising quality of your finished product is a question of ethics. Where do you make the cuts? Your personal budget or return clients?

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