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Would love some tips on how to turn down a project while still leaving the door open for future work with a client.

Background - This potential client saw an annual report I created for a nonprofit and loved the concept (front page was sort of an infographic / illustrated story). They want to do something very similar...however, the outline they sent me doesn't lend itself to the same treatment as the work for the other client. Basically, they are trying to squeeze a square peg into a round hole, just because they like the look of the square peg.

I initially told them that I was so busy that it would be at least a month before I could even begin on their project (which is true!), thinking that would be the end of it. Apparently, they are so enamored with the work I did for the nonprofit that they are willing to wait and want me to put together a proposal...which is certainly flattering, but I honestly have no idea how to turn their outline (which has an overwhelming amount of detail for what would be a one page marketing handout) into a finished product. I'm ready to decline the job and suggest they simplify their concept, but would love to hear some advice on how to do that in ways that at least leave the door open for future work.

  • Have you tried explaining why you think it's a poor fit? Maybe the part they like could fit somewhere else in the piece? I would try being a bit more open. That'll quickly tell you if you would even want future work with them... – curious Feb 22 at 2:45
  • In my initial email, I expressed that it would be difficult to fit their concept onto a single page layout. I got a response that was basically "we are sure you can do it based on what you did for the other client". ugh. Unfortunately, I'm dealing with a marketing person who didn't come up with the concept. The concept doc came directly from the exec director of the organization, and I'm sure the poor marketing person was just handed the project with instructions to "just make it happen"! I've turned down jobs before...just never when I came highly recommended from a previous client. – Greg C Feb 22 at 3:02
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Overall, I never really overly worry about offending clients, especially newer clients, with respect to the work. (On a personal level of course I try not to offend :))

If I have issues with a project, present them, and the client ignores them or chooses not to use me, that's their loss. There are a ton of clients out there who will pay for my services... I am a commodity. There's only one of me with my design aesthetic and experience. If they want my skills then they need to listen and be aware of issues I present. It's that simple. They need me, I don't necessarily need them. If a client doesn't respect my opinions about the work, then they aren't going to respect much else about me. If they are merely seeking grunt labor and someone to push a mouse around there are myriad people out there willing to do that for them.

So, politely speak up and be forthright about things. A good client is going to ingest your input and be thankful for it, not resent you for expressing your desires to improve the piece. If they do and leave, you've merely saved yourself some headache at some later point.

What I often find is some clients get enamored with some marketing person or they don't have the wherewithal or means to alter something which needs alteration. If I feel that there's something which is merely going to reflect poorly upon me, such as bad copy, I'd rather just pass on the job.

Hi client,

I'd love to help with this, however I can't use the copy you provided. It simply does not work in the format you are asking about because [list a few reasons]. If you're willing to adjust the copy, I'd be happy to move forward. I can even put you in touch with a few professional writers if you need assistance. I'm afraid if copy can not be altered, I can not create what you are asking for.

Some (potential) clients will really respect that line in the sand. Understanding that I really do want to do a good job. Other clients will not want to deal with it or feel I'm being too "finicky". If that causes them to not return to me.. meh.. so what... I've got other clients. The customer is not always right.

One sure-fire way for me to start losing satisfaction in my work is to start bending over backwards trying to complete everything every one asks of me. Saying "no" at times actually makes for more enjoyable work, in my opinion. I don't have to do something merely because I'm asked and someone's willing to pay.

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  • Sound advice in my book. You sure you're not accidentally Dutch rather than American, Scott? :p – Vincent Feb 24 at 8:50
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    I tell all my dates I'm Dutch, @Vincent does that count? – Scott Feb 24 at 9:16
  • Excellent advice! I sent them an brief email explaining why I didn't think the work I had done for another client fit what they were trying to achieve...offered some suggestions for a different approach and am awaiting a response. Saying "no" to what they wanted actually felt pretty good! – Greg C Feb 26 at 23:32
  • Yeah saying 'no' from time to time is ultimately a big time saver. Well said @Scott. – Lucian Feb 27 at 10:25
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Tricky situation.

I would personally dump the client right away, because it already sounds like the boss wants that impossible thing done, and you may get caught in this boss-employee situation. Also, their need to replicate something else from another brand is a clear indication they don't have a specific style of their own, and just base decisions on random things they see and like. Which signals an 'emotional' type client, which many times can land you in that 'we don't like it' feedback situation.

Clients who like things without being able to formulate feedback, will also have trouble following arguments of why this or that may or may not work. They just like something and there's no other way around it :)

Otherwise, if you think there's potential gain in working with this client long-term, you probably need to at least try something which may hopefully show them why it doesn't work, or present an alternative.

Long-term clients don't want designers who pick their jobs, most of the times they need designers who can handle it no matter what.

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I’ve had this issue a lot. I have to say that there isn’t an easy answer other than you can not meet the level of their expectation right now. The other issue is that would you want your name associated with subpar work that you’d have to do to meet their deadline? It’s lovely that they love your work, but if they can’t wait then that’s their issue. Try to keep in contact and on good terms — you may be able to keep them interested.

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