My first-time client, referred by a very loyal client of mine, does not want to follow my designing route (for what I’m assuming are personal financial reasons). They want something “fresh, new, eye-catching” (all terms we’ve all heard hundreds of times).

I’m an extremely reasonable guy when pricing, but my client is now asking for suggestions on how she could design her business cards, or simply for any tips or ideas for concepts, etc. (because she is “very creative”, in her own words).

I have no idea how to respond to my client asking for suggestions or concept ideas in an attempt to escape the designing fees after my detailed explanations on the value of my professional graphic designing services, designing from scratch, and not just an ordinary “copied, stolen template”.

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    Just to be clear, you know someone that wants help designing business cards, but doesn't want to pay you, correct?
    – DA01
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 0:49
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    She originally inquired for a new business card design for her business. After giving her a reasonable quote, since she was referred from a very loyal client of mine. She insisted on stating she "just wants a simple design". Her company is pretty well established, but all her marketing designs could use a dramatic boost, assuming, her current designer without a doubt not experience in graphic designing, or... she's the one designing her own work. - She's been completely difficult from beginning, in attempt to figure out what she wants, and where she wants to go, the list goes on...
    – Javi Pagan
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 1:56
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    Just suggest her some hardcore resources of graphic design and training classes (that aren't free.)
    – go-junta
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 6:39
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    If they haven't paid... are they really a "client" yet?
    – WernerCD
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 14:34
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    Saying she "just wants a simple design" to me doesn't necessarily mean she wants you to work for free as the accepted answer assumes. Maybe she does, but from the information available here maybe she's imagining a quicker and/or cheaper job than you are willing to do. I'm not a designer but I have contracted as a programmer, and I would want to explicitly ensure that the client's budget really is 0 before treating it as a request for free work. If she wants you to half-ass it for half your quote, then say you don't do "concepts" but don't accuse her of requesting a freebie :-)
    – user22365
    Commented Jul 26, 2015 at 1:27

6 Answers 6


My response when asked for free consultation....

I'm sorry, [client].

Please understand that my time is valuable. You are essentially asking me to donate my time for your project, even if it is merely in the nature of a consultation.

Unfortunately, it would be nearly impossible to try and convey all that I have learned through education, trial and error, and experience over the past [X] years.

I would love the opportunity to assist you with your project, but I just can't do it free of charge. If you'd care to schedule some consultation time, I'd be happy to discuss pricing. I'm simply not in the habit of offering free services.

Thank you.

  • Understand that some clients I don't really care if I anger. Especially if they are new clients just trying to get around paying me. I never try to anger them. That's never my intention. I just don't care if they get upset with me refusing to work for free. I don't tiptoe around them on eggshells trying to figure out how to tell them "no". It's pretty simple... "No, I don't work for free." After all, if they are bothered by that and storm off, what am I really losing? The opportunity to waste my time??
  • My "loyal" clients are loyal for good reasons. They surely understand if they refer someone to me, whether or not that relationship works, has no bearing on my relationship with them. It would be surprising to me if I lost a loyal client because I refused to do free work for someone they referred to me. And if I did do free work, my client may begin wondering why I charge them. Not good.
  • I deal with pretty much the same stable of clients regularly, any new client is hit or miss, take or leave, and rarely necessary for business. I'm always happy to find a new client I can work with, but they aren't really mandatory for the most part. To this end, a difficult client at the beginning will always be a difficult client. Why even bother with them? (related: What should I do if a potential client claims my pricing is too high? )

Ask yourself... why are you afraid of angering her? She just wants free work. Tell her [in a friendly and polite manner] to take a hike and be done with it. If your "loyal" client has an issue with you doing that they A) aren't very business-savvy and B) aren't nearly as loyal as you think.

I've turned away brothers, sisters, cousins, wives, husbands, parents, children, etc. of clients - just about any relationship you can think of -- and still maintained the client. I don't personally know anyone in any business that sees the refusal to work for free as an inherently bad thing. I still get referrals, but I don't get the "Hey can you spend 3 hours for free helping my son with his school yearbook" referrals. I get actual business referrals.

Business is business. Be forthright, honest, and upfront without being insulting. There's nothing more to it than that. Believe it or not, many business owners/operators really respect a forthright answer, even if that answer is "no", rather than some political dancing around.

Note: I'm always happy to have a conversation for free. If someone whats to call with a question, I'm happy to discuss what they are struggling with. It is when it starts getting into reviewing files, suggesting colors, typefaces, layout that I think it's too much. Someone asking for "just some ideas" is over the line for me. It's not direct and targeted enough to be a quick, free, answer.

And honestly it wouldn't surprise me if she agrees to pricing after you make it clear you won't work for free.

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    Note: Working for free costs you 2 times. Once for the work, and once for the client you could have done paid work for.
    – joojaa
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 10:01
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    "Ask yourself... why are you afraid of angering her?" Some people don't like angering others, don't like confrontation or are too busy for it; it gives them peace of mind and then can focus all their energy on the loyal clients.... and actually work. The benefit of not turning down "free" work directly is the loyal client may be inclined to refer you again if you have a friendly attitude. When you turn down people too quickly with the "moneytalk", your loyal clients might later sort out for you who has the budget to work with you or not. You might miss good opportunities because of this.
    – go-junta
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 10:57
  • Nope doesn't happen that way in my experience. My business is built upon referrals and I'm doing well... even in spite of turning down roughly 50-60% of the referrals. Business is business... no one has to deal with difficult clients unless finances dictate it.. and in that case, there'd be no dilemma. You'd just shut up and do it because you had to.
    – Scott
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 11:03
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    ....And if you avoid confrontation... you aren't suited for freelancing. That's like trying to be a actor but avoid being on stage. The largest factor to being a successful freelancer in any field is guts, courage, hutzpah, fortitude-- whatever you want to call it -- and the ability to stand behind your needs.
    – Scott
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 11:18
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    "I'm simply not in the habit of offering free services." Habits can be changed. I suggest, instead, something more like, "I'm unable to offer free services." Commented Jul 25, 2015 at 20:20

There are a few options:

"Sorry, but I just don't have the time to volunteer for pro-bono work at the moment."

That's probably the easiest way to handle it.

On the other hand, is there a benefit in trying to make this person happy? Could it benefit you in the long run if she's your friend? Is she well connected? If so, maybe you want to try and keep her as a acquaintance. As such, you could try:

"Tell you what, how about you buy me lunch and we'll brainstorm together for an hour while eating?"

You were probably going to eat lunch anyways, and this way you can offer out some of your advice without it being a total loss of your time.

  • I like the first option. It think its short and at the same time to the point. In regards to second option. Never thought about it that way, for those that are local. Good idea. Thanks a bunch!
    – Javi Pagan
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 2:02
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    #2 works for extroverts. It's a waste of time and energy for busy designers or introverts though! Nothing worse than spending an hour of lunch talking to someone who won't bring you any business or isn't your friend, even if the lunch is free.
    – go-junta
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 7:37

You could lower your price by a good amount for consulting. This will allow you to get paid for your knowledge. If the money isn't there don't sweat it, move on.

Don't ever give design advice to clients that refuse to pay, unless you know she will be coming back to you for more work. If she states she is a very creative person then she does not need any help.

I have given free advice to only one person, after they decided to go another route. A few weeks later they came back to me and now I have a damn solid freelance gig on the side. As of today I have received 20-some major projects from these guys. If you see a future with this particular client go for it, if not don't waste your time and knowledge. Everyone wants your services for cheap or free.

  • I appreciate your taking the time and your suggestion. I think thats best. To just move on. Unfortunately, now I'm stuck with what to say to my loyal client whom referred her to me. Knowing and fearful that it will fall back on her. - Very frustrating to say the least. SIGH.
    – Javi Pagan
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 1:58
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    Isnt this free advice then?
    – joojaa
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 7:05
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    There's rarely any future or budget with these people. But good for you if it happened. My advice is to not waste time with that kind of people; they usually prefer their own ugly design to anything else anyway, and have very low standards...
    – go-junta
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 7:34
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    @go-me yes excellent point.
    – joojaa
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 7:53
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    @go-me, very true. From experience, total waste of time. I have to admit, my being intimidated came from the fact that she came from that "loyal client" of mine, in fear of loosing her in the future. But I have to agree on all the points you've laid out, because I too have been there.
    – Javi Pagan
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 13:54

You don't want to get into the situation of looking like a mean designer and feel stuck between your client and that person.

The way to do this is by cooperating but not in the way she will expect.

Simply, do this with a smile:

1) Give her some tutorial suggestions like lynda.com, the Adobe Community forums or some online magazines about design, and tell her it's full of ideas and resources. You can also suggest her some training classes in a college in town. You can tell her it's hard for you to know what's her level of skills (technically and in design), and that she can find easily inspiration, tips and ideas there and do it at her own pace.

2) Offer her to train her for a hourly fee.

Since she doesn't want to pay (probably) and will (probably) get quickly discouraged after seeing all the tutorials, you will get rid of this quickly without even having to be "mean" or reject her in any way. Your loyal client will also see that you were cooperative. You'll make her take that decision for you.

You really don't need to have the "Pardon me, I do not work for free, I'm better than that" approach.

  • This too, is perfect and makes a lot of sense going this route. Have to try these out in the future. Thank you!
    – Javi Pagan
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 13:48
  • In my experience, this builds bad word of mouth -- You send her links and book recommendations and she ultimately returns repeatedly to ask you support questions. Eventually you have to be more blunt and tell her "no" and in turn when asked... she says, "That guy sent me a bunch of links and told me what books I should buy to learn how to do it. If I didn't want to do that, he wanted me to pay him. He wouldn't even answer simple questions I had. Complete waste of my time. I just wanted some advice." -- As opposed to "Nah.. he wanted money." Which one would you rather have?
    – Scott
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 22:52
  • I don't see any difference between "he wanted me to pay him" and "Nah.. he wanted money." My experience is they go with their info, work on their files, get super proud, come back and show them to me and then I sell them my services for prepress and/or tweaking their designs. Or they hire a little designer they can micromanage who does it and ultimately come back to me for the important stuff. They know where I stand. Everybody wins. It really depends what kind of market you're dealing with; I never need to say the "I have bills to pay" stuff, it's very insulting for them anyway.
    – go-junta
    Commented Jul 25, 2015 at 14:57

I get this all the time. Even after 20 years in the business. Some clients still think graphic design is just "fun on a computer".

My advice is to let her know what your "consulting fee" is and ask her if she'd like to schedule a meeting at that hourly rate. Then politely explain that designing a business card that prints properly and looks great is about more than "creativity" and that her money would be better spent on hiring you for your creativity and design, typographical and technical know-how.

Nobody would think to ask a plumber or electrician to come over and give free advice to a "client" whose good with tools but doesn't want to pay for a professional.

  • Hello and welcome to GD.SE.
    – joojaa
    Commented Jul 26, 2015 at 6:54

It sounds like she needs Corporate Identity and Brand Development but just doesn't know it. Every client who says "I just want something simple" only says that because they're trying to push you into giving them the lowest price possible. Once you give them a lowball price they open up and start telling you what they REALLY want.... which isn't always so "simple".

One thing I do to shut that whole "simple" stuff down is I inform them that "simple" doesn't always mean "cheaper" and show them a few silhouette attempts for a project I had a few years ago. Sometimes the lack of details makes the project more challenging because it has to be instantly recognized with little to no elements defining what it is, which requires an expert who's a GENIUS when it comes to that work.

Another thing I'll do is tell them "I'm sorry but I only do extravagant and highly detailed stuff because that's the type of market I cater to, if I show them my portfolio and it has a bunch of "simple" stuff in it they'll pass me up for someone else." That usually leaves them speechless.

As far as her wanting you to come up with everything...... that's kind of normal because most clients have no clue as to what they want, furthermore what they SHOULD want, but you have to be weary of that. If a client is truly expecting to pay you for your work they'll attach themselves to your shoulder because they're terrified of being stuck paying for something they don't like. When they say stuff like "hey YOU'RE the Artist and I'm entrusting YOU to take care of this.... I trust your judgement" and flat out REFUSE to have ANYTHING to do with the process not wanting to see rough drafts or have any input expecting you to come back with a completely finished design when you call them again, that's a red flag.

People do this because they've already decided they're not paying you A DIME for your work and avoiding having anything to do with the process is their way of ensuring an escape route. THEY WANT TO be able to look at you afterwards like you did everything alllllll wrong and backwards, when if they can sit there and tell you how everythings wrong it must me they knew WHAT WAS RIGHT!!!!.... but refused to tell you. If they tell you what they want and you do EXACTLY as they say they can't wiggle out of it. What they'll do is send you away feeling like a royal f**k up then go to another Artist and try to walk them through re-creating what YOU created.... or.... give them a bogus sob story about how you ran of with their money without giving them a copy that doesn't have "sample" all over it in red letters... which by the way... NEVER FALL FOR THAT BS!!!!... anybody who's going to screw somebody over ISN'T going to do all the work they needed to do to earn the money in the first place. So if somebody comes to you with a design that has "sample" all over it wanting to know if you can clone it for free because they're broke because they gave all their money to this evil Artist... it's all BS and you'll get burned too if you work with them.

Sometimes some Clients just honestly don't trust theirself when it comes to creative things and will give the whole "hey YOU'RE the Artist" speech, but if you ensure them that the only way you can fulfill their needs is if you're able to pick their brain as needed just for technicalities about the Business so you can find a creative way to communicate those points, they'll go along with it and help you. But if they refuse..... WITHDRAW ASAP!!!!

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