Sorry in advance for the long read.

I'm 22 years old and just finished university for graphic design. I was approached by a small business which wanted me to design them a logo, stationery, and a website. I was only charging them $20/h NZD because it was under the table and my first client.

Anyway, I've finished everything. They're happy with the logo and stationery, but not the website. They think the whole website needs re-designing. They only told me this a month after I finished (once her husband started to get more involved with the deal). So I came up with another concept and sent them the wireframes for it, told them it would take roughly 50-60 hours. He sent a long email filled with analogies about flooring and how he wouldn't want his floor tiled twice, etc (it was an entertaining email). He left me with an ultimatum: do the re-design of the site for free or return the deposit he paid and walk away (after the hours already gone into it).

I would LOVE to hear from other freelancers and hear what they would do in this situation as I'm new to this and can't tell if I'm in the wrong or not. An important piece of information to note is that I didn't send them the wireframes of the site in the beginning (which was a mistake I now know) but does this mistake really have this much of a repercussion? And yes from now on I will use a contract.

If you read to here I would love your input, cheers.

Update: I took the advice from the answers below and told him I would need payment for a re-design or I could take it down and we part ways. After some discussion he said never mind and is now going to live with the current design and pay what he owes. (Sounds like he was trying take advantage and get extra work for free).

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    But you already received payment for your work didn't you? I mean I'm not a freelancer, but if there's no contract then I would say you can walk away with the payment. Or maybe I don't quite understand what a deposit is...
    – Zerjack
    Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 15:53
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    As a side note, if you end up giving the money back and walking away, I'd suggest not letting them keep the website you've already completed. If you're walking away with no money, they don't own the rights to use the website, so you can at least keep it from them and put it in your portfolio.
    – Meg
    Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 16:10
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    Marcus, I see you posted this on Freelancing.SE as well. In the future, the Stack Exchange Network prefers questions posted to just one site, based on where you feel it would get the best help from experts. I'm going to close the one on Freelancing.SE, as this has some other good answers too. Link Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 0:58
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    Great first question, and it's not a "long read", it's exactly the right amount of info! Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 11:56
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    If your billing arrangement is hourly, then that's what your client gets to live with. There are no 'free do-over' hours in that setup. The only way that happens is if you agree to quote for the entire project and then aren't able to deliver something that meets the quoted specs. Then you're on the hook for putting in whatever effort it takes to complete the project as quoted. But not, as in this case, for arbitrary changes that the customer tries to make to the spec. Bottom line: don't give people free work!
    – aroth
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 7:03

8 Answers 8


Okay, it depends on this:

  • If they saw proofs or any other mock up and signed off on the design before it went to code, then I think you are in a good position. They should pay for it, propose that they pay you some money and walk away.
  • If they never saw proofs, just walk away and keep the deposit (they are happy with the logo and stationary, they should pay for it).

Either way, walk away from the relationship, it's going to be toxic from now on and you don't need that in your life when trying to start a business as a freelancer.

  • Thanks for the reply. It's honestly hard to remember if they saw proofs, this has been going on for around 4 months (they are terrible at replying which makes the process slow). I do know the wife said she was happy with the site until the husband got involved. Anyhow I think your conclusion is most likely the best way to go about it from here. (Any more opinions are appreciated).
    – ccc
    Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 10:15
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    @MarcusPorter I'm glad it helps a bit. On a side note, try looking for contract work as a freelancer. While freelancing I found that I was happiest going to work in inhouse design departments and agencies. Obviously this is personal preference, but it 's worth trying to see if you like it (obviously working in a large city helps, I'm in London so the availability of work was high). Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 10:41
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    "I do know the wife said she was happy with the site until the husband got involved." = there you go. You're off the hook. This is a domestic issue not a business one. I second consume's advice re: walk away.
    – DA01
    Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 18:11
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    @DA01 Well, if the wife and husband are business partners, it's a business issue.
    – TylerH
    Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 20:38
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    I tend to slightly disagree with the first point about proofs/mockups being needed. If the billing arrangement is hourly then unless the OP spent time working on something that was significantly different than what was originally agreed to, the customer has to pay for the work whether or not they like it (because what they agreed to pay for was time, not completion of a specific project). Though of course, having those items makes it much easier to prove that you did spend your time working on appropriate things, if push ever comes to shove.
    – aroth
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 7:09

You say:

Work was completed as per our agreement. Any concerns about the work came one month post delivery. While I am happy to work with you to reach satisfaction, this is a new job and one I must charge for.

If they respond with more demands, have a lawyer write a reply for you. It shouldn't cost you too much to have a lawyer do an initial consultation and deliver a letter.

Welcome to business!

BTW, some lessons to learn here:

  • always have a contract
  • avoid low-paying gigs due to the fact that (as you've found out) they typically involve terrible people to work for.
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    I think I have learned a fair amount from this deal. Thanks for the input. I will be telling him to either pay for a re-design or I walk away with the $700 which will cover the costs of the logo/stationary and I will be removing the site. And yes next time I will 100% be using a contract.
    – ccc
    Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 21:10
  • The questioner explicitly says the payment was "under the table" (i.e. not officially declared for tax purposes), so I'm not sure how much good a contract would do. If I were dodging my taxes, I think I'd rather lose a few hundred dollars to a bad client than take them to court and publicly advertise my undeclared income.
    – Pont
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 7:30
  • @Pont Not sure how it is NZ, but in the US, you'd declare at the end of the year at tax time.
    – DA01
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 7:38
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    @DA01 "Under the table" means having no intention of declaring the income. But yes, declaration should be at end of tax year, which creates a loophole I hadn't considered: keep the income undeclared unless you have to sue the client. If you do sue, make sure to declare the income at end of year. If you don't sue, shred the contract and destroy any other paper trails once the client has paid in full. [Edited to add: I do not advocate doing this; I advocate avoiding under-the-table work and paying taxes in full.]
    – Pont
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 7:49

There is no moral dilemma. If you were asked to do honest work, and you did honest work, then give them an honest bill. End of working relationship.

Definitely learn the lesson to make a paper trail, but even without it, you may have a “verbal contract” already. Depends on the laws in your country. But in any case, once you deliver an honest bill for honest work, the ball is in their court. They also don’t have a paper trail.

In the future, when you are in a meeting in which the client is describing the work that they want done, write the work down as a point form specification (“the spec”) as you talk and get it signed at the end of the meeting. Then have another meeting to deliver proofs, and when they say, “yes, that is right” you hand it over for them to sign. Then you deliver copies of the spec and proofs with your bill. It’s kind of hard for someone to refuse to pay a bill that literally has their signatures all over it. You can do this all on an iPad today and it is very easy.

Keep in mind that it is a standard tactic for some businesses to have a “good cop” ask for X amount of work, and then when the work is done, a “bad cop” shows up and says the work is no good and they won’t pay the bill. The idea is to intimidate you into not billing them. It gets them free stuff all the time, so they keep doing it. The way you avoid this is you remember that the ”bad cop” is not your client at all. The only impact the “bad cop” should have on you is to make you decide to bill the company for outstanding work and end your business relationship. Bill the “good cop” and write “nice working with you!” on it and wash your hands.

There is also a better breed of businessperson who complains and complains before they pay any bill, but when you tell them: “look, I did honest work and that is an honest bill” then they pay up. Even happily. So you have to both do honest work and be ready to defend your honest work at any time.

If your client doesn’t pay the honest bill you give them for honest work, then you deal with that in whatever way is right for you. If you are going to do freelance work, you have to have a strategy for what to do when you deliver an honest bill and it goes unpaid. That is a whole other topic. But even if in this case, you might decide to just write it off as a lesson in doing paperwork going forward, you should still deliver a bill. Or you may decide to continue the lesson by exploring what you can do about unpaid bills.

But whatever happens, you never, ever, under any circumstances return the deposit. 😃

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    +1 for "There is no moral dilemma". That's an excellent point. All to often in business we confuse moral issues with pure business issues. There certainly are moral issues to be concerned about, but a vast majority of the time, we're talking business and contract law. Nothing else. :)
    – DA01
    Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 18:14
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    Thanks for the wise words. You make some good points which I will be putting into practice in the future. I'll be telling him he will have to pay for a re-design if he wishes, otherwise I will keep the $700 deposit as payment for the logo/stationary and I will be taking down the site. As for the good cop bad cop routine, there is a bit of that going on but It seems to be unintentional and down to bad communication between the two of them.
    – ccc
    Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 21:16
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    It often happens that the "good cop/bad cop" routine is not intentional. You often spend a lot of time with one set of stakeholders, but when you deliver the work a second set of stakeholders jumps in and starts wanting after-the-fact input. Signed-off specs prevents this from hurting you.
    – Darren
    Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 19:51

Where there is no contract every transaction is a new job. This is an important concept because you're discussing a revision to a job that is already finished.

So I came up with another concept and sent them the wireframes for it, told them it would take roughly 50-60 hours.

That's an estimate and that makes this a new job. Doing this via email can be as binding as a contract with the exception that there are no clauses for either party. So it's a really bad contract (and thus a bad practice to do).

He sent a long email filled with analogies about flooring and how he wouldn't want his floor tiled twice, etc (it was an entertaining email).

That's just a long worded way of rejecting your offer. You are now officially off the hook. By not accepting your offer he has ended the transaction. Everything else you discuss is just relative to the next job you do for him.

He left me with an ultimatum: do the re-design of the site for free or return the deposit he paid and walk away (after the hours already gone into it).

There is no ultimatum. The business between you and him stopped after delivery of the first job. He has no leverage to make demands. He is attempting to establish constraints after the fact. You have no power over how other people feel, say or do. This is his problem. Not yours.

You can do the following:

  • send the client a short letter that thanks them for their business. Do not mention anything about past projects, or discuss any future projects. Sign this letter but date it the day you made delivery of the website. Keep a copy of this letter. This concludes your job with that client. Do not make complaints or refer to any outstanding funds. Limit your written contact with them to just the niceties.
  • if the client owes you money. Make an invoice, date it and send it to them now. State that this invoice is due upon receipt. State that there is a 1.5% penalty charge after 30 days. Settle your finances with this client first before doing any new work.
  • a contract means nothing if it isn't done properly. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is leaving out the exit strategy. You need to define in the contract what "finished" means, and do not make it dependent upon the clients approval. Define clear markers (i.e. how many pages, how many revisions, how many images). Specifics are to your advantage. Over estimating and over charging is how you protect yourself.

While a lot (if not everyone) will tell you that a contract is important. Try to remember that it's just a piece of paper. It's about as enforceable as you can throw it. I've shut up clients several times by referring back to terms in the contracts. Clients will often sign it but not read it or take it very seriously. So be sure to discuss it with them.

Finally, go find new clients. You've just discovered the other pit falls of freelance. 10% of your clients will waste 90% of your time. So find new clients and push the bad ones out the bottom of the pile.

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    You make some good new points. I like how you say since there is no contract every transaction is a new job. If I could have two answers I would. Thanks man :).
    – ccc
    Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 0:11

A short answer to a complex question and a heads up:

Check out www.no-spec.com for some of what you'll run into in the real world and what other creative folk are doing to address the abuse.

Get a cup of your favorite flavor of hemlock and follow the links where ever they may lead.

Check out www.gag.org their handbook ($35 at most bookstores ~ $20 used) is a gold mine. Especially the section on contracts.

Good luck and don't let anyone sell you short

I would add a recommendation to protect your copyrights. Says we (husband wife team not the royal we) who are living higher on the retirement hog with the proceeds from ye olde portfolio.

As for us we get a significant deposit and a written contract understanding (signed).

Changes, called comps, are limited by contract (we allow three) with overages billable. A major redesign is another project with another contract.

Something I learned early on (near 60 years back) some clients you're better to hand them $20, shake their hand and send them down the road. It's much cheaper that way. Over time you'll learn to recognize them.

  • BTW deposits are NOT refundable.
    – WhyMeLord
    Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 0:17
  • Thanks for the useful resources. I'll takes your advice and sum up a contract next time. Cheers. And yes I will become better at reading clients and being able to tell who to keep and who to pass on in the future.
    – ccc
    Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 3:03
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    The best lessons are typically the most expensive. We've (husband wife team not the royal we) been at this for near 60 years (retirement great but is never forever). Blogs like this are excellent for cutting a considerable amount of the paid cost of learning.
    – WhyMeLord
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 13:51

If you don't have a contract, you're stuck.

This is not a client who wants to partner with you; this is someone who wants free work. Whether or not he saw the proofs is irrelevant at this point. Make sure he pays you for the work he accepted (the logo and stationery) and then walk away.

Consider the lost deposit to be your down payment on experience: don't work without a contract, and in your contract you must specify how many designs you will offer the client and how many rounds of revisions you're willing to include before the client has to start paying for it.

  • 3
    I add that it isn't mandatory to write a complicated contract: keep it simple, but with the evidence of what the customer want, what you will give to him and how is your work tested. I suggest also to obtain a signed evidence of the success of the test on your work: this allow you to reject to return payments. Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 11:53
  • @PaoloGibellini Excellent points all, especially getting written acceptance of work. Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 12:10
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    If he has aproved revisions vía email for example could work. The wife already aproved designs. And he is charging by hour. Not by project. So a redesign, ok, needs more hours.
    – Rafael
    Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 17:44
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    @DA01 I agree that "no contract=stuck" is not a global or hard-and-fast rule, but here you have a newbie designer and an aggressive, intransigent client. Could the OP argue this in court? Sure. Would it be worth it? IMHO no. Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 18:29
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    Thanks for the reply Lauren Ipsum, I've had plenty of opinions on this issue and I think I'm going to tell him to either pay for the re-design or I will walk away with the $700 deposit which will cover the costs of the logo and stationary, I will also take the site down.
    – ccc
    Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 21:04

Just another word of advice, slightly off your original question:

You seem like a good, honest, conscientious person. And you likely strive to build a good reputation as someone good to work with.

Whereas that is all well and good, it is also important to remember that you have bills to pay and if you don't get what you want out of an arrangement, you would likely rather have spent the time sitting on the beach on vacation.

In any business dealing you are only responsible for making sure you get what you need on your end. Your client is responsible for doing so for their end. Fight for what you think is fair. They will fight for what they think is fair. Some mix of that will prevail in each dealing, but don't you give in too easily.

Far too many freelancers are pleasers, and end up not being able to make a living. It's one thing to be fair. It's another to go around screwing yourself just because a client can't be made to see things fairly. Don't take this as unfair criticism of you though. It's a lesson we all had to learn in the beginning, and need refreshers periodically.

For what it's worth, I believe from what you've stated, that your client is completely in the wrong and owes you 100% of the previously agreed-to price. You proceeded based on your client-contact's (the Wife) verbal indication that all was well. That's all that matters. The Husband is attempting to steal from you.

  • Thanks for the advice, I'm not the type of person who will give in to an aggressive client with unrealistic expectations. It will be interested to hear his reply.
    – ccc
    Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 0:04
  • Did they know what they were getting?
  • Did they take any part of the process?
  • Did they sign off on any of it?
  • Was it made on their idea/specs?

If you want to have a successful career in anything you have to eliminate expectations entirely. People have to know what they are trading.

Artists have to get paid even if what they produced is not liked. Its an arrangement where they pay for your time. As you are new you probably didn't get into details about it.

To maintain professional integrity you often have to set terms. Even if they didn't have samples and just got delivered something they didn't like. If you truly charged a low rate - that is the price. Its their business to know whether you've ever produced anything of value. Or to make sure not to give you advance money if they are not convinced you can do it.

If however they knew what they were getting and someone along changed their mind. Tell them to go to any professional and tell them he/she will only get paid upon "like-able" results. They will be laughed out of the room.

They pay for your time. They can change their mind every 30 seconds if they like, and you can do 157 re-makes of their design - SO LONG as they pay for your time.

Its a vast world full of people. Some expect to have little to no involvement and get awesome stuff. Some want to micromanage you all the time and get awesome stuff. In both of these and all remaining scenarios the client can get something they don't like. Graphics is often about materializing imagination into graphics, its not an soup recipe you can follow to always deliver the same thing.

Do not be a weasel about it - and do not be an ahole about it.

In any event tell them - if you can or wish to make it better - and what will it cost them, you cant dump every client you have a disagreement with. Some disagreements can be solved. They can keep you on and on good will you can both cater to each other's requirements. Or they can hire someone else.

IF however they approved what you were doing - say that you did not make a conspiracy to give them an inferior product. You made a proposition - someone accepted. You can further work and deliver something different - but that means getting paid further.

For the future, make a clear set of rules to handle any transactions. Doesn't matter if you only use them verbally or actually make binding contracts with them. Once you set the tone for what a transaction is going to be like - people give you far less bullshit. Its a messy world - you will get bullshit - lots of it, there is no professional spared from bullshit. Pros just charge you a lot more to listen to bs and are just better at guessing what the client really wants. Because tons of people will come to your work place demanding things that could not work if you don't alter or ignore them completely. Generally the more you keep people in the loop, the less right to complain they have. Because they have the opportunities to change your direction at any point.

Big companies are used to this, they know "Design" generally will not happen on the first try. Thats why they pay the big bucks to have a good pallet of selections so they can hand pick ones they like and want to pursue further.

Good luck.

  • I really like this community, so many helpful tips. Thanks for the wise words I'll definitely bookmark this page and refer back to it a number of times. And yes there was plenty of approval throughout the project, mostly verbal, some in written form. Nonetheless it seems to have worked out if you read the update. Thanks Helena.
    – ccc
    Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 22:42
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    Yes, this is precisely why you need to have a strong position. Some people will try to reach an accommodation to get things done. Others will choose to complicate matters on purpose - and you can just cut them loose to figure their own way around the world. This is the kind of bs you avoid with terms. And don't think of terms as all encompassing. When you are in uncharted territory say. "We have not specified this new element - we can discuss it to reach agreement or we can stop here." Many people would try to take advantage of that unless you step up and be firm and concise. :)
    – helena4
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 10:15

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