6 Warning Signs of a Potentially Bad Client

6 Warning Signs of a Potentially Bad Client

I was recently racking my brain trying to recall the moment that I knew I was no longer a design newbie. Then in a flash of realization, it came to me: it was when I trusted my gut enough to know when to turn away a potential client for the first time. It can be a scary proposition at first.

Particularly for new designers who are hungry for work. We live in a society that drills it into us to take any job we can get and to be thankful for it.

Warning Signs of a Potentially Bad Client

6 Warning Signs of a Potentially Bad Client

While I appreciate the sentiment of having a good work ethic, (and I like to think that I do), there are certain clients out there that I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. The two biggest reasons I have for turning down a client are:

  1. I will never make this client happy
  2. I will have a hard time getting this client to pay me

How do I know this? Well truth be told, I don’t really KNOW. One can never KNOW that for sure, but there are many small behaviors that I have observed over the years that have come to be known by me as “tells.” When I first started observing them, I took note, but I brushed them off because I really wanted the work. Then almost without fail, the clients that I picked out as difficult to deal with quickly became impossible.

Here are some of those tells:

1. They are not a fan of your previous work

Part of being a newer designer is pricing yourself lower than more established designers. An unfortunate side effect of this is clients who want a bargain, even if they don’t really care for any of your previous work.

Thumbs Down

You will know this because they will say things like “We’re really hoping you can do a better job with our logo than you did with this one,” or “We’re really putting a lot of faith in you, are you sure you can handle it?” If you hear these types of statements, run away as fast as you can.

If you are hired by someone who doesn’t really believe in you in the first place, then you are in a losing, up-hill battle before you’ve even begun.

2. They have unrealistic expectations

A good client should know who their audience is, and ultimately what they want your work to accomplish for them. These goals can be ambitious, but they need to be realistic. I recently had a potential logo client who had a product that she described as “for everyone.” She elaborated about how the logo had to have very broad, mass appeal, but it especially had to appeal to young girls under 12, as well as the teen boy gamer crowd.

Unrealistic Expectations

I politely explained to her that these were two very different markets, and that in order to appeal to both, we would have to do something very general, and it would ultimately not have very much appeal to either group. My attempt at managing her expectations was going nowhere fast, so in the end, I just could not take the project.

3. They have worked with other designers in the past, all of whom were “horrible”

This client is a close cousin to the previous one. Generally speaking, their expectations are so unrealistically high that no designer could ever live up to them. Thus they have never had a good experience with a designer. If you are dealing with this type of client, it will almost always come up in the initial consult. If it does, I always ask them “What didn’t you like about what they did specifically?”

Also, “What did you talk about initially, and how was what they did different from what you discussed?” The answers to these questions will usually paint a picture for me as to if the designer in question was, in fact, the one at fault.

If they can’t answer these questions, then Designer: 1, Client: 0.

4.They nit-pick everything (and the project hasn’t even started yet)

After an initial consult, if everything seems ok, and you both decide to move ahead with the project, the first next step is to send out a proposal. I once had a client email me after a proposal was sent that was basically a point-by-point rebuttal of the entire proposal. They didn’t like my payment schedule breakdown, they had problems with the proposed time-line, as well as a few other miscellaneous concerns. I am always accommodating in revising proposals to suit my clients’ needs‚ up to a point.

We made some compromises, then I sent the contract for digital signature. I use a very reliable service for this, but the client came back again, stating that they would not sign electronically. They printed it out, signed it, scanned it, and wanted for me to do the same. It was at this point that I asked myself: If they have this many problems with the way I do things now, what is it going to be like during the actual design phase? I shuddered at the thought. I had no choice but to make a clean break.

5.They drag their feet

If a potential client seems to be in a pattern of letting long expanses of time go by through the early stages, it’s not likely to get better further into the process. I love a project that takes on the momentum of a tennis match. Good back and forth without extended game delays is essential to my business. If I take on a simple logo design project and it extends into several months because I have to wait weeks for feedback between revision rounds, the work suffers. By the time I get the feedback, my mind is on another project.


So if a client sits on the proposal or contract for a few weeks, take it as a sign. Maybe you are willing to work with somebody who moves at a slower pace, but I very rarely take on this type of client.

6. They aren’t willing to participate

Whenever I meet with a client initially, I have a lot of questions. Once during my line of questioning, the client stopped me and said “I don’t know why you’re asking so many questions. I’m paying you to figure it out.” Hmm. The problem with that statement of course, is that without proper direction from the client, you are just setting yourself up to fail.

Most clients understand that the design process is, and must be a collaboration between the two of you. Stick with those clients who are willing to roll up their sleeves and provide you with the information and materials that you need to do your job.


The fact is, “the dream client” is a myth. Nobody is perfect, thus the relationships we develop are very rarely perfect. But, I am happy to say that I enjoy a fantastic working relationship with almost all of my clients. That’s no accident, since I now know what to look for, and to always trust my gut reactions in order to avoid the not-so-great ones.

Potentially bad clients will almost always reveal themselves as such early in the process, and knowing what to look out for is the key to avoiding them. Never let your desire for work cloud your judgement when it comes to working with bad clients. It’s just never worth it in the end.

What behaviors have you witnessed in problem clients you have worked with? Have you ever taken on a client you knew you shouldn’t, and later regretted it? Please share your client experiences with us in the section below.


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