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.

Wes McDowell is principal and lead designer at The Deep End design studio in Los Angeles. Wes also co-hosts a popular graphic design podcast called "The Deeply Graphic DesignCast," available on iTunes.


  1. / Reply

    Ahhh we have all been there, the more you do the more you are able to collect an armoury of ripostes to a lot of nonsense.

    When link building I find unreal expectations to be the most common and that they can always get it done cheaper. Although I am probably guilty of a lot of this with my suppliers ;)

  2. / Reply

    Great tips. I recently “hired” a client that didn’t care about the details of the functionality of his coding work as it pertained to integrating FedEx and other elements. The coding required to meet the expectations of functionality put us at a loss on the project. He managed to insult everyone of my team members and demand that the task be completed ahead of schedule while ignoring the fact that he misrepresented the task initially and stated that the deadline I gave him for the logo was the deadline for the site to be live. So what did I learn? Don’t work for grumpy old recluses who can’t turn on a computer!

  3. / Reply

    You should always pay attention to what the client is saying sometime criticism is hard to take on the chin, but I have come across some clients that do have unrealistic expectations, you just have to talk through this and explain everything you are thinking in the nicest way possible.

    • Matt Cranston,
    • April 5, 2012
    / Reply

    Don’t forget this old bit of magic: You ask them what type of design that they like/want and you get this for an answer:

    “I’ll know it when I see it”

    1. / Reply

      Thats the worst… but don’t take that for an answer. If you ask the right questions and dig a bit, you will usually find that they know more than they think they do.

    • Saya,
    • April 5, 2012
    / Reply

    Clients may have one , two or all of the above signs. Based on how bad and strong are them you can decide either to increase your rate or not working with them. However, I had clients that they showed not good signs at the beginning but after working on one or two project and we built the trust they became very nice.

    • Dom,
    • April 5, 2012
    / Reply

    I can really identify with the whole thing of believing in your gut insinct. It took me years to develop.

    • Jay,
    • April 5, 2012
    / Reply

    I agree with all your points. I am business analyst when i create a proposal i try note down all the assumption and points which are not covered under current scope of work. by this way i try to bind them but it does not work all the time. I have come across some of the client which agree with you on everything and then they say i never think that this way it will work, i tell them that we discussed, they say that might be misunderstanding!! I am again on same stage :(

  4. / Reply

    I should have known by the third sign! Wish I had seen this list earlier

  5. / Reply

    Here’s my favorite sign- they balk at paying a deposit.

    1. / Reply

      Yep… run, don’t walk from that.

  6. / Reply

    Great article that applies to many industries unfortunately…

  7. / Reply

    Hi Wes. You are absolutely right, nobody is perfect. In my 4 year experience i didn’t got such type of client. But thanks for your article may be it will help me in future.

  8. / Reply

    Brilliant list there Wes – you’ve covered just about every problem area I can think of! I’ve had quite a few potential clients I have had to turn down who have fitted in to one or more of those categories, although it still takes me a bit of time sometimes to try and figure out if there’s a red flag there in the initial consultation. To a large extent I’d still rather pass up a job than work on a project that won’t be appreciated and will never be finished – and those ones it seems tend to be poorly paid too. Another sign I’ve experienced is based on the first point and that is the client who tells you early on that they are doing you a massive favour by even considering you to work on a project of theirs, especially one that turns out to be poorly paid, badly planned and unrealistic too.

    Having started a new company recently (but with many years’ prior experience) and being quite young, I’ve had to walk away from a client who said they were ‘giving me a chance at earning some money to support my child’ as they incorrectly assumed I was designing websites as a hobby/part-time and even if I was, it’s quite a rude and arrogant way of trying to find a good designer… probably a case of someone who does not want to pay for a high standard of design and functionality. I also still find it strange that when you tell such a client you don’t want to work with them for some reason, that they almost always try to pursue you. And also sometimes change their mind on their restrictive budget too!

    1. / Reply

      Haha thats true Michelle. People tend to want what they can’t have, so if you break it off, they may pursue you even more. But trust those instincts.

      Thanks to everyone for your comments, I hope you found this article helpful.

  9. / Reply

    Most of the facts are true, especially “many expectations” and signs not to pay for the works done. There is one time when I went over to present and to get long overdue deposit from the client, I saw the boss was running away from another room and his staffs told me he wasn’t there. It was caught red-handed! They also refused to pay misc claims on sites checking, and meetings with 3rd parties as well. Working with them was truly one bad experience. They expect you to give them ideas on other projects and take things for granted. I believe the way one run their business that way, their business won’t go far. Those who see beyond small matters surely will get earnings far more than they give.

    • Danni,
    • July 4, 2012
    / Reply

    Hi Wes, I just finished designing a project (a book) for an impossible client (just think: 10 assistants have worked for him in the last year and 20 employees have left the company in the last year).

    It left a very bitter taste in my mouth and I constantly felt insulted as Michelle stated – the client felt like he was doing ME a favor because this was really my first official design project.

    I delivered the project to him a few days ago. He was happy with the design but unhappy with a change I told him I wasn’t going to do. This change request was requested at 11PM at night, the night before I was to give him the project. I explained on the delivery date that this was outside my working hours and he scoffed saying as a freelancer, I work 24/7. I said nothing.

    In the end, he finally allowed me to pick up my check from the accountant (he refused to approve it until he knew the staff knew how to make this change in the text in the book [I designed it in a way that anyone can change it because he said it will constantly be changed]). His last words to me: “Go get your check, I’m not happy. I’m done. I don’t owe you anything.”

    I bade him farewell, got my check, deposited it, only to have his assistant tell me they’ll email me about the check. I don’t know what this means as I never got an email (do they think they overpaid me? I can assure you this is really far from the truth). Just this morning though, I receive an email from his other assistant asking me where I bought the materials.

    Wes, or anyone who has experience with post-production with a project:
    I don’t know if they’re going to try to recreate the books or add an extra page themselves but am I obligated to tell them?

    I really don’t want anything else to do with them. These last two months were just plain horrible.

  10. / Reply

    Thanks for this post!Well most of the facts are true, especially many expectations not to pay for the works done…:)

    • Sean,
    • December 11, 2013
    / Reply

    Sometime its better to avoid a new client which going to need too much attention

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