Rant: Why Graphic Designers and other Artists get screwed

So recently I came across the site Clients from hell. This site is primarily for Graphic designers and other creative professional types (illustrators, web designers, etc) to share a communal pain at the grief and agony we suffer at the hands of seriously dumbfuck clients. One theme that re-occurs over and over again, which is one that hits home in really sore and tender ways, is the clients reluctance to pay for creative work, and the absolutely retarded ways they try to get out of paying for it.  I don’t think I know a single creative professional who hasn’t suffered through this, and I know many who continue to suffer. Why? Because creatives don’t know how to do business. Here’s why.

So a little quick background here.

I’m a graphic designer. I also do illustration and other creative work. I’ve suffered this pain first hand. I’ve watched my designer friends and co-workers suffer. I have yet to come across a single creative professional that doesn’t have at least a handful of ‘bad client’ stories where the artist never got paid for work well done. Its happened to all of us, and the reason is simple. We’re dumb when it comes to doing business. We are also often idealistic, and more than a little afraid to do what needs doing up front. We lack the confidence to be the hardasses we need to be to do well in business. I don’t know a single designer or illustrator who ENJOYS confronting problem clients and kneecaping money out of them. They’d rather just drop it, file it off to someone else, or just soak it and move on. But that’s not good business either.

As a community of professionals, we need to grab a bit of a brain and a pair of balls to start protecting ourselves as individual freelancers to bully clients, and also to help re-inforce that art and design HAS value in the marketplace and its not just something that you can “get bob to do off the side of his desk, he knows Indesign…”

Now, after many years of freelance myself and observing others in their own businesses, I have some ‘rules’. I am going to share these personal rules of mine so that perhaps other designers might use them to prevent “non-payment” syndrome clients.

Rule #1 – Interview your client

This sounds a bit odd, but honestly, it saves you a lot of time. And as any good business man knows, time is money.  As a freelancer you only want to take clients that are going to pay you and if they are troublesome you are going to want to know what you are getting into. I personally have certain criteria for my clients. For example, unless they bring money up front, I won’t do anything for entrepreneurial types unless they bring money up front. As a freelancer I have the ability to pick and choose my clients.  I highly suggest you remember that. You don’t have to do anything for anyone you don’t want to. You don’t have to suffer bad clients if you don’t agree to take them on in the first place.

And if you do happen to take a bad client by mistake, don’t be afraid to fire them before you get burned. Then you can turn your attentions to clients that are worth your time.

Rule #2 – Paperwork

They say no job is finished before the paperwork is done. If you are serious about working in freelance (and actually getting paid), I highly suggest you invest in a few very important pieces and have EVERY client go through the process of filling them out with you before you do a single shred of work.

The three essentials are:

1 – Creative Brief

A creative brief is a sort of questionnaire/documentation of the clients exact needs, project specifications (dimensions, number of pages, content) where its coming from, who’s duties are what, timelines for delivery, payment schedule and budget for the project. You will probably want to design one for your own workflow, but you should have all those points. Clients MUST sign this before beginning work. If they start adding things later on that aren’t in the original creative brief, stop them. Tell them adding things at that point will require either a) a halt on the project until a new creative brief with new price can be agreed and signed, or b) the added thing is now a ‘new project’ and must be done as a separate creative brief with its own payment schedule, etc. Don’t let them bog you down in the middle of a job with unexpected add-ons.  Use a docket system, and treat any new project as a new docket. That’s how agencies do it, and it works pretty well.

2 – Contract

This one is a must have. Even if you can’t afford a lawyer to have one written up custom for you, and you should at some point. You need to have these signed before you do ANY work. The officialness of them makes clients realize, yes, you are serious. And it also gives you legal clout to go after them if they owe you money in the end. If a client balks at a contract, its a good sign that they aren’t on the level and are probably looking to screw you over. In the absence of a real contract, you can write your own with a little self education. Just make sure you make them sign something, and watch how they react. If they refuse to sign it or balk at the idea ( “Oh, I’m sure we don’t need a contract”, “We’re friends right? why make it so legal?”, etc) its a HUGE red flag that this person is probably going to try very hard to not pay you for your work. Make sure you also have a clause to terminate your association on non payment on your end too, so you can fire bad clients who are troublesome. Having a clause for ‘additional fees’ ( read – asshole tax) is also good. If you get a client who’s wayyyy to fussy and is making a job difficult, you can legally add additional fees for changes and such without modifying the contract.

3 – Invoices & Tracking

You should have a proper invoicing solution in place. They have some nifty ones like Freshbooks online now that work well. If all else fails you can do it yourself manually. But you need to keep records like an accountant. You also need to keep all your receipts (for everything, gas, dinner with the client, and records of hours spent on the project). The better your records, the more organized and prepared you will be to corner an unpaying client. In order to go after them if they don’t pay, you need records of invoices and the date of invoices. You should have a schedule of payment on your creative brief and contract, your invoices should match this regardless of if the project is running over time. ( because the client never returned that copy you asked for three weeks ago…)

Rule #3 – No paycheck, no files.

One of the MOST effective ways of getting paid is to hold the ‘product’ hostage until you get paid. You have to REALLY hold your ground on this. No sneak peeks, no draft files, no nothing until that paycheck is in your account. (cash the cheques first, just to make sure they don’t bounce before you send the files! Yes, I am THAT paranoid.) If you’ve done this properly in the contract and brief, the client should be expecting this. I make it very clear to my clients that I expect my payments at each file delivery scheduled. If there are drafts, I expect my ‘draft’ payment before I show my files to anyone. If you want to be REALLY bitchy, only show your drafts over hardcopy. NEVER give digital files with drafts. This way, the client is forced to deal with you and can’t just forward your files to someone else and not pay you. If you want to still deliver digital files, consider a digital download solution.

Example: If you have a website (and you should as a designer) and you use wordpress, there is a plugin called “Shopp“. It gives you the ability download digital content, but you have to pay to download. Put the files there for the client to download at their outstanding amount. Although watch for reversals on credit card payments if you use something like this. People do that crap all the time.

IF your client refuses to pay you and insists on seeing the drafts, insist on payment. Period. They will try EVERYTHING to get you to release the files. This is an exercise in boundary setting. Be the broken record. Tell them politely that all they need to get their files is to pay for them. As soon as payment is recieved, they get them. That simple. If the client becomes highly annoying about this or extremely unreasonable, you can remind them of the contract and creative brief they signed. That this was the agreement. They might say that they don’t get this from other designers, etc, etc. Insist you aren’t other designers. You get paid for your work. That’s how it is. You did work, you get paid. If they do happen to spill another designer’s name or company, its always fun to see if they did work with the client and if they client welched on payment or ran off with files. You pay for product, don’t let the client get away with trying to get produce for free. No file leaves your computer without being paid for. If a client claims you don’t know business for not sending the files, you can tell him that you do very well, and thats why you insist on payment BEFORE you send them.

This rule, explained very clearly, bluntly and forwardly up front can almost eliminate client non payment. Why? You’ve been paid in full by the time the last file is sent to the printer. Make sure you NEVER EVER send the final files before the last invoice is paid in full.

Rule #4 – Never pay anything out of pocket

Clients will sometimes want you to liaison with a printer or a web service provider and they will just pay you back. Liason, sure. But when it comes to actual buying, invoicing, registering, or putting names on things, make sure that you have the client do it. Do NOT have the printer bill you. If you liason, put a liason ‘fee’ on your bill for brokering the deal, but don’t pay the printer yourself unless they have ponied up money before hand for this purpose and you can trust them to pay any unexpected printer fees. Tell the printer to bill the client for the job, or if its webhosting or domain registration, make sure you have the business as the person to bill to and name on the domain. Then if they do something stupid (like not pay their bill) those companies go after them, and not you.  If you do pay yourself, the chances of ever seeing that money again are practically nil. Don’t ever put out for another business.

Rule #5 – Clients sign EVERYTHING

When client sees the drafts or any file really, if changes are required, write them down and have the client ‘sign’ all the changes you’ve agreed on and the completion date. If the clients are required to provide files, give them a hard deadline. Have a clause on the ‘changes’ sheet that if they change their minds you can charge. Make it very clear by ‘signing off’ on something they have agreed they like it and that you will make the changes specified, and anything additional change wise will be billed extra.

This is to prevent the client from going ballistic and changing their minds. If you say “Certainly, I can make that change, but its not part of the original agreement, so its going to cost you X more dollars.” You’d be surprised how a ‘essential’ change is suddenly less important, or if you say “I can do it now, but it will cost you X in rush fees.” Suddenly things are less rush. Business people speak the language of money, and that’s what we artists have to get through our head. Everything EVERYTHING costs, and we have to remind them of it.

Rule #6 – Never under charge. Overcharge.

This might sound a bit counter intuitive, but here’s the deal. Your time is precious. Your skill and talent is also precious. Clients need to realize this. You are a Porsche.  You are a Mercedes.  You are Prada, or Gucci. You aren’t Bob from accounting who knows how to use Publisher or frontpage. You are a designer. Bonified, trained, educated, experienced. You are a professional, you need to get paid what you are worth.

Everyone wants a deal. Back in the days when I used to work retail, I learned something. Namely that markup on retail products is stupidly huge. This is so they can have two things. A regular price, and a sale price. When there are sales, they aren’t generally losing money. They might not make AS MUCH, but they are still making money. Lots of it. You need to do the same. So take a cue from retail.

Take the base rate you think your time is worth, say, for example 45$ an hour. This figure should be based on what you actually need to make on jobs, you know, for bills and such. Then, mark it up by 50%.  This makes it about $67.50. A cute trick also used in retail is to round it up to just under the nearest dollar. So take 67.50 and put it up to 68$ an hour. This serves two purposes.

One, it allows you to give discounts at the end of the job to good clients. This is good business because the good clients will come back. But never give more than 2-30% and if you do give a discount, be prepared to give discounts to that client all the time. They will expect it.

Secondly, if a job runs over and its your fault (ie: you can’t bill the client), your expenses are covered. Also, if you only get paid for part of a job, or less hours than you thought you could get, you are still making enough to make the job worth it. Do not let business people brow beat you from your rate.

And thirdly if a client is a little bitch, you have the satisfaction of charging them full rate plus rush charges.

You also have a little wiggle room of the most awesome job comes along, and the client can’t pay your rate to drop it a little without cutting into the rate you need to make a living. NEVER discount more than your markup, preferably less.  This also makes you appear more ‘flexible’ in your payment rates. Some clients actually prefer to pay a higher rate and be billed for less hours! Its honestly kind of mind boggling.

Rule #7 – Always get a deposit up front

Its happened to me more than once where I’ve taken a job, did drafts, held them hostage and the jerk still won’t pay. For me to hold my ground, it means I throw away the time and investment because client is a deadbeat. As a result, I now require a deposit of a quarter of the job up front before I do anything to prove the client is serious. And its never less than 50$. If its too low, the client will consider it laughable, and try not to pay it. Don’t ask me why they do this. It happens with things like parking tickets too. Beware of clients driving really expensive cars. More often than not, they are cheapskates. If a client balks at a reasonable deposit or retainer, I won’t do business with them.

In the end, clients are difficult beasts and many of them are quite dumb and difficult. Ultimately, finding a person who’s as good at breaking knees to get money for you rather than having to go after them yourself is awesome. Setting up a proper business is a lot of work, and most of us designers just don’t have the chops for it. But if we can at least try to limit our losses, and maybe start making more profits, we’d be a little happier in our chosen profession.

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