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5 Tips for Better Freelance Negotiations

Every freelancer needs to master and practice the art of negotiation. From clients that want to haggle over process, to talking someone into a specific style of design or interface style for a project, working on your own involves constant negotiation.

Some of us are more adept at negotiating than others. But even if it is not a natural talent for you, there are some ways to beef up your skills so you feel more confident entering these discussions with clients.

1. Write Down Key Objectives or Goals

designer negotiation

With every negotiation, you should be trying to accomplish something. Before that conversation starts, it advisable to know exactly what you need to accomplish. Start by making a list of key goals or objectives. Include any side goals that relate to the main idea.

This applies to negotiating for pricing or project scope as well as when it comes to selling a certain type of design or concept to a client. The trick is to remember that any negotiation is an exercise in solving a problem. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Don’t let non-issues get in the way of the stated goals.
  • If the topic shifts, it’s OK to put that on the table and schedule another time to talk about that issue.
  • Negotiations can pop up when you least expect it. Always be ready to back up ideas or designs with clients.
  • Remember who you are working for and don’t let personal preferences get in the way of progress.
  • Sell the benefit. What will the client get from doing things in the way you suggest? Make sure that’s clearly communicated to them.
  • Keep your list of goals and objectives handy and refer to it during the negotiation if you need to. You don’t want to forget any key points.
  • Set a time limit for talks that involve complicated issues to help keep both sides on task.

2. Arm Yourself with Information

designer negotiation

“Because I think so” will seldom be the phrase that helps convince someone else that your idea is the right one. When you are working with someone else in the process of a negotiation, having the right information and data to make your case is important.

Depending on what you are talking about – money versus design technique – different data points are necessary. You should probably create a few talking points for each type of negotiation.

For design style:

  • Show trends and usability.
  • Research from studies or articles.
  • Examples websites for the client to actually see.
  • Focus group information.
  • Concepts rooted in proven design theory.

For pricing and payment:

  • Comparable pricing for industry or competitors.
  • Standard practices for payment processing.
  • A written contract with terms and conditions, including penalties.
  • Breakdown of your time or costs.

3. Prepare and Bring Visual Aids

designer negotiation

When it comes to selling a design project, it is important that you can likely visualize information and ideas in a way that your client might not. Eliminate that part of the problem with clear visuals to help illustrate your points.

This can take a little extra time on the front end, but is something you will find saves you time in the long run. (And if you work a lot of similar projects, many visual aids are reusable.)

It’s important to “show, not tell” when working with clients so they can get on the same page with the design idea early. There will be less confusion about expectations and the final product and you’ll know from the start that you and the client are visualizing the same end result.

Not only will visual aids help you sell the design, but they provide an extra layer of protection for you at the end of the project because the client has seen what to expect. It’s a win-win.

4. Be Ready to Give and Take

designer negotiation

Don’t enter a negotiation thinking you will come away as a winner. Negotiating with a client should not be a win-lose type situation. (This will result in long-term struggles with the client.) Both parties should walk away feeling like they will get what they need from the relationship.

So you must be ready to give a take somewhat. This applies to every individual negotiation and to your work as a whole. There will be some clients that just tell you to do what you think is best, and they will smile, pay you and move on. Others will be much more hands on every step of the way. Be ready to balance both client types.

At the same time, smaller negotiations will happen along the way in every project. Take a new website design, for example. Your client wants a one-page website, but you know this doesn’t necessarily work for all of the content they want to use. What do you do?

At that point it becomes a conversation about what options exist. You can advocate for adding pages to the framework or condensing content. But at the end of the day, you will likely have to make whatever option work that the client wants. Try to think of creative solutions that can make the website better and keep the client happy. (In this case, it might be adding pages that link, but aren’t part of the navigation, so the website still has a one-page feel to it.)

5. Know Your Tipping Point

designer negotiation

In every negotiation, there’s a point that you won’t step past. This might be the minimum amount you are willing to accept as payment for a project or number of revisions for a design. You need to know what that point is and don’t allow yourself to be out-negotiated when it comes to your deal breakers.

As a general rule. You shouldn’t let the other party know where that line is. Ask for a little more than what you need to break even, but don’t go overboard.

If you are fair, honest and willing to work with clients, the hope is that you never really get into a tipping point situation. But if you do, you need to know what you are going to do. Walk away? Give in? Think about this before the conversation starts.


Negotiating is often one of those things freelancers despise. Working out terms or pricing can be cumbersome. But think about it just like you do when working with clients on design choices. (You are using all of the same techniques.) The more you think about negotiating and the more you practice these skills, the more comfortable you will become.

Freelancing 101 is an occasional series to help the increasing number of freelancers in the market. Whether you are a designer, writer, developer or wear multiple hats, we will share tips, resources and ideas to help you make the most of your small business. Is there something in particular you want to know? Let me know at [email protected].

Image Sources: hjl, Daragh O’Toole, ma_ru_yi, Valerie Beeby and dhendrix73.