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Design Dilemma: How Do I Fire a Client… Legally?

Sebastian M. writes: My client has turned my latest project into a nightmare. At this point, I just want to walk away but I’m afraid they’ll sue me for ruining the project, which has a ridiculous deadline (although they keep delaying it with change after change and all for a flat fee)! How do I get out of this clean and legally?

This is a common problem (just glance at some of the things clients demand on Clients From Hell) and most designers just suffer through and swear they will walk out the next time it happens… but rarely do. There are, however certain things you can do to end a project cleanly and not worry about retaliation. Join us as we delve into another Design Dilemma, helping to answer your questions, queries and concerns about the murky world of design…

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Sebastian, you don’t mention if you have a contract or got a deposit for the project, so let me answer both  situations, of no contract/deposit and where you do have both, just for the edification of the readers who may have the same problem.

Contract and Deposit

Okay, you have a contract and a 30% to 50% deposit on a flat fee project. Is there a codicil for excessive changes? There should always be one that lays out how many changes are allowed and at what point in the project (i.e., changes at sketch stage only and further extraneous changes charged at a set hourly rate). When a client starts racking up hourly charges for changes because his/her friend who owns a computer doesn’t like the layout, they think twice about trusting you a bit more or will argue the fees and refuse to pay them. That’s your first chance to sever the relationship.

“You will find that a difficult client will give you several opportunities to walk away due to unreasonable requests.”

If your contract doesn’t specify a set amount of changes, you can take the professional avenue and inquire why the client wants the changes and be ready to defend your design choices. If they insist on further changes, just tell them it will cost them an hourly rate. They will argue and that is another chance to sever the relationship.

You will find that a difficult client will give you several opportunities to walk away due to unreasonable requests. But what of the deposit payment, They will undoubtedly ask for that back. It is up to you and your contract to make it clear they have already spent the deposit or negotiate a return of some of the money if you haven’t met another milestone payment (i.e., another 25% after sketches are approved for the next stage in the project).

The client refusing to pay for changes, even in court, will be looked upon by most judges as breaking the agreement, whether written or not. I should mention, however, that it behooves the freelancer or studio to have a contract term that has an escape clause and outlines if any of the deposit is to be returned. You can find some great, free contracts at Most have such agreements written in.

No Contract and No Deposit

When you don’t have a contract (and 39% of freelance designers report they don’t), you can walk away at any time. What really hurts is all the work you’ve done without being paid. It’s always best, contract or not, to try to talk some reason into your client. Explain the situation and why the scope creep of the project will cut your rate to a point where you won’t meet your basic minimum financial needs.

“Better to run from crazy as soon as you see it!”

Gently go over how excessive changes are not the norm of the process and that you are a professional who will give the client what they need to succeed and the changes being made are diluting the effectiveness of the web site, brochure, ad or whatever it is you are designing.

Naturally, some clients just don’t get that and walking away from a job and payment for your time hurts. Think of it this way — you will spend even more time futzing around with the project and client and chances are, you will have to fight in the end to get paid your entire fee, or at all. Better to run from crazy as soon as you see it!

Don’t Borrow Trouble

Maybe it’s just my many years of experience but I can see a red flag from the first phone call a client makes or email that I receive. There’s something that’s just not right in their words and reactions. If you see a lack of respect in those words, you can expect more of the same once the project has begun. Here’s a few red flags that should send shivers down your spine:

  • The client won’t talk about the project, insisting they want to do it all face-to-face (or Skype-to-face, which is less of a hassle and time and gas-waster).
  • He/she uses the word “opportunity” before discussing the project.
  • You show up to the office and it’s a disorganized mess. The project will be run in a disorganized manner, too!
  • The client disparages previous designers he/she has worked with.
  • You’re kept waiting more than twenty minutes after your appointment time.
  • Common manners seem to have not come into the office that day.
  • The discussion of money keeps being put off while the client talks about how great he/she is and future design “opportunities.”
  • He/she uses a lot of design jargon but not correctly.
  • The client keeps telling you how certain parts of the project won’t take more than five minutes when you know it will take hours.
  • You are asked to do a “test” by designing a few “directions” first.
  • The client tells you they don’t sign contracts.

If none of these pop up, keep in mind that you need to write up a firm and all-inclusive creative brief. Along with a contract, this will spell out all terms, schedules, accepted changes, milestones and pinpoint the client’s desires and direction for the project’s results. If the client skips past describing his/her visual ideas for the project, saying “I’ll know what I like when I see it,” then you should run — run quickly!

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Do you have a design dilemma? Speider Schneider will personally answer your questions — just send your dilemma to [email protected]!

Speider has created designs for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson and Viacom among other notable companies and is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild and co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee. He writes for global blogs on design ethics and business practices and has contributed to several books on the subject of business for designers.

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