10 Bad Project Warning Signs | May 31, 2005

One of the great things about being a freelance web designer is the ability to turn down projects. I’ve come across a few projects recently that sounded interesting but made me feel nervous. It wasn’t any one specific thing; rather a series of small little things that set my internal alarm bells ringing. As such I’ve written up a list of bad project warning signs. Individually none of these signs should be deal breakers. However put a few of them together and it may be worth thinking twice about taking on that project.

What are your bad project warning signs? Are there any projects you’ve taken on and wished you hadn’t? Conversely, were there any projects you were nervous about taking on only to find those concerns were unfounded?

Posted at May 31, 2005 9:44 AM


Jon Hicks said on May 31, 2005 11:46 AM

Always a bad sign:

“Hey! I like your work! Can you tell me how much it would cost me for a website? Thanx!!”

Matt Carey said on May 31, 2005 11:55 AM

Any potential project which requires a ‘free pitch’ i.e. a creative pitch. We have a policy of not free pitching, and it has cost us work (even some dream jobs). But we have to stick to our principles sometimes. Freelancers, partnerhips, small businesses etc can often not afford the time and resource to provide a creative solution along with the pitch. Yet alone the fact that it will not be fully realised because that only comes from working on the project. I often tell potential clients “when you get 3 builders to quote for a job on your house, you wouldn’t get them to build something before they start”.

Joen said on May 31, 2005 11:56 AM

This is an incredibly accurate list. I’m impressed at how you were able to exhaust it this thoroughly.

I have only one addition:

Zeerus said on May 31, 2005 12:02 PM

Being only 14 I have only had a few clients so far, but I have learned to choose my projects carefully. Now, because I’m 14 I’m okay with doing free work, just for promotional reasons, but if a person wants a free website and I know it will be large, I’ll turn it down.

Another bad sign, if they keep on asking for new designs, it’s probably a bad project to be working on. It really sucks to make a high quality design only to find out they don’t like it.

Also, many clients expect a logo to be designed along with their website for no additional fee. Always charge an extra fee for logo design and if they refuse simply don’t make them a logo for the site. Text works just as well

Jonathan Baldwin said on May 31, 2005 12:03 PM

As well as my uni teaching I run private workshops in sunny Brighton teaching Dreamweaver etc to private clients - big companies as well as hobbyists hoping to become rich (I don’t feed such dreams, incidentally).

One of the common problems is that big companies are sending people to learn ‘how to do web design’ so they can take on their site - as well as carry on doing their ‘real’ job - a mix of secretaries, IT specialists, temps and telesales people.

I advise them at the very least to set aside a day that will be their ‘web day’ and make it clear that if anyone wants stuff putting on the site it has to be with them by midday at least two working days before - get people seeing the site as a publication with a schedule rather than an ad hoc thing that can be updated at the drop of a hat. Otherwise they’ll extract the micturition.
That’s if, of course, the company can’t be persuaded that a web site is a full-time commitment, not something that can be slotted in whenever. They wouldn’t do the accounts that way, or hold board meetings in that manner, would they?

That for me would be a real sign of a dangerous project to get involved with - no understanding of the work involved on their part and the continuing nature of keeping the site going.

(By the way I’ve posted your list with proper link and credit on my own blog - hope that’s okay)

Jason Santa Maria said on May 31, 2005 12:09 PM

So true. I love it when they ask you to emulate another site, OR just ask to use the design of your site, before you have even done any work for them. They don’t even care what you are capable of doing for them. Their tiny minds can barely see past their noses.

Andrew K said on May 31, 2005 12:14 PM

“Oh, you do web sites? My ________ needs a web site!”

If that phrase is coming from a neighbour, move house. Trust me, I’m moving in a fortnight!

georgivar said on May 31, 2005 12:18 PM

The worst sign is when the client says: “I don’t know exactly what I want” or “I just want a website on that Inernet thing.” Usually this means in the good case long requirements and specifiactions phase or in the bad case months of development for a product that will never be used.

Matt Dempsey said on May 31, 2005 12:18 PM

Great list, so true. Another two to add:

“I haven’t got any money to give you now, but when the projects finished I will have got my paycheck and can pay.”

“This project is going to be amazing and will make a LOT of money. In exchange for the design you will take 10% of profits”

Mike Rundle said on May 31, 2005 12:21 PM

Andy you hit the damn nail on the head with this post. Here’s a little situation that came up recently that I think is another bad project warning sign:

After 7 months into a 12 month development cycle, the boss of your SPOC (single point of contact) decides to start shopping around for other firms that do the same thing you do, and to start having them do pitches, even though you’re already doing the work for them. The boss brings you in on the client call, effectively having you decide your own fate regarding whether the project you are working on will ever be launched or will simply fade out after you’re done.

Andrew K said on May 31, 2005 12:39 PM

Mentioning moving house in my previous comment made me remember my worst freelance horror story :)

Let me set the scene…
Freshly graduated (read:flat broke), I was desperately looking for a quick bit of web work to pay for an upcoming house move and the impending deposit of bond that accompanies it. Word came via my father that one of his IT support clients wanted a web site done fast (*Warning sign number one*) and that they weren’t real picky about quality. (*Warning sign number two*)

The pay was enough in a short enough period that it would cover my expenses, barely. So I took the job, still having little to no idea of what I was getting myself into.(*Warning sign three* desperation breeds stupidity)

To sweeten the deal in their favour, they managed to convince me to doing ‘minor alterations occassionaly’ within a a three month window from site launch.(*Warning sign 4*) I was smart enough to get a firm end date, but too dumb to define ‘minor’ and ‘occasionally’ in writing.

The big neon sign moment happened when they sent me what they called an “almost complete web page”. It certainly was a text file and the were a hell of a lot of angle brackets in there, but that spawn of MS Publisher was not a webpage!
(*Warning sign 5*) Don’t even get me started on the green and pink logo and colour scheme — if someone got paid to do their corporate identity I’d be surprised. (*6*)

The site launched, I moved house; all was well.

…and then the updates started! Each update was the entire page saved from IE as ‘web page complete’ (complete butchering, more like it), edited in Publisher and exported as Bill’s custom tag soup. These conglomerate folder creatures were emailed to me so that I could play the hunt and peck game — looking for what the hell they’d changed in each page.

I got what I deserved and I learnt a valuable lesson.
Nah, screw that — it sucked! (0_o)

Jonathan Snook said on May 31, 2005 12:41 PM

Is it sad that I’ve seen all these scenarios? I shudder. It’s always extremely hard to turn down any opportunity, too.

Oliver Schwarz said on May 31, 2005 12:42 PM

Andy, your list seems perfect ;) By the way, you are right: One point alone is not a reason to turn a project down, but as soon as they mix up - it’s time to leave (at best at an early project stage).

I have one more: You are invited to a first contact meeting. Your future client directly starts talking about sitemaps, design elements, shows you pages he likes, etc. After a few minutes chit-chat you’ll find out that they have no idea about what is the main purpose of their website.

To my experience, this behaviour often indicates, that there is no budget defined yet and you still have the task of teaching the client what he’s just about to do and where the touchpoints are (internal processes, company marketing, customer contact via internet etc). This can be a very long way for a “not defined yet” budget.

Ross said on May 31, 2005 12:51 PM

Some great posts here. I’ve had the ‘In exchange for the design you will take 10% of profits’ experience Matt mentioned, clients that want to ‘do a deal’. Stay away from those idiots.

geeky said on May 31, 2005 12:54 PM

My #1 warning sign is that the client can’t tell you exactly what the project entails. This means they either don’t know what it is they want, or that they will constantly change their minds later on. Run away!

fishmouth said on May 31, 2005 12:58 PM

well i am just starting on this web design… thing?.
I will take this comments as one of those sayings from mum, big value.

ope the rest of you dont have constant headaches with those people…

Frank said on May 31, 2005 1:13 PM

Let’s turn it around. What are some of the good projects you worked on? How did you change the signals you described to work in your benefit? How do you “educate” the client? What tools, stories, examples do you use? Because let’s be honest, this list is very, very true. But nothing new in my view.
What I would like to see is someone telling me:”OK, here it is, I did an excellent project, here’s how we worked on the specs, here’s how me and the client worked together. Here are some of the learning-points you could use” I would love to see some of those stories…

Jeena Paradies said on May 31, 2005 1:14 PM

My funniest is: »Hi, could you repair all the broken function in (rearly bad PHPBB Comunity Software)? We have no money, but you could get 100MB serverspace and 1GB Trafic per month.«

Chet said on May 31, 2005 1:42 PM

So many times I have come accross the very first Item. Client has has MONTHS to review the project and when it comes down to one week until deadline due… they call us. We end up spending 18-hour shifts (Which is actually quite normal) to develop the project from start to finish before deadline. I’m not saying their aren’t benefits to “Crunch-Time Projects” - namely Money - but it can cause havock on the brain.

Mike Stenhouse said on May 31, 2005 1:51 PM

I’ve found that the worst projects don’t always come with a warning! Equally, I’ve had one or two projects where I knew I was in for a rough time that tunred out okay. Ridiculous hours but great money…

During one of the most, er, entertaining projects I’ve been involved with, the client chose to give us their new branding guidelines at the meeting where my shiny new design was being presented. Luckily for me, I was working on time, not a fixed rate, so it was their money they wasted.

Oh, a rule of thumb is that any project involving HTML emails will be a nightmare.

Paul Nishikawa said on May 31, 2005 3:43 PM

My fave has always been the client with the awful logo, and hence awful aesthetic sensibilities.

You know it’s really bad when they designed their own logo.

And they “love it”, and wouldn’t change a thing.

And it has a full colour spectrum in it… sigh. True story.

Taughnee said on May 31, 2005 3:47 PM

Great list!

How about people that “urgently” and “desperately” need a website, but skirt around the initial formalities, like: discussing issues of price, contracts, budget, etc.?

Then when you insist on a deposit and contract before any work begins, all of a sudden they aren’t in a hurry anymore or aren’t really so sure that they want or need a website afterall. It’s a miracle! lol

Peter said on May 31, 2005 4:00 PM

Well, I don’t do too much freelance work, but based on my internal corporate work, a big issue I have run into again and again is having named dedicated resources to help you with aspects of the project that have been mutually agreed upon. For example, if they are writing the copy for a set of pages, who is that person and are they going to work with you and your deadlines.

If not, you can be in big trouble.

dee said on May 31, 2005 4:01 PM

How about this one:
“Ok - I have no money for updating my website/flash piece/Newsletter that I need so desperately … but how about a massage or two?”
No joke.

Jeni said on May 31, 2005 4:05 PM

The business exists solely on the web, the only employee is the owner, and during the pitch the owner confesses that she really “doesn’t understand this web stuff.” As soon as someone whose business model is web-only professes that they don’t understand web, run.

Also a bad sign - trying to negotiate for a rate that’s far lower than your standard rate, and promising that you’ll get stock and be made a partner “when we get VC.” What is this, 1998?

Andrew said on May 31, 2005 5:35 PM

Can you make a little dancing pig on the upper right corner that plays this sound sample when you roll over it?

Mike said on May 31, 2005 6:04 PM

“Ok - I have no money for updating my website/flash piece/Newsletter that I need so desperately … but how about a massage or two??

Did it come with a “happy ending”?

Sara said on May 31, 2005 6:05 PM

Great list!
Another bad sign: Whenever the client comes to the initial meeting with a folder full of sketches showing exactly what each page in the site needs to look like, but they have absolutely no clue what content they want on those pages and say that it’s my job to come up with something. And of course they’re no entirely sure why they’re even getting a site, other than that they wanted to be “part of the internet”.

Also, run far and fast when the potential client is an old friend of the family.

Kevin said on May 31, 2005 6:59 PM

I’ve had my share of bad client experiences but as Frank suggested we look at some positive examples of client interaction as well. I have an excellent client that I came to when a relative said “Hey, a guy at work said something about needing a website or something. You should talk to him.” The first meeting revealed a client with little idea of what they needed or wanted.

The project had a very aggressive timetable but that was based on a real business need to be first to market. In fact that need is part of why they went with us instead of a larger, and slower, company.

However, it turned out to be an opportunity to work with an organization that really wants to improve how they do business. We are helping shape their online strategy, guide technology decisions, and teach them about how they can use their website and other technologies to do business more effectively.

While I certainly don’t endorse spec work or working with cheap, bullheaded clients first impressions can be misleading. Clients shouldn’t really be expected to have a good plan all of the time. For many of them the web and computers in general are scary and confusing.

I try to put myself in the reverse situation of planning a new hospital, factory, or machine shop and think about how good my plans would be without some education and guidance from an expert. I’d probably have little or no effective criteria for judging quality or talent in those areas, just as clients often have trouble judging quality and talent of designers or programmers.

That said it can be challenge to distinguish between a good client and bad one early on. Andy’s list above should at least raise some warning flags if you see a bunch of those traits in a client.

Julian said on May 31, 2005 7:59 PM

Thanks a lot for your list Andy - it’s really good for future client-relationships to see something like this.

Tim said on May 31, 2005 8:22 PM

Great list Andy. I’d add, don’t ever do work for friends for ‘mates rates’ – it just isn’t worth it. Make that, don’t ever do work for friends.

Susan E Hoffman said on May 31, 2005 9:37 PM

One thing that makes me want to run is a prospective client who says, “I had a problem getting along with my previous designer,” or one who’s got a site already and ‘cannot reach’ the previous designer to get info such as host, user name, password, etc. Or one who says, “You don’t need to deal with the previous designer at all. He/she does not have any copyright interest in any of that previous work.” And they can’t produce a contract or any other document evidencing the absence of copyright assertion by Designer 1.
If they “can’t get along” with one Designer, that always makes the voice in my head say “Danger, Danger.”

Michael Martine said on May 31, 2005 10:09 PM

“Oh, well… we don’t want to change the way we do anything! We just want a website.”

Soooo many people still have no idea their business strategy and their IT/web strategy are inseparable.

Ben Sauer said on May 31, 2005 10:30 PM

It’s important to remember that most of the people you end up dealing with have never been through the project process themselves, while you’ve done it a hundred times. This requires a lot of patience!!

Trust is the number one important factor in this scenario. You need to be in a position to go against their ideas if you think it’s in their best interests, and have them respect you for saying so.

I tend to break down customers into two groups: those who treat you like a supplier, and those who treat you as a consultant. Of course, you’re both. Getting treated like a supplier is when they expect total obedience from you, and getting treated like a consultant is when they recognise that you’re an expert in what you do, and that you can fill in the gaps in their knowledge.

In my perfect world, we could hand a manual over to every potential client outlining how the relationship can work best. Too often, clients have undermined themselves by being too demanding or being unreasonable, thereby lessening our respect for them and the project.

I’d be most interested to find out if there are similar problems in other cultures outside the UK. I find that people aren’t allowed to be direct enough here. I would love to be able to talk about these things openly with some of our clients.

nortypig said on May 31, 2005 11:31 PM

A warning is if they don’t see any value in the design processes such as IA. They therefore don’t understnad you need to scope the project out and get their project goals and figure out who the user is and what functions the user may want to do on their website.

And then they add to it by not providing content and making the freelancer beg for it. What business sits waiting day after month for an image or text.

In hindsight I can recall the initial warnings but failed to act on them…

If they don’t respect your work then there’s not much you can do for them I guess. Plug pulled on that job but valuable unpayed time wasted.

Thijs Grotenhuis said on June 1, 2005 12:22 AM

A very helpfull list, Andy. One thing that gives me the creeps is if a customer asks for a spinning logo, background music, fading pages, a flash-intro or even worse: a complete flash-based website. It’s often very difficult to convince them not to do so, because of usability principles.

Some customers also think that every website comes with some sort of CMS for free, while they only asked you to make a website.

Jeannie said on June 1, 2005 12:37 AM

Andy…loved the list. Reading it threw me back in time to more than a few horiffic meetings. Here are the few real life quotes from clients that made me shudder:

IT manager of small company (aka: the guy who knows how to set up the companies email but gets confused when asked about networking): ‘I’ve been working with Access for over 6 months now, and I did the FrontPage tutorial, so I will be able to HELP OUT A LOT.”

Small Business Owner, ”my sister said she sent me an email over a week ago, and I’ve checked the post, it hasn’t come through, is it working?” …it took me a half an hour to explain how the internet worked and how email won’t pop through her letterbox.

Small Business Owner, ”here is all of the text and pictures for the website (as she thuds down over 150 pages of hand written text…written around poor quality images printed on plain paper)”

Guy who only had £199 to spend (including hosting) on a website, wanted it in Flash, and wanted to be able to update it himself,”I just got this (my first) computer…how do I turn it on?”

Teli said on June 1, 2005 2:46 AM

Warning Sign: When they try to make the deal of - they pay half up front and the other half when you deliver the code and they make sure “it works right”…

BTW, thanks for posting this very enlightening list and thanks to all the commenters prior to me posting theirs :)

Kitty said on June 1, 2005 6:26 AM

Good list Andy, thank you! Here is another RED FLAG I have discovered the hard way. They are unhappy with their previous web designer… Guess what, it is only a matter of time before they will be unhappy with you too :)

Alex Bendig said on June 1, 2005 7:38 AM

Great discussion so far! I’d recommend the book Death March by Edward Yourdon. I think most developers get involved in some sort of death march project sooner or later and this particular book is a great text to indentify problems, warning signs as well as approaches for solutions. Now, a bad project is not necessarily a death march, but the lines may blur rather quickly.

Steve said on June 1, 2005 7:55 AM

I design sites in my spare time while I work fulltime during the day in the Comms business. I would love to make the leap to freelancing full time, but I don’t feel I have enough work to justify it yet. (Nor the courage!).

Andy - making the step to freelancing must have been both scary and exciting, good for you!!

My tip as a wanabee freelancer is;

Always look ahead for the next project(s) as it’s amazing how quick the work dries up if you’re not looking out


Robin said on June 1, 2005 8:27 AM

- “I know exactly what I want, but I need you to design and code it for me.”

netdev said on June 1, 2005 8:32 AM

Oh boy! I’m damned!………

…then south africa must be the worst place in the world to be a web developer. There is no such a thing as a client without at least 5 of those traits, here in SA…. oh damn!

Franck said on June 1, 2005 9:21 AM

Great post indeed. On the other hand, I am affraid that 90% of the clients need to be educated, and if you are not able to do so, you will not have many projects, at the long run. This is part of the selling process.

Reverse your question for a while: ask freelancers about their selling process. Clients are bad, ok, but how are doing freelance designers as salesmen ?¿

Lea, What is my IP Address website said on June 1, 2005 11:40 AM

If they really, really need the project, but don’t seem to want to spend any money (‘this will only cost a few hundred dollars, right?’) - run away. They won’t pay and will bad mouth you everywhere.

Spike said on June 1, 2005 11:56 AM

The best is when they come to you with set-in-stone design ideas. We recently turned down a sizable contract because the site would have required us to break just about every rule of usability and accessibility known to man. It makes me cry sometimes: you’re being hired as a graphic designer for your design knowledge and expertise. Just as I wouldn’t go to a photographer and suggest what kind of film they ought to use for my pictures, I wouldn’t expect to be told that “we want lots of circles, and the text should go round the edges but not the middle!”. Painful as it is turning such clients down, in the end its probably worth it.

Johnny Lactose said on June 1, 2005 2:31 PM

The best advice I’ve heard is the following:

Tell your client that there are a possible three ways to approach the job they want done, and they are allowed to pick two of them.
Cheap + Fast + Quality

nick said on June 1, 2005 3:01 PM

another red flag:
client (graphic designer) designs piece himself, but wants you (web designer) to take his design and build a website out of it. even worse: when this applies to his HTML email. the problem is a) he is designing his site ignorant of web standards; and b) when HE makes a design change YOU are expected to just update. therefore if you dont have control over design and implementation: stay away. true story - client wanted an html email (which he ‘designed’) promoting his new website (which he also ‘designed’). i received final design of said email, and implemented it to working order. two weeks later, on a friday, client comes back with design changes HE made expecting me to alter html in email. since he is the principal “designer” there never was the process of me designing something and getting it finalized and approved. huge loophole. he can basically make any changes he wants as its never going to be final. thats called the ‘spiral of death’ friends…oh and i was expected to waste my friday night so i could stop by his office and do all this in-house (another red flag). word to the wise, if youre tweaking something that is only going to take a half hour, do it at home. otherwise the client will drag it out for hours at his place.

PS - i swear to god i just got this voice mail on my phone monday from my brother: “dude i just hooked up with this chroming company. and they need this website done. we’re thinking of having a semi-truck on the front page and….”
i havent yet called him back to inform him i wont be doing this, but stay away from doing business with family. inevitably someone gets screwed. either you get underpaid and overworked (99% of the time) or it becomes an issue leading to problems in other areas of your family life. doing sites for friends and family is OK, but do it strictly for free and on an “update-when-i-have-free-time” basis. that way there are no expectations and since they didnt pay you they cant go about telling everyone else how you are screwing them. also a good way to get free pints at the pub.

Terry said on June 1, 2005 4:56 PM

Here’s another tragic red flag:

Graphic designer creates design for client, sends you a screenshot of the design in a frame of IE5.1MAC and asks you to “code” their design.

/* Hide from IE5 MAC \*/
#you {should:Run;}

/ * end red flag */

Kevin said on June 1, 2005 5:14 PM

Great Entry!

I turned down a project from an “old school” client. He wanted to have a web site based exactly on his existing printed materials. Ya know, the colors must match precisely as those on the brochure. Yikes!

Johan said on June 1, 2005 5:46 PM

I noticed that nice and friendly people that really see the benefit of having a site. If they are not easy going (not meaning that they are dumb or so) i reject it.

Smaller websites are more fun - even the subject of a website can help for motivvation - full creativity controll is not primordial but is nice.

Richard Carter said on June 1, 2005 5:57 PM

Agree with all but one of the things on your list. I don’t think it’s fair to expect a client to reveal their budget. In fact, they would be irresponsible to do so. It’s not saying they don’t trust you in particular; it’s saying they don’t know you well enough yet. They never will if you don’t establish a relationship with them.

Tom Oakes said on June 1, 2005 6:12 PM

I seem to have an inordinate number of clients who want me to design and develop a site, and then they’ll have one of their employees be responsible for content updates and future enhancements.

The inevitable outcome is that the employee uses an editor like FrontPage and completely negates the value of the…well, you know what the outcome is. It’s a mess.

ursula said on June 1, 2005 6:55 PM

For me, it has always been a matter of the potential clients personality. If we are both in different dimensions, it’s never going to work.

Portland Internet said on June 1, 2005 8:27 PM

After reading this post, it leaves me wondering, where are people finding clients with a sense of direction?

None of my clients have a clear idea of what they want. They all want the most they can for as little as possible. And only 1 actually has someone working client side as the project manager.

I just figured this was the challenge of doing web design while the Internet is still so young.

Tony said on June 1, 2005 8:33 PM

Isn’t it wonderful when a client says…
“Big Company X is only charging me $Y for a website, I’m expecting you to be a lot cheaper.”

Only to find out that Company X includes a pre-made template, charges extra for modifications and will end costing 4 times more for the same design. And, I’m still supposed to beat their original quote.

Fly said on June 1, 2005 10:59 PM

I pulled the plug on a job that was being micromanaged into the ground. Unfortunately the owner of the company had hooked up with some really good talent. I received great illustrator files and was to put together an animated world using the supplied artwork (which was from professional animators). Then the horror started. Calls every day about updates (this a $1000 project - I usually won’t even get out of bed for that). Constant emails with suggestions… The death knell sounded when she started sending me additional CLIP ART and cutouts from newspapers to add into the original artwork and I couldn’t talk her out of it. She was a friend of a friend, so I gave her some money back and said ‘no hard feelings’ and walked out feeling lighter than air. She informed me that she had found another designer to finish the site. I felt sorry for him/her but knew that the site would never be finished. A year later it still has a Coming Soon page on the url. Soon the hosting will run out I’m sure…

Dmitry said on June 1, 2005 11:43 PM

Stay away from clients who are “beginners”. They always ask for a lot more than you have agreed upon.

Lawrence said on June 2, 2005 12:11 AM

Two things I’ve found when the project is looking to go ‘south’:
1) The client supplies their own hand-drawn logo and doesn’t operate on a business model of any kind, with or without capital behind them.
2) The client calls up after 6 months to say they want the same project done based on an earlier quote.

Robert said on June 2, 2005 4:45 AM

I dislike 80% of the clients. 80% of them throw at least one or two of these warning signs out every time - It’s a part of it.

Ioannis Cherouvim said on June 2, 2005 5:49 AM

Things that I’m fed up with, when the project plan, deliverables and payment methods have already been set :
I’ve had all that stuff a lot. There are lots of people out there who will try to get away in such a stupid way. But I wonder, have they ever found a programmer/developer that would sell them “my keyboard/mouse/cat/girlfriend/television was broken so I couldn’t finish the job as we have agreed”?
I don’t think so…

dee said on June 2, 2005 8:22 AM

@Mike (some posts ago and regarding the “massage thing”): Yes, a “happy ending” as it helped me to say “Thank you, I am equipped already.” :)

Danijel Milicevic said on June 2, 2005 9:56 AM

If the project involves alot of webdevelopment as well and the client gives you that “Well, we haven’t yet decided on all features we want you to implement, but why don’t you start with the ones we agreed on already?”, don’t even consider this project. You’ll end up doing twice as much work as you expected for the same cash.

frequency decoder said on June 2, 2005 12:04 PM

1. The “pro” stock photos promised by the client turn out to be photographs taken by his 14 year old son using the new Sony Cybershot.

2. Clients under the illusion that it is you, the designer, who writes 90% of the site copy.

and finally, perhaps not bad clients as such but..

3. Clients who call you three weeks after the site launch to demand why the site isn’t number one in google - this is after you went to the trouble of sending a document explaining search engine foibles at the very start of the project.

Oh happy days..

Jough Dempsey said on June 2, 2005 5:05 PM

There’s always a problem when you take your client’s site more seriously than they do. If they think of the web site as a toy and just want one because everyone else has one, they won’t value your work, and won’t be willing to pay for it.

When the economy is down things get tight for both designer and client - so clients will not be willing or able to pay as much and designers may suffer through a bad client to make the money.

When you have lots of high-paying clients who respect your work it’s easy to walk away, but when the bills loom and you have the choice of one bad client over another, sometimes it’s a matter of finding the most reasonable people and then trying to educate them about what it is that you do.

Terry E. said on June 2, 2005 6:18 PM

when the bills loom and you have the choice of one bad client over another, sometimes it’s a matter of finding the most reasonable people and then trying to educate them about what it is that you do.

I think that sums up the majority of situations. Perhaps the next article should be about how to educate clients, and warning signs of ‘un-educat-mable’ clients.

monkeyinabox said on June 2, 2005 6:32 PM

I had a recent potential web design job that raised all sorts of red flags. First the business owner was in a legal battle with another similar business that bought their domain name up (trademarked name). The business also already got a quote from a full-time agency that priced it around $5k, which was too expensive. I agreed for a simple site, but when I started asking about content all I got were vague answers, like “we want our site JUST like this other one” (in fact the business they were in legal battles with already)- Bad sign. When I asked about the quantity of projects on the site all I got were vague answers like “just like the other site”. After looking deeper into the other site and seeing over 6,000 products with photos and 50 pages with a lot of changing content, I saw more red flags. Who would update all this? Vague answers again. I pulled out the handy Time-Cost-Quality triangle and bluntly gave a quote higher than the original one they balked at. Low-bid and put myself in a nightmare? No thank you. Oh yeah did I also mention the owner mentioned their son might code the site, but hasn’t gotten around to it yet. I wonder why not. :)

Stephen said on June 2, 2005 6:50 PM

I think whenever there is a lot of nepotism in a company, that can be a bad sign.

I took on a website for a very established, well known company, but the person in charge of the website was the owner’s daughter. Under normal circumstances, she would’ve been a bum, but in this case, she was the manager of marketing and insisted on being the “webmaster”.

Things started ok, but when she started making updates to the site with font tags (sometimes several in a single word) and such, I said you’re going to have to at least learn some basic HTML if you are going to manage the site. She barked back that “I’m a fucking manager - nobody tells me what to do!”

I quit. Never been happier.

Erwin Heiser said on June 2, 2005 10:29 PM

Surely point 6 is the worst. Clients tend to only focus on the looks (which admittedly are important) but forget about all the rest (information structure, navigation, coding, useability, accessibility etc…). And if anyone asks me for another Flash intro I’ll personally kill them ;-)

eklay said on June 2, 2005 11:46 PM

Some terrific wisdom shared here. I’d like to say my rule of thumb when starting up with a client is:

Get what they want in writing!

Sit down with them, draw up your “mission goal” with them, get them to approve it then hold them to it. You can be flexible and give and take, in fact you must, but having a firm foundation to work from saves hours and hours of wasted designs which don’t meet their criteria.

BJ said on June 2, 2005 11:58 PM

Ha ha! I’m glad to hear Neogic is not alone in its share of soured deals and unrealistic clients.

I’d agree that a potential client that has fallen out with the previous designer is usually a bad sign, particularly if the previous designer wasn’t paid for the parts of work sucessfully completed. If the prospective has withheld payment previously, who’s to say history won’t repeat?

I’d add to the list:

  1. The bad omen of bad omens: the dreaded client ‘business re-alignment’ or take-over mid-way through a project or contract negotiation. We were painfully close to closing a particularly lucrative development deal last year. The deal fell through on the day the contract was to due be signed, due to re-structuring at the client :(
  1. The ominous silence: the client suddenly stops answering your comms, including avoiding phone calls and ‘losing’ e-mails. A sure-fire impending case of non-payment!

In the former case, it was 3 months of contract negotiation/requirements analysis down the bad luck drain. In the case of non-payment without good reason, don’t forget the small claims court. Bear in mind you will need strong evidence that you are owed money.

Having said all that .. spare a thought for hapless business owners being taken advantage of by cowboy design agencies that quote low development fees .. but bury the true maintenance/hosting/transfer costs in the small print!

BJ, Neogic PLC

Dave said on June 3, 2005 2:34 AM

Ah lovely list there.
Another one for you, when they complain of previous webdesigners it’s only a short time before they start complaining of you.. sigh
Nice list!

scout said on June 3, 2005 11:48 PM

How many times have we all heard “We really need this project to come in on the cheap but there will be plenty more with bigger budgets?”

This has been said to me often…and my response is…

“I’ll tell you what…pay me my price for this initial project and I’ll do the second one for free!”

They very rarely call back after this type of response which means they were full of crap…

shane said on June 4, 2005 12:29 AM

Great red flags… Thanks for sharing.
I think the reason the clients often take those approaches is because design (in their eyes) is a commodity. Cheapest, quickest, and the more to choose from the better. We seem to be categorized as production artists (software engineers) rather than thinkers who use software to be the means to the end. I appreciate your post about the contests… I had one of those expericences recently when I was asked to brand and develop packaging for compost mix. We had market research conducted and to my suprise THEY roughed out comps. I bring them $50,000 in biz and they try to cut me out… Then they have me enter my package design in their panel (design contest)… What a shame design is being beat into. Stand strong ladies and gents clients will get tired of canned design and repackaged ideas…

Mike said on June 4, 2005 1:31 AM

“…the potential client has often known about the deadline for a while. However it’s taken them longer to plan the project than initially”

Lack of planning on your part doesnt constitute an emergency on my part.

The potential client is discarded and onward to the next. :-)

Dan said on June 4, 2005 7:08 AM

I actually lucked out. I did a complicated project for almost nothing for a startup. They raised a lot of money, grew like crazy, and the founders threw a lot of their business at me (and pointed other people my way).
Doing that project—which entailed a great deal of risk for me—ended up making my firm.

Raanan said on June 4, 2005 1:33 PM

Perfect list!
We like site a.com, b.com and c.com, can you do our site like that?
BTW, what is “your design questionnaire”?

Paul Menard said on June 4, 2005 2:34 PM

Andy, great list. Since I’m really just starting a freelance career it’s nice that someone can provide such guidelines. And it was good to meet you at SWSX 2005.

Justin Gehring said on June 4, 2005 5:50 PM

I’ve ran into a good number of problems that have happened on this list. What I’m finding more and more is that if you can control what the user can do from their site, and do so in very simple manner (like a custom pre-written cms), then you can avoid a lot of the headaches. We currently have 5 or 6 companies that have little to no web knowledge, that are able to update and maintain their page with little to no hassel and no html expertise. This get’s away from the little updates, and allows us to reuse our code very simply.

Albert said on June 4, 2005 6:25 PM

The list is educational and good to keep in mind. This comment below has a thoughtful and positive approach to life’s challenges. However, many of the responses lack respect for the customer, hiding their own inability to reach beyond their experience as a professional to grow into that of a consultant/business owner. Freelancing simply means running your own business. Adapt to that fact.
I sit on the other side of the table and take advice from our webdesigner. Everyone should consider the comment below carefully:

Let’s turn it around. What are some of the good projects you worked on? How did you change the signals you described to work in your benefit? How do you “educate? the client? What tools, stories, examples do you use? Because let’s be honest, this list is very, very true. But nothing new in my view.
What I would like to see is someone telling me:?OK, here it is, I did an excellent project, here’s how we worked on the specs, here’s how me and the client worked together. Here are some of the learning-points you could use? I would love to see some of those stories…

Posted by: Frank at May 31, 2005 01:13 PM

Spes said on June 4, 2005 6:32 PM

Our business is based on helping (re:educating) small business into what marketing and image they need to build. It takes a long time, thank goodness we have a sales force that can carry the brunt of it. Some of our most reluctant clients are now are best because we took the time (re: patience) to help them understand what our value is.

These people think of design as a commodity because it isn’t their business, its ours. In many cases, we think of their product as a commodity.

That being said, I definetly agree with most of the list and am glad someone finally put it down into words.

Here’s two stories - one good one bad:

Great print catalog client - loves us and we love her - we finally convince her (after years) that she should be on the web. She only want to put around “12-15 products on line…that’s all she’ll ever need.” That should have rasied a flag. So we develop a pretty straightforward HTML static site. After 3 months online she want to add some more…we charge her…then some more…we charge her..then some more…we charge her. Soon she had over 1200 items on the site, all handcoded! We tried without success to convince her to redesign to a database driven site but she said we were too expensive. We even showed her the cost savings and she just wouldn’t see it. Then she pulls the website after a year because our hourly rate is “too expensive” for manual upgrades. She hired someone internal and changed to database driven site. If only we could have educated her better and stuck to our guns on how we thought her site should be.

Story 2: Really abrasive client hit about 6 of the items from the list. The boss wouldn’t let us drop him so we kept plugging. Job gets done, he pays us complaining all the time. Even asking us to teach him HTML, PHP and other coding to replace us (this guys is very direct). Turns out the site is pulling better for their division than the parent company’s site (which cost a lot more) and now he loves us to death. He’s still obnoxious, but all in all a good, paying client.

Just shows you can never tell at the beginning what will end up happening.

Scott said on June 5, 2005 4:09 AM

“However, many of the responses lack respect for the customer, hiding their own inability to reach beyond their experience as a professional to grow into that of a consultant/business owner. “

Amen. The type of griping I’m reading here is a point I am trying very hard to avoid doing myself lately. Like most of the others, I have run across many of these issues when dealing with clients. But I’ve slowly learned not to act like such a Prima Donna about it.

How can we possibly expect every client to understand every aspect of our business, and hold all of our ideals up on a pedestal? We all have preconceived notions about other lines of work than our own - and they are all mostly wrong. Why should our clients magically be different?

The most important statement of Andy’s post is

“Individually none of these signs should be deal breakers. However put a few of them together and it may be worth thinking twice about taking on that project.”

He did not say turn away (or show attitude toward) people for every little thing. He said “think twice” (i.e. you might take the job anyway, but if so be sure to cover your butt).

Just to touch on one of these points that many have said to avoid - I’ve known several situations, for instance, where each of the companies I have worked for were able to begin working for a company on a regular, lucrative basis because of an initial last minute type job with the promise of more, better paying work to follow. Sure there are others where this didn’t pan out, but those now good paying clients make up for the few that didn’t work out. And I guarantee we ALL have put off something until the last minute before…again, why can’t a client?

Don’t get me wrong. I get frustrated having to explain things to clients I take for granted. But education of clients is just a part of it.

The P.S. to Andy’s post really should be: when you have a steady client that does not have any of these characteristics (or only one), treat them like royalty!

rYno said on June 5, 2005 9:47 AM

So many good replies here - and I love the original post. Seems like you’ve been through the same crap every one of us has been through.

Lately we’ve been having a fairly large project being micromanaged to hell and back… Hate that btw.

And we get tons of… “Can you copy this site … ”
???? Are you serious? Do you not understand the consequences? Let alone me not ever wanting my name associated with such a product? lol

I have this one client that wants a medium sized flash site for super super cheap; it looks like a 7th grader put together his current one but he loves it…. and without giving the URL away… I knew the image on his homepage looked familiar…. After looking at it for about 3 min…. I remembered…. Hey… that’s a 2advanced wallpaper…
His dang “designer” stole a 2A wallpaper and used it as the MAIN graphic on thier site… unreal…

david said on June 6, 2005 1:57 PM

As someone who is just starting to get his feet wet in the whole Web thing, i read all these posts and realize that my position on a current project is probably as bad as mentioned above.

The last is perhaps worst of all!

Mark said on June 6, 2005 2:54 PM

“Our old designer pushed our sites out using Fireworks in 2 hours for $20 an hour.”

Tim Felmingham said on June 7, 2005 12:26 PM

When trying to discuss the client’s objectives for the site…

“Our corporate font is Foundry Monoline. Have you had experience of working with that font before?”

Absolutely true, I swear!

peb elliott said on June 7, 2005 12:47 PM

Great list! I’ve come across most of them, but my very worst experiences gave me warning signs like:

- being a freelancer working from home, client thinks it’s fine to call or drop in any hour of the day or night.

- “No, I don’t have anything written about my (totally obscure) business. You’re the designer, that’s your job.”

- “I can’t pay you anything, but you can put your name on it and get lots of exposure.”

- “Five of us are starting up three different businesses and we want three websites and 15 sets of business cards done for what you quoted us for one site.”

I work very hard at not showing attitude to clients (even the one I had to take to small claims court), I just smile politely and wish them all the best.

Anthony Williams said on June 7, 2005 4:41 PM

Too many bad memories in this post. Something I’ve lived by in the last 2 years of web development is “no by default”.

It’s saved me countless times.

paul McCann said on June 8, 2005 4:16 AM

Good list. One warning sign that the post-completion relationship will not be a good one:

Client: “When the site is all finished can you give me a lesson in html so I can make updates?”

Me: “A better idea would be to build in some CMS to help you change frequently updated info.”

Client: “Oh no, we can’t afford that, and we wouldn’t have the time to make any updates”

Me: “?!?”

This had happened several times with smaller clients, The site gets built and paid for, and they love it, but the clients aren’t happy about having to call me for updates, and I feel bad cause I can’t even get them to figure out what “FTP” stands for.

But it’s a lesson I’ve learned: either sell them a manageable maintenance contract, or a CMS that self-maintains their sites. Or manage their expectations and let them know they’ll be getting a static site. One client, scared of my $60 an hour fee for updates, completely hosed his site by trying to use Frontpage on it. He called me telling me I “had” to fix it for free because I built it purposely so Frontpage wouldn’t work.

david said on June 8, 2005 6:56 AM

Don’t mean to go off-topic or anything but what have you all done to deal with such situations as described above?

(feel free to ignore if i am being a nusiance)

roxy said on June 8, 2005 2:20 PM

it’s a bad sign when you go to do a pitch, and afterwards they ask you, “if we were to give you this job, how long would it take? and how much would it cost?” when they’ve given you absolutely no idea how much content there is, or what it is exactly that they want. when that happens, run!

Lawrence said on June 18, 2005 8:21 AM

Another bad project warning sign I’ve encountered: it’s not only the client’s fault, it can be also the vendors. Vendors, of course, being different than freelance web designers.

1) When the vendor for the CMS/ integrated ERP/RCM solution knows and cares less about web standards, accessibility and cross browser development than you as a web designer do. If all a CMS provides is tag soup with an interface to a CRM package, what’s the point?

2) When the vendor knows there is a significant bug in the version of the package they onsold to the client and refuse to patch for that version, demanding the client upgrade to resolve. Even MS at least patches for existing versions of it’s software. Some vendors don’t.

John Mc said on June 18, 2005 10:19 PM

As a REALLY fledgling freelancer, I don’t have the wealth of experience most of you guys can draw on for horror stories, but I did have a client hand me the entire brief for his desired site scribbled on the back of a coffee-stained envelope (and I’m not talking A4!).

Guilliam Roque said on June 19, 2005 11:37 AM


nice insights from fellow web developers/designers around the globe here. thanks andy and all the names who outlined this matter.


my bad signs(and nightmares/experiences) to add:

1. you got a client who proposes (the same deal with others who previously posted) a partnership or profit sharing or revenue participation. when you hear this make sure you have an existing resources to exhaust. if you dont have any, then—> RUN!!!

2. you got a client who presumes and expect so much for you to deliver something while the compensation is far lesser than what is expected. RUN!!!

3. you got a client which DOESNT look into your existing portfolio, doesnt value what is your experience and skills worth. the client says: “i dont believe in folio’s/portfolios bec those are not my own liking and deeds. so heres the deal, you make me a website according to what i want, lets have it as your NURSERY PROJECT thus you will be compensated very little for this say just TWO CENTS to compensate your value BUT since its a NURSERY PROJECT its something that you have to PROVE to us that you can actually deliver what i need. IF everything works fine and the website suited what I wanted, YOURE IN and i have a gazillion of projects to give you”. if you HEAR this coming out from the clients mouth, RUUUUUUUUUUN!!! and hide to the deepest borrows that this client will never find you again.

POSSIBILITY #1: you will end up with a gazillion possibilities of being worn out on that; what the client calls “NURSERY PROJECT“… ending up the client gets a “TWO GRAND” cost of a website while you get “TWO CENTS” of what it is worth.

POSSIBILITY #2: since you PREVIUOSLY agreed on that so called “NURSERY PROJECT” for a cost of TWO CENTS. the next gazillion of projects that will be offered with the same client will have a budget of “two cents” also. OR expect something lesser or a LITTLE higher than “two cents”. winks

POSSIBILITY #3: the NURSERY PROJECT you delivered is not a profit generating website. there is a gazillion of updates and modifications. you will end up being told by the client: “this is not a profit generating website, GO and find clients willing to advertise in this site, when you close a deal with advertisers you get 40 PERCENT of the advertising deal”.. you will end up moping in one corner trying to ANALYZE THE LOGIC that; FIRST, you are making a gazillion of updates in the website. SECOND, you were the one who scrubbed your arse looking for a client/advertiser, made the pitch with the advertiser, then eventually closed the advertising deal,.. WHILE you end up with only “40 PERCENT” of the advertising deal. bottomline: you tell yourself it was A VERY LOGICAL agreement indeed!(this will be your comment after contemplating and moping for days, then you banged your head to the concrete wall a gazillion times.)

where was the client when you were doing all of this dirty work?—> perhaps busy making the SAME CLASSIC pitch to other web developers/designers to make him a “NURSERY PROJECT”.

4. you got a client who is an economic/finance expert. he absolutely knows that the minimum/average wage for labor is TWO CENTS an hour. he comes up to you and you closed the deal because the project cost meets your price standard.

POSSIBILITY #1: IF the project is completed and you will be asked to do updates and modifications to the site. the same “economic/finance expert client” of yours will dictate that updates will be based on the standard wage for labor which is TWO CENTS an hour.

POSSIBILITY #2: you try to haggle and educate the client that webdesigners/web developers TIME and skill doenst cost TWO CENTS an hour. you will end up with this client telling you; “don’t argue with my ‘economic/finance expertise’ ive been doing business ever since the dinosaurs were still roaming the streets of london”. IF this is the tone of the dialogue, BE POLITE and say to the client, im very sorry sir, i’ll turn over all the php codes, cgi’s, form handlers,login access of the ftp, login access to the domain name, html codes, site tamplates, all the PSD graphics, the concept, design, etc.. and look for a cab driver who will be willing to do all administering of the website for the cost of TWO CENTS an hour. AGAIN, be polite and shake his hand before you grab and turn the door knob out of the office.

POSSIBILITY #3: being a web developer / web designer you end up getting the SAME rate with minimum wage earner. which is TWO CENTS an hour. which your actual market value
is 20 bucks an hour, you get “.01 percent”. very degrading!

5. You made a discussion/finalization with your client about the project in a BAR, a couple of booze, the environment is noisy. till you discussed on the pricing and budget for the project and finally closed the deal. the next day(with a little hang over from the late night discussion) you were presented a contract or a written agreement for the project which cost “1 dollar”. you ask why one dollar? the client says.. “obviously, thats not what we’ve verbally discussed last night,. its just for the FORMALITY of the contract that it has a price”. you agreed and made the project.

POSSIBILITY #1: the project has been completed and you delivered it to your client. you are expecting 20 bucks per page bec this is what you’ve heard in the in the discussion in the BAR. you are surprised to see in your pay check you are only receiving “20 cents” per page. you clarify and argue why is it “20 cents” when we have verbally agreed its “20 dollars” a page. the client says: “HUH!? i NEVER said that. what i said and you concurred that the rate will be ‘20 cents’ a page!”.. end of discussion . you’ll definitely wont get the message thru since theres no document to justify your claim for “20 dollars” a page.


FIRST, never close a deal/project with your right hand holding a beer and your client holding a bottle of johnnie walker.

SECOND, never mind the tax cost and formality in the agreement/contract of the project COST. INSTEAD, mind that you will be the one doing the drafting of the contract.


theres a gazillion more of “bad signs” for freelance developers/designers that i have encountered. these are just some bits of experience.


guilliam roque
sunny city Cebu!,


Nick said on June 27, 2005 5:00 AM

We use test servers to host the clients site, once it is approved and paid, it is made live.

If they get it live, and their cheque bounces, hello pulling it off the server till they do pay.

Remember, till they pay, you hold the copyright of the design.

I have had a client ask for a super cheap site in lieu of pay, and I suggested I get 100% of advertising revenue off the site. he wasn’t too happy to have ‘granny porn for everyone’ and the like on his site. So he didnt get the work done. He wanted to give me exposure, but I suggested if I needed more exposure how did he find me in the first place?

Oh and copying another site is a big no no, getting sued and made to take down their site is not going to be fun, especially when they blame the designer and sue him for the losses. Never never copy. you will get burnt in the end. Taking inspiration is one thing, taking all the code is another.

mugur said on July 19, 2005 11:40 AM

Netdev you said :
Oh boy! I’m damned!………

…then south africa must be the worst place in the world to be a web developer. There is no such a thing as a client without at least 5 of those traits, here in SA…. oh damn!

Please come to Romania :D
If you can find a client without all the “trade marks” in this list … i’ll shoot myself in the head with an AA gun.
Web standards we have, how about Client Standards or something (free AA guns)?
Great list Andy!

Strany Johnson said on July 20, 2005 7:38 AM


Ender said on July 21, 2005 3:47 AM

Another bad sign may be regular inadequately long time when client answers on your letters. This mean that your project probaly do not taken seriously and may be put on the back burner anytime.

Alexandr Kachanov said on July 25, 2005 2:18 PM

Andy, “10 Bad Project Warning Signs ” is also available in Russian: http://www.webmascon.com/topics/business/27a.asp

Dom said on September 28, 2005 12:58 AM

Bad sign:
While meeting with our client for the first time they ask you: “So, what are gonna use to create the page, C++?”…..

Mike P said on October 8, 2005 5:16 PM

Being a freelance web designer in Taiwan, I feel that this list is amazingly accurate, even across cultural boundaries. The worst part about Taiwan, however, is the uphill battle one has to fight against a business culture which doesn’t recognize or respect intangibles such as subtle, well thought-out design or the benefits of following a forward-moving process. Things which cannot be quickly calculated or measured against the bottom line.

Getting companies to respect sign-offs which they’ve signed has been a challenge as well. Changes EXTREMELY late in the project are especially notable, and we even had someone threaten not to deliver the final payment if we didn’t implement a feature which they refused to consider (on our suggestion) at the beginning of the project.

All part of the learning process, though it’s easier to look back and laugh now and try to forget about the moments of teeth-clenching frustration.

rebecca said on November 15, 2005 1:12 PM

great list, I would add, people to avoid:
“how can I write the content if I don’t know what the sites going to look like” or
“I need to site to be number one in google for the business to succed”
= wide berth

Mikhail Bozgounov said on December 2, 2005 10:15 AM


This happened to me… Once things were even so serious that when the client got the design with the xhtml, css and images, he asked, where are the tables in the source, why do I use a DOCTYPE (he said Google doesn’t like DOCTYPEs so I have to remove it) and many other things…

I am glad I was alive after one of our last meetings… ;-)

Well, things like this happen sometimes…