How To Handle Special Requests From Clients

I was asked about how to deal with unusual requests. Once someone finds out you are a designer, writer, photographer… any type of creative, you will be approached by people wanting some sort of special treatment. I describe some common situations and ways to respond to them.

Services in trade

It is commonplace that freelancers – especially if it is early in their careers – will give to get. For example, you write my press release and I’ll design your promotional email. Or, I’ll design your logo if you will discount your service fees. In these cases, no money changes hands, and there is often no written agreement created for the trade.

I don’t recommend operating on a barter system. It is very difficult to guarantee value for value when trading services. I’ve had people propose a barter for services I don’t need. My goal in running my business is to put food on the table and pay my mortgage. Receiving free massages in exchange for designing someone’s business card is not value-for-value to me.

In considering a services in trade, keep in mind the amount of time you will spend on the project, and if it’s wiser to spend it on income-producing activities. Barter does not produce income. If you do barter, do it on a contract basis with the values of the services and expectations spelled out in detail, in writing, including deliverables, roll-out schedules, deadlines, etc. Both parties in the deal need to give it their best effort and keep it professional to avoid problems with the relationship that are almost sure to happen.


I am often asked to give discounts, especially with start-ups and non-profits. I don’t, for the reason that I’m not selling products but providing services. Discounts will devalue your work in general. Even if you agree to promise a one-time courtesy discount, the client will expect it again and again.

One way to handle discounts is to set a higher fee in general, and offer a discount if payment is made quickly. Another option is to reduce the scope of work so that it will fit within the client’s budget range.

Another problem with discounts is that the client may refer to you to a colleague. If the client tells the colleague how much they paid, you may end up getting stuck discounting your work again.

Whether you choose to offer discounts or not is up to you. Be sure your client understands the actual value of the work, and signs a written agreement before you start the project.

Friends and family

Surely you will get a requests from a sibling, cousin, or BFF, to design their whats-it or write their acceptance speech. Treat any and all projects as business, no matter who the client is. Use a written contract. Outline expectations and deadlines, payment schedules. Friends and family will be least likely to consider the project as a business transaction, and most likely expect special treatment and not follow through with payments.

Pro bono

Pro bono requests do not put food on your table or pay your mortgage.

I work with a number of non-profits that pay my regular rates. I am contacted often by organizations requesting discounts or free creative services simply because they represent a good cause. The reason I am in business is to make a living and to do that, I need to charge what my services are worth.

The best way to respond to pro bono requests is to have a policy in place place ahead of time so that you can answer professionally. Decide what your policy will be, and stick to it. Some things you might consider in a pro bono policy are:

Limit them to a certain number per year and to a certain number of hours or a certain value. Arrange an in-kind sponsorship, documented in writing, so that you can deduct the real value of the work as advertising on your Schedule C.

Limit it to a cause you believe in. If you are doing to work for free or cost, it will be more satisfying to support a cause you have a heart for. It makes the work significant, relevant and enjoyable.

Limit pro bono work to projects that fit with your goals and vision. Avoid anything that will pull you off track. It’s a good idea not to let others’ expectations dictate your business decisions.

Set up an application process. Require organizations to submit an application, presenting their project in detail. Then pick and choose. I have a colleague who implemented this policy with good success. It reduced the number of requests he received, and raised the quality of the organizations.

You make the request. Find a non-profit or NGO that you want to work with and approach them. Find what they need, what problem they need to solve, and work out a contracted project. Again, be sure you have a signed agreement that describes the deliverables, schedule, problem to be solved, and the value of the job. Also, the organization should reimburse for any expenses you incur. Your time and talent can be pro bono, but expenses are costs which should be paid. I pass through costs without markups in these cases.

Sappi Paper and AIGA have established grant programs for designers who want to work on cause-related projects. Check them out.

The Taproot Foundation is an online community that matches skilled creatives and other service providers to non-profits who need skilled creative work. If you are looking to do cause-related pro bono work, this is a great resource for you.

“Help me out now and I’ll pay you when I can.”

Doing work now in hope of being paid later is not good for business. Think about that. The “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” proposition benefits the one who is offering, but is not a good investment for you.

This request often comes from start-ups that need to get a visual presence established quickly. Refer them to and walk away. Let them know you’ll be able to consider their projects when they are able to allocate the necessary budget.

“I’ll pay you if I like it.”

Speculative work is frowned upon by most professional designers and professional associations. If you are going to spend time creating someone’s web site, you deserve to be paid for the work. Period. Spec work is unethical and inequitable. You cannot maintain a professional relationship or the health of your business working on spec. Just don’t do it.

Requests from desperate startups

You’ll recognize these potential clients because they are in panic mode. They request a suite of creative assets that they need immediately or something awful will happen to them. Because they’re desperate, they will push deadlines and be constantly checking in, turning into micromanagers.

A good reason not to touch these kinds of projects is simply that their business is in trouble. They’re trying to compensate or fix for something that went wrong. The “I need it NOW” demand will not allow you to do your best work, and it’s highly likely that their panic will translate into your frustration. You’ll spend more time managing the client than doing good good work. Refer the desperate prospect to

Protect  yourself by having an ideal client description in place, and not compromising on it. Ideal clients are able to pay you and will pay you as contracted.


No Spec
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AIGA Design For Good
Sappi Paper Ideas That Matter

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