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5 Ways for Designers to Avoid Getting Ripped Off

Daniel Schwarz March 31, 2021 · 5 min read

Being able to choose your own working hours and having the freedom to work in your underpants can be somewhat regarded as a misinterpretation of what freelancing is really like. Okay, maybe sometimes I do sit in my underpants, but only on really lazy days. Nonetheless, freelancing can be soothing to the soul if you’re more comfortable in your own company most of the time.

Wait… You’re not earning any money? Clients refusing to cough up?

Perhaps not, then. Whether you’re already freelancing and starting to regret it, or you’re thinking about making the switch and you’re worried about being tangled in this complicated web, learning how to avoid being ripped off is something every freelancer needs to know. Here are five ways to stay safe.

1. Avoid Crowd Sourcing Projects Parading as “Design Contests”


You know the drill: multiple freelancers are asked to submit as many designs as they like in a deathmatch style arena. Only one of these designers will walk away with a paycheck. It’s sort of like The Hunger Games, but for designers.

This seems great for clients, because they get a ton of designers working on their project. Unfortunately, designers get the raw end of the deal and can waste days, weeks, or months on these sites without seeing a single dollar. Also, in the end, even the clients often end up getting screwed.

Not To Be Confused With Legitimate Competitions

Note that, in general, design competitions with great prizes and fun community interaction give designers a way to flex their creative muscle and do something outside the range of normal day-today work. We think they’re awesome. That being said, when someone tries to take that same “contest for fun” format and turn it into how designers make a living, creatives lose every time.

2. Always Have a Clear Contract


Nobody likes dealing with boring legal stuff. Firstly, because it’s complex, secondly, because it’s complex, and finally, well…you know. Never, ever, construct a service contract from scratch – use a template that’s already been written up, challenged and modified over time, but more importantly, choose one that’s been highly recommended by other designers.

I’ve always used a slightly modified version of this contract by CSS Wizardry, but for a more comprehensive list of different types of legal documents you should definitely bookmark this epic resource by Smashing Magazine. For a comprehensive solution, check out Docracy, which lets you create and collaborate on contracts, customize templates, and even digitally sign them online with your clients.

If it’s not signed in black and white, it’s not legally binding.

3. Ask For a Deposit

“Ahhh, yeah, you see the thing is…”; no – run away. If for any reason the client refuses to hand over some (how much is up to you, usually it’s 50%) of the cash upfront, you should carefully explain that a deposit is a standard compromise between freelancer and client, and that you won’t work without one. If the client decides to move on, don’t think of it as your loss; it’s very likely that they never had any money to begin with.

This should be one of the things mentioned in your contract!

4. Don’t Undervalue Your Services

I believe that freelancers should offer a three-tier approach when discussing budgets. Not all clients will have a huge budget, and that’s fine, but they shouldn’t expect the deluxe suite when they’re only paying for a bedsit. It’s not fair on you.

Before agreeing to anything, consider your take home salary; that is what you take home after income tax, expenses, bills, time spent answering emails, your cost of living – it all adds up.

If the work is not worth your time, kindly explain that a limited budget would result in a rushed, unsatisfactory outcome, and that the client should consider raising the budget. Never let the client wear you down with sob stories and sad kitten faces!

5. Don’t Trade Free Work For the Promise of Future Paid Work


“We can’t spend any money until we find an investor, but later on down the line we’ll we’ll pay you triple – my amazing idea will make us both billions, I know it!”.

Ehhh, no – this one riles me up every time. Most businesses fail and it’s incredibly naive, not to mention risky, to work for free with the hope that one day it’ll lead to something better.


Always trust your instincts, even in times of financial distress (especially then). Allowing yourself to be taken advantage of will only cost you time and stress, time that’s valuable to you and could be better utilised by working with professionals who treat you with respect. At the end of the day, if you’re not happy, it’s simply not worth it at all.

I’d like to end this on high note, so here’s three websites where I always find desirable clients. And the one thing they all have in common? Well, they’re all design communities, funnily enough.

  1. Creative Market Discussions (“Request a Product” section)
  2. #Hashtagnomad (sort of a niché community, but…)
  3. Dribbble (Pro account required)

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Daniel Schwarz

Designer & writer

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