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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

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  • The big issue for me is getting ripped off by fraudsters who purchase our products with compromised credits card and then redistribute our products without our consent. I wish there was more we could do to help protect ourselves as designers in that aspect. It seems like a constant uphill battle. 7 years ago
  • +1 @Derek Stevenson Overall great tips! 7 years ago
  • Looks pretty simple to follow these rules, but main reason why designers are being ripped off is lack of experience and money crisis. 7 years ago
  • great article...i will be thinking of these tips when talking to clients and presenting my deal 7 years ago
  • All very, very true and real problems/solutions in this article. I've lived and breathed every single one! ;-) ... Freelancing as a profession has the deepest learning curve on the planet. Makes Adobe CC Suite Mastery seem like a cakewalk! I've begun to realize that the only real, true way to be successful as a freelance designer is by sticking it out through the tough times (yes, they are inevitable at some point or another), read and learn from other people's bad experiences (such as an article like this one), and eventually watching it all pay off. One of the most difficult thing for a new designer to come to grips with is how SO COMPLETELY not worth it the "sob story" type clients are to them. If your gut tells you you're getting screwed, there ain't no ifs, ands or buts about it - you're definitely headed down Screwed Turnpike. When thoughts of "but crap, I NEED that $50 bucks so badly!" - you know, the $50 bucks promised to you after you build an entire e-commerce website or design a beautiful logo or business card design - screw that. There's another, better client just around the corner who is willing to dish out thousands - UPfront - for LESS work. You may THINK you need that $50 bucks, but the truth is, the time and energy spent trying to "earn" that $50 bucks is only going to sink you as a freelancer. Good, high paying clients DO exist! And the first time you experience working for one of them, you'll NEVER turn back. People that want everything for nothing - or don't respect the time/expertise/value we offer as designers - are simply not worth our time or efforts. Reward the clients who are willing to pay - do your best work for them. Leave the "We need everything for pennies" bunch in the dust. They don't deserve your talent. If they think it's not worth the money you're worth, they are more than welcome to explore the plethora of "do it yourself" apps out there - it's business, not personal. Startups may not have a big budget to work with. Newsflash - nor do startup designers. They don't seem to get that - but you can only succeed in this dog-eat-dog world of the internet-design-biz if you're willing to finally realize your own worth - dismiss the cheapos - and NEVER settle. Trust me, I've been there, done that, got an overabundance of T-shirts. The great clients are worth the wait - and ultimately will bring you to the top - and out of debt - and out of depression... and most of all, make you remember why you ventured down this career path to begin with. There's nothing quite like the feeling of designing something without the stress of "how will I pay (whatever bill) this month" - because you'll be banking in well-earned cash - and you'll be able to truly focus in on what you love - creating beautiful designs - expressing your artistic abilities - which are insanely valuable. Just ask a non-designer how important their business is to them. Are they willing to pay for superior services in order to promote their brand in the most professional way possible? If they're not, they're not someone you should waste your time on; if they're not ready to invest in superior design services that will show their own business in a sleek, modern and professional way - what chance do you suppose they have of succeeding in their own business? My guess is slim to none. Sorry about the rant; this was a great article and it just got me on a soap box! Best part of the article? The part about the 'working for free because you'll end up making millions later on' - don't just run - SPRINT away SCREAMING like you're being hunted down by a demon with a machete! Cuz that's all that's happening. You're gettin' straight up screwed. Guaranteed. Seriously. K, signing off for now. ;) D 7 years ago
  • Deb Ballard--great article, I devoured every word like a hungry animal. Having only dipped my big toe into the "Big Bad Wolf" ocean of "making a living as a Freelance Designer", I don't have much experience with this. I can see where dealing with Clients has to be one of your strongest suits. But the biggest take away that I have from this post and discussion is you have to know you are a good designer and be confident in your skills-then you will know your worth. Then you can negotiate the rates you know you need to have so you can live on just more than Ramen noodles. I dabble in graphic design as a hobby, having never ventured any farther than the kiddie pool because I didn't want the stress of the business side. But perhaps some day I will be brave enough to jump into the deep end of the pool when I get my skills up to par and have the confidence to venture forward. I applaud you freelancers who do this for a living. You are rock stars! 7 years ago
  • Anonymous
    nice tips.. I like your article :) 7 years ago
  • I started with crowd sourcing designer contests due to my lack of experience and money. Three years later, I still like one fact about crowd sourced contests: you always see new stuff, keeps you competitive. The downside is, well, as you have mentioned, you can go without payment for months. The overall sense of clients' sheer ignoring your work (where you put hours or days) is not helping either. That is why I want to learn more about dribbble, where people can see your work and commission you. Thank you for providing this valuable information about legal docs, I've bookmarked most links :D 7 years ago
  • Some random bits of recent experience: The only true protection from being ripped off is 100% up-front payment. Which of course is easier said than done. Not many clients would be ok with that. But make 50% deposits at the minimum standard business practice. When you have to sue a client, location is a big issue. Out of state clients will be more difficult and expensive to file lawsuits against. And if you have to take it to court, you often will have to go where the client is located. Not having a contract isn't the end of the road with a non-paying client. I've successfully sued and won without a contract. A surprising number of clients enter into deals with freelancers with the sole intent of not paying from the get-go. Figuring out if you're dealing with one of these fraudsters is difficult. They are master con-artists and make it a regular business practice to rip people off and/or cheat them in some way. I've run into 2 such people within the last year. You will too. Be prepared for it. Get that deposit, or don't take the job. Trust your gut. 6 years ago
  • *Thumbs Up* Nice article. Takes time to be assertive in the design and coding world. You gotta do it though; its your passion, your life and you'll most likely die doing it, if its your love. So don't let it rip you off and don't rip anyone else off along the way - karma ;-) 6 years ago
  • Great article and tips. So true:) 6 years ago
  • It is definitely a difficult world out there for designers and similar freelancers. So many people want high quality work for nothing. Then they will have the nerve to insult you for having standards. :-/ 6 years ago
  • Many thanks for the article and of course for great tips... :) 6 years ago