How to Determine if You Should Accept a Freelance Project

When I first started freelancing I was happy to take any project that came my way. At that time without an established network and even without a portfolio site, most of the clients I picked up came through word-of-mouth referrals from friends and family. When I finally got to the point of getting a significant number of leads and inquiries, one of the most difficult things for me was to determine which projects I should take and which ones I should turn down, or at least delay until another time.

Before long I found out the hard way that just blindly taking projects was causing unnecessary stress (I still had a full-time job at that point and not much time for client projects) and more significantly, it was preventing me from doing my best work and taking the time to learn as much as possible through the experience, which should be a priority for any designer who is just getting started.

One of the best ways to learn is by making mistakes, so I did pick up some valuable knowledge that I have been able to use ever since. However, if you are facing situations where you are unsure about accepting a project or unclear about what factors you should consider, I hope that my mistakes can also be a help to you.

Unfortunately, making decisions on which projects to take (and also on pricing) is not always easy. In this post I’ll cover a number of different factors that I feel should be considered. Keep in mind that each situation is different, so not all of the factors will apply, and in some cases the significance of specific factors will vary greatly.

1. Your Availability

I’m not an advocate of taking on too much work just because the clients are out there. If your schedule is already full, taking on extra projects can lead to decreased quality of work which will impact you and your clients. Additionally, it will typically lead to longer working hours and added stress. For this reason availability is the first thing I take into consideration.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, if you are just getting started and looking for work, or if things are in a temporary lull in terms of your workload, you may benefit by being more willing to take a project than you would at other points in time.

Many designers are not able to start working with new clients immediately, but they don’t want to pass on the job just because they are not available at that particular moment. If this is the case for you, give your best estimate as to when your schedule will open up enough that you could fit in the new client and let them know that you anticipate being available at that time. Many clients are not on a tight deadline and these people will usually be willing to wait a little while if it means getting the chance to work with the designer of their choice.

2. Deadlines

Before you accept any project you should be aware of any deadlines that the client has, and when they expect to reach certain milestones in the projects (especially for larger projects). In some cases you may have the time in your schedule to get started on the project, but meeting their deadlines may be unrealistic. In other cases, you may not be able to get much done for them right now, but if their deadlines are comfortably in the future you may be able to get started slowly and pick up the pace as your other projects are completed.

Not paying enough attention to deadlines can cause major headaches for designers and can lead to rush jobs that come out with less than your best results. Also, your ability to meet the deadlines will play a significant role in the client’s level of satisfaction with your work, so the first step to meeting your deadlines is only accepting those that are realistic.

If a potential client approaches you with deadlines that you cannot meet, don’t be afraid to discuss the situation with them openly and see if the deadline is flexible. In some instances this can be negotiable depending on why the client is shooting for a specific date of completion.

3. Pricing

Of course, the amount of money that you will be paid is a factor to consider as well. Obviously, freelancers are working to earn a living, so the financial aspect of projects cannot be ignored. There will be some situations where you may be willing to give less priority to the money, such as when you are mainly looking for experience.

Keep in mind that the amount of money you will make on the project is all relative to a number of other factors, such as the amount of time and effort that it will require. Some jobs may sound like they are low-paying, but when you look at how long it will take you to complete the project and the hourly rate that it will wind up bringing you, it may look a lot more enticing. On the other hand, Higher-budgeted projects may initially appeal to you, but keep in mind that you will also need to perform your due diligence to estimate what it will involve from you.

4. Potential for Future Work

Landing new clients can take significant amounts of time (preliminary phone calls and emails, quotes, etc.), effort (evaluating the project to determine if it’s a good fit, selling your services to the client), and sometimes financial commitment (advertising costs). The best types of clients to have are those that will come back to you for more work in the future. It could be a situation where the client will need ongoing maintenance that you could provide. Other situations would include clients who have a need for other sites to be designed, or possibly even other types of work like business card design, logo design, or any other type of service that you provide.

Clients that you work with on a repeat or on-going basis are extremely valuable because there is usually very little or no investment (time, effort, or money) in landing their business once they are working with you. Instead of dedicating time to finding new work, the work will already be waiting for you and you’ll be able to spend more of your time generating income. You’ll just need to keep doing a good job for the clients and future work will be there.

If there are potential clients that bring the possibility for ongoing work or future projects, you may want to consider this heavily in your decision about taking the project. There may be other factors that are not ideal, but opportunity for on ongoing clients could prove to outweigh the other factors.

5. Existing Relationship with the Client

If you have already worked with the client in the past or if you have any type of relationship, that will also factor in to the decision. If it is a client that you have had a good experience with, you will probably want to do everything you can in order to keep the client rather than passing on the job. Not taking the project will lead them to work with another designer and they may wind up never coming back to you.

6. Networking Opportunities

Almost every successful designer has a strong network of contacts that they have built throughout their career. This could include other designers that offer similar services, developers, SEO’s, social media marketing consultants, and much more. Some projects will provide you with an opportunity to work with other professionals that could lead to mutually beneficial relationships that could lead to more work or exposure in the future.

In addition to just networking opportunities with other service providers, there may be situations where the client would be a valuable contact that you would like to have in your network. These are all situations that should be considered when they arise. While this particular project may not be perfect, it could open up doors that wind up making a big difference in your career.

7. Your Role

On smaller projects you will probably be responsible for everything involved. Whether you outsource any of it will usually be up to you, but ultimately the responsibility for the entire project will belong to you. In other situations, particularly larger projects, the specific role that you will be playing in the project can be a very significant factor. Be sure to take into consideration all of the necessary factors from the particular role that you will be performing.

Along with your role, also consider the scope of the project. What is included among your responsibilities? What will the client be expecting you to complete? Is it something that you can realistically accomplish, or would you need some help and collaboration from other designers and developers?

8. The Match with Your Skill Set

Most of us have certain things that we do better than others, and certain things that we enjoy doing. How does the project in question line up with your skill set and the type of work that you want to do? Naturally, some projects will be much better fits than others. Taking jobs that are outside of these areas can be good learning experiences, but if that is not your priority you are likely to be better off by focusing on projects that will allow you to do your best work.

9. Opportunity for Learning and Growth

As I just mentioned, there may be some times where stretching outside or your comfort zone or your established skills is a desirable characteristic of a project. In fact, taking projects that will allow you to grow and develop new skills is a major part of continual improvement. However, it’s important to consider the specific ways that you will be stretched and to accept projects that provide the right types of learning opportunities as opposed to projects that put you in bad situations.

Determining if a project will involve a positive learning experience or a negative “I wish I hadn’t taken that job” experience can be a fine line. There’s no exact way to go about it in every situation, but there are some things to keep in mind. If you are working on multiple projects at one time, it’s probably best to only have one of them that is in an area that you aren’t very experienced with. Trying to learn too many new things at one time for several different projects can be quite overwhelming.

Also, is the project going to help you to learn a new skill that will be valuable and marketable to you in the future? There is a big difference between taking a project to learn something that will help to make you more valuable to potential clients and taking a job that requires learning something new that you are unlikely to ever use again.

Additionally, what do the clients expect from you? Do they know that this is in part a learning experience for you, or will they expect your work to be at the level that would be expected from someone with more experience in this area?

If all of these questions can be answered favorably, maybe you should prioritize this factor.

10. How You Match Up with the Client

Sometimes you will be talking to a potential client and you will get a feeling that they will be a great client to work with, or maybe they would be a very bad fit for your personality or for your style of work. An ideal designer/client relationship involves everyone being on the same page and having a good professional working relationship. Your initial feelings about how you and the client will be able to work together is another factor that you should consider.

Along the same lines, you may have a particular connection to the client that causes you to want to work with them. For example, some designers accept projects from non-profit organizations that they are involved with in one way or another. The project may not be appealing to them if it were for another client, but the connection to the organization can appeal enough that it outweighs other factors.

11. Clear Vision and Purpose for the Project

One of the hardest things to figure out with some clients is exactly what they want from the project, and in some cases they don’t really even know themselves. Some clients contact a designer because they know they need a website, or at least people keep telling them that they do, but beyond that they really don’t have much of a vision for the project. Sometimes these clients can be great to work with because it may involve more creative freedom for you as the designer, but generally it is preferable to work with a client that knows what he or she wants.

A client that has a clear vision or purpose for their project will allow you to determine if it is a good fit for you, and if you take the job it will be a great help in knowing which path you need to take and what you can do to make the project a success. In order for projects to be as successful as possible they need to have commitment from both the designer and the client. A potential client that already knows what they need to get out of the project is a good indicator that they will be committed to making it happen.

12. Need Something for Your Portfolio?

In some cases, especially with designers who are just getting started, one of the most significant factors is simply a need to get some work that can become a part of the portfolio. Portfolios are important for all designers, and if you have nothing to start with, you may be willing to take a project that you would not be too excited about in another circumstance.

In addition to just new designers, there are some situations where having a project for your portfolio could be very valuable even for experienced designers. For example, it could involve work for a high-profile client that could give you some added credibility, or it could allow for an opportunity to get a piece of work for an area that doesn’t exist in your current portfolio. In these cases I don’t think it should be the only factor, but it is something that should be considered.

What’s Your Experience?

What factors do you consider when you are evaluation the project of a potential client?

Stephen Snell is the owner and editor of Vandelay Design, a popular design blog.
  1. November 25, 2009

    Great points here Steven. Sometimes, I’m loaded with jobs and can’t say no, and then I’m put into a really tough spot with all these looming deadlines.

  2. November 25, 2009

    Cool, Awesome and must read articles for New Freelancers (like me ;)).
    enjoyed reading, many thanks ! 🙂

  3. November 25, 2009

    Cannot stress #11 enough! A disorganized client could lead to scope creep and more…

  4. Chukk
    November 25, 2009

    I recently took a job because I did not want the project going to a couple of competitors of mine, I showed significant quallity inorovments and now I have become the go-to-guy. Additionaly the buzz over my work has landed me three more jobs from different clients. I like to think that expectaions of these non profits have gone up and a new level of professional work is expected.

  5. November 25, 2009

    Really useful article Steven.

    Wish it had been around when I first started freelancing (about 5 years ago).

  6. November 25, 2009

    very useful , thank you.

  7. November 25, 2009

    Its been about 2 years freelancing and the #1 problem I have seen is dealing with clients who don’t know exactly what they want. When you think you are almost done, they point out other things that you have not supposedly done. So before I take on a project, the client must be very clear what he/she wants to achieve.

  8. November 26, 2009

    Thanks Steven, this is one of the posts I was really looking for!
    As for my personal experience, one of the points I try to make clear is the number of revisions the client is allowed to ask: I agree with Peter, clients sometimes have only a vague idea of what they really want, thus trying to convince them that a good planning is the best way to go and that changing the whole design in the middle of the process is a bad idea, is one of my key points.

  9. November 26, 2009

    we always prioritize the possibility to develop our skills and the potential of future work.

  10. tashi
    November 26, 2009

    thanx steven

    since i have just started freelancing..and i have recently started taking jobs..I believe your article will help me always in the long run..and when to take projects and when to say NO..


  11. November 26, 2009

    One of the most important rules of marketing is to never lose your FOCUS. Only take jobs that match the style of site you want to work with; if you specialize in minimalist sites for corporations, taking on a grunge site for a DJ might not be a good business decision. And yes, it’s tempting to take anything if you’re strapped for cash, but it’s better to be perceived as great at one thing than mediocre at many.

    Jordan Koschei

  12. November 27, 2009

    There are times when I have over committed, as a result of which I had to put extra hours and work under high pressure…
    This post is really good as it helps us to make our work organized and live peacefully.

  13. November 27, 2009

    I am a freelance designer but I hate making revisions. One of the factor in order for me to accept the project is the type of person who is requesting for the design

  14. November 27, 2009

    While I agree on most points, I tend to disagree on the fact that most clients are not on a tight schedule, at least in my experience everything is due yesterday.

  15. November 29, 2009

    Thanks for such a great post as you definitely cover the field! This is a crucial list of tips for freelancers and small design firms alike. I definitely second @Ted about #11!!!

  16. Dhana
    December 1, 2009

    Very useful points steven. I’m going to start freelancing work and i’m new to this. All your points are helpful for me… thanks

  17. December 3, 2009

    Excellent analysis!

    It is so easy to take on more than you can handle. Then everyone ends up unhappy – you don’t deliver the quality of work you wanted to, clients are unhappy because work is delivered later than they were hoping for, and your family suffers because you get grouchy.

    But it takes a lot of self-control and confidence to turn down projects or explain up-front that you won’t be able to deliver on the time frame they were hoping for.

  18. December 4, 2009

    Don’t overload yourself, don’t worry about passing on a job, they might look elsewhere but you will be seen as someone who is always in demand.

    Give yourself a break. Always keep your mortality in mind. Tell yourself that you will one day die and suddenly important things will seem trivial and you will make better, more fulfilling decisions. Life is for living (especially the freelance life!)

    So it goes -dp

  19. December 10, 2009

    Yes, I’ll second that .. great list for new freelancers … many thanks.

  20. August 8, 2010

    great list for new freelancers … many thanks.

  21. September 8, 2010

    That’s exactly why I bought my EZ 3 in 1.

  22. September 14, 2010

    I absolutely enjoy reading your article, your style of writing is fantastic.This post as usual was instructive, I have had to bookmark your site and subscribe to your feed in ifeed. Your theme looks smashing.

  23. December 22, 2010

    This blog is definitely very helpful since I’m at the moment creating an online floral website – however I am only starting out so it’s even now fairly small, in contrast to this blog. Can backlink to a few of the posts because they are quite. With thanks. Vanessa Woods

  24. April 4, 2011

    I feel that is an interesting element, it made me think a bit. Thank you for sparking my considering cap. Every so often I get so much in a rut that I simply feel like a record.

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