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Watch Out for These Phrases Designed to Trap Freelancers

A no-nonsense crew, including Gail Anderson, Pum Lefebure, and Mac Premo call out the jargon, manipulation, bad intentions, good intentions but bad behavior, and downright BS that should make creatives run the other way.

“It’s an opportunity to be seen by a great audience.”

“It shouldn’t take you very long.”

“We promise to only ask for minimal changes.”

We’ve all heard them; the carefully worded, manipulative phrases designed to take advantage of freelancers where they’re most vulnerable: places like job instability, risk management, and romanticizing of passion. When you’re working on a team of one without a sounding board to call foul, those phrases can start to sound convincing. So, we assembled a crew of hard bitten, world-weary, sign-on-the-dotted-line creatives to each call out a red flag staked in a pile of bullshit so that you can spot it too, and to offer advice on how to respond.

Come along for a cathartic eye roll. Can you believe we’re still getting this stuff in our inboxes?


1. “We don’t have a budget for this one, but we will for the next.”
Mac Premo, Stuff Maker, Mac Premo, Inc.

That phrase is my number one of all red flags. It admits that the work is worth more than is being offered for it, and says that acknowledgment will come later if you prove yourself this time. It’s like going into a pizza place, ordering a slice, taking a bite and saying, “No, it’s not what I hoped” and walking out of the store. It doesn’t work that way. It leverages the baked-in inequality that exists in the freelance world. It’s taking advantage by using the carrot of opportunity while ignoring the reality of straight up ethical business.

Every single person in the freelance sphere has dealt with this. And even if you know better, you still look at the big picture of the potential project and say, “Yeah but this time…” Because, the definition of insanity and the definition of freelancing are the same thing: you do the same thing over and over again and you expect a different result.

Don’t expect that promise to come back to you, because it won’t. I don’t know anyone who has had a return client who has said “Okay, like we said, we didn’t have a budget for the last one but here’s more money.” Generally, things end how they start.

2. “Let’s start off with this ‘rush’ project.”
Pum Lefebure, Cofounder, Design Army

I think everyone hears this phrase at least a few times in their career. For us, it was in Design Army’s early days. Our instinct is to help the client out. But we learned that when you take on a rush project for a new client it’s setting you up for a disaster. It’s not organized. You don’t know each other well. There’s zero time for mistakes or exploration.

It’s also a red flag for a constant flow of rush projects. By jumping in, you may never get out of the rush relationship. Now, if it’s a new client, we almost always say “no.” You never want to promise and not deliver for any client; that’s bad business.

3. “Just…”
Dalit Shalom, Product Designer, The New York Times

Anytime you receive a design request prefaced with the word “just,” stay alert. People often try to compress their requests in ways that suggest there is less effort involved. It’s not always intentional, but it can be extremely misleading.

Imagine these two different scenarios:

(A) “Hi Jane! I’m reaching out because I recently opened a new business and need a logo – just something small, nothing too complex.”

(B) “Hi Jane! I’m reaching out because I recently opened a new business and need a logo — can we set up a time to talk about your process and cost?”

In the first version, Jane is casually being manipulated by the writer belittling the effort entailed. Would you ever tell a doctor how to approach a medical problem, or suggest the complexity of it?

As the professional, you are in the driver’s seat. You know how much time, effort, and resources will be devoted to the work. Therefore, you decide how to quantify the request. Clients should feel that you are the expert and know how to tackle the request appropriately.

If people persist with their “justs” to lure you to taking the work? Just say no.

4. “It really shouldn’t take too long”
Gail Anderson, Creative Director, Visual Arts Press

I have fallen for the low- or no-budget project so many times over the years that I am embarrassed to reflect on what is always inevitably a mistake. We’ve all been sucked in by a sweet or flattering email: a friend, colleague, or the eventual relative whose wedding invitation we can’t bear to see being designed at Vistaprint.

In my own head:

“It’s such a good cause, so…”

“It’s her first book, so…”

Or the ever popular:

“It really shouldn’t take too long…”

Be polite, but firm. Say “no thanks.” It is inevitably a less than rewarding experience with no cool final piece as the payoff.  It’s not worth it, and it always takes longer than anticipated. Much longer. And there is always more than one round of changes. Whenever I’ve said no, a wave of relief washes over me and there’s no backsplash of regret. Our time is valuable. Why is it so hard for designers to own that?

Of course, I need to follow my own advice first before doling it out.

5. “Will you work in trade?”
Michael Dolan, Senior Creative Director, Quartz

Anytime a freelancer sees this, they should take off. I remember first hearing this phrase when Craigslist became a popular place for hiring freelancers. It was common to see people who have a “brilliant idea for a business” but needed design or web build work. The “trade” was that when their brilliant idea paid off, they would give you the opportunity to do more work for them. You can assume that the person asking for work in trade is making money on the back of what they are asking a freelancer to create. If that’s the case they should be trading you money (i.e. paying you). If what you are making generates revenue, you should get a piece of that.

6. In a design contest, nobody wins.
Joel Evey, Creative Director

Design contests, where lots of people compete to be the chosen one, are super problematic. Not only are you doing free work but you’re doing free work with no guarantee that it will get used at all. Sometimes the terms and conditions say they can use the logo even if they don’t pick it, or that they can keep the rights to your creative and you wouldn’t be able to share the speculative work on your own website. Your work goes into a black hole and is never seen. It’s a pretty exploitative practice.

If you do decide to enter one anyway, against all our advice, make sure you read the terms and conditions really well. Always read the fine print.

7. “We are reviewing proposals before choosing an artist. Would you provide a few concepts?”
Jing Wei, Illustrator, Brooklyn

I have seen many emails that sneak in language that basically translates to a request for spec work. There is an intentional ambiguity on the topic of payment, which bothers me to no end. Clients who ask for sample sketches usually rely on the fact that the artist either doesn’t know any better or wants the job badly enough to do the work. On top of that, there’s the threat of competition from other artists, which makes some people think this is the norm or if they don’t participate, they could automatically lose the job.

In the early years of freelancing, there were definitely times when I gave clients the benefit of the doubt and provided sample illustrations. It’s easy to be wooed by the prospect of getting a big project, to the point where you may be willing to take the gamble. However, you deserve to be paid for the time you’re putting in, regardless of whether or not your work is ultimately used. It never hurts to ask for what you believe is fair. If they say no, you’re probably dodging a bullet.

8. “We can’t offer you [fill in an adequate hourly or project rate here], but we can give you exposure”
Willa Koerner, Creative Content Director, The Creative Independent

This hints that the person seeking to hire you thinks their own product/idea/team is so great that you should want to work with them, regardless of whether or not they can afford you. This is bad for two reasons: 1) they will never pay you what you deserve, and 2) it demonstrates a narcissistic attitude to doing business. This sets you up to be taken advantage of Every. Single. Time.

In the tech world, people often fall victim to “drinking the Kool-Aid” of their own idea. That extreme level of buy-in helps them press on and convinces others like investors (or you) to take a risk on them. When a company or person approaches you assuming you should be willing to expend your time and energy in service of their idea for inadequate compensation, there are narcissistic forces at play. These types of people don’t see a problem in co-opting your time for their own benefit. Steer clear of anyone who assumes their vision is so great that you’d be lucky to work with them, even if they can’t pay you what you deserve.

On top of that, if you say yes to gigs that don’t pay fairly, you are doing your peers a disservice by prolonging the misinformed idea that the type of work you do can be offered for free or cheaply. I can’t believe there are still so many people/companies out there trying to get away with not paying people for their honest work. If someone offers to pay you something other than a fair rate for your work, let them know you are unable to take the job. And, if you’re up to it, tell them you don’t think anyone else will either.

More Posts by Emily Ludolph

Emily Ludolph is a director at West Wing Writers. She has published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Artsy, Airmail, Eye on Design, JSTOR Daily, Quartz, Narratively, TED Online and Design Observer. 

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