Common Design Scams

Any freelance designer who has been in the business for a few years has probably run into potential clients trying to get work done for free or for insanely low prices. This funny animated video comments on how some people will try to persuade designers to do work for them for free by offering them incentives such as “a footer link”, “future jobs” and “telling all their friends about you”.

View Animated Video

Other Common Scams

  • Spec Work – Create the design first and ill pay you if I like it (This is sometimes the only option for large projects for marketing agencies) but should probably be avoided for small jobs
  • Portfolio Experience – “This will be great for your portfolio!” (Unfortunately I’m starting a business, but I have no funds for design work)
  • Fake Contests – People will ask you to make an entry to a design contest, but really they are just trying to get free work done or have you do a job for them
  • Send Me the Files First – Make sure you always get a down payment before you being any project, and the rest of the balanced paid before you send over any final files.

The Root of the Problem

There’s no single reason why people attempt to take advantage of designers, but here are a few reasons that could potentially be causing some of this abuse:

1. Design is a booming profession and everyone seems to know a graphic designer.

2. Competition is fierce and many places such as classifieds are filled with hundreds of designers fighting over the same job and many designers will throw out low-ball prices as a way to land a job.

3. Programs like Photoshop are easily accessible nowadays and everyone seems to think they can design because they’ve Photoshopped a picture once or twice.

4. Businesses are outsourcing design work to places such as India and getting super cheap prices, which distorts their view of what design is really worth.

Stand Your Ground

Whatever the reasons may be, designers need to stand their ground and not subject themselves to all these scams and false opportunities being thrown their way. Be confident in your work and demand fair prices for your time just like any other respectable professional does!

Have you ever been ripped off or offered false opportunities? Tell us about it in the comments and help designers new to the business avoid running into the pitfalls many of us have experienced.

21 comments on “Common Design Scams”

  1. Victoria Reply

    Went to work in a small company doing design work. It blurrred into office work. The owner would say without income there is no graphic work. Needed the work, thought I was getting my feet wet, stuck it out.

    Design work came less frequently and was allocated to my time left after completing my other work “but need it this week…” Everything became rushed. My work was well received, had a few opportunities to do projects for outside sources.

    The clincher was when they brought on a graphic design student to do their graphics because I was too valuable doing the office work. The co-owner wanted to develop a different style and figured that this would be the right move. The intern had three months to do what I would do in 10 hours. I was stuck doing office work, small black and white ads and occasionally tossed a design bone. It went downhill from there real fast.

    Not going into the job with a know all confident attitude I ended up being walked over. I did not stand my ground until it was too late.

  2. Anders Hattne Reply

    Yep… just the other day I did a guy “a favour, it’s simple – maximum 30 minutes”, which in the end took 3 hours.
    He was working as an art director at my previous job, (which went bankrupt). I suppose this guy has a lot of contacts and dupes them all into doing various “favours” with the lure of getting paid jobs out of it in the end. At the time he offered me a freelance job as well, but after this I think every paid job will come with 3 favours for free.

    Not sure where to draw the line, but it’s important not do do anything for free, and preferably not cheap either, because if not we will be disrespectfully taken advantage of !!
    But as a beginner, knowing what to charge is one of the hardest things…

  3. Samantha Resnick Reply

    Recently I went on an interview for a in house web designer position. The company wanted me to make several concepts for their site redesign to see if I fit there company needs. Im not positive of what they were thinking since I even mentioned that I’m trying to break out as a freelancer, I emailed them saying I cannot do the concepts without being compensated.

    It amazes me that they tried to pull that on me, I wonder how many free web designs they managed to get out of ‘potential’ employees. Even more so, I wonder how many of them refused to hand over something they worked hours on for nothing, expect hope that they would receive the job. While the company is building a data base of designs for them to use for their own needs after the designer is turned down the position.

    Great article btw!


  4. MediaMisfit Reply

    THIS IS AN AWESOME POST! I’ve run into 3 of the 4 common scams listed.

    People always like to tell you it will be great portfolio experience. ESPECIALLY IF YOUR A STUDENT! Watch out for this but still understand that you are not UBERDeSIGNER and you actually might have to do a few of these in the beginning. What I would do is design something for a non-profit and then file the cost of your design as a donation at tax time. (I don’t know if this is possible but it sounds like a good idea to get something out of doing free design).

    While I was a student I did run into one of those fake contests. When I asked how much money I would win the people running it were like nothing. I laughed!

    Spec Work. I hate this. If the client doesn’t have an idea of what they want. I’m not apposed to doing some concept wireframes or linking them to a couple of sites where they could get ideas but when they want me to do a mock up with no money down. Start of a failing relationship.

    I recently had to hire a web developer for my company with a really low budget which was interesting because I was finally on the “flip side” of the coin trying to get something for cheap rather than keep for getting taken. My boss of course is just looking to get something for free but I’m morally against pressuring young developers for free code. I did get it for low cost but I believe it was at a fair price. The developer didn’t have much experience at the CMS I needed and I wasn’t about to pay him for his education.

    As a community I think it is important that designers help each other not get ripped off but at the same time help each other determine the worth of our own designs. Working in a larger corporation would help take out a lot of these pricing woes but limit your freedom.

    Final piece of advice is just BE CLEAR. If you don’t need portfolio work tell them no thanks. If you don’t do mock ups let them now how much of a down payment you need. Don’t be shy! Give them the number just make sure you’re both clear on how you got it. USE A CONTRACT!

  5. Gino Reply

    Thank you all for the great responses, I think this post and all its comments will really help out designers new to the business.

    I also wanted to add one more thing to be careful of:

    Don’t Get to Friendly

    Its easy to get really friendly with clients especially if they give you steady work and payments. I remember once instance where I would get paid at the end of each week for my work instead of before I started working on the projects and I ended up getting stiffed for a week of work when they decided they didn’t need me anymore.

  6. Kimberly James Reply

    This is a great post. I’ve been designing for a few years, but only recently went completely freelance, and boy it doesn’t take long to start getting screwed over. One of my first clients and one after her decided after completion to go to paypal and get their money back..or half anyway. It seems you can do that easily over there. I learned real fast not to give any files until I get final payment. I got burned a few times.

    Currently I have a client wanting to hire me to do her a site, and since she just wanted a small simple site, I agreed to do it for $600..I know, bad choice. I actually just got an email this morning from her stating she was uncomfortable with my contract, and felt that she could incur additional costs. Now, the only thing in my contract that would be additional is Flash (billed separately by the hour), her not paying on time (I charge a small interest in my contract for that, but have never had to use it), or large scale changes after the site is finished and her 6 months of small updates are up.

    I do charge for ongoing SEO…I mean, I’m not continuing to do SEO for free. What do you guys think.

  7. soul_reaver_222 Reply

    its really tough to start out as a designer, you get to do some jobs for free..
    but you can always find a good client..

  8. Cory Reply

    How very true this post is. As a freelance designer and also a national sales rep. with a major printing firm I see this all day everyday…. from friends, from clients (current and potential). It is like being wrongly convicted of murder and then going out and bargain shopping for a lawyer. Okay maybe not that severe but still for many companies having a dynamic design to create a presence in the business world is the difference in that businesses life and death. So why would someone want to go out and get the cheapest possible.

    There is a really good article in a Printing Trade magazine that talks about firing bad clients because they cost you more money and sales than keeping the good ones and much the same is this article. It is better to kick these “want something for nothing” clients to the curb… even though they might pay right now in the long run you could get 10 clients to replace the one bad one. Because as we all know the ones who want it for nothing are usually the ones who want it redesigned 100 times.

  9. Mark Reply

    You need to bring a really big and scary guy named “Guido” with you to the client meetings who only grunts in monosyllables. This can help facilitate the client to pay-up. Or else….

    Then I believe the craft will regain the respect it deserves.

  10. Kofi Ansah Reply

    I’m a beginner at web design and i currently did something simple for my website… a Flash website.. real simple because i’m new to web design, even though I am alright in Flash and quite good in Photoshop.

    Anyway, This 16 year old guy from German somehow cam accross my website and saw my msn contact in my contacts page.. He added me on msn and asked me if he could use one of my old website layouts i don’t use nomore.. Not knowing about this scam and since i didn’t need that old layout, i didn’t hesitate and offerd him my layout in PSD format but then told him not to use it but to look at it and dom something similar with his own style.. Well, I guess he didn’t listen to that..

    He then later on kept on bombarding me to help him with designs and to fix some premade flash websites he downloaded to use for his page because he doen’t know anything about flash… he basically depended on me to do his work and website for him free of charge..

    I think last week or so he came back wanting me to fix a Flash site for his friend but I told him I can’t do it.. and if he wanted a Flash website, he should learn tutorials like I did and became familiar with the program.. and since then, he’s not been able to ask me to do anything for him ^_^

    Next time, I’m charging ;)

    Great post by the way..


  11. Anurag Sharma Reply

    This is a very well written article.

    I truly believe that designing has been more commercial now than artistic. Most of the clients look around for “cheap” designers. And definitely the reasons mentioned are absolutely right, especially the 4th one regarding the Indian designers. I am an Indian designer myself and have seen people stooping too low to get work from clients. It is pathetic to see this happening. I personally don’t take up cheap works, unless I am in a real need of money. The effort is simply not worth the effort or, no offense, even the client doesn’t deserve that kind of effort at times.

  12. chris Reply

    Nice post!

    Gino and I were going over this just yesterday. Ironic that there was a recent post on the matter. Haha.

    The that I have known for a while tried to get me to do cd album covers for free so that I would get “recognition” and get my name out there. HAH! Wasn’t he wrong. (Dropped the client ^_^)


  13. John Boyd Reply

    Be warned. Get a is the worst for these types of scams. Whenever you see an ad or post requesting design samples flag them to be removed or boycott them. Let’s unite to stop the exploitation designers. If we refuse to work for sub standard wages the industry will reward all of us. If we keep low balling to get work sure we may get more but we’ll have to do 5x the jobs to make a living. This hurts all of us. Yes this includes India and the like.


  14. Design Arad Reply

    It is almost impossible for a young creative professional not to hit a few scams at the start of his carer, it does happen in other professions too.

    One of the most important lesson is to learn when to say “No” and drop the client/project, even if you have invested some time into it.

    Another common problem for freelancers is the “scope creep”. It appears most frequently on the long projects. It has a huge potential for money loss. It can be avoided with a proper project management and a methodical way of doing work.

  15. Adrian Reply

    Just last week made a pitch to a potential client for a web development job. I work as a freelance web design/developer very small fry.
    The prospects wife suggested I provide an example design and then make a decision as to wether they would hire me to develop their website.
    This is first time this has happened to me, but politely explained the amount of time and effort invested in the design phase of any project. The wife was shuffled from the office and the prospect is now a client.
    Don’t under value your skills. There are some people out there that will say to themselves “If he’ll do that for free, what else can I get out of him?”.

  16. design guy Reply

    my early months after graduating I landed a job I found on craigslist, the guy had an office in LA, third floor in a nice small plaza with other businesses. The company had a few offices from, lobby to a conference room, long story short my first week I didn’t see many people working there, is if they were all fired, there were a few but not as many as the place can hold, it turned out that the company was doing bad, and I was working directly with the boss to get some funds to pay for himself and the few other’s, I got screwed because I trusted this place and the boss, he’s free lunches and good feelings, he even signed me checks which bounced and I ended up owing the bank, he had also left for vacation and I had done some home work, I demanded my well earned pay and ended up getting more checks that ended up bouncing back a few days later, and me owing more money to the bank, I walked away second week or so of work, was not going to stick around for promise work/good checks and other lies.

    he’s company needed me that I was sure off, but you can’t do business for free, I had bills to pay as he himself. Luckily I learned early and I took that experience to future clients which helped me grow in regards to getting paid and just to be confident in continuing to do freelance, and let that be a turning point.

    don’t work for free, if you want to boost up your portfolio do some design campaign/stationary, web page layout or poster/illustration whatever it is, just do it yourself on your own free time, but some fake brand and just add it to your portfolio, my portfolio has always had 50% invented work, and the other actual worked, has landed me many jobs. Most clients just want to see what your capable off, don’t really care about education or background. Try quality and good attitude.

    much luck to everyone, hope that helps someone.

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