15 Simple Warning Signs of a Bad Project (and how to think positively)

yield-signHere’s the deal. Designers should not accept every project that crosses their eyes. For five years, I was stuck in the mentality that every potential project was a chariot of gold ready to bring me unimaginable riches.

Wrong. I discovered through a series of poor projects that accepting everything is not a profitable strategy. I began to understand and value the concept of opportunity cost. Let’s say I’m working on a low paying project that, while bringing in some money, eats up all my time and leaves me exhausted at the end of the day. What else could I have done with my time? Could I have worked on a more rewarding project? Or perhaps hunted for more profitable business? I will never know.

This is not a foreign concept to most veteran designers. As you grow, you must become more selective about how you spend your time. But how can you screen potential projects to eliminate the problem ones as quickly as possible?

I’ve developed a set of internal heuristics that I run each new project through as a test. Keep in mind that sometimes a project with a small budget or a client with a demeaning attitude is not necessarily a deal breaker. You have to use your judgment and analyze your own opportunity cost. What else could you be working on?

When writing this post, I realized that most clients are actually good and that you should maintain a positive outlook in your project screening process. With that thought, I decided to amend my post to include a way to think positively about each warning sign.

1. They have a “small” budget

The most obvious warning sign. Anyone who declares outright that their budget is “small” or “limited” is a person without real conviction to a solid web project. Maybe they really don’t have the money. Unfortunately, your time is valuable and must be compensated fairly.

lightbulbThink positive: Are they a non-profit? Is there a reason why they can’t afford an extravagant web presence? Some organizations with a good or interesting cause might be worth reaching out to. Perhaps you can arrange a trade of services or a sponsorship. Sponsoring non-profits and donating time can be an incredible way of attracting new business (people like people who give).

2. They’re price shopping

They claim you’re one of three companies they’re looking at for a quote. They waste your time with numerous emails and questions when in reality they’re just fishing for prices. This is a classic budget shopper who will drain you for everything you have.

lightbulbThink positive: Perhaps there’s something you can do to help you stand out from the rest. Suggest unique solutions to the client and help them understand your mode of thinking. The client may actually be stuck making a tough decision between several local firms. Help convince them that you’re the right choice.

3. They require spec work

This is the most outrageous warning sign that every designer has encountered. A prospect who demands a mock-up or design to be submitted with a proposal is a prospect not worth dealing with. They essentially want you to work for the job, which can be extremely risky and time consuming. Your portfolio should speak for itself.

lightbulbThink positive: Does the prospect understand what they’re asking for? Try explaining that they’re essentially asking you to work for free. Compare this to the prospect’s line of work. Would they ever submit work without a guarantee of getting paid? This might help them to rethink their proposal requirements.

4. They want to establish sort of ownership deal

Thanks to the dot com bubble, people seem to have left that mess with the thought that ownership equates to value. If you’re approached by someone who has no money but the next “killer” idea, be cautious. They’ll want you to work for a percentage of ownership. If you accept, you’ll waste the next six months of your life working toward a pipe dream.

lightbulbThink positive: What can I say? There really is nothing positive about this. In fact, I would advise anyone to avoid these propositions at all costs. However, should someone you know very well approach you with this scenario, it may be worth your attention to at least see what the opportunity is.

5. They’re hard to get a hold of

If you’re trying to work out a proposal or deal for someone who doesn’t answer questions or never gets back to you, this is a sign of their behavior during the project. This is the exact behavior that causes projects to drag on forever and eat into your valuable time as you try to spur the client into action.

lightbulbThink positive: Analyze your own communication method. Are you emailing someone who clearly is more receptive to a phone call? If so, pick up the phone. People can become hard to reach if you’re not using the proper channel.

6. They’re rude or inconsiderate

You pick up the phone to speak with a new prospect and they bark commands at you. Or, you receive an email littered with curt and arrogant statements. No one wants to put up with that, especially during a prolonged project period.

lightbulbThink positive: Is there a reason why they’re treating you in this fashion? They could have had a bad day or perhaps they aren’t adept at using a certain communication method. For the prospect who writes seemingly offensive emails, try giving them a call. They might be the nicest person in the world who’s just absent-minded when it comes to email.

7. They want you to rip off some other site

I’ve learned that some people will become overly fixated on the design of another site and will outright ask you to copy it. Not only is this wrong, it should be completely avoided. You can’t include it in your portfolio and you might even get into copyright infringement territory.

lightbulbThink positive: Explain the consequences of copying another site to the client. They might not realize that other people will notice. Most people want to avoid embarrassing situations; help the prospect to do that. Furthermore, try to identify what parts of the design the prospect liked and assure them of your skills.

8. They need the site done in a week

We’ve all heard this one before. They need a super extraordinary web site built in less than a week and they need you working on it around the clock. Avoid.

lightbulbThink positive: Do they have the dollars to back up this extreme time condition? If they’re willing to pay for expedition, it might be worth it. Otherwise, explain that the timeframe is not feasible under their budget constraints.

9. They have multiple hoops to jump through

Do some proposal processes seem like a circus show with you jumping through all the hoops? This test of will can be very time intense and draining. There might be committees to weave through, multiple layers of bureaucracy or numerous channels of acceptance to reach.

lightbulbThink positive: Is the pay off worth the show you have to put on? Many of the bigger web design deals go through an extended proposal process since it’s usually for a larger organization. Keep your head up and work through the muck if you think you have a good shot.

10. They keep picking apart your proposal

The proposal nitpickers will literally highlight every nook and cranny of your proposal and ask questions ad nauseam. These prospects are a concern because their nitpicky behavior is indicative of how they’ll act during the project.

lightbulbThink positive: Take an honest look at your proposal. Is it too vague or undefined? Are the questions and nitpicks valid? Just because the prospect is shooting holes all over your proposal doesn’t mean they’ll turn out to be a bad client. They might just want to protect themselves.

11. They want you to buy a template

Templates are everywhere on the web. They are so easy to obtain that some prospects will pick out a design and ask you to adapt it to their organization. I think this is sort of like what tracing is to art. You might end up with something that looks good, but you didn’t really create it. Templates also have a tendency to ooze of that cookie-cutter feel.

lightbulbThink positive: If the prospect is adamant about using a template, then make sure the compensation is enough to justify the project. Remember, you probably won’t be able to use this project as an example for other prospects since you’ll just be tweaking an existing design. These projects can also be nice fillers between more intense projects.

12. They have no content or marketing materials

These prospects literally have nothing about their company in writing. No web copy, very little brochure copy and nothing in the works. They might think you can adapt their tiny brochure to the web, but we all know that doesn’t work. Getting content out of them will be a hassle and the project will drag on forever.

lightbulbThink positive: This is a great opportunity to hook up with a copywriter to extend those services to the prospect. In all likelihood, the prospect doesn’t understand the importance of good web copy. Help them to realize its importance and build copywriting into the proposal (or provide a separate quote from a copywriter you trust).

13. They keep getting cold feet

Have you ever had a prospect one pen motion away from closing a deal only to have them back out? They get cold feet because they’re questioning their own decisions. It’s hard to get anything done because their indecisiveness leads to more questions and concessions on your end.

lightbulbThink positive: Try to get into the shoes of the prospect and understand what their fears are. Is it the price, scope, project requirements or something else? Most of the times, the prospect just needs an expert to help guide them in their decision-making process, especially if they’re not accustomed to web design work.

14. They continue changing the scope

You have a solid proposal ready to go and the prospect seems excited by it. You hand it off to them only to get it back with a completely new scope for the project. What may have started as a simple blog all of a sudden has exploded into the prospect wanting to have a custom community blogging system. The big problem with these prospects is that when they do become clients, they’ll likely be big scope creep offenders.

lightbulbThink positive: Just like the prospect that gets cold feet, this one is indecisive. They have so many thoughts swimming around in their mind that they can’t make a decision about what they want their web site to do. This is where you need to employ your expertise to help nail down a single vision. Some clients are just dreamers who need to be brought back down to reality for a brief moment.

15. They marginalize your job

There will be some prospects that just don’t respect the web design profession. They’ll demean it and make statements along the lines of, “I could do this myself, but I don’t have the time.” The problem is web design is not a simple profession and involves a lot of hard work. If the prospect cannot respect this then how can you expect to be treated during the project phase?

lightbulbThink positive: Maybe the prospect only seems condescending because they are in fact knowledgeable of web design. If so, try getting their input on how they want the project to proceed. And make certain that you both understand clearly what your role is in the project.


Do you have some warnings signs of your own? If so, I’d like to hear about them. Please feel free to share them in the comments area!

13 Responses to “15 Simple Warning Signs of a Bad Project (and how to think positively)” (Leave a Comment)


  1. Great article. I hate clients like these… it makes a job so unnecessarily trying.

  2. Leon says:

    Cool post! I like your positive perspective on things!

  3. [...] 15 Simple Warning Signs of a Bad Project (and how to think positively) – Chris LeCompte [...]

  4. Sam Barnes says:

    Hey Chris, nice post. All recognisable from my experience and all true. But I do especially like the positive spin on all the points, something that is always worth bearing in mind before judging a client or relationship…

    Enjoying all your articles lately, look forward to more.

    Sam

  5. [...] 15 Simple Warning Signs Of A Bad Project (And How To Think Positively) (clecompte.com) [...]

  6. Joe Cascio says:

    re: #4: An offer of equity isn’t always bad. It could be wonderful, but you have to be circumspect, of course, and know good ideas from bad ones. A designer might want to wait to jump in until there’s some kind of revenue flowing in, especially if they are not knowledgeable about startups.

    The way startups are happening in the web world now is that they don’t get big VC investments, but rather start with an idea and quickly build something small and usually ugly. If the idea has legs, it will grow. Most startups at this stage need only a tiny amount of design contribution, just so the site doesn’t look like a programmer built it.

    So, like anything else, you have to trust your intuition, and the other signs on this page will inform that, for sure. But I’d just say, don’t reject an equity offer out of hand. Remember, if someone asks you to work for equity, they’re probably doing it, too, and living on ramen noodles and Diet Coke. But if it pans out, it’s SO worth it!

  7. Good point, Joe. The reason I’m so hesitant about equity/ownership offers is that they can really suck a lot out of you with very little — or no — return (trust me, I have experience with this!). It can be risky if you drop other profitable projects to work for no or very little income. But I agree that as long as you trust your gut and don’t get stuck in a pipe dream, you’ll emerge ok.

  8. Great points are mentioned! Thanks for this article. I myselg has encountered some bad projects in the past!

  9. David says:

    Number 7 is the one I tend to get quite often followed by number 1 and then number 10. In those cases I try to make the best of it with humor and look at the bright side of it all.

  10. Web Designer says:

    Great article, I could actually relate to some…and learn a lot from this…I just retweet. Hope more readers would share it with others..

  11. [...] Read the full article at Clecompte [...]

  12. Great summary, thank you.

    My warning signs often lie in:
    they don’t really know what they want
    they can’t grasp how long something takes.

    Juliet

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