The Five Most Important Rules for Saying No

Saying no is one of the most powerful options you have as a designer. Using it at the right time can save you time, money, and headaches. Using it at the wrong time can cost you money, clients, and even your reputation.

Harness the power of no by following these five simple guidelines:


1. Say No to Bad Clients

The most power you have as a designer is before a project even begins. A potential client has come to you requesting your services. They are seeking your assistance—they want you.

Now you have the opportunity to decide if you want them as a client. Communication is the key to any successful business relationship, so do your best to make sure you click with a potential client before taking them on. Beyond just a bad gut feeling, there are a few common red flags you should watch for.


They’ve had a bad experience with another designer

Bad designers do exist. There’s a chance that your potential client encountered one of them, but there’s also a 50 percent chance that the bad apple in that past relationship was the client. Ask your potential client what went wrong with their last relationship (they are usually excited to spill their guts), and then make your decision.


“I want a Cadillac for the price of a Honda”

If you hear these words (or a similar plea for high-quality work at a deep discount), run for the hills! Not only does it mean your potential client needs to update their car references, it also means they have unrealistic expectations. It’s a clear sign that they’ll want to reduce your rates, and if you do take them on as a client, they’ll likely expand the scope of work to squeeze every possible ounce of work out of you.


They are quick to promise you additional work

“If you hit this project out of the park, we’ll have a lot more work for you.” Typically, this statement is followed closely by, “Can you give me a discount on this one, since there’s the prospect of an even bigger payday down the road?” Ninety percent of the time, there are no projects down the road. Even if there are more projects, do you really want to continue to work with someone who doesn’t see the value of your work?


“Another guy can do it for have the price”

Never compete on price. Let them use the other guy.


They are not the decision maker

Always find out who on the client’s side will be responsible for giving the final design approval. If they need to get their spouse’s or children’s opinions first, strongly reconsider taking them as a client. A company needing approval from a board of advisors can be equally difficult to manage. You always want to communicate directly with the person that will be approving your designs, not rely on someone else to present your designs.

The key part of saying no to bad clients is that you have to sniff them out up front. It’s easy to find out if a client is bad once you’ve started working with them, but at that point it’s tough to get out of the project and salvage the relationship.

If you decide a client has too many red flags, make sure you gracefully tell them no to keep them on good terms. When you’re building a reputation and a brand for yourself, there’s no need to unnecessarily burn bridges.


2. Say No to Bad Projects

Even if the client is great and the pay is great, accepting a bad project is a bad idea. It can cause a lot of headaches and strain your relationship with that great client.

So what dictates a bad project? It’s a bit different for everyone and depends on what type of career or business you are trying to build. However, the basic rule is that you should only take on a project that is going to take you a step closer to meeting your professional goals.

For instance, if your goal is to be the best illustrator in the world, you should turn down a client who wants you to design their website. Do you have the design skills to make a visually appealing website? Of course. But you’ll be investing time in becoming an expert web designer, not an expert illustrator.

That doesn’t mean that you should only take on projects that you are 100 percent comfortable doing, though. Pushing yourself to take on projects that are intimidating and stretch your capabilities is a great way to grow your business or advance your career. If you’ve only illustrated icons and small assets, and a client asks you to illustrate a movie poster, say yes!


3. Say “No, but…” to Clients

Once you’ve started a project, you’ve given up your opportunity to say no. If you’ve positioned yourself correctly, you’re being paid not to design something pretty, but to use your design skills to solve a problem. A problem solver doesn’t say no. Offer a better solution by saying, “No, but…”

Essentially, saying “No, but…” is a nice way of saying, “No. I think that’s a bad idea, but we can get a similar or even better outcome if we did this instead.” Saying no closes all doors, but saying “No, but…” closes one door and opens another.


4. The Rule of Three No’s

I’m a huge proponent of designers being problem solvers and not just technicians. So when a client says, “Let’s make this blue,” find out what problem they are really trying to solve. In most cases this works really well, but in some cases the client will ask a second time, “Can we please make this blue?” When asked a second time, use your experience with a similar project—or even better, use data—to back up why their suggestion may not be the best solution.

But what if they ask a third time, “I understand, but can we please just make it blue?” At this point, suggesting an alternative or saying no for a third time is rude.

Think of it as if you’re a dinner guest at someone’s house. After dinner they ask if you’d like some apple pie. You’re full and say, “No, thank you.” When asked a second time you say, “I’m really stuffed. No, thank you.” When pressed a third time, what do you do? You say, “OK…just a small piece,” and you eat your pie with a smile. You don’t want to ruin a great evening over not taking a bit of pie.

Even if it’s not in the best interest of the project, concede after a third time and execute their request to the best of your ability. You’ve given your professional opinion twice—that’s fair warning.


5. Never Say No to Coworkers

Nobody likes their ideas to be shot down, but on the other hand, not all ideas are good ideas. So how do you not say no when a coworker, or boss, provides a bad suggestion? You say “Yes, and…” instead.

It’s not only an essential rule of a good brainstorm, it’s also a great way to build strong relationships and teams. Rather than objecting to someone’s idea, “Yes and…” is a way to build on a person’s idea to create an even better solution.

For instance, let’s say your boss asks you to update the logo on your company website to lavender for the month of June to honor National Cancer Survivor Month. It’s not a well known awareness month, so you are concerned that visitors to your website are going to be confused why the logo changed colors all of a sudden. A great response to your boss would be, “Yes, and let’s update the home page image and text to honor cancer survivors as well.” Now the logo changing color has the proper context. You’ve honored your boss’s request while creating a better solution that won’t confuse your customers.



No is a powerful word. Using it correctly can help you grow your business or further your career. Do you have any rules around saying no that have helped you navigate relationships with clients or coworkers?

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