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Robot Suit Rock: How To Make Both Daft Punk Helmets

Robot Suit Rock: How to Make Both Daft Punk Helmets

Digital Love

Daft Punk. Air. Water. Those are my three most important things for survival, in order of importance. I love Daft Punk like Gollum loves the One Ring. This post, however, is not just a window into my worship of our robot DJ gods: It’s also a kickass instructional guide on how to make both Daft Punk helmets. That photo above, by the way, is me.

A number of pictures and articles can be found online about DIY Daft Punk suits, but the vast majority lack technical detail, or end up looking like a deformed baseball helmet. The few sculptors that have made perfect replicas spent thousands of dollars, and use expensive prop-making tools that the majority of us don’t have. That said, I absolutely love their work, but this post is about getting 90% of the way there at 10% of the cost and time.

I made both Daft Punk helmets back in 2007, with no prior knowledge of the tools required. This article will shed some light on that process, and show you how to make your own kickass helmets. I wouldn’t describe this process as ‘easy’, but it’s totally doable and fun as hell!

Tools Required

Everything you can imagine.

Seriously, I needed a lot of things. Screwdrivers, hammers, saws, shears, torches, heat guns, a million other things, and sandpaper. Ohhh, the sandpaper. Each step requires its own materials, so expect a lot of trips to the hardware store. At the very least, you’ll need a garage to work in. A workshop would be amazing, but I did it in my friend’s garage.

Time Required

3 weeks—3 months (It’s up to you)

You could blast through this in a couple weeks if you don’t have a job or school. Unfortunately, most of us only have nights and weekends, so this project will require some insane dedication. I did over the course of many weekends in 2007, and a few more in 2008 when I made an updated helmet. Fortunately the payoff is walking around like Daft Punk, so it is worth it. If you’re in rush to make a Daft Punk Halloween costume, you can never start too early.

1. Planning & Drawing

Daft Punk Helmets: Planning and Drawing

Before anything is built, you’ll need to know what you’re building. Ultimately you’ll end up with helmets that you can wear, but there are plenty of other devices to be built along the way.

You’ll be building the following items: a wire cutter (unless you have one), a styrofoam helmet mold, a bondo helmet mold, a vacuum-form machine (unless you have one), and the final helmets.

The first major piece will be the first mold. And if its going to fit on your head, you better figure out how big your head is. I built both helmets with my friend Brandon, so we took turns taking pictures of each others’ heads. Basically a side-view of your skull that you can drop into Photoshop. Then we displayed side-views of Daft Punk’s helmets on top of our heads, and positioned them to make sure they fit.

Also, laying down and having your friend trace your head is a fun and wonderful way to make sure you get a 100% accurate size of your noggin. Spend a lot of time drawing your head and a general helmet over it to make sure your final helmet will actually fit.

2. Hot Wire Cutter

The first mold will be made of Styrofoam, and you’ll need a hot wire cutter to shape it. Large versions are often used by sculptors and architects to make models. Essentially it’s a long, hot piece of wire that melts the foam as you push it against the wire. You can buy a fancy one online, or be quick and dirty and build your own. We built our own. When I say ‘we’ I’m referring to my friend Brandon who built the helmets with me.

Wire Cutter Construction:

Daft Punk Wire Cutter

These are less complicated than they sound. We built a simple platform and arm out of wood. A sheet of plywood with a hole drilled in the middle served as the base. Some 2x4s and 2x2s are used, but anything will do. The wire is a guitar string. You’ll want a string with medium thickness, as the thin ones will break, and the thick ones are too hard to maneuver. You’ll basically tie the string around a screw or post at either end and keep it very tight. Buy a handful of strings, they will break.

How does the guitar string heat up? Well, you’ll need a transformer: 25 volt / 2 amps works, but so do plenty of others. Ideally you’ll want one with a knob or switch, so you can control the current. The electrical current will be applied directly to both ends of the guitar string usually by wires with alligator clips at the end. Turn on the transformer, and it will create a circuit. Guitar strings, however, aren’t good conductors. Unlike copper wire, steel wire will heat up significantly when electricity is applied. It’ll glow red hot.

There are million instructions on how to make a hot wire cutter, so use these as references: Making Foam Tools, and Building a Hot Wire Foam Cutter. There’s plenty on Google

3. Styrofoam Cubes

You’ll need to shape your mold out of at least a 12×12″ foam cube. I’d suggest 14×14″ or even bigger, just to give you some wiggle room. Where exactly do you pick up giant cubes of foam? You don’t. This is a specialty item, and we didn’t want to wait for an online shipment. So we made our own cube.

Styrofoam cube construction:

Styrofoam Cube Construction

Buy a large sheet of thick foam from Lowe’s or Home Depot. These are generally used as insulation in walls, and come in six foot sheets, twelve foot sheets, etc. You’ll want to ask the staff to saw them in half – at least – so you’ll fit them in your car. Ultimately you’ll need to make roughly 12x12x~2″ (or 14x16x~2″) squares out of this, but it’s best to buy the foam in as large of sheets as possible.

Use your wire cutter to cut squares of equal size. Depending on thickness, you may need anywhere from eight to fifteen squares to stack up a full cube. We used spray adhesive to join the squares together. Spray, then stack, then wait. Continue the process until you have cubes large enough to sculpt a helmet from. Adding significant weight on top of your foam cubes ensures a good bond.

4. Foam Mold Construction

Foam Mold Construction

Brandon at our messy foam workstation, circa 2007.

This is where your hard work ends, and your harder work begins. Sculpting the first mold is both artistically and technically challenging, so expect to spend a lot of time getting this perfect.

You’ll need the drawings of your head and the helmet for the foam cube. We started by drawing a side-view of the helmet, a front-view, and a top-view onto our cubes. If you’ve ever taken a drafting class, this will be familiar. The side-view is a profile, the front-view looks like the face of the helmet, and the top-view will essentially be an oval.

We looked at tons of photos. Do a Google image searches for Daft Punk and save every single angle you can find. Some great resources: Hedi Slimane, Google image searches for “Electroma”, and searches for “Daft Punk Helmets”.

Now you need to carve your three views with the hot wire cutter. Obviously if you carve one view entirely, and rip off the excess foam, then your other two drawings will be gone. My approach was to carve 3/4 of a view, then stop, go back, and do 3/4 of the next view, and so on.  That way less pieces fall off, and you can use your drawings as a guide for a bit longer.  Keep in mind, that very quickly, most of your drawing will be laying in bits on the floor. The views on each side of the cube are helpful, but you’ll have a lot of artistic license.

Important note: Go very slowly with the hot wire cutter.  Moving too fast cause the string to bend into a bow shape, which means the center of the string is lagging behind the top. This can cause awkward waves resulting in the top looking fine, but the bottom being extremely warped.  You are cutting through a lot of foam, so give yourself a bit of excess space. The exact helmet shape will be sanded, the wire cutting is just for a big, rough outline.

Foam Mold Sanding

2007 – Left: Brandon working on the Guy helmet. Right: Me working on the Bangalter Helmet. Oh the hair.

Sand. Sand. Sand.

After wire cutting your cube, you’ll have an amorphous Daft Punk-esque blob. It will takes hours upon hours, even days upon days of sanding to make a perfect model.

Start by carving with knives and razors. This is great for cutting off big unnecessary chunks. For both helmets, I suggest cutting off the ears. On Thomas Bangalter’s (silver) helmet the ears are concentric circles, and on Guy-Manuel’s (gold) helmet they’re large ‘U’ shapes with protruding circles. These are much easier to make separately and attach later.

To sand the mold down, we needed sanding blocks.  Using paper with your hand alone gets aggravating really quickly. The blocks will save your fingertips and your sanity, all while producing a cleaner, more accurate surface.

Thomas Bangalter’s silver helmet will hereby be known as “Bangalter”, while Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo’s gold helmet will be known as “Guy”, alright?

Bangalter’s helmet has a large visor on the front, so sanding in large horizontal motions works really well. Guy’s helmet is almost entirely a large dome, so moving in sweeping large circles repeatedly is a great way to achieve a smooth surface. Bangalter’s helmet has a lot of hard edges and ridges in the face, so I used the edge of the sanding block pretty often to get all of the tight corners.

Sanding the foam will produce a lot of dust, so be careful. Sweep dust away, work outside, or use a mask to prevent breathing the dust in. Clearing dust away also helps you get a clearer look at the overall shape.

You’ll want to start with high grit sandpaper: 80-100 grit. Get the general shape outlined, then move on to 200 grit, 400 grit, etc. Get as absolutely precise as you can, but there are a lot more layers added later.

Helmet Ears

Use the hot wire cutter to carve the shapes of the ears. Then sand them as accurately as possible, using photos as a guide.  These can be attached with spray adhesive or bondo.

5. Bondo. Lots of Bondo.

Daft Punk Foam and Bondo Helmet Molds

As you can see, a lot of time spent sanding leads to some pretty kickass results. Constantly monitor your source photos. Pay attention to all the details, and you’ll have a pretty stunning foam helmet. Unfortunately foam is just the base. You’ll need a mold that’s as hard as concrete if you want it to withstand the casting later on, which means you’ll need Bondo.

Bondo is a polyester resin normally used for auto body repair. More accurately, its a stinky, toxic silly putty that turns hard as rock in a matter of hours. Let me reiterate that: Bondo gets very hard, very fast. That’s what she said. Sanding the foam helmet is easy, sanding the Bondo helmet is a bitch. Get as accurate as you can with the foam model, but realize you’ll be spending a lot more time on the hardened Bondo than you’d expect.

You can buy Bondo from any large hardware store. It consists of a grey putty, and a red hardener. Mix the two together and you’ll have thick, viscous brown butter that can be applied to your foam helmet. We used disposable plastic cups and knives to mix and apply our Bondo. Bondo can set in as little as fifteen minutes so you’ll go through a lot of cups and knives.  Don’t use the Bondo on any expensive tools unless you want to throw those tools away later.

Spread the Bondo carefully, thickly, and evenly. I can’t stress being careful enough. What may seem like a little wet drip on some corner of the helmet could turn into 45 minutes of sanding a few hours later. The smoother your wet Bondo is, the easier it is to sand. Start sanding as soon as it feels dry to the touch. Bondo gets progressively hard over a few hours, so the sooner you start the easier it will be on your arms.

Daft Punk Helmets With Bondo

Crappy 2007 cellphone photos – Left: Brandon Bondo-ing Guy’s helmet. Right: Me Bondo-ing Bangalter’s helmet.

Keep applying Bondo. Every nook, every cranny. The foam is really just a platform for an indestructible rock-like mold. Make sure the Bondo layer isn’t too thin. Thin areas will lead to cracks, which would wreck the mold.

Bondo Daft Punk Helmets

Both helmets after having received round one of Bondo and a good sanding.

Sanding the Bondo layer is rough. Any bumps or divets can be painful to get rid of. Sanding can take days. Above you can see green lines on Guy’s helmet. This was to indicate where we had not added enough Bondo. When we sanded it broke through back to the foam, where the spray adhesive ridges are. It is very very important to cover these up completely. We attempted a plastic cast later on, and these ridges – although almost invisible – were greatly amplified. That cast had to be thrown away.

Keep mixing more Bondo, and keep applying it to any thin areas, and especially areas with divets or holes. You can always sand a bump down, but a divet is impossible to fix without filling it in. Using the sanding block on both Bangalter and Guy’s helmets at this stage is essential. Bondo is too hard to sand by hand, plus the sanding blocks will give a smoother finish.

Bondo Daft Punk Helmets on the Grass

Close up of the round one Bondo coating.

6. Even More Bondo

Rob's Bangalter Helmet and Brandon's Guy Helmet

2007 – Left: Holding my Daft Punk baby. Right: Brandon holding his Daft Punk baby.

The first hard layer of the molds is pretty rough (somewhere between concrete and sandstone). While definitely durable, all of the little scratches and ridges would totally wreck the plastic cast. This is where the final layer comes in: Sealer.

What goes on top of the Bondo is type of sealant. In our case it was a lot like the Bondo hardener, a red putty that would spread and harden. The difference is that its harder, thus it can be sanded with a much finer grit. We’re talking 400 grit up to 1000 just be safe. This sealer was used specifically to cover scratches, fill gaps, and cover divets.

Same process: Cover the mold, and sand it for hours. The sanding block and hand sanding are beneficial at this point. Keep in mind that this is the final mold – any scratches at all will be present in the final helmet – so details are really important.  The ears are probably the most problematic section. You don’t want the ears to appear goopy or uneven, so a lot of time should be spent thickening and perfecting the sharp ear shapes on both models.

Have patience. Sanding the sealer goes slowly, but it’s extremely important. Get both molds perfect, as you absolutely will not want to come back to sanding after you start casting.

Finished Bondo Molds - Daft Punk Helmets

Almost finished molds.

You may or may not notice some discolorations in your mold. This is due to sanding through the sealer and into the original Bondo. This isn’t that bad, but can make for an awkward look. We did whatever we had to do to get a smooth finish, so this meant sanding through sealer until everything was even.

7. Vacuum-Form Machine

If you’re really lucky – and I mean really lucky – you already have access to a professional vacuum forming machine. Professional prop makers have them, so do fabrication companies, and the Mythbusters. That’s about it, so you’ll probably have to make your own. Fortunately that’s what I did: Here’s how to do it.

A vacuum formed cast requires two things: Heat and suction. The heat is applied to a large sheet of plastic which causes it to sag. The suction is applied below the plastic, which is sucked tightly around the mold. The plastic quickly cools and you have a perfect plastic copy of your mold. This actually would allow you to make dozens of Daft Punk helmets if you wished. We probably made a dozen, but only two or three that ever turned out awesome enough to keep.

The machine consists of two main parts:  A vacuum / suction table, and a frame for the plastic.  The vacuum table is essentially a large box – attached to a shop vac – with holes drilled on the top to allow air through. The frame is not unlike a picture frame, wrapping around the edges of the plastic to hold it in place as it sags.

Vacuum Form Machine

Our vacuum table was essentially 4 2x4s with plywood on either side. Every corner is sealed with a hot glue gun, to ensure good suction (that’s what she said). There is a large 1″ hole on top to mount a pole that the mold can rest on, and a ~1″ hold to plug the shop vac tube into. You absolutely need to have the mold floating a bit above the surface, as seen here, otherwise the plastic can’t get sucked around the edges. You can mount the mold on a pole by drilling a large hole into the bottom of the Styrofoam.

That baby powder is also a tool. Sprinkling baby powder (talcum powder) on the mold will help prevent the cast from sticking and give you a better release when you’re finished (that’s what she said).

Unfortunately, I never knew I’d write a blog post about this work three years after I did it, so I don’t have any pictures of the plastic frame. But it’s dead simple. You need to take a measurement of your oven because its where you’ll heat up the plastic. Find the largest size frame you could fit into your oven: That’s the size you’ll make your frame and your vacuum table.

Let’s say the size is 18×24″ (could be larger or smaller). You’ll need to cut plastic sheets (more on that in a second) at 18×24″ with a frame and table that are 18×24″. It’s okay if the table is larger, but the frame needs to be the same size or smaller so you can press it against the table to form a seal.

The frame we built was a large 1″ wide rectangle. One on top of the plastic sheet and one below. These were screwed together through the plastic to discourage slippage. This means every cast required screwing and unscrewing – which wasn’t ideal – but we had limited options.

10. The Plastic Helmet

Now it’s helmet making time. Everything else is a prelude to this step.

The plastic we used was Polyethylene Terepthalate Glycol. Also known as Pet-G. It’s awesome plastic for thermoforming, which is what a vacuum form machine does. This plastic starts sag (melt) at a relatively low temperature, and hardens pretty strong. Additionally, there are transparent versions of Pet-G, which is necessary becuase we’ll need to see out of these Daft Punk helmets. Yay Polyethylene Terepthalate Glycol Halloween costumes!

You can find the exact .060″ thick 24×48″ sheets we purchased here: US Plastics – .060″ Pet-G

I cut these 24×48″ sheets into three 16×24″ pieces each. You’ll make a lot of mistakes with your first casts so its important to buy several sheets, enough for a dozen casts.

Mount a sheet in a frame, and pre-heat the oven. If you’re not comfortable using your own oven – as this releases a bit of toxic fumes – use somebody else’s oven! They’ll never know. Like I said earlier, make sure your frame and sheets are sized to fit exactly into whatever oven you’re using (with perhaps 1/2″ wiggle room so you don’t get stuck, that’s what she said).

An ideal temperature for this plastic was around 275 degrees Fahrenheit, but you may want to play with that. Place the frame with the plastic inside the heated oven. Now watch carefully for 3-6 minutes, you’ll need an oven with a window to monitor the sag. The ‘sag’ is how much the middle of your plastic sheet droops. The hotter and weaker the plastic sheet gets, the more its pulled down by gravity.  There is a minimum sag needed, a few inches, in order properly wrap the hot plastic around the whole helmet. There is also a maximum sag, a point where the plastic becomes so weak that it falls to the oven floor.  I suggest lining the bottom of your oven with tin foil to prevent major damage.

Get your plastic sheet to an optimum weakness / sag (perhaps 6″). Ideally you’ll have partner ready with the vacuum table.  Your mold should be mounted on the table, with a bit of baby powder. The shop vac should be plugged in and turned on. It’ll be really loud, but this only takes a few seconds.

For both helmets, you’ll need to cast twice. One for the front, and one for the back. The entire helmet cannot be removed from the mold in one piece.  Try angling the helmet on the table specifically for a front cast or a back cast.  The real Thomas Bangalter seems to be two pieces as well, so this necessary and accurate. The Guy helmet can be split in front of or behind the ears.

Pull the hot plastic out of the oven with oven mitts. Immediately, and I mean immediately place the frame over the vacuum table with the vacuum table already on.  Press down on all edges to ensure a tight seal and watch as the hot plastic wraps tightly around the mold.  After 30 seconds it should be safe to turn off the vacuum.

There are dozens of websites online that teach the details of vacuum forming. These should help: Vacuumforming Plastic, and Make a Good, Cheap Vacuum Former.

Vacuum forming is hard.  If the plastic is not hot enough, it wont pull tightly. If it’s too hot it will rip. Trial and error is the best way to learn, so buy lots of plastic.

11. Removing the Plastic

By now you have a sexy plastic helmet wrapped around your mold. Unfortunately you now have a large, hard plastic bowl wrapped around a dome. It may seem impossible to get off. There is a solution, and that solution is exacto-knives and strength.

Cut very cleanly with an exacto-knife, around the edges of the helmet.  You should have a lot of excess plastic, so cut right down to the bare minimum of what the helmet needs. Be extremely careful not to press the knife down into the mold itself, you don’t want to start sanding again!

Plastic Daft Punk Helmet Cast

Clear plastic cast of the Bangalter helmet. Still dusty with baby powder.

This is another process with a lot of trial and error. For the Bangalter helmet you’ll be making a clean cut across the very top of the helmet. Look at reference photos for the exact location.  Be sure sure to include 1/2—1″ of overlap so the pieces can be joined together later.

Bangalter Helmet Plastic Pieces

Front and back pieces of the Bangalter helmet.

12. Painting & Other Bits

Almost there. After all of the effort you’ve put in you could choose to have your plastic helmet chromed by professionals. There are companies that specialize in giving metallic mirror finishes to plastic. Due to time, budget, and logistical constraints it may make far more sense to simply paint the helmets. We chose to paint both of our helmets.

Before you open up your spray-paint, the halves have to be joined. The most durable solution is fiberglass. This is a relatively simple procedure and all of the materials can be bought at almost any hardware store.  You’ll need sheets of fiberglass, the actual fiberglass resin, and chip brushes. Chip brushes are crappy paint brushes that cost a few cents and are great for fiberglass because they can be thrown away. Fiberglass will wreck almost anything it touches if you let it dry. So you’ll want to use it only on the inside helmet seam and the chip brushes.

The Banglater helmet was joined by a couple of 12″ long strips of fiberglass running along the inside seam. You may want to hold the halves in place with scotch tape on the outside prior to applying the fiberglass.  Unlike Bondo, fiberglass is very slippery and unstable before it is dry.  Make sure you lock the halves in place, placing the back half of the helmet inside and under the front half.  A small amount of overlap is necessary for strength.

You’ll apply the resin on top of the fiberglass strip – making sure to fully soak the fabric – and make contact with the plastic.  After it dries you’ll have a rock solid helmet.

Painting:

Guy Manuel Helmet Painted

The Guy helmet painted gold.

Metallic spray-paint is the obvious choice for both helmets. The first step is to mask the visors. This is a simple process for the Bangalter helmet. A few strips of masking tape cut to a point with an exacto knife.  The Guy Helmet will require a bit more tape, and covering the front with newspaper should speed up the process. No paint should get on the visor, obviously.

Mount the helmet on a pole or anything to get it off of the floor. Chrome spray-paint was used on the Bangalter helmet, metallic gold on the Guy helmet. Do several very thin coats.  Thick coats will drip, and Daft Punk is not drippy.

A note about the chrome spray-paint. It sounds magical, but unfortunately, it’s at its best in very thin coats on surfaces that aren’t to be handled much. I made two separate Bangalter helmets, and even after allowing the paint to dry for days I still got really nasty fingerprints in the paint after trying the helmet on. It’s possible that chrome paint takes a very long time to settle.  Metallic silver might be more forgiving, but a bit less shiny.  The metallic gold on the Guy helmet has no fingerprint issues, but isn’t quite as reflective.

Try buying a few different paints and experimenting with some test plastic.  Nothing saves time and headache like a test.

Visors:

Arguably the sexiest and most important feature of the helmets are the visors.  Guy’s black dome and Bangalter’s dark stripe visor. We tinted both visors in different ways with different results.  The Bangalter helmet uses window-tinting film, found at any auto store.  Normally this is applied on the inside of your back windshield but I used it on the inside of the visor. Its incredibly clear but a nightmare to put on.  Additionally – if you aren’t extremely careful – you’ll create small bubble that can’t be gotten rid of.  My helmet to this day still has small bubbles in the visor. Be very careful with the window film.

A more elegant solution is used on the Guy helmet: Brake-light tint spray. This is a spray that’s used on car brake-lights to make them appear black when they’re off but still allow the light through when the brake-lights turn on. A generous coating on the inside of the dome makes the Guy helmet perfectly black; no bubbles or defects whatsoever. But there is a major downside: Blurriness. Brake-light spray isn’t made for windows or clarity, it’s just for light to pass through. The Guy helmet’s visor is dark, but quite blurry and a bit of a nightmare to wear indoors. The Bangalter visor is a bit messy in bright light due to the bubbles but still gives clear sight.

All that said, both will suffer from the breathing problem. When you wear a plastic dome around your head – in an all leather suit – you’re going to get hot. A hot head with warm breath means your visor will fog up. The actual Daft Punk helmets have fans to cool the guys down. I haven’t installed fans (and don’t intend to) but it may work. Another solution I’ve thought of, but haven’t installed is small mask inside the helmet.  A painter’s mask with a tube directed downward might direct the wearer’s breath outside.

Other Bits:

On the inside of the helmets it’s necessary to add padding.  Weather stripping from a hardware store is a great solution. Its essentially foam strips that are sticky on one side. Padding the sides of each helmet, as well as the back and mouth areas, ensure that the helmet keeps a tight fit.

The Bangalter helmet has a mouth strip and nose strips that have been cut out with an exacto knife. The real Thomas Bangalter helmet does in fact have several nose slits under the visor, they’re just hard to see. This is pretty much essential if you like breathing when you wear the helmet.

The Guy helmet has rows of wires on the back, and microchips on the ears.  Any old motherboard or remote control can be chopped up for the ears and glued in. The wires can be purchased from a hardware store, and glued in as well. Try getting alternating colors like white, red, green, blue, black, etc.

The Completed Daft Punk Suits Suits

Leather jackets can be bought at any large department store. Leather pants can be found online. Leather boots and leather gloves are easy to find. Go to an outdoor goods store, and you’ll find masks for skiers that project the head and neck. Wearing this black skier mask under the helmet gives you the complete look, and works way better than a turtleneck. Note that awesome leather pants might take a while to find (searching for “motorcycle pants” seems to yield decent results eventually).

So, without further adieu, Brandon wearing Guy-Manuel’s helmet:

Completed Guy Manuel Daft Punk Helmet

And myself wearing Thomas Bangalter’s helmet:

Robot Suit Rock: How to Make Both Daft Punk Helmets

Daft Punk Helmet in City

Completed Thomas Bangalter Daft Punk Helmet

Rob Loukotka in Daft Punk Helmet

Daft Punk Helmet in Chicago

Also check out:

Daft Punk: Final! – Volpin Props

Cosplay.com

Awesome Daft Punk Inspiration – Abduzeedo

Shoot Sucka – Brandon’s DJ Blog

Any thoughts about these Daft Punk helmets? Drop me a line in the comments!

Just Say No: How to Turn Down New Projects

Just Say No: How to Turn Down New Projects

We’re Project Gluttons

As creatives, we’re always hungry for new ideas, new challenges, and new opportunities. Whether you’re a full-time designer at an agency, an established creative director, or a freelance web developer, your ears perk up when there’s an opportunity to make something new. Not unlike wild beasts, designers learn from their hungry times to pounce on new opportunities when they arrive. But like any glutton, gorging ourselves on delicious ‘new project’ meat can often cause more harm than good.

Time constraints, budgets, creative burnout, and other responsibilities are often reasons for not pursuing new work. Usually, however, new opportunities approach us. Whether it’s a phone call, an e-mail, or a meeting, sometimes you have to tell a potential client: “No.” Even a moderately successful business or freelancer will have to turn down many more projects than they accept, there are only so many hours in a day.

Saying No is Hard

That said, we’re in a service business so “No” just doesn’t cut it. Most people that approach me are really friendly, cool people just looking for design help, so it can be a huge pain to say: “Sorry, you’ll have to look elsewhere.”

Even worse are situations where current clients ask for work that you simply can’t do. It could be outside of the current project’s scope, it could be rushed timing, it could be ethically questionable, or just something you hate doing (MySpace designs, anyone?). Since you already have a good relationship with your client, it can be very difficult to jeopardize that relationship by saying “No” to something they really want you to do.

Saying Yes Might Kill You

Abundant opportunities, and our disposition towards rejecting them, usually lead to insane hours and headaches. As a freelancer, I once took on so much work that I was routinely working 16 hour days, and this eventually led to my first migraine. I went blind a little, for real. Turns out barely sleeping – and programming all the time – is what doctors call ‘stress’.

When approached with a new project (however awesome), think about the emotional, physical, or mental stress it may cause. If it’s more harm than good, then a solid “No” is in order. But how do we do that?

Tips to Help You Not Do Stuff

1. Be Honest. This is true for most things in life, but especially in cases where you need to list plausible excuses. Don’t get caught up in lying about why you can’t do something – it’s much easier to remember the truth – and any good potential client will respect you for that.  Is the budget too low? Explain why. Is it creatively uninteresting? Say that you’re focusing on specific project types like album covers, posters, and logos. Say you’re not looking to add [insert boring spreadsheet project here] to your portfolio at this time.

2. Be Nice. If you have to say no, and you have to be brutally honest, then at least be nice and comforting about the ordeal. Some people may be super excited about their project, and don’t want to feel that you believe it’s not interesting. It may actually be a totally awesome idea, so let them know that! A few compliments go a long way in taking the edge off of a rejection (unless that rejection comes after proposing to your girlfriend).

3. Be Firm. You’ve been honest, you’ve been nice, but sometimes that doesn’t seal the deal. It may lead to a compromise proposal: “Well how about we throw in $100 more?” or “What if we promise to put a link to your website on our corporate bumper sticker?” If that fixes it, then you’ve got yourself a new project! Usually though, it just means you have reinforce what you said earlier. Often this is stage where a no can cave into a yes, but if a project isn’t the right fit – or would hurt you financially – you have to be firm. Some examples to throw in: “As I discussed earlier, I simply don’t have enough time available to work on any additional projects this week/month/season.” or “I’m truly sorry, but again, I’m only actively working on 80’s hair band album covers at this time.”

4. Be Smart. Think about your decision long before you give your answer. If you’re flaky, you’ll tend to err on the side of “Yes”. If you think taking the project might severely hurt your current clients’ timelines, or might cost you thousands of dollars, or might cause you temporary blindness, weigh that against the benefits of actually doing the project. I have never ever regretted saying no to an opportunity, but I have definitely regretted saying yes. There’s always more fish in the sea, but there’s nothing worse than a big annoying fish that makes you design PowerPoint presentations. If you’ve put a lot of thought into your decision, you will be more likely to stay sane and firm in your rejection.

5. Pass the Buck. In very sticky situations, being honest, nice, firm, and smart still won’t help you. The potential project could be from a very close friend or family member, it could be from co-worker down the hall, or it could be for a good cause that would make you feel bad for not doing it (unfortunately you may feel even worse if you did do it). If you work at small company like me, you can always blame your partner, boss, etc. Note that I think this is somewhat disingenuous, and should be used as a last resort. Freelancers, you can often cite deadlines imposed by other clients as legitimate reason that seems out of your control. Again I don’t think this is a great option, but if circumstances are out of your control, then that would be a good thing to remind your brother/girlfriend/dog-sitter/client of.

6. Be Selfish. In an effort for these tips to get progressively less professional and nice, I’ll leave you with selfishness. No matter if you’re an illustrator, a typographer, or a developer, you’re probably in your profession because you love it. If you have a passion for your work, and a potential project just isn’t lighting that fire, then say no. You’re talented, but that doesn’t mean you owe everyone favors. If you don’t want to do something, then don’t. Even one bad project can cause loads of stress that can ruin creativity across the board. I know that personally, I need to be in a pretty good mood to come up with great ideas. If a project will hurt your heart, your mind, or your wallet, you’re always justified in (politely) saying no.

Can’t tell if you should be saying no or yes to a project? Be sure to read my 8 Ways To Get Shitty Clients article.

Remember, be nice, be honest, but it’s important to stick to your guns.

Or check these articles out for additional advice:

Just Say No to Clients – Think Vitamin

Learning To Say “No” Nicely — How to Keep From Burning Bridges – Freelance Folder

How To Say No To Spec Work Requests – Grace Smith

Why the NO SPEC Movement Isn’t Working. And, Why That’s so Awesome! – Greyscale Gorilla

Hiring a designer: a client’s perspective – David Airey

Have any ‘No’ stories you’d like to share? Drop your tips / thoughts / comments below!