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!

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