episode 27: When Do You Say No to a Project?


It is easy to say “Yes” in most situations, it is polite and everyone likes to hear it. But, in the real world, it is sometimes better to say “No” to a project – for many reasons. Nolan, Sandy and Troy each have very different clients and business practices, but all agree that saying “No” is sometimes best for the client or business.  


Have you ever said no to a project request and what were the reasons?

  • Nolan: Sure, if it’s out of my skill set. For example, I make it very clear that I don’t do digital or web. I wouldn’t know where to begin with a digital project, so I focus on my area of expertise.
  • Sandy: Like Nolan, I’ve said no when I thought something was out of my skill set, or thought a colleague could take on the project better than myself. Another reason is  not possible. As example, recently I had to say no to an existing client because they requested 30 presentations that needed (just) a clean-up in a day – something I had to say no too.
  • Troy: In general “no” projects tend to be ones that are a new client that does not follow through a project deposit. Or, a request that has an impossible timeline, like Sandy’s example, where there is no way to meet all expectations. I will say that Lori, my business partner, is pretty good at spotting projects that need to be clarified, meaning, often you are contacted about a project and all seems good, but sometimes there’s that one thing you overlook, not realizing it’s a rabbit hole you’ll potentially fall down.


Have you ever said no to someone wanting to be your client?

  • Nolan: Aside from logistical issues, nothing I can really think of.
  • Troy: Yes, a few times. The one I am thinking of was a conflict of interest. Someone contacted us directly after we had completed a large design project for them through an agency. TLC will not bypass our client, and go direct to a new client. So in this case, we did end up not taking on the project, it was best for our company and our working relationships.
  • Sandy: I think it’s usually more mutual. After discussion of the client’s needs, I’ll either make an offer they CAN refuse or I’ll recommend someone else for the project.


What are some warning signs, or red flags, that made you think saying no was the best course of action?

  • Nolan: People who have overly lofty goals, not living in reality. I had a guy contact me, and his credentials were a DJ, rapper, marketer, designer, etc. and no solid project request. People that are worried about money from the start, or people who aggressively bash previous designers, both are red flags, but not necessarily a deal killer.
  • Sandy: Language, attitude and respect for design. As example a potential client started the conversation by telling me how late he was out the night before. He talked down to me the entire time and was very critical of my work (“well I could do that!”), and wanted to negotiate my rate. I sent him a Dear John email.
  • Troy: Hearing phrases like “Oh this is easy” or “This is really quick” when I know it is not really understood on the technical side to do accomplish the “easy” request.


What’s the weirdest job you turned down?

  • Sandy: Creating a presentation out of a man’s manifesto. It was something about the end of the world with references to Star Trek and Star Wars.
  • Nolan: Visual identity for a large marketing agency.
  • Troy: This is years ago, a request to develop a very large website project, which turned out to be for an adult industry company.


What were some painful jobs you turned down?

  • Nolan: Speaking in Hong Kong and Singapore. Not enough money to make it worthwhile.
  • Sandy: I think generally, any job became painful if I thought I could do the client a favor my squeezing it in before, during, after vacation or travel time.
  • Troy: We unfortunately have to say no to a lot of projects. Especially for showsite GFX support where we are the onsite presentation expert. These events are date driven, but even with a team of GFX ops here at TLC, we receive projects with overlapping dates and have to say no.


Any stories of saying yes, and later knowing you should have said no?

  • Sandy: No, not really. I think with many projects, I couldn’t wait to get done, but, all in all, the clients paid me and I learned something from the project. I’m overly conscientious and often ask myself in the middle of a project if “it’s worth it.” “It” being the headache.
  • Troy: We have been fortunate to have very few projects never be paid for. But one that I am still bitter about, and waiting for payment (this is from at least 4 years ago), is a print design project for a Los Angeles non-profit expo. We agreed to a greatly reduced fixed rate, then the project specs grew – that should have been when we said no to the project. We did not receive the project deposit – 2nd time we should have said no. And then content came in late, forcing us to hold off on full payment projects – another trigger we should have said no. In the end, the expo lost money, we were not paid and we learned a lesson about seeing so many times we should have said no.
  • Nolan: I’ve had few regrets like that because I think I’m good at seeing the red flags. But, a couple of years ago, I met with a client, and then nothing happened for months. They called again and asked for another meeting. It was a 5-minute meeting as they had nothing new to talk about – so my time was wasted and a red flag. We started with a 50% deposit and examples of decks they liked which were highly minimalist, we talked explicitly about the style they wanted. The first review, of slides that matched the styling we outlined, was “Well, I could have done that, it’s just a few lines on the slide.” So, then we went in the other direction of a more layered design look, at which point they said it was over-designed. Essentially, they only knew what they didn’t want (which was everything) rather than what they wanted. We parted ways fortunately and I broke even with 50% upfront.

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