Nightmare Clients: What to Do?

Not All Clients Are Nightmare Clients

Most of the time, the types of clients that I come across are upstanding, quality companies that are looking to grow and expand via my services. They want to get their name out that and stand out amongst their competitors. They contribute to the community and create good local jobs for my area and I feel great that I am able to work with them. You don’t always end up with nightmare clients, but when you do, it can be very frustrating.

The Real Nightmare Clients

Sometimes as a designer, however, we have have been approached by a client that we feel uneasy working with. Maybe they are a fighting entertainment company and you disagree with violence. Maybe there is a company that has approached you that showed a blatant disregard for the environment. Maybe they are a sexual product or movie company looking for web development and are seeking your services. These may not necessarily be nightmare clients, but they could be bad for your business’s reputation. How do you handle the situation? As in the latter case, who we design for directly reflects on us as designers. Do you take the job and leave that project out of your portfolio? I wouldn’t. Someone will eventually find out, or word will get around and more of those clients will approach you and the situation gets tougher to control. Do you send them out the door with a stern snap of the fingers? Or do you deal with them in a polite and cordial manner?


There are other clients that seem reputable, but once you deal with them, they try to bend the contract and your nerves to the point where you want to tear up your agreement. Other times there are nightmare clients that spend what seems like forever on the phone with you on a daily basis mulling over a seemingly simple project, beating the details into you over and over again. What do you do in these types of situations?

Tips For Working With Nightmare Clients

Be Honest

When you are approached by a potential client that makes you feel uncomfortable to work with, it is best to be honest. A good way of putting it is that you are not the designer with the skills set that they are looking for. I have also told some clients that I couldn’t possibly handle any more projects at this time, in order to send them elsewhere. None of that is a lie; I am usually busy with 3-4 decent sized projects at once.

The Money Isn’t Always Worth It

When you own your own business, you can choose who your clients are. Sometimes it hurts to let a good paying project go, but it is better to keep your reputation in tact, because that is a little harder to repair than your wallet. Also, when you take on certain projects and do a good job, you are more likely to see that client again, and they will tell their colleagues and you will get more clients just like them. Sometimes the agony of dealing with nightmare clients that constantly harass you, have no boundaries, and send you 7504308530 emails just isn’t worth it.

Always Get That Contract

A good idea for non-paying nightmare clients is to make sure you always have a solid contract, or working agreement. this gives you insurance that if they do not pay you, that you can take them to court for what they owe you. This is the not so fun side of owning your own business, but it happens. I also have a section in my contract that states that their payment is due no later than 30 days after the completion of the project. If they have any mid-project payments due, those due dates have to be met, or work of their project ceases until payment is received. You have to be sure to protect yourself financially, along with your reputation.

I want to hear about your nightmare clients and difficult situations. We have all had them. Sharing horror stories helps others and newer designers to watch out for some of these pitfalls.


  1. I could talk endlessly about bad clients, being a developer with many skills and a lot of experience. However, I realise that what I call “bad” may not be so bad – I’ve generally found sometimes that my personality has been incompatible with the work environment, which led to problems further down the line.
    Although it can be useful to “check my ego at the door”, sometimes a bad work environment is a bad work environment… and I can testify to the importance of looking at the kind of people one deals with, and how they run their businesses.

    One of the biggest problems I’ve had is being the hardest working person in almost any company I’ve worked for – people see that I’m good at what I do, and rather than reward me they give me more work. Unfortunately most clients I’ve worked under are focused on taking advantage of people, but claiming that the person being taken advantage of is at fault. Never again.

    I’ve since learned to be more objective in pricing my services, because of a nasty habit of under-selling myself. I’ve priced myself out of quite a few job offers recently, which is fine by me.
    If someone says that my quote is too high – bearing in mind they don’t know anything the work they’re hiring for – that tells me they’re not willing to pay for what they want.

  2. In the last 9 years of my profession as a web designer i have come across a client for whom i designed a website. The client harrased each of the mid project payment . Finally i uploaded the website and asked to payoff the balance amount. But he refused to pay, instead he wanted to have the Domain and server FTP details. I refused to hand over unless he paid off the balance money. He is harassing now and threatening to court.
    What should i do??

    • Your designs are yours and if he does not pay, take the site down. I would take it down until they pay and if they don’t like it, take THEM to court. You provided a service and they are not paying for it. You are not at fault. Do not give them any information and give them 7 days from now to complete their payment or they will be hearing from your lawyer. You can sue for non-payment, and to cover your legal expenses as well. Don’t take that lying down.

  3. Well,
    I think that article reflects a kind of atmosphere that we all, designer or solution provider, seem to be passing though.
    My experience is quiet similar, except that my client is also the manager of the project. The contract is not properly established because in my situation I’m an employee. And in this situation, the client/manager can easily put a huge pression over my shoulders. This hard period is not stressless, and if companies persist in a blind management, always focussed on productivity instead of human, projects will collapse, as workers… The right order is THIS one : workers collapse, then projects…
    Well Michael Stern, if I can put a stone on your project, I would be very interested in :)
    My experience is full of story that fits perfectly your book theme. Two days ago I was in the exact situation that you describe: my company was afraid of a sabotage, because as the unique developer of a solution, I haven’t been consulted first…
    I know people are smart enough to see behind the wall of fears, some people just close their eyes, it happens that someone stay eyes wide shut (or open), and the others prefer to look away :)

  4. Your article is timely as I’m just beginning to compile these exact stories to put into my second book. My first book, “Build A Better Photograph, A Disciplined Approach To Creativity” is the story of my career and in the environmental portrait chapter I recount the story of an assignment commissioned by Roy E. Disney and how an employee tried to sabotage the project because she was not “consulted” first.

    Perhaps we can work together on this new book? I’ll get in touch with you.

  5. Great article. I’ve turned down to very interested clients this week because of my uneasyness (if that’s a word)with the way they were conducting themselves.

    Vetting a client as throughly as possible is a high priority with my company.

    Big clients can lead to even bigger headaches. Having the freedom to pick and choose your clienets, for those of us who can, is a great option to have.

    S. Tyler Stapley
    CEO / Owner

  6. Love the article. Here’s my in-put for what its worth in no particular order:

    1. It’s the client’s money. – So many times I have to remind myself that the reason the agency is doing the work is because we’re being paid to do it. Countless rounds of revisions, concepts, layouts, mechanicals and research add up and can definitely beat you down when faced with meeting a deadline.

    2. Client expectations versus creative integrity. – If the client wants a yellow house with purple poka dots; give them the best house you can while tactfully pointing out the pros and cons of their decision. Some clients are just like that. They would argue with their dentist over which tooth to fill. All you can do is offer your best recommendations as well as provide what they ask for.

    3. Backup, Copy, Clarify and Document. For some problem clients, the best policy is to get everything in writing. Save and print emails, voice messages and use reflective listening techniques with witnesses to verify and protect yourself and your client when problems come up. But this should never be used as a weapon. Many times, the client doesn’t fully know what they’re asking for or approving. It’s paramount to clarify and document the client’s direction.

    4. Check your ego at the door. The client is entitled to their opinion of what works and what doesn’t. That opinion may or may not be deserved. Only you can define who and what you are. No one else can do that unless you let them.
    Be assertive in your creativity, not aggressive; there is a difference. One shows confidence; the other arrogance.

    Okay. Sermon’s over.

  7. Your best leverage is price. For jobs that are not morally reprehensible (which I would have no problem labelling as such, in person) a high price should politely show a prospect the door.
    I don’t have horror stories that I am willing to share, but I will share that the best way to deal with difficult jobs is to either price yourself out of them, or announce a change in policy.

  8. We’ve been producing films & tv for almost 20 years, we also have a part of our company that does print and other design work.

    I outline the 14 steps to engineering your brand in my book that hit Amazon’s Biz best sellers list: Brand.gineering. Here is one simple tips outlined in detail in the book in addition to what has been said here:

    Design and Build Your Ideal Customer – Probably the most important thing you can do. You want to be doing projects for that customer that contributes as much to your business as you do theirs. Don’t take just any business that walks in off the street. If you are attracting amazing outcomes to your business you want to be in the mindset of attracting mid-blowing customers.

    At first blush, turning away business seems counter-intuitive. But, if you are not designing your dream customer, you likely are also wondering aimlessly through other parts of your business and building your brand. Your business, customers and personal brand must be designed with great intention.

  9. I work under another business that wanted me to create a brochure for this client.

    I was shown sketches as to how the brochure is to be laid out and they told me they were looking for something: clean, green, and ‘spot’ (it went with her logo). I’ve created this mock up and at the time, the client loved it. We had to put the brochure on a hold for the client to have photographs and testimonials.

    After the wait, I’m back on the project and the client comes to me wanting to use an image of an empty room that is on her business cards and magnets.

    The problem is that the image was taken off the internet and has worse resolution, any designer can see this from the look of her cards.

    After politely asking if she owned the image, I tried suggestive persuading that I can’t take an image from someone that is subjected to copyright and I can not use an image with low resolution.

    She then persist that she received the image from the printing company who did her cards and magnets – they are the ones that found the image and asked her if she wanted to use it. She got them to send me the file of the image, which is still an awful blurry pixelated image, but they fixated the dpi to 12000 (cause that of course, helps).

    I’ve shown her how it looks with the background image that she wants and I shown her my complete design with her photos. The issue is that she still wants what she wants.

    I would have brought this up to my boss, but there seems to be something unsettling going on between him and the client to where the client only wanted to meet with me, not him.

    I hate the idea of ruining my reputation of using this low, resolution file, I do not enjoy working with her, and it’s to the point that I want to just give her what she wants so she can leave and not bother me again.

    The project is not yet finalize, so if you have any advice as to what I still can do, I would greatly appreciate it.

    • Shannon, honestly, I would just give the client what she wants at that point. If she asks for that and signs off on it, then it is out of your hands. One business card design isn’t going to ruin your profession. You work for a company, and just because you did this one project, doesn’t mean it has to go in your portfolio. When we work under another business, we sometimes have to do things that we don’t like. however, it doesn’t mean we have to advertise it. I would just do it how she asks and move on. Sometimes clients are overly persistent, no matter what you say, and there’s nothing you can do.


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