When a Creative Project Goes Bad: Managing Client Expectations

When a Creative Project Goes Bad: Managing Client Expectations

Artists love to create work. But sometimes we catch ourselves in a project that suddenly was not what we thought it was! This posting is about that project that suddenly goes bad. While sometimes this is unavoidable, here are some of my insights and tips I can offer from being in this position a few times before.

Say No

Learning to say no seems easy. It’s a two-letter word and it’s often the first defense in stopping these nightmare projects. But saying the words no is oftentimes a lot harder than it seems. Setting personal boundaries can be difficult especially when someone hears your boundaries and requests but doesn’t listen or respect them. This is the not-so-fun part about being an artist and running your own sole proprietorship. You are the boss of your art business, so some days you have to put your foot down and say no. Emerging artists will have the hardest time with this. It is a skill that takes time and practice.

Set Boundaries

The best way to avoid monster nightmare projects is trying to communicate the scope of the project from the start. Sometimes the commissioner is unclear about what they want, or sometimes they expect a lot more than what you can offer them. Knowing your work habits and limits as a creator is helpful. I also recommend having a few creative colleagues you can pass along a client to who could be served better elsewhere.

Story: I once had someone ask if I could make them a business card. They asked for something professional, whimsical, and similar to the business card I already had. But what she really wanted was for me to make a custom painting and stick the photograph of the work on a business card which would also be the logo to her business. So, this simple business card project became a lot larger than I could comfortably handle. I had agreed to a business card but I had not agreed to making paintings or licensing my designs for logo usage. A few weeks later, after I had procrastinated and avoided this project as much as possible, I decided to email my commissioner to say that this project was out of my scope of capabilities. I tried to ease this news by passing on an email address for a graphic and logo designer who would gladly take the project from me. My commissioner did not take this well and decided to try to guilt-trip me into completing the project by offering more time, and money upfront. Saying no also caused them to explain that they had connections to the art and graphics world and that without their commission I would essentially not break into my career as a professional.

During disagreements like this, maintain composure and professionalism. Repeat your boundaries and limits if they are not listening. It is okay to be firm and explain your frustration when things are not going so smoothly. Do not yell or become threatening. Expect them to be angry if you started but do not complete the project. However, offer what you can as far as resolving the issue whether or not this means changing the direction or scope of the project, or killing it altogether. If you created a contract then rely on that contract to figure out how to end it.

Payment in Exposure (PIE)

It’s fine to do a few PIE projects to get your career launched, but not when it strips you of all rights and ownership to your art. Never pass on your copyright or license to any artwork or art image for free or without an agreed-upon contract. And think twice before making work for hire. Always maintain control of your work and the use of your image. If you allow people to use your images and artwork, make sure they know what they can and cannot use the image for.

Story: I’ve had a project where the scope of the project greatly exceeded the limits of what I could offer to do and make….and this commissioner wanted everything for free! After many negotiations and possibilities for small licensing fees to use the image in a fair manner, this project headed south fast! My commissioner thought they were doing me a favor by offering PIE (or Payment In Exposure). I was willing to offer the use of my image for free to a certain extent, but my commissioner did not agree with the limitations I had set. This project quickly ended.


Protect yourself beforehand by creating contracts. Having your project in writing is crucial even when working with close colleagues, friends, other artists, or other people you may or may not know. If you present someone with a contract and they do not agree to your terms, amend it until you agree, or kill the project before it becomes a monster. A contract will allow you to maintain rights to your work and outline the terms, agreements, and responsibilities required of both parties involved.

When a project heads south fast, having a contract with a kill Fee can save your bum! Kill fees are often stated in contracts to provide you (the artist) with compensation for the time and money spent on a project when you or the commissioner decide to end the project. For artists who rely on projects and commissions for income, this is a must. Usually, the kill fee is a percentage of the actual cost of the project initially agreed upon before the start of the project. It can be as little as 30-50% or be the entire cost of the project. Be upfront with your contract and kill fee before you and your commissioner sign a contract and start a project.

Every artist will experience a project similar to one of the ones I mentioned above at some point in their career. While they may not be completely avoidable, know what your boundaries are ahead of time, pre-write basic contracts and project terms, and practice saying no. I read somewhere that you should practice saying no at least once per day. It can be simple as saying no to a small request, deciding to not check your email for a day to take some personal time, or passing along a commission to someone else who would better align with the project. Saying no is not always negative. Saying to no to one option means you are saying yes to another opportunity. Focus on what you are gaining by saying no to certain projects, focuses, and decisions.

2 thoughts on “When a Creative Project Goes Bad: Managing Client Expectations”

  • Sound advice, especially about working with friends. I worked with a friend/designer for some business cards, agreed on an hourly rate, but he did not remember I said I had a maximum rate I could handle. His invoice was double what we agreed upon. I could not pay and it seemed to effect things between us since then.

    I disagree about doing work for free, even when you are getting started, unless it is a project you would volunteer for anyways. A non-profit, for instance, pays for things just like everyone else–They buy paper, pay the light bill, rent their office space, etc., yet many seem to think that expenses for creative work should be donated to them. Don’t do it, people! It continues the belief that creative work has little value.

  • Thanks for the comments Mike! I agree also! Only agree to do ”free work” that you would volunteer for. This could include working with other artists on collaborative projects, volunteering at museums, sitting in on gallery hours, or perhaps an unpaid internship. I worked at both the Katherine E. Nash gallery and Altered Esthetics for unpaid internships. Through these two opportunities, I was able to handle the Wiseman’s permanent collection, learn how to write grants, and create and direct the Solo Exhibitions Program…. Essentially, what you do for free should pay you in other aspects (skills, networking, opportunities, relationships, etc.) rather than money. Your ”free work” should be resume building, and not a waste of time and materials.
    ….And support your local non-profits! Like Mike said, they have expenses too!

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