Spotting Red Flags in Design Clients

Your intuition is your best bet in helping you focus on glaring warning signs for your upcoming project with a new client.

Michael Ernst
The Startup
Published in
8 min readMar 5, 2020

A few weeks ago I turned down a six-figure salary after a few of my conversations with the founder exposed some red flags that became harder and harder for me to ignore the more we talked. Everything from the outset seemed to be working in my favor – it was a cannabis project (fun & cool), the team was really small (great to make my mark), and they had the ability to compensate me accordingly (woo hoo, money!). As the discussions went forward however, little things would surface that gave me pause and turn up my anxiety dial. Over the course of my career I’ve been around a lot of different types of early-stage founders, and I tend to pick up on certain nuances that give me the feeling that the project will not go well for me.

The concept of a red flag usually surfaces around the subject of dating as a strong indication that there is an insoluble problem with your potential mate. Turns out, matching up with a client is strikingly similar to dating in a lot of ways, but the red flags that crop up in these situations seem harder to target and eliminate. We seem less inclined to cut off a project because of a potential paycheck or insulting a new person in our network, but ignoring the red flags can lead designers down a bumpy path, putting the success of our project into question.

At this stage in my life, ownership is one of the most important factors determining whether or not I take a job. If I’m not leading the design vision and setting the tone for the company, it does little to utilize my past experience and I’m stuck while growth in my career stagnates. So while my intuition isn’t always 100% spot-on, I’ve come to recognize a few of the following indicators before signing a contract that will only lead to frustration.

Married to Ideas

A client or executive who’s married to their ideas tend to be the most difficult breed to suss out because most people tend to want to be agreeable and collaborative, especially in your first few interactions with them. In the beginning they’re selling you on their idea and they have to entice you as a designer to…