Or, how not to be a “Yes Man” by Nathan Smith

NOTE: This post is by the designer Nathan Smith. While his thoughts are aimed at his fellow designers, the points he makes are valid in any work situation. Hope you enjoy,



I want to start out by bringing to mind the classic Bill Murray comedy What About Bob. For those of you who have not seen it, this movie depicts a man on the edge, a paranoid schizophrenic who constantly badgers his therapist and even stalks him on vacation. None of us out there have trouble avoiding someone like this, but many of us say “Yes” to friends or causes that we believe in strongly, even when we know full well we cannot easily afford the time commitment. So, this write-up will be about prioritizing as a freelancer, even if that means not always being Mr. (or Ms.) Popular.


Before we get into the content of the article, first let me give a little background information about myself. I am 26 years old, male, married, a Master of Divinity student and freelance web designer. I also have recently accepted a full-time job with a large corporation doing web development as a User Interface Designer.

That being said, I have a lot on my plate right now. No doubt you are asking the rhetorical: “Why write an article for To-Done?” Well, because in the past year I have learned the hard way what it means to say yes to too many people about too many things, and want to share my experience from the school of hard-knocks.

Since my wife and I are both grad students, we were doing our best, being inventive and trying to make ends meet. As such, I took on quite a few freelance projects for various local ministries and para-church organizations to help pay the bills. By now you have all probably heard the often used phrase “content is king” – meaning that having a slick website design is nothing if the content is not worth reading.

The Fine Print:

Most of the time (and this is not just limited to churches), as a freelancer you will be approached by a client who “needs” a website. While they might not know a whole lot else about what this entails, the one thing they are absolutely convinced about is the necessity of this website. They may not even have a full page of double-spaced content to actually go on the site, but so long as you provide the site design, they are convinced that the rest will sort of fall into place.

So, you accept the job on good faith that while you work on the design, the content will be written up by your client. Perhaps you even pointed out that content is the single most important thing on their website. After all, they are the ones who want to pay you to create a website, so they must be serious about putting information on there, right? Possibly, but I have found that this is not usually the case.

Get Motivated:

Now, you might be the type of designer that feels satisfied as long as you have provided the necessary elements specified in your contract: a template, site architecture, graphics / logo, etc. If you are, there is certainly nothing wrong with that. You are just being a shrewd businessman (or woman). However, if you are like me and are motivated more out of the sheer desire to create a thoroughly complete high-quality website, then it can be quite disheartening to come up with a functioning site design, only to have it sit empty after it is online.

What I am talking about here is not simply an issue of static vs. dynamic websites. Most of the sites I have set up are running some easy to use CMS (I heavily favor Textpattern). So, since even the most basic computer user can handle email, and the CMS you have (hypothetically) set up for them is no more difficult to use than that, the lack of content really comes down to one thing: motivation.

Making a Point:

That brings me to the crux of this article. Bear in mind, the client thinks this website is a magic bullet, and that simply by “being online” thousands of would-be customers or readers will flock to the site. But, consumers by their very nature need something to consume. Likewise, who will keep coming back to the site when there is nothing to read? I would challenge you: Do not design sites for people with no message.

Please allow me to go Jerry Maguire on you here and suggest that this line of work is not about the money. Gasp! Okay, have you regained composure? Good, moving on. Here is another kicker: It is not about your client either. So, what the heck is web design all about? You guessed it, the end-user. If you create a beautiful, yet empty website, that sends a terrible message to the end-user. In the case of a church or ministry, which make up the majority demographic of my clients, by having an empty website they are saying: “Our church is about keeping up appearances, but we have nothing substantial to say.”

This is why I would propose, that in order to help protect both yourself and your client’s time investment (and sanity), that you not be afraid to just say a flat-out “No” to potential website projects. It is partly about time but also about quality control. You can always tell them that if later on they come up with enough content to merit having a website, you will re-evaluate the possibility of doing it, but you are not obligated to make any guarantees. The bottom line is, a finished website is a good website, for both you and your client. Trust me, nothing looks worse in a portfolio than a half-done project, consisting of a fully-functional site but no text.

Ideally Speaking:

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the individual / company that has quality content, but poor presentation. Not everyone has the time or drive to learn about web standards, but quite a few businesses have their own websites all the same. These are the types of people that I would propose turn out to be ideal clients. Now, you might be put off a bit by their basic, Times New Roman laden layout. Yet, consider the fact that they believe enough in what they are doing to get themselves that far, and you will realize that there is some underlying dedication present.

What I am referring to is something like this site: SoulDevice.org. I had the privilege of hearing him speak at a conference in the CNN Center in Atlanta, and he had some very keen insight into movies and media. While I might not agree with all his views, I do admire his dedication. He is formally educated, very qualified to speak on the topic religion and pop culture, and because he has a passion for what he does, he continues to update his site with thoroughly thought-out content. Perhaps Christianity is not your thing, no big deal. The purpose of this article is not to push that on you. I am simply using examples from my own life, which happens to be heavily influenced by it. I hope that you as the reader will be open-minded enough to not write this off as empty jargon, and realize that it is applicable to almost every client situation, whether that be with a church, business or individual.

Conclusion / Summary:

Basically, the premise is this: Be on the look-out for dedicated clients, and be very cautious when dealing with companies or individual clients who think they absolutely “need” to be on the internet. Even if they have money to throw around, resist the urge to jump at the opportunity, because in so doing you tie yourself into the project for the long-haul, which in the end might not be worth what they are paying you. This can be to your detriment for two key reasons: 1. Frustration over waiting for the client to deliver on content, and 2. Lost opportunity cost of working with other, more focused clients. For sake of brevity, consider the following mini-example…

Client-X = $1000 for 1 site, but takes 10 months to complete = $100 per month.
Client-A = $400 for 1 site, but only takes 2 months to complete = $200 per month.

For the same amount of time spent working for the slow and troublesome Client-X at a higher initial paycheck, you could have done 1 site every 2 months for various Client-A types, and made $2000 in 10 months. That is double your money, and in the end you have done 5 total sites instead of 1. When you consider that the true benchmark of a web designer is all about the portfolio, this can be invaluable.

While this model is over-simplified, you get the point. By refusing the “easy money” clients, you can have more time for the types that are diamonds in the rough. And, who knows, maybe that initial client you turn down will come back to you in six months with a clear vision, and provide content for you that you can build a site around in much less time. If not, then they are not the type you want to be working for anyway. So, what are you waiting for, get out there and start saying “No!”

For more on how to do that, check out this article…

SitePoint – How to Fire a Client

5 Comments on Setting Boundaries on Burnout

  1. Quote:
    This is why I would propose, that in order to help protect both yourself and your client’s time investment (and sanity), that you not be afraid to just say a flat-out “No” to potential website projects.

    Any advice on how to do this tactfully? I get many requests for jobs that I’m just not interested in and have a hard time saying no because I’m just not sure how to tell them.

  2. Nathan Smith says:

    If you’re not interested in the job because there’s something lacking in the vision of what they want to do, then I would just explain that plainly to them. Just because you don’t say “yes” right away doesn’t make you a mean person. In fact, it is to their benefit that they have something interesting on their site when it is created.

    I would just tell them that while you want to help them, there is really just not enough to go on. Often times, if they are pretty sure about wanting to hire you (as opposed to just get a site done), they will provide you with more content. The problem I’ve run into is that I will tell a client that they need more content to go on, and they will promise to write it concurrently as the site is being worked on, only to have them never finish the content.

    If for some reason the project simply does not interest you, there’s nothing wrong with saying that either. For instance, I had someone contact me about doing 80 blog designs for a network of blogs. Without going into great detail, the premise of the email was to crank them out one after the other. I did my best to explain to the individual that what I try to focus on is quality and not quantity, and because of that it did not really appeal to me.

    This mass-production mentality didn’t really jive with me, something in my gut just told me it would too labor intensive for the amount of time I had to spend. Additionally, the timetable / budget seemed to be a bit stringent. I think in this case, it was the “get-rich-quick” mentality that was the primary motive, aka Blog = Money, without really considering the initial investment necessary to launch an entire network from nothing.

  3. Mike Rohde says:

    Nice article Nathan — a good reminder about why designers design things — to communicate. :-)

  4. Steve Clancy says:

    I agree with a lot of what you’re saying, because I have had some experience dealing with small clients who want to get on the web. I think in most cases though, these people always have content they can be posting – it’s just a matter of getting them to deliver it. With your church example, surely you could be posting Sunday bulletins and mass schedules on the site. You just need to get them to the point where they are willing to do this.

  5. Nathan Smith says:

    Steve, that’s true. I should clarify that not each and every church I’ve worked with are slow on delivering content. For the most part, it’s like you said – clients that want to get online are ready with their message. I just thought I would share some of my experiences (and my own mistakes), to help others avoid burnout.

    Here’s a good article on client deliverables…

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