When Saying No Politely Gets You In the Door


Just wanted to share a recent email exchange I had with a prospective employer who asked candidates to do a test design on a new project. I liberally stole and altered sections from an article posted on your site: “Why Speculation Hurts,” by Robert Wurth. I’ve taken out the name of the company and person I corresponded with.

Dear ###,

I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to complete the design test. This week has been incredibly busy for me and I would have had to turn away paying jobs in order to work on it. In thinking about it, I’ve found that I feel this kind of test is not a good way to choose a designer. In my case, not only would it require me to pay for the privilege of being tested, because I would loose paying work, it also wouldn’t give you the information you’re looking for to make a hiring decision.

Without any briefs, discussions or research with ***, the design would lack the benefit of strategic thinking and would rely on speculative style. Even if you liked the way it looked, and it appeared to be on target, it wouldn’t show a design with the best solution.

When more information about the plan of action and goals of the project can be absorbed, design guesses are replaced with pragmatic insight. That way the designs develop with a context more relevant to ***’s business needs, and that makes for better working design solutions.

A single design doesn’t tell what a long-term relationship with the designer might offer. Also, the idea of working hard on a project unpaid, and one that I give up any rights to ownership of my work, on top of the possibility of being passed over would feel unfair and humiliating.

With that said, I’m sad to walk away from the possibility of working for ***. I really think it’s a brilliant approach to publishing and I would love to be a part of it. I truly wish *** all the best. This note is not meant as a rebuke, but rather an offering of a perspective you may not be aware of.


Hi Gregg,

Thank you so much for the email. I really appreciate your honesty and insight and I think you have some really valid points. I think you have a great resume and portfolio and would still love to bring you in to meet the team. I hope this is not a deal breaker and you would still be interested in coming in in person.

If so, would it be possible for you to come in early next week, either Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday? I can work with your schedule to find time to meet with our VP of Marketing and some other team members.

I am off to the airport but will have access to email over the next few days so please let me know your thoughts. Again thank your for the email.


9 responses to “When Saying No Politely Gets You In the Door”

  1. This also happened to me when I refused a spec-work related project. The manager hired me for a side project of his after I explained the harm that speculative work does for the end client.

    Congrats on the new project(s).

  2. Yes, a professional approach has a better chance of succeeding over an in-their-face outraged attitude.

  3. Note that he said, “I hope this is not a deal breaker …”

    What he really said was:
    “Screw you. We are absolutely intransigent on our web design contest rules. We expect you to produce a design at your own expense the we ultimately may reject while retaining all rights to your work. So fsck you. Come on in, we’ll see if our VP can browbeat you into doing it anyway”.

  4. Spec Work: Taking Advantage of Freelancers…

    In a nutshell, spec work (also known as pro-bono work) requires that freelancers submit sample work, often a completed project, to a potential employer in order to compete with work submissions from other freelancers.

  5. Thanks for sharing this.

    I recently had an exchange with a potential client with whom I’d been corresponding with via email for over a year. I even had a face to face with him over a year ago and discussed his site for hours. We then proceeded to negotiate price and specifics and finally he passed because of funds or timing or something of that nature. He continued to send me emails here and there saying he was still interested in working with me. Last week we exchanged some more emails and he seemed ready to go ahead…I gave him a price, he asked me if I could do better….I gave him a reduced price….he said it sounded good and we negotiated the terms. Then I realized his email suggested that I was going to send him a design FIRST. When I politely explained that I only started working on a site after getting paid and how this was a major part of the whole process and how we’d really be working together through the design process he declined. He wanted me to show him a design before paying me. He was quite taken aback but I explained my stance and explained it was standard practice.

    In this case the client backed off and I was quite upset by the exchange. After finding this site I almost sent him a link with some further explanation but decided against it. It is frustrating dealing with this. Don’t people understand that hiring people for free is not right? I never ask people to work for me for free and always pay them what they ask. What are people thinking?

    It seems to me that people don’t seem to think of design as work. It’s just something designers pull out of a drawer or something….ugh!

  6. Hey, this happens to me a lot too. The whole free pitch system seems to be filtering all the way down to us freelancers. Have had to do pitch work to get a job for an agency so that they can charge four times what i can without the expenditure or risk. Am sure am going to be asked to do tea or coffee pitches as well soon. It’s all bonkers! Still keep smiling! Matt.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *