The Art of Saying No: A Step-By-Step Guide to Passing on Projects While Building Your Brand

You know that feeling, right? An opportunity gleams in plain sight, one that promises a little extra income, a new client relationship, or a sleek new project to add to your portfolio. 

But, something just feels...off.

It might be the client’s pushy style of communicating, unfair pricing, or a subject matter that conflicts with your personal or professional values.

Whatever your intuition is telling you, saying “no” doesn’t have to mean shutting doors and burning bridges. Here’s a step-by-step guide for turning down projects while building your brand: 

1. Define your core values early and often, so it’s less easy to waver down the line.

Saying “no” with confidence (even if it hurts!) means knowing who you are and what you stand for, and putting your values to work when important decisions are weighing on your shoulders.

If you don’t take the time to define the fibers that make up your brand, how will you ever be able to go with your gut? 

If a project that you’re not sure about has fallen into your lap, take some time out just for you and your business. This might mean a short weekend retreat, a day trip to a quiet destination, or a 30-minute coffee break to clear the mental clutter that fills up your day.

Once you’ve got the headspace, draw a line in the sand and ask yourself: what will you – and won’t you – stand for? Let that answer illuminate what feels right. 

2. Clarify your process before closing the door.

Before turning down a project in a snap, hear out some of the nitty-gritty details that can often be major deciding factors. Does the client thoroughly understand your process and agree to stick to it? What’s their timeline, and are you able to meet it in a reasonable timeframe without letting other paying client slide? Based on your initial conversations, do you sense that the scope of the work will change, and if so, are you prepared to discuss scope creep? 

In addition to defining your core values, be sure to clarify (and document!) your process early and often. Processes exist as gut-checks that tell you if the client is an ideal fit for you without compromising your creative process along the way.

Which means you’ll definitely need to… 

3. Understand your dream client. 

Amazing things happens when you begin to understand your ideal client. You start to understand their needs, their moods, their pain points, and their secret joys. Along the way, you begin to peel back the layers that allow you to meet them where they already are, solve tangible problems, and tailor your brand identity, positioning, and promotion along the way.

When you define who you serve, you can show them exactly how and why you meet their needs. You’ll have a mental picture in mind of the kind of clients you serve – and anyone that doesn’t quite fit the bill will be easier to say “no” to when the time comes.

4. If you aren’t The One, refer someone who may be.

Just because a prospective client isn’t a match between your ideal customer and their ideal designer doesn’t mean the road needs to end there. A great way to graciously pass on a project is to refer to someone who you think matches the project brief. 

Next time an opportunity presents itself, instead of taking on more than you can handle – or taking on what isn’t a fit – try saying something like this:

"I really appreciate you reaching out to me! After reviewing the project details in depth, I unfortunately won’t be able to take on a project on of this scope. However, I’d love to refer you to several other designers who may be able to help.”

Extending a helping hand without burning a bridge is key – but be sure to move on after you’ve sent your referrals. Ideal clients, partners, and projects are there waiting for you!

5. Saying “no” is tough, but know that it means saying “yes” to building your brand.  

It’s so easy to obsess about the things you miss out on when you turn down a project, but it’s equally important not to let it consume you or your work.

If you find that passing on a project is hard, try reframing the situation: what will you be saying “yes” to instead? It might be more time to devote to passion projects, more energy to work on a project that makes you passive income, or more freedom to explore collaborations, partnerships, and other avenues that make a business thrive.

No matter what, give the Project That Never Was wings to fly – and realize that once you make a firm decision, you’re setting yourself up for future success.