Urgent! How to handle those last-minute design requests

Good designers know how to make realistic deadlines and then stick to them. But there are times for every designer when an urgent job materialises and must be squeezed into the work schedule.

Some designers dread getting the phone call or email requesting work to be carried out at breakneck speed; others thrive on the adrenaline rush. Here are some ideas on how to manage the unexpected workload.

Know the client first

Let’s be clear about this: when a client requests a design job with a tight turnaround, it should be treated (by both the designer and the client) as a favour. Favours are acts of goodwill performed on occasion, after a strong and constructive relationship has already been established. It’s alright to do favours for clients you know, like and trust. Laura Spencer writes at Freelance Folder that “a good client … understands that quality work takes time and plans accordingly” which also means they’re likely to treat any urgent request as a favour from the start. On the other hand, if you agree to a short deadline for a first-time client, they’re likely to view that as your standard turnaround time and will expect it in future.

Get the details right before getting started

Great design involves taking the time to get to know the design brief and the client’s needs inside and out. If you cut corners at this early stage in the race to get the work done, you run the risk of making mistakes or omissions, or producing work which looks like a rush-job.

Communicate your needs to the client clearly

You’ve agreed to produce a brochure design by close of business, but you haven’t received the text (or other materials, like photos) from the client yet, and the clock is ticking. In this situation be aware of what you will need from the client, and make it clear that their help may be necessary in order to achieve their tight deadline.

Be realistic about what you can achieve

Logos can’t be created in two days. Neither can websites. Before you agree to an urgent design request, ask yourself: can I really do this in the set time?

When considering this question, also think about how comfortable you are with the type of work requested. If it’s a brochure design and that’s your core business, no problem. If it’s an e-commerce website and you don’t have much experience with e-commerce, chances are you won’t be able to carry out the work as quickly as you’d like.

Also take a look what other jobs you’re currently working on: it’s no good accepting an urgent brief to please a client, if other projects are put back and suffer as a result.

Be clear about working out of hours

Are you prepared to work through the night or the weekend to get that last-minute design job ready? If so, let the client know that this will be an extraordinary but necessary step in order to get the work done. If you have a good working relationship with them already (see above) then it’s likely they’ll respect your out-of-hours work as a gesture above and beyond your normal work situation.

Pricing urgent design work

Do you charge extra for work to be produced on a tight deadline? Designers certainly have the right to add a percentage above their normal charge when the work is required urgently, especially if out-of-hours work is necessary to meet a deadline. If you decide to raise the price, notify the client ahead of time that an additional charge will be incurred because of the tight deadline.

Is is possible to avoid last minute design requests?

Not entirely – no matter how well organised your work processes and those of your clients, it’s inevitable that something will occasionally pop up which must be addressed straight away. But there are some ways to minimise the amount of unexpected work that you find yourself doing at the eleventh hour:

Take comprehensive design briefs

How often have you completed a design brief, only for the client to request a last-minute addition? In your normal work schedule, it’s important to get the best possible understanding of a design project and the client’s needs right from the very start. This won’t rule out late add-ons, but can minimise them.

Notify clients of times when you will be unavailable

If you’re planning to be away from work for any reason, let your regular clients know a few weeks in advance. This gives them the opportunity to plan around your absence.

Seek out clients who are efficient managers of their work

Clients who run their own business operations efficiently are less likely to call you with design work requiring a tight turnaround. This type of client is much more desirable than someone who has a track record of making contact at the last minute, expecting you to drop everything to address their needs.

Make your own work practices as efficient as possible

This won’t stop clients from phoning in urgent design requests, but working efficiently yourself means you’ll be better placed to handle the unexpected glitches on your schedule.

Have you got any other suggestions? How have you handled work which had to be done yesterday?


  • ptamaro

    March 11, 2009 at 7:41 am

    Great post, and I love your blog… Added your RSS feed so I don’t miss anything. Your tips are really helpful.

    Everyone wants work done yesterday, and rushing through a project can have a really negative effect on the results. I rarely feel comfortable being rushed at my regular gig or when doing ‘favors’ for folks I know. I think the key is “know the client first” — you nailed it right there.

    I think that clients who try rush you really don’t respect the process, are very likely to be unprepared, and may be difficult to work with for other reasons as well. When someone wants work “done yesterday”, or asks “when can you have that done?” it’s a big warning sign that there may be bigger problems looming and I generally prefer not to work with them if possible.

    We all have to eat, so sometimes you can’t avoid it 🙂

  • Tracey Grady

    March 11, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    That’s a great point about having respect for the design process. I’ve worked with clients who have made contact asking for a quick turnaround, but they’ve apologised and explained the reasons for the urgency on this occasion, which gives me greater confidence in agreeing to do the work for them. All of this happened after I got to know them well on previous (non-urgent) jobs, naturally.

  • BPO

    March 11, 2009 at 8:12 pm

    Wow! Thanks for these tips. Had my attention for the entire post.

  • Tracey Grady

    March 11, 2009 at 9:04 pm

    I’m glad you found it interesting and useful the whole way through! That’s not always easy to do with a lengthy post.

  • Randa Clay

    March 11, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    Very good points Tracey. I need to remember to add an extra percentage when clients ask for a rush job on something. Often I get involved in the request and forget until it’s too late to mention it. Also, good point about making sure they understand you’re doing them a favor.

  • Tracey Grady

    March 11, 2009 at 9:02 pm

    That’s potentially an easy trap to fall into, isn’t it – getting on with an urgent job because it’s urgent, right? and not thinking about your own needs until it’s too late. We have our own business needs to look after, too.

  • Brent Weber

    March 13, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    Definitely something all freelancers are going to confront at some point. Very hard to follow this advice when getting started, but I think it is necessary that you do – for the sake of your long-term success.

  • Tracey Grady

    March 13, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    Yes, when you’re starting out it’s hard to say no to any requests for work. There’s only so much urgent work you can agree to before facing burnout, and for a freshly minted freelance designer that would be a shame.

  • links for 2009-03-13 | BlueWave Media – BlueWave Media Cafe

    March 13, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    […] Urgent! How to handle those last-minute design requests : Tracey Grady Design | Hobart, Tasmania, Au… Good designers know how to make realistic deadlines and then stick to them. But there are times for every designer when an urgent job materialises and must be squeezed into the work schedule. (tags: business productivity clients freelancing design) No TweetBacks yet. (Be the first to Tweet this post) Sure, go on and share this […]

  • Jennifer Farley

    March 20, 2009 at 12:39 am

    Good advice Tracey. I seem to either get clients that take months to make a decision or want everything today. It is hard to say no sometimes but I think for your own sanity you have to say no because it will have a rollover effect on your other work.

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  • Rob Cubbon

    June 6, 2009 at 2:45 am

    It’s a difficult one. You want to do a good job and be flexible for good clients but you don’t want to be at the beck and call of bad ones. Some of my best clients I’d “got to know” by doing a rush job for them and afterwards have got loads of good work. I’ve been meaning to do a post on good clients and bad clients but I don’t want my clients to read it!

  • John G

    June 22, 2009 at 2:17 pm

    I definitely agree with Rob above – it is a balancing act. When I get rush requests I make sure the client knows exactly what I need from them to get the job done and make the process as comfortable as possible for both parties. I think it’s best to agree on a clear design plan from the outset and make the process as ‘mechanical’ as possible – no wishy washy design briefs!

  • Kvikmike

    July 27, 2009 at 11:27 pm

    Sometimes we will find ourselves in such predicament. Your tips are great. This could really help readers like me.

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