Strengthen your portfolio by saying no to clients. (Yes, it’s possible!)

Emily Belden's Layout avatar

In my career, I’ve been everything from an account executive to creative director to business owner. All of these roles had one thing in common: I always said yes to new business opportunities.

The “yes-to-anything” phase is something we all go through. It helps keep the lights on, builds your portfolio, and starts the word-of-mouth chain. But with each project you complete, you learn a little more about yourself; from the type of work you like to do to the type of clients that you mesh best with.

Potential clients need to know that you are a thought leader and an expert, and if you keep taking projects that are all over the place insofar as look, feel, and scope, your portfolio may grow, but it will not grow stronger. Being selective about your work will benefit you because it’ll allow you to create a curated portfolio that will position you as the ultimate go-to for whatever your craft may be.


“It’s time to say “no” when you reach a critical mass in your workload. ” For some, that means you are simply too busy or the project is obviously not in your wheelhouse. But what about the other jobs that you could do? Should you take them just to take them?

Not if you’ve reached the point wherein you have decided what kind of projects make you, you – and said project doesn’t contribute to your identity. Think about what kind of projects define who you are as a creative thinker and make you better at your craft. If finances allow it, accept only those pieces of work.

It’s beneficial to design for a niche. Here’s why.

So how do you turn down a new job or client without burning bridges? Here are a few pointers:

Commit to “No”

Saying no is awkward, but saying yes when you shouldn’t reluctantly sets everyone up for failure. Be confident that you’ve made the right decision to pass and you’ll be surprised at how much easier it will be to bow out.


Give thanks

Be gracious for the opportunity then briefly explain why you can’t take the job. Being short and sweet is important here, as is being honest. It’s not okay to make up a reason why you can’t do the work, but it is always safe to say that you lack the bandwidth for the project if all else fails.

Refer a friend

If appropriate, refer someone else for the job – but only if you feel sincerely like that person can do it well. Giving a recommendation not only provides an alternate solution (always a good thing), but shows the client you still care about their well-being, which leaves the door open for future projects.

Chances are your work is special, and therefore a level of disappointment will be experienced by the want-to-be client when you tell them you cannot replicate it for them. It is so important to gracefully decline a project that you won’t be taking on so that their disappointment does not turn to anger or frustration. Negative perceptions can travel fast in the industry and crush your word-of-mouth reputation.


All in all, being selective about your work may be uncomfortable at first, but it is the number-one thing you can do to help cultivate a rock-solid portfolio. In the end, it’ll help you win the kind of business that benefits both the client and the creative.

How have you handled “saying no” in the past?

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