I landed my first paid design project when I was 13 years old. I will protect the guilty by changing the name of the owner, we’ll call him Bob.

My job was to create several hundred icons for an online kids gaming website. Designing icons was fun for me. So when Bob contacted me, it was a dream come true. My first chance to get paid to do something I loved.

In my young understanding we had a gentleman’s agreement that I would be getting paid about $500, a huge amount to me at the time, in exchange for designing hundreds of icons for Bob’s site.

I spent hours meticulously creating the icons on my computer. Sure, they weren’t all great, but it was the best I could do at the time. Looking back at my work I still think some of them looked pretty awesome.

When I was done done I showed the work to Bob. He thanked me, asked for the original source files, and said the check was in the mail. Over the next few months Bob said the check was in the mail 3-4 times. I finally realized there was no check. I had been scammed. Years later it still hurts. Thankfully I learned a valuable lesson at a young age.

Instead of being bitter, let me share three positive things I’ve learned from this project:

  1. Get it in writing

    Never start a project until you have an agreement in writing that states the exact amount you will be paid.

  2. Don’t start until you have a down payment.

    Always get a down payment, usually this is 50% of the total amount you’ll be paid. For larger projects I sometimes accept a third of the payment initially, a third in the middle of the project, and a third upon completion.

  3. Don’t do spec work.

    Spec work is when you create a website, or do design work, for free in hopes of getting paid IF the client likes your work. Often this happens when multiple designers are bidding for work with a prospective business.

    If you really want experience doing websites offer to help a non-profit or ministry for free. Then, when you’re done add them to your portfolio and ask for an awesome testimonial.

  4. Always get a down payment for your work up front. If a potential client insists that they see some design ideas before paying you, be careful. There’s two reasons they could be doing this.

    1. They’ve worked with inexperienced designers in the past who were willing to work for them in hopes of getting paid, also knows as spec work.
    2. They are going to rip you off.

    Either way your job is to educate in a polite manner and explain that you don’t work for free. If you’ve explained this thoroughly and in a patient way, and they still refuse to pay you, they probably weren’t going to anyway.