Ask DN: What do you do when a client says you can't add their work to your portfolio?

6 years ago from , Experience Designer at Spacetime

Hello DNers,

I'm wondering what others do, as an individual or agency, when it comes to adding client work to your portfolio. Particularly if you have a client that refuses to allow you to add created work to a portfolio or has an extensive legal team that disallows almost everything.

Do you add language in contracts to cover this? And what if the client fights it? Or do you not ask at all and publish a case study anyway? And then what if the client finds out and ask for it to be taken down?

My thought, though I have not put in practice, is to add language in the contract that all work produced can be published in a portfolio case study. If a client really has a problem with that, the public case study can be dropped but an additional fee is required, say $10-15K or a 10% increase. Something that is sizable and will cost, but not ridiculous.

If you have worked in this field for any amount of time then you know how important portfolio work is. The work in a portfolio is what brings in more work, so the ability to add new client work now affects the viability of a company in the near and distant future.

Any thoughts and experience would be appreciated!

Thanks, Caleb


  • Richard BallermannRichard Ballermann, 6 years ago

    I've got it written in my contract that I can use the work I make for personal promotions. In the event that a client happened to catch this point and take issue with it, I think I'd probably implement something like your suggestion of adding an exclusivity/anonymity fee to balance out the fact that you can't bring in more work with it.

    Totally up to you to decide what an appropriate cost would be for that.

    9 points
    • Caleb SylvestCaleb Sylvest, 6 years ago

      Agreed, I think add an exclusivity clause would be a good way to go if you have the option to manage the contract. And that's something I will do moving forward for myself personally. I've made this suggestion to the agency I work for, but not sure it will be implemented. But we consistently do work for high profile clients and request to incorporate the work in our portfolio is declined by the legal or PR team.

      Thanks for your input.

      0 points
  • Nathan HueningNathan Huening, 6 years ago (edited 6 years ago )

    2 things:

    (1) Unless you signed a "work for hire" agreement, then legally you still own / retain the copyright to your creation. It differs from state to state but here in North Carolina, you make something -- even for money -- you own it unless you explicitly sign your ownership away. It's not assumed or implied. So it's not up to the client to tell you whether you can or can't display it; it's yours.

    The best analogy to describe this is the output of a photographer: what a photog shoots, s/he owns. When you "buy" it, you're actually just purchasing a license to a specific use: print, online, broadcast, etc. (Think: every stock photography site everywhere.) The photog has the right to continue re-selling it. Likewise, you could "re-sell" the web design / dev work you do.

    If your client wants exclusive ownership of something -- which, realistically, only happens in our industry when it comes to logo and identity work -- they pay extra for that transfer of ownership. Similarly, if you wanted to outright buy the rights to a photograph such that the photographer no longer owned it, it would be much, much more expensive than simply licensing it for use: usually on the order of 4x the license cost. In most cases, though, a client is only paying for a "license" to your creative work (design + code). Now, it can be an unlimited, unrestricted license forever, but you still retain ownership of your work.

    All this should be stated in your contract but that's the long and the short of it.

    (2) If you signed an NDA, you're SOL. At that point you're legally obligated not to share it with anybody. In general, I avoid those entirely. As in: if a (prospective) client requires me to sign an NDA, I pass on the project. There's (almost) nothing so special about a client's idea that merely telling someone about it will ruin the business business. The ones that succeed do so because of execution; ideas are not worth much on their own.

    tl;dr "Sorry, Mr. Client! That's not your call to make. Unless I signed an NDA, in which case it is your call."

    8 points
    • Caleb Sylvest, 6 years ago

      Typically the tl;dr goes at the top for the lazy folk ;)

      But you make great points, backed with copyright facts. I'm always interested to hear what others are doing (not just saying), so this thread has been helpful. Of course, I have control over contracts I write up for clients I take on, but when it comes to working at an agency I don't own, well, things slip through the cracks.

      Thanks for your input. The points you made, is that something you follow for personal work, or does it also apply to the agency you work for?

      0 points
      • Nathan HueningNathan Huening, 6 years ago (edited 6 years ago )

        Haha right. I didn't realize till the end how long the post became, so I threw in a summary then ;)

        Re: the points I made, I follow it for personal work (and the small agency I ran before joining this one) but it's different for the one I work for. I asked it about it, though; my boss is not especially concerned about it and assigns ownership to the client with every project we do, without additional cost. Meaning, if they don't want us to showcase it, we don't.

        It works for us because a) we don't really gain anything by retaining the ownership, and b) if one client says not to, it doesn't matter much, because there are a dozen more projects just as good that we could feature. NMC's output is unreal: my old (boutique) agency did about 8-15 large-ish projects per year; here, we do that per month. The output level is just sick: one of our designers just hit her 100th web design milestone after ~2 years.

        The takeaway (for me, at least): just do another project. Do a ton of them, as fast as you can. You get good at something by doing it a lot. Like the old saying goes about the difference between a pro photographer and an amateur one: "Shoot more, show less".

        0 points
  • Joel CalifaJoel Califa, 6 years ago

    I definitely agree about the additional fee. I've heard of many designers who do exactly this.

    4 points
  • Nancy TsangNancy Tsang, 6 years ago

    Always, always have it in contract. If it's not and you've been told 'no' after asking politely (this exchange should be in written form, btw), you'll have to respect their wishes and not publish it. Putting it on your portfolio anyway would only invite the possibility of legal action against you (if the client is so inclined), and at the very least make them question your professionalism.

    Better to be safe than sorry! :)

    2 points
  • Jesper KlingenbergJesper Klingenberg, 6 years ago (edited 6 years ago )

    This is my experience from working both at agencies and freelance:

    Generally I/we have always had really strict terms that included that I could use things for promotion, clients would not receive RAW files (e.g. for video productions/photoshoots), we charged 50-75% up front etc.

    Our experience was that the majority of clients never bothered to even read the contract, and fortunately we rarely had any disputes about rights. We often deviated from our terms (because of various reasons) but it was nice to know that our back would be free, if we ever found ourselves in a dispute.

    We did add visual "creative work release" in addition to the plain text contact to clearly show the rights of the agency and the client. Just to be 100% sure that our clients actually understood it.

    In my opinion you shouldn't (as agency or individual) be afraid to have strict terms and conditions. You have something they want (your skills), and you are in a position dictate what terms you want.. remember to be ferm but flexible and ALWAYs get things in writing.

    The contracts I use have terms for these things:

    • Price, invoicing, payment and changes to price
    • intellectual property rights
    • work files
    • confidentiality and delivery
    • warrenty, violations and cancelations
    • Liability
    • disputes

    when sending an offer attach the terms and condiations and use Hellosign or some other electronic signature software to easily sign and get signature on the contract. Send an invoice for whatever you have agreed upon upfront and start working. Then get the rest of the payment when you deliver (remember to clearly state what the delivery consist of / milestone in your offer so there's absolutely no doubt when you are entitled to call it "job well done" )

    1 point
  • Surjith S MSurjith S M, 6 years ago

    How about blurring client's logo and other sensitive information and name it as Secret Project?

    0 points
  • Andy LeverenzAndy Leverenz, 6 years ago

    I typically just ask upon the start of a project. Either way I want to work with the client but this has also cause me to not be able to post some reputable work from pretty major corporations. Since their contracts have been long term I haven't made much of a fuss but it would be great to show new prospects what I've been up to. In a way it hurts me because I can't show off. This causes me to lose work which blows.

    0 points
  • Adam RobbinsAdam Robbins, 6 years ago

    Always ask before entering into a project. The outcome should determine your rate. A project you're able to feature in your folio is way more valuable than one you can't, as such, an increased rate can be a satisfying compensating factor.

    0 points
  • Chris GillisChris Gillis, 6 years ago

    You should have it in your contract/proposal that you can use work created for X Client in future marketing materials for your studio. I had always added it in to my small print on the contract and not one client ever made a comment about it.

    0 points
  • Razvan HRazvan H, 6 years ago

    You should have this adressed in the contract. It is standard practice (common in other industries too) to charge a an extra fee if they don't want you to use the work in your portfolio.

    0 points
    • Caleb Sylvest, 6 years ago

      Is that something you have experience executing on or have seen done, or just rumor?

      0 points
      • Razvan HRazvan H, 6 years ago

        Not in the web industry as I am doing very little freelance work. I have encountered this problem as a photographer though. I have it in my photography contract and have photographer friends that had to deal with it.

        0 points