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The Case of The Policy Wonk

A consultant field tests the value of design work.




A MAN WITH LARGE envelopes bulging from his trench-coat pocket entered a signshop.

“What can I do for you?” A woman asked from behind the counter.

“Um, I’m looking for a sign.”

“Well, you’ve come to the right place. What kind of sign? For what kind of business?”

“A sign for the outside of my office… I’m a political consultant.”

“Very nice. What kind of sign did you have in mind?”

“That’s the thing. I don’t know the first thing about signs…”

“But you’ve seen signs you like and some you don’t like? We could start there.”

“Yes… I rather like the sign the attorney group, KNR, has on their wall. Do you know it?”

“Not off hand, sir. Do you have a picture of it?”


Real Deal scenarios are inspired by true stories, but are changed to sharpen the dilemmas involved and should not be confused with real people or places. Responses are peer-sourced opinions and are NOT a substitute for professional legal advice. Please contact your attorney if you any questions about an employee or customer situation in your own business.


Created by ROLF L’MAO, Signs of the Times’ mascot. Email him at

“No, I don’t.”

“Maybe we can work on that later. Do you already have a logo?”

“Yes, I have this,” the man said, handing over his business card with “CP Political Consulting” in florid, Renaissance all-caps. “My nephew is a sophomore in graphic design at the university.”

“CP… Political… Consulting?” the signshop owner read out loud, haltingly.

“Yes, that’s the name of my business. I help people remember by telling them it’s ‘PC’ backwards.”

“Uh huh,” the shop owner replied, wanting like anything to roll her eyes. “And do you have a vector file for this logo?”

“I have no idea. I would have to ask Cole.”

“If he doesn’t, I could take the time to recreate it — and possibly tweak it — if you like.” Then, to herself, “I’ve even got the time, too much time, really, this week…”

“Is that something you also do?”

“Sure is. Kind of comes with the territory.”

“So, you can make me a sign using this logo?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Can you sketch something for me here?”

“That’s not really how it works.”

“Why not?”

“Designing a sign — even the preliminary sketches — involves a skill and, if I may say, a dollar value — so it’s something we charge for.”

“You’d charge me to just take a minute or so to doodle something? You mean, like this?” He pulled one oversized envelope from his coat pocket, turned it backside up, then took a pen off the counter and began sketching an Olde English “CP” among what looked like hieroglyphics.

“In a manner of speaking, sir, yes. Think of it like giving away what you do for nothing.” The political consultant’s indignant expression slipped to a frown. “I mean,” the sign pro continued, “you wouldn’t give free advice to someone running for mayor, right?”

“I thought we were talking about a sign… Well, and the logo, apparently.”

“Yes, sir. We were. We are.”

“But to figure out what the sign would look like, you won’t even do this?” the consultant said, scribbling again, more forcefully and exaggeratedly. “Not even one?”

“It’s a company policy,” the owner replied, even as she calculated she needed more jobs at the moment. “It’s hard to convince people that design, even design concepts, have value. Look—”

“Tell you what,” the consultant interrupted, now smiling for some reason. “If you just rough out three ideas right here right now — for free — then, if I like one, I’ll hire you and we can move forward from there. I have a very large budget in mind.”

The Big Questions

  • What would you do if you were the signshop owner?
  • Push policy aside for a couple of minutes to try to make this sale?
  • Stick to your guns and make the political consultant pay from the start? Something else?
Randy B.
Sharon, PA

Excellent scenario — very realistic. I am her and make those decisions. [In the past, I generally have done] the designs without initial charge and have a good track record of landing the client. Yet, with age (hopefully some wisdom), I am leaning toward the initial charge scenario … Unless the client is established and in good standing, all proposals will have an upfront cost.

Ottavio B.
Lynn, MA

I’ve heard that many times … If he has a big budget then he shouldn’t have a problem paying for the quick sketch.

Stacy J.
Sarasota, FL

Me: “Great, let’s go ahead and get a deposit taken care of and then we can apply that to the sign we do. Fortunately, I have a little time right now so we could work together on it, but we don’t do anything without some type of financial commitment to the project. That ensures we aren’t wasting each other’s time. So let’s just start with $200 down toward the sign.”

Him: “But what if I don’t like the designs?”

Me: “Then the $200 can apply to another project or we can add a little design time and work together to get what you want to proceed with the signs. But I’m confident with your help that we can do something you would like.”

Stephen R.
North Charleston, SC

How about this? I will do some sketches and if you do not like any of them then you do not have to pay. But if I create a sketch to your liking, then you agree to pay for the sketch at our shop rate … You will not receive a print or copy until payment is made. If this is not acceptable then thank you for considering us for your sign needs.

Shari S.
Eustis, FL

I grab a job form, flip it over to the blank side and say to him that “I am not the graphic designer, but bear with me,” because he literally just wants to see some doodling … that takes seconds. We both … giggle over my sketching skills and it gets him to give me more info. I explain that the designers do it digitally and do a very nice job, he will get a proof to approve, that changes can be made, and he can cancel the order if he doesn’t like it at all. In our 20+ years in business, we’ve only had a handful of customers cancel … so that’s a risk we’re willing to take.

Bud B.
Elizabethtown, PA

If you have such a large budget, what are a couple of dollars to make sure you get exactly what you want? Instead of a sketch it will be a picture of the front of your building with the logo that you actually want. That is how we do business.

Dirk D.
Talihina, OK

When the customer asked, “Can you sketch something for me here?” is where you can close the sale. State the following: “The design work is included in the price of the sign. Let me give you an estimate for the type of sign you need and if that fits your budget, we can proceed. We get a 50% deposit up front and we can begin putting together your artwork. Then we will provide artwork for your approval before we begin production. If we need to make changes, we can do so at that time. That way you get exactly what you want.”

Karl M.
Wichita, KS

Always get paid up front from politicians and the like.

Mark M.
Pearland, TX

Stick to your policy. It’s hard to do at first but gets easier with practice. Far too many people will take advantage of your time. The quick sketch turns into revisions that turn into an extended visit that wastes a lot of time with little to no reward. If that client does not value your time, they are not the client you want.

Lynn Schroter
Sherwood Park, AB, Canada

Sometimes you have to be firm up front with the customer. I find if you give in at the beginning the customer thinks he owns you. By demanding a payment up front the customer will understand you mean business … understand the [policy] and be a better customer in the future. Words to be wary about: “Money’s no problem” and “large budget.” I find when I hear phrases like this, it sends up a red flag.

Jeff A.
Norman, OK

Offer to do the design only for $100 (an hour’s worth). If he actually purchases a sign for more than $1,500 (he does have a large budget in mind, right?) we will apply the $100 toward the sign purchase. If he chooses not to pursue a sign with us, he will have a couple of design ideas for $100.

John M.
Marlton, NJ

If you do something well, never give it away for free. Show the prospect examples of your work to build confidence and credibility. Show them how your company was successful helping other clients transform their basic designs and logos into an award-winning brand … Offer them a design package with a fixed number of revisions. If they select you to build the signage offer to credit the design fee. Create value while protecting your intellectual properties.

Bill H.
Stanton, CA

Push aside company policies and build an additional cost into the fabrication to cover your design time. Add an additional 10% because I can guarantee you this guy will ask for a discount. Use the 10% as a discount to close the deal. This way the client feels you’re willing to work for him for free and you’re also willing to discount a cost to get his job. You show concern for him and his business. You’re also getting full cost on the fabrication so you’re not out any money. If he chooses to go elsewhere, you have only lost your design time.



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