When I first started working as a freelance graphic designer, many of my early jobs were "rush jobs." I was hungry and I had to make rent, so when I got a call from someone saying they got my name from XYZ, and wanted to know if I had time to work on a rush job due within the next 24-72 hours, my response was, "Absolutely. No problem."
At the time, I was happy to get the work and eager to please this new prospective client. I looked at these "rush jobs" as leads, just another road to a possible long term working relationship. These clients in need of rush services always promise future work if you can help them out of their current jam with a successful design. Sometimes, you won't hear from them again until the next rush job.
Someone Dropped the Ball
Remember, the reason why a job becomes a rush job is: someone dropped the ball. Somewhere along the line, someone didn't do their job; whether because of misinformation or poor planning, the creative was overlooked and now that brochure the client needs to hand out at their trade show next week is URGENT! Let's be honest, there is no graphic design job that could possibly be urgent. Graphic design cannot save someone's life, but delivering a well-designed brochure overnight could save someone's job. In essence, the ball they dropped, is now in your court.
Here is how you should handle that ball...
When to Say "No."
First you must consider if you can create something awesome in the given timeframe. If the answer is "no" then it's better to decline the job. The last thing you want to do, is say that you can take on a project and then fail miserably with a sub-par design. That's a loss for both you and the client. Not only does your reputation suffer, but you lose the opportunity for future work and references.
Set the Project Timeline
If you can meet the deadline and deliver something awesome, and you've agreed on a rate, here's what you say:
I will do my best to help you. Since you are working with a very tight deadline, I'll have to put my current projects on hold in order to meet your delivery date. In doing so, I'd like to make sure we stay on target and within the set timeframe for the project. Below is a timeline. Please let me know if you forsee having any problem delivering the necessary components on your end in order to keep to this timeframe.
NOTE: Request their branding guidelines... when working with a new client, it's always good to obtain the proper branding guidelines in order to keep their existing brand consistent and on target. If they don't have guidelines set up, let them know it's something they should have to protect their brand, and that you offer that service whenever they are ready.
[PROJECT NAME] TIMELINE:
TODAY: Send a short brief with an outline of requirements for the project, send all content in final form including high resolution imagery, text, logos and any necessary fonts and PMS colors.
Concepts & Preliminary Designs
Comments and Revisions
Approval of Final Proof
Creative Files Delivered
Once I receive the initial payment to commence work, I'll get started right away. Thank you!
Payment to Commence Work
In my experience, if a client is not willing to pay 25-50% upfront, then you can be sure you will have difficulty getting paid once the project is complete. It's smart to set-up a PayPal account to make the initial payment process easy for new and existing clients. It will also protect you from dishonest clients who say 'the check is in the mail' when it isn't. I make it standard policy to commence work on a project, only when the initial payment has been received. Likewise, I do not send final creative files to the client until final payment has been made in full.
Work smart and protect yourself, and your next rush project could turn into a long-term client.