Freelance web designers are always on the lookout for opportunities. That’s one of the many freedoms this career path affords us. We’re constantly searching for a chance to build up our portfolios and sharpen our skills.

But not every opportunity is a winner. Indeed, you’ll find that some potential clients and projects just aren’t right for you. The key is in realizing this before you sign on the dotted line.

There are almost always telltale signs that you’re looking at a potential “detour” project. Learn to identify them and you’ll be a happier and more successful web designer.

What Makes for a Detour?

Every designer has their own unique way of working. We have different work environments, specialties and pricing models. There are certain projects we love, others not so much.

And, as your career progresses, you’ll sharpen your focus. You’ll develop preferences for who you want to work with and the type of projects you want to work on.

A detour project, then, is one that takes us off our chosen path. Think of it as a roadblock on the way to your favorite vacation spot. If you venture too far into the woods, you might get lost. The result is being stuck in a place where you don’t want to be.

In practice, that could be a project that forces you work outside of your specialty. For example, let’s say that you’ve chosen to build from-scratch WordPress websites. A potential client comes along and asks you to take over their existing site – only it’s been built with Drupal.

Even if the gig pays well, you’re still straying from what you want to do. It takes time away from the things you’d rather be working on. Thus, you really need to think about whether it’s worth accepting the project.

"Detour Ahead" road sign

Reading the Signs

The example above is one that might seem a bit obvious. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes we convince ourselves that our job is to serve the customer and simply do as they ask. As long as they are willing to pay, what’s the harm?

Web designers and other creative professionals are different, however. We aren’t necessarily one-stop shops. While a grocery store sells items for every need and taste, freelance designers shouldn’t attempt to play that game. It’s a losing proposition.

So, it’s up to us to consider each opportunity carefully. When discussing a potential project, ask yourself the following:

How Does It Fit Within My Niche?
Depending on your personal philosophy, your niche could be very narrow (like serving only medical practices) or quite broad (like taking on projects that cost $2,000 and above). It’s important to determine whether or not a project is a good fit.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t go outside the margins a bit. There can be real benefits to broadening your horizons. But you will want to weigh the risks in doing so.

Will I Still Want to Do This in a Year?
There are times when it makes sense to take on a project to satisfy your immediate needs. Times when you’re struggling financially, for instance. But there are also long-term consequences to consider.

This not only applies to a project itself, but the client you’ll be working with. If you detect any potential personality conflicts, you probably won’t want to get stuck dealing with them for years to come. Long after that initial paycheck is spent, you may live to regret the whole thing.

Will It Enhance My Portfolio?
Ideally, each new project you complete makes your portfolio that much better. Whether it’s a beautiful design or some fancy functionality you’ve built in, you want to show off your great work. Therein lies the rub of taking a detour project.

If you’re in a situation where you don’t really like what you’re doing (and don’t want to do any more of it), you’re not going to use it in your portfolio. The result is that the project isn’t helping to further your career. In that case, is it really worth doing?

"Wrong Way" and "One Way" road signs

Staying on Course

In most cases, sticking to your own path is the best option. You might even think about it in terms of branding. If you want to be known as a WordPress expert as in the previous example, then you have to continually work towards that goal. It’s the same reason a car company doesn’t build houses. Anything outside of your stated mission is a distraction.

If you’re not used to being particular about who you work with, it can be difficult to change your ways. Saying “no thanks” isn’t easy.

But to get to where you want to go, a straight line is the best path to take.

Written by Eric Karkovack

Eric Karkovack is a web designer with well over a decade of experience. You can visit his business site here. In July 2013, Eric released his first eBook: Your Guide to Becoming a Freelance Web Designer. He also has an opinion on just about every subject. You can follow his rants on Twitter @karks88.