price tag on design

Well, looks like I’m going solo sooner than it’s been planned. How soon? Since yesterday. What I’ve learned about the corporate world in the last few months I wouldn’t find in any book. It is a crazy, unreliable world out there, full of uncertainties. And although I’ve got my plate full with concerns at the moment, my future somehow doesn’t feel as unpredictable — at least I know that it all depends on the way I conduct my business. And even though Her Majesty Luck plays a substantial role in the outcome, I don’t have to rely on anyone else telling me what I can and cannot do.

So if you’re a designer, feel free to pass on any graphic/web design or programming jobs that you might need to share the workload on, if you are looking for a designer/programmer, at the moment I’m available, though it can change at any time (check my business site for more details on the kind of work I do)… I already emerged myself fully into the new business life style, and have been having client meetings since yesterday, and even managed to score a new client. However, things are not going perfectly well. And there’s something that I wanted to discuss with you about and get your feedback.

Two days after the initial meeting with my new client, who wanted me to design a web site for her business, things slightly changed. She talked with her business partner about getting the site done by me, when all of sudden her partner remembered about her friend who just got her site done for a similar business as theirs for only $200. How did she manage that? By simply purchasing one of the ready-to-use template packages (complete with the “cool” moving, fading in and out images in Flash). So my new client confessed to me that even though she realizes that it’s not good news for me, at this moment that’s all she can afford for a site, and to be honest, she really likes that site and wants something very similar, a simple one, with nothing more than what her competitor’s site has.

Ok, it’s not the first time I’ve had to deal with clients who were wondering why am I charging for a web design so much more than the cost of those cheaper, but in their opinion, very impressive templates? So I went on explaining to her about the disadvantages of having an entire web site done in Flash, about the poor visibility of such sites on Google and other search engines, about the time when she would need to update that site – the images and text, the fact that her site will look so much similar to the one by her competitor, and so on.

Her reasoning was that at the moment she doesn’t really care, she just needs to have a simple site up and running, so that her customers can go online and check some things if needed, and that most importantly she just doesn’t have a budget for anything more than $200.

Usually I just turn my back on such businesses as politely as I can, but this case was different. I really like the type of business she’s running. Through the nature of her business she’s supporting many local businesses run by mompreneurs, promotes the awareness of environmental issues, and expands the line of organic products in the store. So I’ve tried to educate her some more on what kind of a site her business actually needs, and what she’ll be missing on if choosing to go with a pre-made site template. I’ve also added that I’m willing to give her a big discount just because I like her business and would like to support her.

In the end I did manage to convince her to re-think her decision and go with a custom designed site by me. I will also help her with the hosting, domain registration and everything else that needs to be taken care of to get her site up and running. We’ve re-negotiated on a price, she did raise her budget limit, and even though it would probably be the cheapest site I’ve ever designed, I’m okay with that. She’s got good business connections, she already referred another business to me for designing their site, plus this project will allow me to solidify my “foot” in the market niche that she’s in, and the one that I’m very keen in working with. In addition to that, I’m also starting a new business venture (if it works out I’ll tell you all about it later) and she’s helping me out with that.

Plus, because of the low budget for this project I’m not going to spend as much time designing and developing the site than I would spend on higher-end sites. It doesn’t mean that I’ll be turning out a cheap-looking rubbish (I won’t be able to get away with that anyway, nor would I want to “sign” my business name under that site’s “design by” credit section), but I won’t be going over the top trying all kinds of design and programming tricks to add the glamour and functionality that this site doesn’t really need.

Now, I’d really appreciate your input on this, from both sides — designers and businesses who had their sites designed or are considering on getting one done in a near future. Why any self-respected business should never go with pre-made templates, be it for a site, logo or business card? If, however you think that templates, or cheap design deals, are the way to go for businesses on a tight budget, please share with us your reasoning behind that?

I’ve dug out an interesting article written by Chris Pearson almost 2 years ago on how much a site/blog design should cost and his experience when dealing with the customers and project costs. It generated 327 comments, so obviously this is a hot topic for discussions at any given time. David Airey also wrote on this subject matter and even managed to confuse some of his readers who thought that he is charging only $100 for a logo design.

While I don’t really want to go into project pricing, I would love to hear your thoughts on design costs vs. values and why is it okay for dentists, lawyers and a number of other highly-paid professions to charge $200-300/hour for their services, why is it okay to shell out $100-150/hour to an interior designer, but it is a sin to pay that much money to a web/graphic designer? And what’s even more intriguing and interesting to find out is why we never question and simply accept the high prices of dentists, lawyers, psychiatrists, interior decorators, plumbers… but behave so differently when it comes to building our brand name awareness in print and online? What do you think should happen in order to change people’s mindset on design costs and values? Or do you think that nothing should change, that it is the way it should stay, that there are no reasons why designers should get paid any more than those working night shifts at 24 hour drive-thrus?

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23 Insightful Bits in response to “Design Costs vs. Values”

  1. First off, I wish you all the very best in your new self-employment venture. You know it’s not easy, but I’m sure you can make a success of it.

    Second, great work on negotiating your new client above their initial budget (which would’ve worked out at perhaps 1 or 2 hours work? – an impossible timeframe for a website project).

    The current market place is by no means ideal, and as much as I want it to change, I can’t see it happening any time soon. There’ll always be the lowest common denomination of designer (or student designer willing to work for peanuts). Likewise, there’ll always be small businesses who don’t place much importance on their website / promotions design. These are the clients who only think of the short-term, not taking into account the future costs of a re-brand.

    So many people dive head first into the business world without plans, but in our line of work it’s a matter of targetting the serious client. People who care what others think of the ‘first impressions’.

    It no longer surprises me how many enquiries I receive from people wanting something for nothing. Don’t let it get you down though. Position yourself correctly and you’ll have more work than you know what to do with.

  2. It’s not an uncommon scenario, so it was interesting to read how much time and effort you clearly put into putting a case to your client for a custom-designed, professional site. Well done for successfully talking her round – your time and effort have paid off, even if it’s the cheapest site you will have worked on.

    I have worked with a client who had purchased one of these cheapie DIY site packages but came to me after finding the initial site a nightmare to work with … the login was unreliable, and the site didn’t always turn up when the URL was typed in! There were cross-browser problems too. When I looked at the set-up, I found it was *extremely* code-heavy, reliant on tables, and basically a mess. The package gave a choice of design templates, all of which looked terribly generic and in no way gave an indication of the site’s content, the business using the site, or its target market. It was very satisfying to take all of this client’s content and start from scratch.

    As for the acceptance of prices/rates charged in other professions (but not website/graphic design), I think the answer to this is complex. Professions like medicine, psychiatry and law (for example) are subject to regulations on who can practice, how they can practice and in the case of health professions (and maybe depending on where you live), how much they can charge. It’s very easy to set up a website, call yourself a web/graphic designer and charge $50 for a website or a logo, and you don’t need any qualifications or professional accreditation to do it.

  3. Thanks for the wishes, David. I also don’t see the market changing any time soon. In reality, the “going” price for a design/programming related work is $120-200/hour, but somehow only large design studios and web development companies can get away with such price tags. Of course such companies have different type of clients, corporations who often think on a much larger scale than individuals/small businesses. One of the clients of the development company I worked for has spent close to a half a million dollars for a web site design (interface design only), which took them 4-5 months, as they were constantly tweaking the design. What’s even more mind-boggling is the fact that after launching the site (they spent another huge amount of money for developing the site’s functionality), the client decided to go with a completely new design, and spent a smaller chunk of money on re-designing a site within only a few weeks.

    While I do agree with you that we should target more serious clients in our line of business and stay away from the less-serious ones, I do think that we should at least try our best to educate the latter ones. I often had to deal with clients who honestly didn’t realize how much work a web site design/development involves, and after seeing the potential benefits of a professionally developed site they didn’t mind shelling out a decent amount of money for that.

    Tracey, thanks so much for giving that example with another client mesmerized by a site template package. I’ll definitely use it in my future educational client battles ;-)
    You’re right regarding regulations on those high-paid professions, and it’s hard to enforce similar regulations on design professionals, as like you said, anyone can teach himself how to design, or learn how to design at numerous schools in a few months, get the certificate and call himself a designer. That’s why I think client education is so important. Clients should be able to distinguish mediocrity from professionalism.

  4. Is congratulations the thing you say? Way to go solo! … ? I wish you the best of luck? Anyway, I am glad you have an answer so that you can move forward and moving forward is what is important.

    I think in some ways it is “easy” to design a website. But, on the other hand, (unless you have someone really good) it is quite difficult to know everything to a degree that you can be successful on every level. If you are a good programmer you might not be the best designer. Or if you are a good programmer and designer you might not know SEO or writing web copy or managing databases or… and the list goes on. But to get someone who gets the BIG picture, you gotta pay.

    And I think more and more people, as they learn and see the importance of the net, will be willing to pay more. It’s a tough situation to be in, to be between work or not to be, but the good news is that now you can make the right decisions, take the right clients and start off on the right foot. Or the left foot. I don’t want to be a rightist.

  5. Horah, welcome to the freelancer ranks! I encounter this issue quite frequently, but after taking some poorly paying jobs in my early days “just for the money” I quickly realised the dissatisfaction.

    I feel like I haven’t commented here in eons, but I’ve been following when I can in my reader! The wedding has taken its toll on my blog life and now I have to resurrect it!

  6. Congratulations and best of luck in going solo! I always prefer working for myself and not for another company. Unfortunately, through the years, it seems that not so much has changed and there are still people who think that a 1-page site costs $50. I wish you get less of these clients and more of the serious ones!

  7. Good luck with your freelance endeavors Vivien. The scenario you describe is one that I’ve experienced a couple of times recently. Also I’ve been doing quite a lot of work on a semi-permanent basis for a small company so I’ve had an insight to the thinking of a small business.

    For a small business the difference between a few hundred pounds and a few thousand pounds is massive. I honestly don’t think there is any amount of educating that will change how unaffordable a good quality professional designer is, especially when there are freelance script-kiddies and designers working out of bedrooms or India as an option. Of course you and I know that there’s an obvious risk attached with hiring the 16 year old brother of a friend of your aunt’s neighbour, but to the small business it’s an easy choice: £200 or £2000?

    And to be honest with you, I don’t think the comparison with professional lawyers, doctors, interior designers etc is comparing like for like. Firstly from a supply and demand perspective there’s a hell of a lot of people who ‘know a bit’ about web design and can bash a site together. But also, these small businesses – they didn’t use a top lawyer to draw up their legal contracts, they downloaded a template off the internet and copied it themselves; they didn’t decorate the office using an interior designer, they came in at the weekend and did it themselves, then went to ikea to buy some furniture…

    I’m rambling, but I think I’ve made my point. A small business is a small business. Budgets will always be tight. If you are pitching to small businesses you probably need to alter what you offer – maybe produce some templates ready for small businesses (which goes against your ‘educating’)? Alternatively (and I think this is the better option), reevaluate who your target market is.

  8. Aaron said something similar to what I was going to say about why we don’t question lawyers and the like, but people balk at how much design work costs: there are just too many people that think they (or their kid) know something about design and if they can do it, well, then it’d be nice to have you do it, but not necessary. Yes, they are wrong, but they don’t think so! :)

    With lawyers on the other hand, there is some serious trouble you can get into if you hire someone who doesn’t know what they are doing. Not so with a designer, unfortunately. At worst, they’ve just wasted money.

    As obvious by the several lengthy comments, there’s no easy way around the issue of what to charge. I don’t have a good answer, but you did what you believe best and, especially because you believe in the business, I think you did what is right by you. And that’s what counts.

  9. Thank you, Rhett – the congrats, luck wishes are all appropriate here ;-) You got it right – someone who has a BIG picture deserves to get paid accordingly big.

    Thanks for the kind wishes, Omega. It will take time to work on my business skills, it’s impossible and not fair to be giving big discounts every time I come across a nice client who can’t afford my work. Once I get my business senses sharpened I should be getting more and more the “right” clients.

    Aaron, thanks so much for such a detailed and valuable comment and of course, for the wishes. I agree with everything you said above, but it is not that simple to cater and target only large businesses if I want to be paid fairly. The number of small businesses opening in Canada on a daily basis is bigger than the number of people hired by large companies. Though you made a very valid point, not all small businesses think “small”. Also, large businesses like to deal with big-shot design/development studios rather than individuals, so I need to change my business visibility accordingly. Also it takes more time to get the things rolling when dealing with large businesses than with the small ones.
    Personally, I’d love to work on bigger projects with bigger clients, but I don’t want to turn down projects from small businesses. Currently I’m also working on another project for a small business client who pays handsomely to develop an e-commerce site for them.
    Saying that, if you have any tips on how to efficiently target large businesses to score design/development projects, I’m all ears. Perhaps this is something you can blog about on your new site?

    Thanks Lauren. I do think that I made a right decision this time. Though I’ve also learned how to better deal with clients like that in future. I got some books for creative freelancers who run their own business, and currently reading chapters on how to correctly price the project. All those strategies and explanations in the book make lots of sense, so I’ll be adjusting my business thinking as well.

  10. I’m so sorry, Natalie for forgetting to reply to your comment last night, got carried away with the other responses. You’re right – very quickly the low-paid jobs will bring nothing more than dissatisfaction.
    On a happier note, congratulations on your married status. I saw some of your photos and must say — you were one hot bride in that tantalizing red gown of yours. Wishing you and your husband all the best, and the happiness & love you felt on your wedding day to last your lifetime.

  11. I’ve been planning my marketing strategy for the next six months today, and unsurprisingly this came up. The following is based on some experience, but I intend to experiment to push the idea a bit more over the next six months or more.

    I actually believe a quick and simple website is the right choice for some start-ups in the beginning. They really don’t have much money, and they need to save as much as they can wherever they can. And to be honest, while a great website is really important for a growing business, it’s not the most important thing for many people trying to bootstrap their business into existence. Besides, even if they can afford me, they may have to wait a little while until I’m available for work. Better to have a simple template site with contact information than no website at all.

    But I’d also make sure they do it right. Give them some basic advice on choosing a domain name. Suggest a good host or I think setting up a few pages on is a pretty good temporary idea (it’s free, you can buy a domain, it’s super simple to set up and can come across reasonably professional).

    This makes you the designer who is looking out for them, who isn’t desperate for work, has proved to be knowledgeable, has saved them some short-term money and aggravation and has seeded the idea of the cost and benefits of a professional design when they can afford it.

    And so you have yourself a warm lead.

    I don’t think there is any reason we should expect future clients to have any grasp on how much a professional website costs to create. Why would they, when they have had no reason to look at what is involved until they actually want one? Six months to a year is not an unreasonable amount of time to expect a lead to turn into a sale for this kind of fee. If you don’t put in the long-term marketing effort, I think you are losing the opportunity to work on some very interesting projects and with some really interesting people.

  12. Hi Alan. You’ve definitely got a point there, though we do have to be very careful with small business owners, not all of them will become successful thus we won’t see any more business coming from them. On the other hand, when I started my freelance business five years ago, my very first client was just starting up as well, so I did everything for her – business cards, logo and the site. I did give her a discount, but not a huge one. After that first job, I’ve been constantly updating and adding to her site, she was charged by hour. Eventually, I was getting steady paycheques from her for the next 5 years for anywhere from $400 to $700 monthly, depending on how much work she needed to be done. So that first client turned out to be a very good investment for my business.

  13. I was taken aback the other day, at PC World, to overhear at the next desk the saleswoman talking to a man setting up a new business. She said “have you got a website yet? We’ll do you one for free.”

    For free! I had a suspicion this was turning into a commodity market, but really – for free?

    On the other hand, I recently gained a new client who said that they’d browsed their competitors sites and that they were all the same. Literally – same stock photo, same layout. Luckily they wanted something to make them stand out from everybody else.

    I suspect we’re still in the dip – there’ll be many more people going for the free option, until they realise that this doesn’t get them what they were expecting.

  14. Vivien, I’m sure you took the best decision. Corporate world can be amazing some times, especially when things don’t go exactly as planned, and guilty goats need to be found.

    Regarding the clients, that’s funny how we encounter the same mentalities all over the place. Small business owners tend to be very careful on what they spend their money (sometimes becoming really cheap, and not realizing that they actually lose by paying less). For me, the most profitable jobs were the ones done for big companies, but those are really hard to get when you are small. I usually got those jobs via bigger advertising agencies who got the client and then outsourced the website design and promotion to me.

  15. Hi Lucy, thanks for sharing your experience in this. I know many hosting companies are offering a free web site, though of course there are several catches, one of them being tied up with the monthly hosting fees and a standard-looking site. I know one lady, who hates her e-commerce site, hosted with Yahoo, but can’t get away from it, since the actual store part is working, plus it comes with lots of handy features like creating a newsletter, various tracking tools, etc, but it is a nightmare to update (she spent months learning how), and the site itself looks pretty awful.

    Thanks, Simonne. I worked on a couple of projects for bigger agencies in past, and it’s something I’ll be trying to get involved in more this year as well. I’m also partnering with another bigger development company, so together we can take on larger projects.

  16. Some people simply are not in the position to pay what a quality site is worth, and some people simply don’t want to pay what a quality site is worth. Essentially you just have to weed them out from the beginning and talk to the right people.

    There was a time where I would spend lots of time with any person who was interested in a site hoping that regardless of their situation I could convince them they should spend more… but it became a waste.

    Now we qualify every lead that comes in the door, even if it is just a ballpark range. “Were you thinking about spending $5,000 – $10,000 or $10,000 plus?” – if the lead gets sticker shock we know to refer them to someone else.

    There are plenty of companies out there that know the value and are willing and WANT to spend more on high quality custom design. You just have to market yourself to them.

  17. Hi Ross. Thanks for the advice. Give me a bit of time, and I’ll learn how to market myself better ;-) I do agree with you though, if we won’t appreciate the value of our work, how can we expect that appreciation from others.

  18. First off, I think this is a great article. I am a web programmer (not the best in terms of graphic design) but completely agree that any business that wants to step up any of their competition should design their own template. If a company has a site that looks like everyone else’s in its industry then why should anyone go to them over the other company.

    However, I find it a little hard to take this post as being sincere because it itself uses a free template. One that i used about 3 years ago when I was starting out putting together my own page. I know I’ve found it hard to find time to create my own page/logo, and it’s still not complete, but it must be done. The one reason I could see a template (free/paid) would be if you are in a crunch and need something up quick. But I would really hope that in what little spare time is available a custom template is being designed.

  19. Thanks, Matt. Oh, I’m definitely putting up a new custom design on this blog. I know, it’s taking me too long to do so. Believe me, I never considered keeping the current theme for longer than a couple of months, but it did stretch for over a year now. However, I’m working on a new design and hopefully, it’ll be up by the end of June, so keep your eyes peeled ;-)

  20. Sounds great. I’m excited to see what you’re coming up with.

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Hi, I'm Vivien. Thanks for visiting my Inspiration Bit. I often find myself scouring the internet looking for either answers to many questions I have or websites that inspire me, sites that I can learn from. On what topics you might ask — any topics that interest me, anything from web design to typography and art, from blogging to entrepreneurship, from programming to open source.
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When I'm not blogging, I design web sites, teach, play with my daughter and try to balance family, work, friends and a somewhat active social life on