Do you want fries with that logo? Thoughts on design pricing and how to get paid what you’re worth
A question for my fellow designers:
When was the last time you got into a contentious negotiation at the drive-through window? What about at the dentist’s office, are you able to determine how much filling a cavity is worth? Yet why do design and creative services in general seem to have the most negotiable or flexible fees from a client’s perspective?
These days, there's a dangerous trend in our field toward clients expecting more and more work for less pay. How do we reverse this? I can’t even count how often I've been asked to lower my rates or accept an alternative form of compensation for my services after submitting a proposal for a design job. Are these same people asking that of their doctor, lawyer, or mechanic? Not likely.
So how do we as designers and creative professionals go about getting paid what we're worth?
The potential client
I want to start by giving you one example I think we can all relate to. Recently a CEO of an up-and-coming company (that I will not name) scheduled a meeting with our studio to go over the deliverables he wanted us to work on for his rapidly growing business. He'd been referred to us by someone we had worked with in the past and liked the work that he saw on our website. This is usually a good sign; it means that he already has a level of respect for who we are and what we do.
We did our homework and prepared for the meeting as we would with any other potential client. His company’s website features profiles of their 30 or so employees, they've had a lot of great press in notable field publications, their cheapest product sells for $10K, and their products are dubbed by several sources as “revolutionary.” While still a young company, this is no lemonade stand.
On the day of the meeting, we watched the CEO pull up in front of our office in a brand new luxury car. He was well dressed, friendly, and enthusiastic—just the kind of client anyone would want to work with. We listened for two hours as he told us more about the company and his specific creative needs. Both my business partner and I jotted notes while also tallying the amount of time and resources it would take to fulfill all of the needs, which was roughly about three to four months of work and around $50K. We were excited—more about the kind of work than the potential money, but of course time is money.
After going through everything, the CEO confessed that his budget was modest. We've definitely heard this before from smaller companies, especially after showing them work we've done for larger clients like Reebok and Toyota. However, this didn't prepare us for his budget: $5,000 for a list of creative deliverables that would take four months to produce and in our minds cost 10 times as much.
At what point does the monetary disconnect go from being ignorant to insulting? As a CEO, he obviously has his mind on his money and his money on his mind (as a wise man once said). Surely he can appreciate the kind of work we've done as a studio, which is what attracted him to us in the first place. Not to toot our own horn, but he knows we've done work for larger clients and have won many awards for past work. Why would that level of work not infer value and require adequate compensation?
He must also get some sense of the overhead we have from sitting in our office. As a business-savvy person, he has to understand that if we devoted ourselves to a project for a four month period for $5,000 we would not be making any profit at all—in fact, we’d be making less than minimum wage. It’s these types of situations that call for the “Value Mirror,” a term coined by Ken Carbone to put things into perspective for the client.
When given our estimate for what it would actually cost for us to do the things he needed, the CEO expressed frustration and wondered why we're so expensive compared to other designers he's worked with in the past. Now this brings up another tangent that I could go on about for days. The simple answer is that good design is more expensive than mediocre design, just as a meal prepared by a top chef is more expensive than fast food.
You can’t negotiate the price of your meal at McDonald’s or a fancy restaurant for that matter. You certainly can’t go into a Michelin-starred restaurant and expect an entree to cost the same as a Big Mac. But when did our client’s appetites get too big for their wallet? Why do folks in the creative service industry (at all levels) always get put in this situation? Are we all just known as pushovers or something? The term “starving artist” shouldn't apply to designers with a higher education getting commissioned by brands for commercial art.
The case for value
Granted, designers aren't always saving lives like doctors, but we are building brands that make ridiculous amounts of money—often directly because of the services we provide. We make things look attractive and desirable to consumers, which in turn drives sales. How often do you buy wines based on their labels?
This isn’t an isolated incident
The scenario previously described is unfortunately not an isolated incident for us, as I'm sure it isn't for most people reading this. Fortunately, most clients we do business with appreciate and value the power of design, which leads them to our studio in the first place. However, we do still find ourselves in situations like this quite often, which to me means there's a big problem with the general perception of design and its value. I don’t know what the solution is exactly to preventing this sort of scenario and the general lack of respect and appreciation to our field. There are some solutions out there that I don't agree with, though.
A problem I see
Websites like Fiverr, 99 Designs, Tongal, and The Idealists on the surface seem great for connecting clients with folks who can provide the creative services they need—and they're great for that. Everyone from students and freelancers to small studios, production companies, and ad agencies use these platforms. However, these sites are doing way more harm than good and are rapidly cheapening the creative services we provide.
Besides giving a client 99 design options (which is just plain wrong), the two main problems I have with sites like these are:
1. Creatives are forced into a feeding frenzy bidding war where they're giving away free work and intellectual property in order to just get the job. What's stopping these potential clients from just taking all these uncopyrighted ideas? Absolutely nothing.
2. My primary concern though is the fact that they (the websites) are the ones setting the prices for our services and setting those client expectations. Our industry isn't as easy to commodify as that, and we as designers shouldn't accept these poor standards.
You may not think that these sites affect you if you or your studio doesn't associate with them or if the clients you deal with don’t either. But just know that even if you're above these sites, clients tend to move around from brand to brand and are always on the lookout for the best deal they can get—meaning at some point in their career, they may not be above using them. These sites make it easier for them to find cheaper deals for creative services. The fact that they're being used by a lot of other people in our industry affects you whether you know it or not.
Don't be a pushover
One thing we all need to realize though is that there is power in saying “no.” Great power, actually. Whenever I've put my foot down in the past and refused a job because the budget was inadequate, nine times out of 10 that client will come back with more money for the project, or they'll come back at a later date with a more substantial budget for a new project. The power of “no” brings great desire; people tend to want what they can’t have.
Taking a job for cheap using the excuse that it will “be good for your portfolio” has terrible financial repercussions to our industry at large. Trust me, I know from experience. Those clients will tell other people in need of design work their story when asked how much they paid and that’s how we get this negotiable reputation in the first place.
Of course everyone has a friend or relative who they can get cheap design work from—and I’m not saying that will end. We all want to hook up our loved ones at some point, and those should be the opportunities for creative freedom and good portfolio pieces (to dole out sparingly). But if they're just some random client who isn’t a non-profit, please always charge what you're worth: your full rate.
A proposed solution
I realize I'm preaching to the choir here. What else can we do to change this system and social standards that seem to be rapidly diminishing the value of our skills?
In my opinion, it starts with educating yourself on the business side of things and being confident in your skills. Unfortunately, having artistic talents will only get you so far financially. In order to truly succeed you need to arm yourself with the ability to protect yourself against those who want to exploit your skills.
It sounds cheesy, but it starts with knowing and believing in yourself and that you're worth the rates you charge. Insecurities cause us to be more flexible on these rates, but there's no good reason why seasoned professionals should bend their rates to those of a recent design graduate. There is talent and years of process, wisdom, and expertise that goes into your rate. If a client only has a budget for student rates, then that's where they should go for their design work, just like I shouldn’t show up at a fancy restaurant for dinner if I only have enough for fast food.
Focus on yourself
Instead of competing and submitting free work for projects on sites like the ones previously mentioned, focus the time and energy you'd spend on those treatments on your own self promotion. Don’t take on free or cheap projects because they seem “cool”—a good creative can turn any project into a “cool” one no matter what the product or who the client is. That's our job, after all. Make your own personal design project for a cause you believe in—or just for the sake of self expression. Make your portfolio site as attractive and unique as you can, promote your work on social media, submit to design blogs, award shows, and take the time to develop your own style and seek out clients directly.
These are the ways to attract more work. The right kind of work that you want versus the kinds of projects on online bidding wars. Do everything you can to make the clients come to you. We're just feeding the fire and working against ourselves by using the sites mentioned earlier—they got 99 designs, but yours ain’t one!
It starts with us, the creatives. Only we can raise the bar and make the right business decisions to get compensated what we are worth. That's how our industry will hopefully be elevated and respected as much as other professional fields someday.
—Matt Titone is a founding partner and creative director at ITAL/C, a multidisciplinary creative studio, and Indoek, a creative surf culture blog.
This article originally appeared on Medium.