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<Design:
Pricing your work>

By Daniel Will-Harris 

A client will only pay for design if they already know what it’s worth.

>Buying Design

6-22-98: Even most designers don’t realize that most people are buying design. Every day. You may not consciously think about it as you choose between the yellow box of detergent with the swirl and the blue box with the lines, but the package design is affecting your decision.

For the most part, design works subliminally. That’s what makes it even more powerful, because people don’t realize it’s going on.

A logo design can be a huge asset to a company. Before it becomes well known, it can make a company look more professional--and trustworthy. Once it becomes recognizable, it becomes a powerful symbol for what a company represents. A good logo can help a company earn more money--and be worth more money. So a logo is a valuable property--usually for the life of a company.

A web site is basically a company’s office or store for millions of people around the world. Web designers are the architects of the on-line world--and once again, the image they convey to visitors makes a huge impression and people often make decisions about how professional a company is based on how their site looks and works.

Generally, you can talk until you’re blue in the mouse finger and if a client doesn’t already value design, they’re not going to pay for it--or at least not pay what it’s worth. If a potential client seems cheap, or balks at your price, then it usually means they don’t understand the value of design so they’ll most likely do it themselves, badly, or go find someone who does cheap work--which is what they’ll get. This shouldn’t affect how you price your work--which should be based on “what it’s worth to you,” and “what it’s worth to them,” and “how much they can afford to pay.”

>So what’s it worth?

Obviously, one of the first questions potential clients must ask is how much you charge. And I’m frequently asked by other designers how much they should charge for this or that project. Finding an answer that works for everyone involved can require a lot of thought.

So how do you decide? I’d like you to share your thoughts and pricing strategies in OpenWire.

Here’s how I decide: Unlike a lot of other businesses where there are fixed costs associated with items, design often seems more like an intangible. There’s your time, which is the most important part, plus your overhead, the cost of your equipment, office, etc. That’s your side of the equation. On the other side is “what the market will bear” and this varies greatly around the country and the world--and also depends on the size of the client and how much they value design.

When I’m deciding, the first and foremost factor seems simple, but is complex: How much is this job worth to me? If it’s an interesting challenge, or an interesting company or group of people, or some kind of non-profit organization I feel is worthwhile, then the project has an intrinsic value that makes it more interesting to me--and therefore, I am willing to charge less. What I don’t make in money, I make in the experience. But money is always a part of it--so I also try to figure out how much my time is worth--how much money do I need to get by, and how can I make that much money doing the jobs that I have or am trying to get.

Remember, people aren’t just paying for your time, they’re also paying for your experience and expertise. You’ve probably spent a lot of years learning and working to get to where you are, you’re skills and artistic talents are what make your time and end result valuable.

Next, I try to figure out how much time a job will take. This is always a “guesstimate” but you want to be as accurate as possible, which requires asking questions of the client and getting a good idea of the real scope of the project. This also includes you being specific about what you will provide--how many comps, how many revisions, the difference between “corrections” (which are changing errors you’ve made) and “revisions” (which are changing errors they’ve made). While you do need to make corrections for free (or at least include them in your fee), you don’t want to be stuck making revisions until the end of time--you want the client to pay for their own mistakes. Also be clear about what your “final work product” will include: printouts, PostScript files, application files, or film.

I personally try to avoid handling the printing of jobs--most of my clients are better served having it done by a printer that’s local to them--and I avoid the hassle of reprints when things aren’t right. If a print job is really complex I’ll consider it, but it always takes a lot of time and it’s difficult to make it worth my while.

Write all these facts down, and make sure to include the details the client provided in your own quote. That’s the only way to make all parties sure of what you’re agreeing to. If the project changes down the road, you will have this document to prove what you agreed to, so you can adjust your rate upwards accordingly. As well as a project total, I generally also quote an hourly rate for work above-and-beyond what was initially agreed to.

Try to figure out how many hours it will take you. My rule of thumb on this is: “Everything takes twice as long and costs twice as much as your highest estimate.” That doesn’t mean you necessarily quote twice as much as you really think, just that you add on at least a few hours to cover glitches, headaches and the overall hassle-factor. Scientific, I know.

Finally, take a look at the potential client and try to figure out how much they want to pay. Don’t try to gouge them, just get them to pay what the design will be worth to them and what they can afford. If you’ve done your job right, what you’ve created for them will be a valuable addition to their company.

How can you figure out what a client can afford? That’s always an educated guess, at best. You should try to do some research to see how big they are--and often if they have a web site, you can find that information there.

>High priced spread

So you’d think that designers would be making huge amounts of money designing logos, corporate ID’s and web sites, and in a very few cases they are. We’ve all heard stories about design firms being paid $25,000 to $100,000 or more for a logo for a big company. What we don’t hear is how much money these firms spend to make that much money. They have big offices and staffs and spend months or years taking endless meetings and spending endless lunches and dinners with group after group at these big companies.

My favorite example of this happened a few years back, when I read about the company that redesigned GE’s venerable logo--you know, the swirling GE in a circle. This big design firm spent over a year, and had dozens of designers working on countless comps. In the end, their design looked just like the original with the edges smoothed off. It costs GE a small fortune, but in this case, it was the politics of design, not the design itself that mattered, and that’s what they paid for and got.

>Pricing for the rest of us

Most of us aren’t in this position--most of us are individual designers, often working alone. Our clients may have a entire company-wide budget for the year of only $25,000 to $100,000. Yet those clients who understand the power of design still want their firms to look good, so they turn to individual designers.

You have to be honest with yourself about your experience and expertise. If you’re just starting out, it makes sense for you to charge less--both because you don’t have a reputation, and because it might be easier for you to get work if it costs less. When you’re starting out you might even find yourself doing work in trade for local companies, especially restaurants. It lets you build a client base and a portfolio of work--and get free food--and the local establishments get better design, at lower cost.

>Setting design fees

What do designers in the San Francisco Bay area charge? While I live and work here, I also work all around the world via the Internet. While everyone’s experience is different, as an author of eight books and hundreds of magazine articles, my expertise with type is recognized internationally. This means that my fees could be higher than someone just starting out--even so, they’re about the same as other designers in my area, even those with less experience. Why? Because, frankly, this is how much I’ve found that people will pay for professional design work. If I had a big office and a staff and salespeople schmoozing and taking potential clients to lunch, I could charge a lot more--but it would also cost me a lot more. I prefer to run a personal business for people who know and appreciate my work--it’s less money, but it’s also less hassle.

I try to figure general design work at $100 an hour. Logos average between $1,000 and $3,500. Corporate ID’s are usually a logo plus hours for cards and letterhead--designs that always spring from the logo design. Web sites run between $1,000 and $10,000, depending on size and complexity. Book covers and package designs are between $1,500 and $5,000, once again, depending on complexity. You can see samples of my design work on my site or e-mail me for more information about my work.

>Other Designers, other fees...

Click here to read what other well-known designers who frequent i/us have to say about how they price their work.

 

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Daniel Will-Harris is a designer and author whose work can be found at http://www.will-harris.com. His site features TypoFile Magazine and Esperfonto, the web’s only typeface selection system. He may be reached via e-mail.

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