A lot of times when the discussion turns to prices for design with clients (or the general public), there’s frequently a case of “sticker shock.” The design community has frequently discussed the negative impacts of things like crowd-sourcing or the cheap rates of overseas competitors, but the truth of the matter is that as designers we should be able to communicate with clients the honest reasons why we charge what we do.

More than that, we should communicate the value of our designs and the process that produces them. For clients who are going to invest significant time, resources, and finances in a designer or firm, there’s reasonable trepidation that we should be working to overcome. Compare it to buying a car: sure, there’s a brochure with pretty colors and pictures (our portfolios), and the reviews from other drivers (past clients and employers), but there’s no test drive for a designer or firm – which is why it’s so important to clearly communicate with prospective clients EXACTLY what they are going to get, what it’s going to cost, and why it’s the best fit for them.

This post is exploring those two sides to the financial transaction associated with design: why good design costs what it does, and why it’s value exceeds what it costs.

The Cost of Design

As a profession, designers in general aren’t cheap. But there’s no reason we should be. When discussions about projects turn to how they can be done cheaper through other options, there are some standout reasons to point to regarding why good design costs what it does:

  1. This Isn’t Our First Rodeo — No matter how many examples are in your portfolio, sometimes it’s hard to connect exactly what those mean to new projects. Each previous project improves and evolves a designer’s process, meaning that problems get identified and solved faster, solutions that aren’t feasible are rapidly eliminated, and that we can produce more from direction and feedback given to us by the client. Every designer at some point or another was working on his or her first project - the difference in hourly rate between an experienced designer and someone fresh out of school is the amount of progress that can be made with each billable hour.
  2. We Live and Breathe This Stuff — My Twitter feed is filled (probably 95%) with design-related articles, news, tutorials, etc., and I know enough other designers to confirm that I’m not the exception to the rule. We constantly evaluate the websites we visit: their interactions, what typefaces are used, what technologies are driving them – this is part curiosity, but part product evaluation. As designers, it’s part of our job to stay on top of the way things in the industry are changing. Designing a website that would have been killer in 2005 is pretty useless in today’s marketplace. We’re well aware that if we build a website that makes your product look lame, it’s going to impact the users’ opinions of your product and their likelihood to send their money your way. We have to be aware of what styles are associated with particular brands, what typefaces are being overexposed, what kinds of interactions are becoming standard. If we’re also developers of any kind, that opens a huge can of worms: what content management systems are advancing, javascript libraries, html5, css3, and dozens of other implementation-related technologies. Knowledge of all of these things allows us to stay current, but even more importantly, it allows us to choose which best fit the project at hand to create the best final product possible.
  3. We’re Professionals — This isn’t something we’re doing for a lark or on a whim - we’ve devoted our own time and efforts to make this a career. That means that we meet certain expectations - we’re not going to get bored halfway through the project and disappear, we’ll answer emails and phone calls, that clients’ opinions and that of the community at large matters to us. This also means we have significant costs on our end - software alone for designers is prohibitively expensive - that we have to take into account when we set our prices. We might work strange hours or wear silly t-shirts about typefaces, but that doesn’t change how sincere we are about our work. When all is said and done, deliver a product that works and meets (or exceeds!) expectations, and we stand behind our work.

The Value of Design

The discussion so far really only covers half of the picture - why the design process costs what it does (which is normally the root of the “sticker shock”). As I mentioned before, clearly communicating the value of the product that is created by this process easily outweighs the costs.

  1. Public Persona is Part of the Product — As much as some of us hate to admit it, image matters. Style matters. As human beings, our sense of sight often gives us the first information about a new product, business, or person. A web site or app is going to instantly reflect on the brand as soon as a user opens it. Taking time to create something worthwhile and making sure it’s done right has a massive effect on user’s impressions, and be assured that people do talk about their impressions with others. Just like you wouldn’t leave the sign on the front of your business in disrepair and disarray, you can’t leave your presence on the internet in the same state.
  2. Design is About Results - Not Our Opinions — A common misconception is that “designers just make things pretty.” The truth of the matter is that many of the things that we create may not fit our personal style or taste, but they are the right choice for the audience, project, or goal of what we’re working on. A friend of mine once said, “Design is about creating something that addresses a need, enhances a process, or just plain works – that’s why it’s called design, and not decoration.” This goal is the foundation of almost every (good) design decision that gets made - not to do something because it looks cool, but because it helps make the product better. I often find that this idea is the hardest to communicate, but it can go a long way in convincing clients that paying for good design is worth it because it can be backed up with case studies and metrics. Anytime that you can put numbers behind a design decision is a great chance to show why design is an investment that grows business, not an expense that takes away from profits.

The Bottom Line

Communicating the value of design isn’t something that’s always easy, and the things I’m talking about here may not apply in every case, every time. I think, as a designer, the overarching thing that I want to communicate when I talk to clients about costs is that I’m not a nouveau snake oil salesman for the digital age; I’m a professional dedicated to providing a product that can achieve real results for their business. I’m excited by what I do, and it makes me constantly want to be better and provide more value in every project, and my guess is that most designers feel the same way.