Why is design so expensive?
It’s a common dilemma: you want to go into business for yourself, and you need a website, but as you begin to price designers, you might easily get confused. Some designers or design-related websites quote rates that are ridiculously cheap. You’re not stupid; you’ve heard the adage, “You get what you pay for.”
At the same time, other designers quote rates that seem…disproportionately high. Does it really need to cost thousands of dollars to design a website?
Perhaps it might have also occurred to you that it doesn’t feel so very good when you, as a coach, are questioned about your own rates (and if that hasn’t occurred to you, now is a good time to think about it: designers like being asked to “keep the design simple” as a method of lowering their rates about as much as life coaches like being told that all they do is “give advice.”)
The truth about design is this: in the same way that there’s a difference between a retail clerk who fetches you the size you need in the dressing room, and an actual stylist who takes time to understand you and the look-and-feel you want to project, there’s a wide range of services provided by graphic and web designers.
We talked to three established graphic and web designers, Paul Jarvis, Sarah Morgan, and Andy Rado about what truly goes into the heart of good design, why it costs what it costs, where you can save (and where you really can’t).
Most people who hire a designer just think it’s about “sitting down to create the design.” What are many of the “hidden costs” of doing business that clients might not always see?
Sarah: Outside of coding I spend time: meeting with and emailing clients, responding to design inquiries and general coding questions, writing four posts/week on my blog plus a weekly email for my mailing list and keeping up social media accounts, learning the best ways to code design elements that clients request (recently spent time finding the best MLS plugin and learning how to use it for a real estate broker – I don’t just implement elements, I teach my clients how to use them), researching new design trends and stats because the internet is ever-evolving.
Andy: Aside from networking and marketing myself there are many hidden costs or “non-billable” hours that I put in each week. Often before starting a project, there are numerous emails and meetings that take place in order to establish a relationship and figure out if it will be a match. Some of the most time goes into preparing a proposal, sometimes 10-20hrs depending on how involved the project and how large the organization. In my experience, I only land 40-50% of these jobs. There are times when I need to learn something new during a project as well, which I can’t charge my clients for—a new development tool or project management system, for instance.
Paul: There are two kinds of web designers, generally speaking. The kind that just agree with everything a client wants and do that work and the kind that argue with clients. I’m the latter. And I argue because I want their project to succeed and sometimes know a little more about websites or design than the clients. I’ve spent a lot of time doing this, and have been involved in more web design jobs that every client. That doesn’t mean I know everything, but I definitely disagree when I am certain an idea won’t work.
What goes into design, beyond the final product of a visual website that the customer and client see?
Paul: Design works because it’s got reasons. Otherwise it’d be art. Nothing wrong with art for art’s sake, but adding a little reason and strategy to the mix is why people pay for the work I do. Every font, pixel, size, colour are all based on things like the golden ratio, grid systems, colour theory, layout principles, and even marketing strategies. Those don’t come in a single font or template you buy.
The other thing that is a factor in why people pay me for to do something they could buy for 99% less money is customization. When I’m hired I do mockups first. The mockups are based entirely on the brand and story behind the brand. I also factor into each design how the web works and how a CMS like WordPress works because I also code. So when I do the theme for their website, it matches the design perfectly and works exactly the way it needs to.
To code a single page well takes just as much time to test and debug, sometimes more, than it takes to program.
Sarah: Websites generally start with a wire frame (a drawing of how the site will be laid out) and a inspiration board for colors/fonts/patterns/etc. The designer will create a mockup of the site (possibly more than one) which will go through a number of revisions before a final design is chosen and they begin to code. A high-quality website will adjust properly on tablets/mobile, be compatible with all browsers, will be easy for you to update yourself (I never leave anything on my client’s sites that will be difficult for them to change on their own), as well as integrating plug-ins and scripts.
Andy: My experience and the variety of work I’ve developed over the years is vast. I can call out a font on a moving billboard and explain why they used it. I’ve spent countless hours observing other design and reading books and taking workshops on design. I sketch new ideas on a regular basis that are totally non-related to my current client work so that when I sit down to work, I can tap into that knowledge and come up with exciting and unique design solutions. I live design, it’s not just something I “do.” I have a huge passion for it.
Sally Sue Coach has just started her coaching practice. She’s uncertain about a lot of things, such as her messaging or who she ultimately wants to serve. She puts up an inexpensive WordPress template to get her by until she is sure about what she wants to do.
What are three questions, or three criteria, that she could use to gauge when she’s ready to actually invest in custom branding/website/visual identity?
- 1: Figure out who you are and who you are serving and why.
2: Have goals in mind: What do you want to accomplish with a rebrand/website redesign?
3: Be ready to put your trust in the people/person you hire.
Sarah: If your website traffic is steadily increasing or you’re getting linked or mentioned on larger sites, I would say it’s time. Your website is your receptionist, your store front, and your big marketing machine all in one, so as soon as you’re clear about what you do and who you do it for, it would be wise to invest in your web presence.
I would recommend finding a designer you like both design and personality wise and request a price quote, so you can start saving money. Look for someone who explains their process up front, who has a contract (to protect you and them), asks for a deposit, and gives you and exact start date and timeline for the project. If any of those things are missing that would be a big red flag!
1. What language does her intended audience use and understand and how can she use that same language to convey her message.
2. What are her business goals? How do they relate to the way the website is presented? Looking at things like calls to action, where elements are placed on a page, etc.
3. What’s her story/personality? How that can be properly conveyed through content, visuals and layout.
Why should people avoid those “$5 logo” websites, or other “factory design” websites? (Or shouldn’t they?)
Paul: They shouldn’t. If they feel logos are worth $5, then by all means, that’s their best bet. I get people that tell me $10,000 for a website is too much. I don’t argue because I agree, that for them, it’s true. If I convinced them otherwise, it’d be one shitty project to work on. I also think that people should spend what they can afford and be upfront with designers about what their budgets are. You can always upgrade your site once your business makes more money, but it’s a lot harder to get out from debt if you spent too much on your business before it’s made any money.
Sarah: My advice is always – if you buy a $5 tattoo you’re going to get a $5 tattoo and nobody wants a $5 tattoo. (Or you’re going to get a $20 tattoo that 50 other people have as well.) Same goes for logos and website designs! If you invest a little money in custom work you’re going to end up with a website that is all your own and a designer that will walk you through the design process and be available for updates and tech support long after your site is finished.
Andy: I’ve kinda given up on worrying about that aspect of my profession—it’s sad—but it’s reality. I believe it devalues what we do, but anyone who is buying a $5 logo generally won’t value what I bring to the table and I want to work with people who not only value what I do or another great designer does, but are excited about the possibilities of working together to reach their goals for their business.
You can generally find anything in life for a cheaper price. With design in particular, you will get what you pay for. I’ve encountered countless clients who have the experience of having to redo work because they went with a designer they weren’t necessarily in love with but hit their budget. Think about what you value, where you want to go and find a designer that you feel excited about working with.
Here’s the million-dollar question: Why is design so expensive?
Andy: I think it looks expensive to non-designers, because good design is generally not hitting you over the head—it just works and you generally “like it” so it should be “easy” to do, right? Also, the proliferation of easy to use software allows people to tinker with fonts and images, so why pay someone else? It has a lot to do with experience. The longer I work, the more vast my knowledge of design, typography, color, culture and trends becomes—and I am a lot faster now than when I started. People want their design great, and fast and that doesn’t come cheap. Quite simply, good design is a lot more complicated than it looks.
Paul: It’s expensive because you’re not only paying for the work, but the expertise that comes with the work. When I do a project for someone, it’s just just me making them a website, it’s me advising, planning, helping them on all aspects of their online business. That’s why I charge closer to 5 figures than a few hundred dollars. My decades of expertise are a factor in every project, so even if a client is paying for 50 hours, the hidden cost is the 20,000 hours I’ve spent working at my craft prior to the project.
Sarah: Like most creative disciplines, you aren’t just paying for the final product; you’re paying for the hours someone put into learning their expertise and staying up-to-date (especially in web design, things change daily). And, you’re paying for a relationship, not just a folder of files.The number one complaint I get from people interested in hiring me is, “I need all of these things fixed, but my last designer disappeared.” If you find a designer on a site like elance who will build you a site for cheap, you may end up with a cool design, but you won’t end up with a relationship. And you definitely won’t end up with someone who will be there to help you out 6 months or even six weeks down the line.
Sarah Morgan is a web designer, blog and business consultant, circus performer, and aerial instructor, who thrives on helping people grow their online presence, make the leap from unfulfilling jobs, and be brave in business and in life.
Paul Jarvis is a web designer, best selling author & gentleman of adventure. His writing has appeared in Forbes, Fast Company, Huffington Post, The Muse, Smashing Magazine, Communication Arts, The Next Web, Adobe’s 99u, GOOD Magazine and many other publications.
Andy Rado is a designer for humans–meaning, he wants design to do more than “look pretty.” He’s interested in the intersection of great design and the practical matters of how we actually use it in our businesses and daily lives.