Ask for The Money: Economic & Creative Prospects for Designers

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We are well into 2017 (doesn’t it seem like New Year’s Eve was a long, long time ago?) but designers are still busy tallying up year-end results, planning projects, trying to turn proposals into contracts, and of course working on making this their most successful year ever.

In my travels—at design events and in one-on-one interviews for various articles—I hear a lot of optimism, even given the political climate. Design is a valued part of the strategic plan for an increasing number of companies that are competing for the public’s attention and dollars. But I also hear laments from designers who serve smaller clients and nonprofits. They’re worried. Many are struggling. For example:

  1. “A project gets dangled in front of me that looks so promising. I meet the people, attend meetings, prepare a proposal, my brain gets picked. And then the project mysteriously disappears.”

  2. “The competitive bidding process is impossible. In this market, I will never be the ‘lowest-cost vendor,’ which many clients insist upon.”

  3. “Clients seem so disorganized. They have no idea of the process involved and don’t want to take the time to learn.”

  4. “I’m rarely allowed to do my best work or even use a fraction of my brainpower. Clients know what they want, and it’s usually not very good. I do client projects to earn a living, and then I paint (draw, sculpt, make music) to fulfill myself.”

Help is on the way!

We thought it would be opportune to reveal what two leading experts who’ve run incredibly successful creative businesses themselves—and are now consulting and teaching—have to say about the economic and creative prospects for designers.


Ted 2017

Headquartered in Seattle, WA, Ted Leonhardt is a designer, illustrator, author—and now career coach. After two decades as chief creative officer of global branding agencies, he’s dedicated himself to helping designers lead more rewarding lives by becoming better negotiators. Here are excerpts from an e-mail interview:

Q: Ted, what major trends are you seeing in the design business?A: Large corporations truly believe in the power of design and design thinking. Inspired by the success of Apple, Nike, Starbucks and others, the planet’s biggest corporations are hiring designers at an unprecedented rate. Major financial services companies and consulting firms are large employers of designers and/or have announced design firm acquisition efforts. In fact, independent design firms are finding that in-house groups are now their biggest competitors. And those groups are no longer thought of as producing lesser-quality work. Another trend is that large and small corporate clients are bypassing traditional design firms altogether and turning to Internet-sourced creative specialists. They’re doing so both to save money and to work directly with the precise talent they need. This has opened up opportunity to talented creatives all over the world and changed the power structure of design.

What questions do your consulting clients ask you most often?Owners of small independent design firms have been telling me that their clients are squeezing them to cut prices at the same time their employees are asking for higher pay. They ask me how to handle this. My answer: Don’t give in! Use the leverage you have with existing clients. The people you directly work with don’t really want to change. They might be under pressure from their corporate bosses to reduce costs, but changing suppliers is expensive and time-consuming. Remind them of what you have accomplished together. And then expand your new-business efforts so you are less vulnerable in the future.

What’s the best way to get that new business?Freelancers who’ve spent too long working for just a handful of clients that gradually drifted away often ask me where they should look for new clients. My answer: Reach out to your community, including past individuals who were connected to you: Clients, people you’ve teamed up with in the past, suppliers you sent work to. Begin to develop and expand your community based on what you are known for and you love to do.

What’s the most frequent piece of advice you gave in 2016?Ask for the money! Ask for the money you need to succeed for your client and yourself. If you do that, both money and respect will come your way.


Sean Client 1

Another point of view comes from Sean Adams, the two-term AIGA National president who—after heading the renowned firm AdamsMorioka for 20 years—is director of the graphic design graduate program at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. He is also a featured author at, which offers online classes in business, software and creative skills. And he’s founder /content provider at the quirky Burning Settlers Cabin blog and studio.

A few months ago I was surprised and delighted to see his announcement for a Lynda class entitled “The Value of Professional Graphic Design,” geared toward clients. Would clients really take such a class? Don’t they think they know all the answers already, I wondered, so I asked Sean these questions:

Q: A class on the value of professional graphic design! It’s about time. How is the class structured?A: It’s divided into 18 individual chapters in two sections. The first is for the business community, the client. It explains why professional design is valuable, how to find and hire a designer, and how to work with him or her for the best result. I also talk about project costs and what to expect during the process. For example, in these slides, I demonstrate the difference between ‘nice’ and professional:

Sean Client 2
Sean Client 3

The second section is geared toward graphic designers. It covers issues such as the difference between a professional graphic designer and the kid down the block who ‘knows’ Photoshop. It helps the designer articulate the value of design to a client and justify his or her design fees. The course also provides tips on how
to work with clients to reach a successful solution, and for me one of the most critical, what is the designer’s responsibility and what isn’t. I hope it will help designers understand the difference between a client who is abusive and another who challenges the designer collaboratively. This isn’t a complete love-fest for designers. I make it clear that there is no room for prima-donna behavior and emotional ‘creative’ outbursts on the part of designers.

Sean-Ask Why
Sean Designer Advice

Sample proposals and estimates are useful to both clients and designers.


How many people took the course?So far, more than 24,000 people.

Holy cow, more than 24,000 people! Who were the students?The students are users of, now part of LinkedIn, the professional online network with more than 300 million members. Over half their viewers are in the business sector, so I wanted to make sure this would make life a little better for both the creative and the client.

Do you think it made a difference, and are you going to offer it again?I’m surprised at its success. [It’s offered continuously to subscribers who pay a monthly fee and have access to all Lynda classes.] I didn’t expect the large viewership and positive feedback. From the notes I’ve received it sounds like it helped designers explain what they do and why it matters. And it’s greased the wheels for clients to have better relationships with their designer now that they know what to expect. Like most things, managing expectations is the key to working together.

What can all of us can do to boost the value of design, and to encourage clients to use professional designers?Well, of course, everyone should watch this course. But if they don’t (which is sad), it’s our job to be professional. That means following clear and clean business practices, treating clients with respect, and understanding that creativity is messy. Things don’t always go as planned, and we all step on those subjective land mines once in awhile. It also means remaining calm and not throwing chairs across a room or peeing in someone’s corner (as a famous adman once did to protest a client’s response) is a good step. If one of us is that jerk who has tantrums or bills for unexpected services, we all look bad.

Good advice for all of us. When you say ‘viewership’ and ‘watch this course,’ what is the format—a video or webcast?You can watch a preview here.

Love it!


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In another arena, the value of graphic design as collectible art is increasing dramatically. Original works, such as prints from Josef Albers’s (1888-1876) Interaction of Color, above, have been selling at auction at record-breaking prices. Alexandra Nelson, director of communications at Swann Auction Galleries in New York, which specializes in rare books, posters and illustrations, shared images and descriptions of the some of the projects that sold or the highest prices in 2016. For example:

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This framed 1937 poster by Lester Beall (1903-1969) sold for $27,500. Excerpted from Swann’s catalog: “Interested in avant-garde typography and Bauhaus design elements, Beall had an extraordinarily successful career as an art director. He created world-acclaimed logos and corporate identities for such companies as American International Paper, Merrill Lynch, Caterpillar and Martin Marietta, and he redesigned 20 magazines for McGraw Hill. In 1937, after being the first American designer to have a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art, he was commissioned by the U.S. government to help promote the Rural Electrification Administration. The six silkscreened posters he created for the REA pitched basic modern amenities to the hinterlands of America, where such ‘luxuries’ were virtually unknown.”

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A set of 9 issues of the Mexican artists’ magazine Horizonte, edited and designed by Leopoldo Méndez, (1902-1969) with reproductions of woodcuts, paintings, and photos by Diego Rivera, Rufino Tamayo, Edward Weston, Tina Modotti and others, published in 1926-1927 sold for $22,500. “Like other contemporary artists’ magazines, it reflected a fascination with new technology and the struggles of life in increasingly fast-paced cities. Méndez… was driven by the idea that its art should be an immediate response to both Mexico’s cultural roots and its current events. The worker and campesino wielding a hammer and sickle against the capitalist gargoyle on the May 1927 issue put class struggle and resistance at the visual forefront.”

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And a rare signed first edition (1963) of Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (1928-2012) sold for $18,000.

Take heart. Have a happy and successful 2017, and may your work fetch good prices—while you’re still alive.