Design. What’s It Worth?

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What’s the best way to manage your creative business finances? How do you go about pricing design work? Learn how with The Creative Professional’s Guide to Money by Ilise Benun.

Like many graphic designers, I could use a little more work right about now. Good, challenging work from clients who have interesting assignments and reasonable budgets. Still in the middle of completely redesigning my website, attending every networking event in the area, and trying to develop a marketing campaign, I started getting barraged with personalized emails from Network Solutions offering a free 30-minute business consultation and evaluation.

After about the 200th email, curiosity got the best of me. I picked up the phone and dialed the number. What were they really offering?

Network Solutions

The friendly salesperson asked a series of questions and then recommended a Facebook business profile page. Really? He assured me that clients for high-end design services are looking for graphic designers on Facebook. Really? And that for only $199 (billed every 30 days, with money-back guarantee), they would create an awesome Facebook business profile page for Visual Language LLC. Not only that, included in the cost was an online ad campaign that would put my firm directly in front of carefully targeted decision-makers including CEOs and communications directors in the New York metropolitan area. I took the bait, gave him my credit card number, and uploaded ten images.

The results, provided by a sister company,, which advertises heavily on TV, were so bad I had to remove the cover photo they made from cheesy stock images of globes and atoms. I was totally embarrassed by the way-too-promotional posts and ads. (The thing I like least about Facebook is ads in my news feed, and now I was responsible for them popping up in other people’s news feeds.) I deleted the offending posts, apologized publicly, and tried to make the page more relevant and useful. After 30 days—with not one inquiry or call from a CEO or anybody else—I cancelled the service.

I then posted a query on my personal Facebook page and on LinkedIn, hoping to crowdsource answers to this question: Designers: have you availed yourself of online promotional opportunities, such as:—signing up to have your work showcased on sites that profess to get you work; —responding to offers to build or promote your website and get higher rankings; and/or —taking part in online design contests?What were your experiences, pro and con?

No response. No one would fess up to ever having done any of this.

Was I the only sucker? Probably not. But what is the right way to attract clients these days? The logical person to ask: Ted Leonhardt.

Ted Leonhardt

Ted Leonhardt in his Seattle office. Photo: Mike Folden

Ted, a former big-agency head and now consultant to creatives, recently published Nail It! Stories for Designers on Negotiating with Confidence, a little book with big ideas about how designers with good negotiating skills can make more money and go about pricing design. I mean, a lot more money. In Ted’s world, designers get $195-an-hour gigs and projects for which the client readily agrees to a $150k fee. He’s currently working on the pilot for a one-hour video series, “Worth It: How to Get Your Share of Money and Respect.”

nail it by Ted Leonhardt

Here is your own “Ted Talk”—straight from the source:

Q: Ted, everybody wants to find clients now. If the good clients aren’t posting their requirements on online logo contests, where, oh where, are they to be found?

A: Good clients do post their requirements on online logo contests. And why not? The price is reasonable. They just might get a logo that will work fine. In fact, a freelance designer client of mine actually uses one of these logo sites himself. He posts the requirements of an assignment he’s working on, uses the results to broaden his own view of possible solutions, and shares the results, along with his own solution, with his client.

Q: What’s your definition of a good client?

A: Good clients are a pleasure to know and work with. Good clients have assignments I love to be a part of and contribute to. And they have the money I need, both for income and for respect, so I know that I’m valued.

Q: Where and how can designers find clients like that?

A: Good clients find you. Good clients search for designers who have a reputation for doing the kind of work that they want and need. To be found by good clients, your community must be aware of your reputation.

In my experience, the designers and small firms that don’t have enough work simply have not done a good job of getting the word out. I’ve encountered this situation many times. The firm, or freelancer, is kept busy for an extended period by a couple of clients, often for a few years or more. Then for one reason or another, the work dries up. While they were busy, they were too busy to do any self-promotion, so their community is simply unaware of them.

In the short term, the solution is to reach out to the opportunities that are most likely to provide work: clients in the same category as your past clients, individuals you’ve met through your work who already appreciate your expertise, clients you meet through professional and industry associations, and so on.

In the long term, you need to create a continuous chain of outbound messages that lets your community know how your expertise helps people and businesses succeed. Most creatives aren’t natural self-promoters, and that can make this task seem difficult. But I’ve found that if you think of self-promotion as your next creative project—a challenging problem to solve and one that’s every bit as interesting as a
ny client assignment—the effort can be fun. And of course, the results—a few inbound calls—can be very motivating.

Q: You are a major advocate of storytelling. Please tell us how that can work in the context of self-promotion.

A: Here’s the formula: You do great work for your clients. From doing the work, you gain insights and examples. Now you need to create stories about how that work or the insights you gained from doing the work helped your clients achieve success. Post the stories in places where your community will see them. The stories can be rendered in any form that’s digital: videos, images, cartoons, narratives, or whatever tells the tale. They just have to display in a compelling manner how your expertise helps others.

The result of this effort will be inbound opportunities from prospects that are somewhat qualified because they are responding to your messaging. This forms a virtuous cycle in which your work and messaging provide the opportunity for more work.

Q: Once the prospect contacts you, what’s the next step?

A: When a prospect reaches out to you, your first priority is to differentiate yourself from your competitors. But first, spend some time qualifying the prospect and the assignment to see if there’s a good fit. Do this in person, on Skype or Google Hangout. By phone if you have no other choice, but never through email.

Because, to win the gig, they must like you. You must develop a relationship with them to win their trust, and that will not happen it they don’t like you. When you speak in person, ask:“I’d like to ask you a few questions to see if there is a fit. Is that all right with you?”“First, how did you hear about me (us)? What was it that prompted you to call.

You want to know if someone referred you or if they are responding to your outbound messaging. Referrals can be extremely powerful. If the referral was to you only, that is very differentiating. And simply asking reminds the prospect of that. If they included you in their search because of something they saw or read, your questioning needs to uncover what it was, precisely, that got their attention, because that, too, is differentiating.

Ask as much as you can about the assignment. You need to know what their expectations and experiences with the projects are. Asking questions helps them see your experience and expertise in action. Questions also show your genuine interest in them, and as a result are very flattering. Questions honor their knowledge and expertise.

Ask them what they expect to spend on the project what their schedule is and what they expect you to deliver. If their answer seems unreasonable, ask, “How did you arrive at that number?” Their answer may give you new insights on their expectations that will further the conversation, or it may be that you’ll choose not to pursue it further.

Q: Now we’ve gotten to the toughest part. I’ve found that clients almost never state a number. How can you get them to reveal their budget? How do you go about pricing design from there?

A: There is nothing better than telling them what a project will cost to get them to reveal their budget.

Remember, if the opportunity is a good one, before you even get to the budget, you need to inspire them. That is the most important step. Inspiration. That is where your creative skills will be most effective. From your questioning and the ensuing conversation, you’ll sense who they are. You’ll feel what they are feeling. You’ll intuit how they would like to see their future and the future that the project will help bring to life.

You can demonstrate all this when you describe the opportunity in a way that dramatizes the results they are seeking, what you can add to the effort that will make the project a success. Start your inspirational remarks with, “In my experience…” and keep it short.

You need them to know that you and only you will approach this project in your unique way and get the results they need. Inspiration is how you show them your passion and win.

Then you can talk budget, schedule and deliverables.

Q: When I ask about budgets and pricing design, clients often say, “We don’t know. You tell us.” And then when I state a number I think is reasonable, they say it’s way too much. Or they might agree and ask for a proposal. When they get the proposal, there are often no more ‘inbound calls.’ I end up suspecting that they agreed to the number just to get the proposal, and now they’ll take every idea therein and use them—or find someone else to do it all for less.

A: I always like summarizing in person before giving them anything in writing. Summarizing costs, schedule and deliverables extends the conversation and gets an immediate response, allowing you to adjust as required or decline the assignment long before writing a proposal—saving a lot of time and effort. If they push back on your summary, ask a few more questions, clarify, refine your approach and summarize again until you both agree on what’s to be accomplished.

Q: Let’s say they do state a number. How can you get them to understand that the $300 they had budgeted is not enough, and that they need to spend more?

A: Ask them how they arrived at the number. Maybe it’s an appropriate figure. Maybe you could actually do something appropriate for $300. Or maybe not. In any case, you want to know if $300 is all there is before, not after, you put in more effort.

Q: I was just kidding about pricing design work at $300. What kind of project is worth $300 to both the designer and the client? I’m figuring three to four hours. Doesn’t a number that low start the relationship on the wrong foot?

A: My friend/ Photoshop guru routinely helps me make a photo glorious and prints it out large to boot for $300. We have a great relationship. As a matter of fact, I’m heading out to his office this afternoon to have him add his touch to some giant wall prints I want to make. His fees for a couple of hours will be in the low hundreds.

Q: When it comes to larger projects, are there general design pricing guidelines that designers can use as a reference?

A: The Graphic Artists Guild Pricing & Ethical Guidelines is the best source. I’ve used it for many years. Also, just Google, “What should I pay for…” Or ask anyone you know in the industry.

Q: Google, ‘What should I pay for?’ Seriously? I just Googled, ‘What should I pay for a logo design?’ Site #1 said, “One should expect a simple logo design to cost approximately $200… a logo design with intricate patterns and fonts will cost twice as much as a simple design. Expect to pay around $400 for a design of this type.” Another site advises owners of startups to do it themselves by picking a nice font and a color. A third site has a chart with $200 at the low end and $1,000,000 for ‘world-famous designer.’

A: Yep, it’s a
ll over the board. And yes, you can pick a color and a font all on your own. And if you have good taste you might do all right.

In my experience, it’s all a matter of context. If the client wants to design it themselves or pick an off-the-web solution, that’s okay too. The thing is, if they can’t see the difference between your work and the off-the-web design, they will never need you. Move on.

Q: I’m in the market for a car right now. I can buy a new Mini Cooper or VW Beetle for around $20,000 or a Tesla for $95,000. There’s a logical, understandable connection between the price and the car you get for the money. It kind of makes me crazy that prices for design have such a huge, ridiculous range. PS: And please tell Ivan Chermayeff about the simple logo design for $200. Aren’t the most effective, enduring designs often the most simple?

A: What you get depends on your position in the marketplace, reputation, and how you behave. Cars are commodities. Designers are individuals.

Q: That’s a great answer. Back to my original situation. Ted, do you think there’s a value to having a business Facebook profile, and that clients might be looking for designers on Facebook?

A: Yes, yes and yes! FB, LinkedIn, Google+, Skype and Twitter are all quite wonderful for getting the word out. I’m a total fan and frequent user of all, and get a great response in return. Thanks to those services and Amazon, Kindle, Apple and iTunes, I have connections all over the world and clients in South America, Europe, and all over the US. And so do many of my consulting clients.

Q: Let’s hope this works for others, and that we get many positive responses from designers who follow your advice.

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