Why designers are holding themselves back | December 3, 2011

Have you every been in the situation where the client keeps requesting tweaks to the design or changes in functionality? As you sit moving boxes around the page, the budget is slowly draining away and you’re no longer sure whether the project can be completed on target? In these situations what do you do? Some designers will push back on the client, claiming that these changes were never in the agreed brief and that they had only budgeted for 2 or 3 rounds of design. Others will simply swallow the cost in the hope that the changes are almost finished and in the knowledge that they’ll never find themselves in this situation again. Well not until the next time.

If this is a familiar situation to you, it’s because you’re a designer. This isn’t an unusual experience. Instead it happens to almost everybody to some degree. It’s just the nature of the game; and it’s completely your fault.

Clients come to us with little idea how much a website should cost. Often this is the first website they have ever commissioned, or at least the first in several years. So they assemble a list of agencies, put out a loose brief, and wait for the estimates to come in. If the client has done their homework and selected designers of similar quality and experience, the variation in prices isn’t that great. However most shortlists are assembled in a more scatter gun approach and the resulting estimates can range from the high thousands to the low hundreds of thousands. With little knowledge to base their decisions on, how do they choose?

As humans we don’t carry around a constant notion of value in our heads. Especially not for something we’re inexperienced at purchasing. Instead we take input from our surroundings and make a decision from the range of options availible. So if you’re an inexperienced wine drinker, you walk into the shop, take a look at the different shelves and map your purchasing decisions on to the range of prices available, some perceived notion of quality (often the design of the bottle) and the occasion you’re purchasing for (do I want a cheap wine to take to a party, a mid priced wine a a gift for a friend or an expensive one for a special occasion).

Market prices are dictated by the availability of suitable alternatives. So when an average client is faced with a group of undifferentiated agencies, they will inevitably decide based on price. I’m sorry to say that this is your fault as a designer. You’ve failed to differentiation yourself from the other suppliers and demonstrate why you are worth a price premium. You’ve failed to show that you have a stronger focus on quality, that you have a better team or that your process will help ensure that they’ll get the solution they want. When this happens you’re faced with two alternatives. You can choose to compete on price, or you can walk away.

Sadly far too many designers choose to compete on price. We enjoy what we do so much, we’ll do it for free in our spare time. So when somebody says they are willing to pay us—even if it’s less than what we wanted—we feel flattered and eagerly accept the challenge. The desire to create is so strong in most of us, it clouds our judgement.

Budget conscious clients have a knack of sensing this desperation and a skill at holding designers to ransom. I’ve met far too many designers who have taken projects at or below cost and signed all their rights away just to have a big name brand in their portfolio. Music clients are especially adept at this, but they’re not the only ones. These clients see designers as a mere commodity—there will always be hungrier and more desperate designer around the corner for them to use.

The problem is, when a professional relationship begins with a compromise, it’s very difficult to gain your power back. And to create good design solutions you really need to be in the driving seat, with the client acting as navigator. One compromise on price leads to another compromise on quality and very soon you find yourself a supplier rather than a partner, having to acquiesce to every demand.

We think that budget conscious clients are the norm, but they’re really not. Most clients want to balance between cost and value, while the best ones are willing to pay a price premium for quality. However if you’re unable to differentiate yourself from the competition, price becomes the only deciding factor.

As designers we think that it’s the prospective client that holds the cards. After all, they are the ones with the money and therefore the ability to choose who to work with. This is exacerbated by the pitch, where clients surround themselves by 5 or 6 agencies all competing against each other for the favour of the client. But here’s the dirty little secret in our industry. It’s not the client that has the power, it’s you, the designer.

Clients have the money, but they don’t have the expertise. Design is becoming one of the only business differentiators left, which is why they are coming to you. You, the designer, have something special, something rare and something in demand. The truth is, there are plenty of prospective clients out there, but few good designers to satisfy them. So it’s up to you to drive the engagement, to set your prices and to chose who you work with.

If a client’s budget is too small for you to do a good job, don’t compromise on quality and drop your prices. If you do that you’ll always be stuck in a self imposed price ghetto. Instead, explain to the client why their budget isn’t sufficient and encourage them to reconsider. If you focus on quality while everybody else in the pitch is focussing on price, you’ve successfully differentiated yourself. You may not be able to do this in one leap, but if you push every client to be a little braver, each project you do will be that much better than the last.

If your prospective client isn’t willing to budge on price, it’s a good indication that they won’t be flexible in other areas. In this situation it’s best to walk away. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself working on a project where client expectations exceed what’s possible and everybody loses. These projects become toxic. They sap your energy and eat into your profitability, while delivering little value to the client. Leave these projects for some other poor sap to take on. You’re better than this.

It’s hard leaving money on the table, especially if you don’t know where your next project is coming from. It takes character to turn down a big project from a respected brand, even when you know it’s the right thing to do. However it’s usually worth it. The number of times I’ve seen agencies take on a mediocre project only to have to turn down their perfect client a week later because they are already committed is astonishing. Turning down a project which is under budget closes one door, but you’ve no idea how many other doors this will open in the future.

Some times you have to take what’s offered in order to pay the bills. I just believe that this should be done as a last resort rather than your opening gambit. So let’s stop holding ourselves, our clients and our industry back because we’re so desperate to win work that we’ll drop our prices and compromise on quality. Instead, let’s endeavour to make each successive project we take on better than the last, and in doing so raise the professional standing of our industry and the quality of the web as a whole.

Posted at December 3, 2011 1:21 PM


TVD said on December 3, 2011 2:39 PM

Thank You Andy! Each message presented here is both necessary and vital to folks who want to run successful creative agencies. Two major concepts really jumped out at me:

First, you have to know when to walk away. 100% That’s going to be different for each creative, but it’s important to know what that is.

Lastly, it’s important to stay available for the right client because you never know when they’ll arrive. We aren’t psychics and there is a really good chance you can’t see into the future either. So we must stay available for the clients who share our core values.

Keith said on December 3, 2011 3:48 PM

Great article Andy. It is difficult to showcase the difference to clients at times I’ve found simply bc they are so misinformed. But your wine store analogy is spot on!


Ben Meissner said on December 3, 2011 4:07 PM

Great stuff, here. I really wish more designers and agency owners would think this way.

Tom Riley said on December 3, 2011 4:31 PM

Absolutely outstanding article. In amongst all the noise, Andy is saying the important things which really need to be said.

(self-plug warning) I touched on some of these points in our blog, which is aimed at smaller companies/freelancers:

Richard Slater said on December 3, 2011 6:23 PM

Could switch out the word Designer for Agency or Freelancer and it would hold. Read it, learn it, love it!

Ryan Swarts said on December 4, 2011 12:16 AM

You’re right. I’ve been in situations where the agency I worked for started off a project at an at-cost level just to get the job. What happened? The client ended up demanding — and getting — way more scope and revisions than planned. Besides being demoralizing, the project ended up way over budget.

The race to the bottom isn’t one any talented designer wants to win. There’ll always be someone to undercut you on price, especially as globalization and new tools bring exponentially more designers to the pitch. Instead, stick with a specific skill you really are good at (usability, illustration, WordPress, whatever) and raise your prices as you get better. It’s easier said than done, but those who can do it won’t end up having to worry about budgets. They’ll have the clients that don’t mind spending for quality. And that extra buffer on projects will only make the work better because you’ll be freed up to think and try things.

Phil Jackson said on December 5, 2011 12:19 PM

I think the lower down the pecking order the harder it is to walk away from ANY money on the table. That’s why I think it’s important for a designer to state (either on their website or at least at the first meeting) their pricing structure and spell out how that price is arrived at. Larger agencies would find it easier to walk away knowing that next week the phone will ring again but the smaller designer may have no clue what’s around the corner, if anything.

KSRuprai said on December 5, 2011 3:05 PM

We need more blogs / posts like this emphasising on quality.

Clients also need to made more aware - but that’s probebly less likely to happen. Quality speaks for itself.

“It takes character to turn down a big project from a respected brand, even when you know it’s the right thing to do…”

Do the right thing.

Ian Wilson said on December 5, 2011 3:21 PM

So true! We basically had this exact same conversation at our annual business strategy planning session. The big thing to take away from this, professional integrity aside even, is the concept of the ‘price ghetto’.

If you feel like you aren’t able to charge more take your top ten large projects, and top ten small, and look at how many you closed of each. And how much time you spend courting/closing them.

When we did this we found that we spent so much more time closing tiny projects, that still didn’t close as well as the larger projects with clients that were simply ready to accept the costs.

Thanks for the article Andy!

debugg3r said on December 7, 2011 9:52 AM

Realy good article, I work in a small webdesign/development company, so I know what you wrote about :).


Dan Gough said on December 7, 2011 12:08 PM

This article resonates so much truth, especially the passion of us as designers - we strive so whole heartedly to create a product we are proud of, that often we let that cloud budgets and income.

Rob said on December 7, 2011 12:13 PM

Great article man. Always difficult to walk away from a client when you need the money.

Darrell said on December 7, 2011 12:16 PM

Working with start-ups and charitable sector we often look at ways to help them agree the cost, through phasing project. This way trust is built on both sides without compromise. Great article!

visionfriendly said on December 7, 2011 4:13 PM

Great article… I like what you said about designers being so eager to get a check that they will almost accept any gig for a substandard price — that is definitely true. Somebody offering to pay for YOUR creative work is certainly flattering, which can cloud judgement, but a lot of designers are talented enough, and need to hold themselves to a higher standard.

Prayag Verma said on December 7, 2011 6:47 PM

Just started taking projects and was really frustrated with the clients ever increasing demands on a very small budget (just 5$’s !!! , using Fiverr ). But this article rightly said “The desire to create is so strong in most of us” and it shows that its more of Passion ,which drives me rather than Money. Even though I aim to earn high , but 1stly had to use a platform for building my reputation

William Lombardo said on December 7, 2011 7:54 PM

This is a great article! I’ve practiced this theory over the years, although it can cause sleepless nights sticking to your guns, it is the best way to deal with clients.

I’ve told this very same thing to a good friend, who has faced hard times, like the rest of us recently, but he takes the “I have to pay the bills” attitude. Unfortunately, he finds himself doing a lot of work for free after making low-ball estimates just to get the job.

I believe, if designers/artists keep perpetuating the myth “we’d do the job for free because we like what we do” we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Marios said on December 7, 2011 9:52 PM

Most designers will be frustrated for at least another 5 years (sorry!)
You see this is how it goes, about 10 years ago it was good, you needed software that was hard to get, you needed skills (html/xhtml) to code a website, the demand was high and not many people could do it.

Today everybody has Photoshop and Dreamweaver and everybody is a designer. (sorry!) and outsourcing is big, like I said everybody is a designer.

So whats in 5 years, good stuff …mostly amazing quality. The want a be designers will be gone, they will not be able to keep up with the quality and it will show. Only the talented and real designers will be successful.
PS If you charge few hundred dollars for a website you are not a web designer trust me, don’t waste your time.

Andy , great article…

Tom Doyle said on December 13, 2011 5:31 PM

You’re 100% right.
But because we need to put food on the table we take these jobs that leave us with not even something worthy of putting on our portfolio.
Great read by the way!

Richard Lim said on December 16, 2011 9:12 AM

Really well said. Keeping this as a bookmark to read during rough periods. :)

In my recently acquired opinion, pressure keeps us alive. pressure means higher expectations. And yes, explain properly to clients the reasons for pricey good work, since they have already knocked at your door asking for your services; they want your skills! The best geniuses gets the most pressure. It’s good pressure really. For those that don’t accept the fees required to do a good job, don’t even bother!