3 December 2011
Running an agency

Why designers are holding themselves back

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.