In the Long Run


Pay less up front, pay more later. Pay more up front, pay less later.

In most cases, provided you’ve done your research, paying more upfront usually means paying little to nothing down the road. The inverse is obvious.

That’s a universal principle hard to swallow for the penny-pinchers who recoil at the mere scent of a high price. But it’s something to remember when making your next purchase.


Spec work

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Within the broad realm of Art, there has always existed a perhaps broader spectrum of opinion regarding it as a profession, more so than perhaps any other occupation.  Art can sometimes be lucrative, and other times so undervalued it can scarcely be given away.  Hence the popular term, “starving artist” and equally understood notion that artists work is only, or at least best appreciated after the artist has died.

Regardless of one’s opinion about art, particularly design, it is work and deserves compensation.  The NO!SPEC organization offers a good resource for bringing awareness to what spec work is and why it shouldn’t be a valid form of conducting business.  It’s surprising to me that there is even a debate about this issue, but the main fault lies with designers who are willing to do spec work, not with those who offer it.  Contrary to popular thinking, saying “no” to design work whose only reward is an “opportunity”, a “portfolio-booster” and “good future prospects” doesn’t hurt.  It helps.  It sends the message that work = pay, not work = a chance at getting paid (which is closer to the definition of gambling).

If you want to do work for free and pitch a design to someone, fine.  Then do it of your own accord.  The ball’s in your court; you’re willing to accept success or failure.  But if someone requests that you do free work, decline it.  This should not be an accepted practice.

And if you’ve got an extra minute, read this.  It’s completely relevant; a shrewd response to a request for spec work.


The Hourly Wage Doesn’t Fit the Creative Process


Creativity involves pause: time to think, contemplate current ideas and be active with the aim of generating new ones.

If you were to give your client an itemized invoice that showed “12 hours of contemplative thought”, for which they are certainly paying you, most people tend to see that as not working.  (Certainly the brainstorming process is chargeable, since you wouldn’t be spending long hours thinking about a particular client’s project unless he or she hired you.)

Working at a job where most employees had an hourly wage, I knew there was no such thing as downtime unless you were off the clock.  An employee’s worst fear was being caught not doing something when you’re being paid by the hour to do something!  Thus, this is usually the mentality with wages, and therefore doesn’t transfer well into the creative realm where even if it looks like you’re not doing anything, you are.  Ideas are flowing while you’re taking a walk, looking at good photography, taking a drive in the car.  You’ve heard the saying that goes something like, “A lot of great ideas started on the toilet” (maybe it was in the shower, but it’s in the bathroom either way).

Ideas come when you least expect them, for sure.  So, just as it’s difficult for clients to swallow paying for what they might see as down time, it’s also tricky for designers to gauge hours of creative work when ideas come and go at irregular intervals.

It’s my conclusion, looking only at this aspect of creative work that it’s best to forgo charging an hourly rate, and instead estimate about how long a project will take and how much labor is required, deciding the figure that’s worth it to you as a designer.  This takes practice and a solid understanding of your workflow.  But provided the design brief is as thorough as it should be, pricing the work shouldn’t be an issue once the designer is aware of what’s involved.

Does time play a role in the price of an identity project?  Of course: a huge part.  But so does the number of items to be delivered, consultation throughout and following the project and quantity of alterations and revisions, among other things.

I suppose for some this could be boxed into a nice, neat hourly rate, but I just don’t see it personally.

Paid by Experience

construction-worker-costumeIs “level of experience” a relevant price factor in the business world?  Stated another way, should the price a business owner fixes for anything have at least some part to do with his or her level of experience?  I’ve noticed some talk about this on graphic design blogs and I’ll explain why it doesn’t seem to hold water.

Whatever your business, when you open your doors you’re expected to be just as professional and capable as the business down the street that’s been open for 25 years.  For example, if a print shop opens up in downtown New York, would you expect to have to allow for some sort of learning curve while the business owner gets a handle on how to run his/her business?  Not at all!  If the new print shop can’t match or exceed the level of quality and professionalism that the print shop down the street has maintained for 25 years, the new shop is going to fold.

Yes, every business’s employees must undergo some form of on-the-job training in order to be qualified to function well in their respective positions.  A waiter at a restaurant who’s never waited tables in the past has to work alongside a trusted and experienced employee for a time period determined by the manager.  Other businesses utilize internship programs that afford individuals who are still “wet behind the ears” the opportunity to learn the ropes and excel.

But when it comes to you going into business for yourself—whether a sole proprietorship or CEO with hundreds of employees—you’re expected to know essentially everything you need to know about your business before you open your doors.  That means you’ve done your homework and you’re fully prepared for every step of your first transaction.  That’s not due to some unfair standard set by the general public; it’s a matter of your own success!

It’s a common fact that, under normal circumstances, everyone who works hard at his/her business will only make it better as time goes on; and that may, in turn, qualify said business to make more money.  But said business may be making more money not because it is better at what it does (e.g. actually creates a better product), but because the workflow was improved.  Say a sewing company upgrades to a high-quality, industrial sewing machine that significantly cuts down working time.  This affects how much the company gets to profit due to the decrease in labor cost.  But again, still no effect on the price the company charges for its services.

So, put this into perspective for designers.  We’re business persons just like anyone else.  Should we enter into the graphic design market on a low level, with low rates, and somehow expect to succeed?  Again, what if you went down to a new, local hardware store to pick up some roofing nails and none of the employees could find them?  Would you think, “Well, this is a new business and they shouldn’t be expected to know where everything is yet, even if they are charging the same price”?  No!  You’d think, “Forget this; I’m going to Ace Hardware!”

A designer is only hurting him/herself by jumping into the profession without confidence and capability.  If you don’t think you’re qualified enough—rather than starting off with starve-worthy rates, hoping to “work your way up”–stay home and educate yourself until you’re genuinely ready to go into business.  At that point, you can charge the rates you actually want to charge because you’ll have the experience to justify them.

Really, it’s a disservice to the profession to say, “The work is on par with the pay: less pay, less quality; more pay, more quality”.  Turn down jobs that are too low paying and maintain a hard work ethic on every project you think is worth your time and is agreeable to your skillset.  That’s the method most rewarding for individual designers and the design community as a whole.

No one should go away thinking he or she got subpar work, even if there was only a small investment.  With graphic design, groundbreaking work at a high but fair price should be the norm.

I can’t emphasize this enough: low (e.g. “the $100 logo”) prices do more than you may think.

  • The designer makes peanuts, which is never satisfying
  • The client formulates the opinion that professional graphic design work is/can be cheap
  • Low dollar payments for low quality work reflects badly on the trade as a whole

Now, every business makes mistakes, to be sure.  I’m not saying new businesses start out operating in absolute perfection; not even seasoned businesses can boast that.  But too many mistakes can destroy a business.  Remember, it’s not likely that anyone is going to be merciful toward your shortcomings.  People will be coming to you, and rightly so, expecting a satisfying transaction—not to bear with you while you figure things out.

You’re not being paid to learn.  You’re being paid to deliver.  If you say you’re inexperienced, then you’re using each transaction with your customers as a learning experience and that is not good for business.

It’s for the reasons listed above that I don’t believe level of expertise should have any role in determining what you’re going to charge your clients for your work.  We should be entering business as experts who charge accordingly.  Put in the grunt work of learning business and the details of your particular field, and then make that hard work pay off by charging what you’re worth when you’re ready to say, “We’re in business.”

I welcome your thoughts on the subject.