“Why does design cost so much?”
I’ve been asked this question in different forms and in different situations over the years. When I was fresh out of design school, I couldn’t provide an articulate answer. I knew design was valuable because I had just spent four years (and thousands of dollars) listening to my professors tell me it was. I also knew that I needed to make a living. But second-hand knowledge and a desire to avoid starvation did not provide confidence that what I charged for my design services was justified.
Twenty-seven years later, I know how to provide a good answer to the question of why a logo should cost more than a week’s worth of Starbucks trips.
I have developed an efficient design process that allows me and the client to set good goals, manage expectations, and produce pleasing and effective results that, with few exceptions, avoids unmet expectations. The visual design process for a typical website (depending on the project scope) may take 6-8 weeks, but the progress is constant and the client almost never says, “That’s not what I had in mind.”
Read any article on how to be a good designer and one of the bullet points will inevitably read, “The first solution is rarely the best one.” As tempting as it is to present the first decent solution that appears, the project will always benefit from further exploration and experimentation. A good design process allows for this, as well as time away from the project to allow fresh ideas to form.
It’s important to include the client in the decision-making process throughout the project. Who knows their organization better than the client? But some designers will forgo the important discovery and strategy process in order to create something “cool” that doesn’t really address the client’s needs.
I’m currently re-designing a book with a client who came to me with the sad tale of their previous designer who accepted the job, disappeared for months with no contact, and then came back with a finished solution that did not fit the client's needs. When my client asked for changes, the designer told him it would cost extra. Time invested in a discovery and strategy process could have avoided this outcome.
There are many benefits of working with a professional designer. Aside from the design process or the finished product, part of the design cost is having a great experience throughout a project that can span weeks or sometimes months. For example:
- Quality communication - the designer responds to email and voice mail in a prompt manner
- Responsibility - the designer shows up for scheduled meetings, prepared and on time
- Professionalism - written proposals and contracts are provided that carefully spell out the scope and details of a project
- Maturity - the designer responds positively if their project proposal is turned down and offers to quote future projects in order to maintain a good relationship
A seasoned designer is able to say “no” to things that would derail a project, like scope creep or unrealistic schedules. A colleague frequently employs the phase, “I don’t know” when initially discussing a project with a client. I don’t view this as a weakness but admire his maturity and humility. Instead of making up answers to client requests in order to make himself look good (and risk over-promising and under-delivering) my colleague provides an honest answer with a promise to investigate the client request and follow up later.
If you’re on a tight budget you can build a website for a few hundred dollars on Wix or Squarespace, buy a $5 logo from Fiverr, or design a business card or a brochure for free through Vistaprint. These services are fine if all you need is a simple brochure-style website, a stock logo, or a template-based business card. But budget design solutions have their downside: limited design choices, inability for the client to have input in the design or create customized solutions.
But the biggest downside to budget design is lack of personalized service. When you work with a professional designer, they can walk you through the design process, answer questions, apply their expertise to solving your specific design problem, and suggest solutions that may not have been considered.
I recently developed a brand identity for a professional photographer. To distinguish him from a crowded field of look-a-like photographers using generic camera and tripod image metaphors, I designed an avatar to compliment his logotype and literally provide a face for his business. He was delighted to see the custom solution as well as some of the applications for merchandising and vehicle graphics that helped him dream about the future of his business. A budget design solution would have limited him to selecting from a list of design templates instead of the personalized solution I provided.
The next time you receive a quote from a professional designer and feel it's a steep price to pay, consider the value of a customized design solution done right the first time, through a positive, inclusive process and hopefully you'll come to the conclusion it's money well spent.