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Why is [graphic/web] design so expensive?

By James Rogers Business, Graphic Design, Web Design • Mar 4th, 2014

This is probably the most asked question I get, in regards to my design business. And in the eight plus years I've been doing this, it still makes me cringe. Not because I'm afraid to tell anyone what I charge, but because when you enter into this type of conversation, 9 times out of 10, you've already lost.

One thing to be clear on is the question itself that was asked. It's not "What are your rates?" or "What do you charge for X?". It's got that special little marker of of "why" and "expensive". Those are two terms that should serve as red flags to anyone offering any type of freelance service, whether it's design, photography, writing, consulting, or anything else you can think of. Those terms are an opening to a conversation that has one goal, and that is to get you to undervalue yourself and bring that price down.

Obviously I can't speak for anyone other than myself, but I think you'll find that many of these reasons resonate within other professionals who find themselves in this kind of position. And while I don't feel that it's necessary to justify my prices (more on that coming in a future blog), I do think it's important to have information available for those who simply may not know.

1. [Web/Graphic] Design is a professional service

Yes, you read that right. It's a professional service, just like someone who cooks you food, or fixes your pipes. Just because it's not a tangible substance you can hold in your hand, it doesn't mean the value is less. Many times (like I said, not everything is 100%), the person you're looking to hire has either had some extensive training in their profession, or they've spent serious time (their own time) learning the new skills.

Whiteboard Ideas

2. [Web/Graphic] Design isn't something you can "just do"

Sure, we've all seen the ads for X company that says you can make nice professional websites with no skill. I won't lie to you, those kinds of companies do exist. There are tools that make it a purely visual experience, with being able to simply point and click the design layout into place. It'll usually look pretty nice. It won't be the most unique thing in the world, and maybe it won't have the most advanced functionality, but it'll do. And if that's what you're looking for, that's perfectly fine. Chances are you aren't the the type of client that someone like me is looking for.

I mean, why should I try to convince you that grandma's pie made from the apples she grows is better and worth the investment if you're content with the frozen microwave pie from the store. Right?

3. You can see the difference (usually)

I hate having to say "usually" with these things, but it's an important side note to address. There are plenty of people who charge large $$$ and the end result isn't all that impressive. In fact, in my career I've come across other "designers" who have charged clients a rate on par with a custom design, and at the end they've handed over a template (that they bought somewhere) with content graphics shoved in without any real thought.

And they get away with it. Why? Because the client doesn't know any better. So clients, do your homework, look at portfolio examples, and most of all, talk to the designer/developer. If they know their stuff, it'll become apparent pretty quickly.

In an ideal ending, the client ends up with a totally custom job, instead of a template that looks like everybody else who has the same template.

4. It takes time

One thing that most people forget is that this type of work takes time. I always get a bit leery when a designer tells me that they can roll out a whole webdesign project in a week. Is it possible? Sure, if you're looking only at hours. But what about feedback? Client interaction? Testing?

A fast turnaround is certainly something to aim for, but too fast and I begin to wonder about the orginality of the design or website. Of course, if I were to take on a project where the client supplied me with all the content up front, all the images, and all the appropriate branding graphics, along with a structure as to how they expected everything to work, then yea, maybe I could devote the same amount of time to the project for a turnaround like that. But even then, if I'm managing more than one project at the moment, it's not realistic.

As a basic rule, this is how I map out my hours for a basic website. This is the most common type of website I do, with no CMS, no blog, and few special features.

  • Planning/Research = 8-10 hours: This includes setting up a basic idea of what pages to include, how things should interact, features included, etc.
  • Design/Interface = 10-15 hours: This includes the design mockup, usually done in Photoshop, and maybe an extra page with variation. This directs the theme of the site.
  • Building/Development = 25+ hours: This phase includes writing the code that makes the site work. Any special features have to be written and tested, and the site has to be put through the wringer with all the major browsers to ensure all visitors have the same experience.

This means a simple website can easily take 50 hours or more to complete, and if there are any other features that need to be added (Responsive Design, Blog, etc) then the time needs to be adjusted accordingly.

This basic principle is the same for graphic design work. The hours themselves may not be as long, but there will always be research, design comps, and then finishing details.

5. You get what you want

One of the major things to remember about any type of design, is that (usually) you are paying for a custom solution to a problem or project you have. Companies don't stand out in the world if they remind someone of a different company, or if they appear to be running themselves on an operation that prizes quantity or quality.

By taking time to talk to a designer or developer, you are able to convey exactly what you want for you business, and what you envision it can do or say. It's then up to the designer to come up with a unique way to display that vision, be it as a logo, website, brochure, or any other medium. If you want something "quick & dirty", then a custom design probably isn't what you want.

It all comes down to whether you really want grandma's homemade pie, or the microwave pie in the freezer section. :)


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By James Rogers

Creative thinking and development are just a part of what makes James tick. When he's not working on a project for a client, he's usually working on a project for himself. When he's not doing that he can be found snowboarding, hiking, or enjoying a broadway show with his wife.

 

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