10 Reasons Freelance Designers Get Screwed

It’s not really a secret that oftentimes designers have trouble collecting payment upon completion of a job. It’s also commonplace for potential clients to argue with a project estimate — almost to the point of haggling as if on a used-car lot. Designers know what we SHOULD be paid. We know what our time is worth. Then why is it that we have to jump through so many hoops just to be paid? Why is it that we are always getting screwed?

1. There is no standard pricing system

When you go to purchase a house, you have SOME idea of what you’ll be paying upfront. You know that in a particular neighborhood, homes with so many bedrooms and so many bathrooms are going for a certain price. When you go to purchase a car, you understand the differences in price ranges depending on whether you plan to buy a Mercedes or a Ford, a compact car or an SUV.

But, with design — and especially with web design — there is no set pricing system. Potential clients have NO IDEA what to expect when they are asking for an estimate. Because they don’t know what to expect, almost any price is a shock, no matter if it’s $5,000.00 or $500.00. It’s only natural that this initial shock would turn into a “Let’s Make a Deal” situation.

2. Our prices aren’t posted upfront

Look around the webisphere, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a designer posting their prices upfront. It makes sense — there are so many variables that it’s really just not possible to quote a job without speaking with the client first. Not only that, but designers with different knowledge sets and different experience levels will have different rates. It would be almost impossible to post flat rates for every type of project, and because of that, clients have no idea what to expect when they email asking for a quote. Perhaps if they had some idea upfront what type of price range they were looking at, potential clients would be more prepared when they see their project estimate for the first time. Until then, designers will have to deal with clients begging and pleading (sometimes yelling) for reduced rates.

3. The design firms who ARE posting their prices upfront are cheap-o crowd-sourcing sites or cheese-ball do-it-yourself template sites

Although most respectable designers aren’t able to post flat-rate prices upfront because of the difficulty involved in pricing out jobs on an individual basis, large crowd-sourcing or out-sourcing sites are more than willing to blast their prices all over their homepage. “Websites starting at $100!” Factory assembly-line design firms that crank out site after site from the same template are equally cheap, and proud of it. Clients looking for a website don’t know the difference between one of those sites and custom design from an experienced designer. All they know is that they saw websites advertised starting at $100, and that’s the price they are expecting from you. If you give into this rationale, you’re guaranteed to get screwed.

4. People REALLY don’t understand what we do

It’s hard to justify the price of something that someone doesn’t understand. It’s a very abstract purchase. How do you explain to someone what really goes into a website design? People think they are just paying for you to put pictures and text on the web. But, really, there is so much more to it than that. A good web designer will work with the client to evaluate their goals for the site, and then keeping those goals in mind, reorganize the content into a structure that promotes a user-friendly environment for the end-user and encourages the user to take action, find information, or make a purchase. As designers, this is meaningful to us (and at this point in the description, we haven’t even made it to the wireframing stage, much less started designing or coding!!), but to a client, this is just a bunch of gibberish that they’d rather not pay for. Arguing that all of these steps will give them a better result can, unfortunately, be a tough argument when you are dealing with a person who is only concerned with saving money.

5. People don’t understand the time and talent involved in what we do

It’s one of the great myths of our time: design is easy. Anyone can do it. Clients only see the end result. Once it’s on their screen or printed on paper, it’s all so obvious. “Well, I could do that. I could draw that logo,” or “The computer does all of the work.” Because so much of what we do is abstract and behind the scenes: creative thinking, generating ideas, sketching, research, etc., it is hard for those outside of the design field to appreciate the work that goes into a professional logo or a website coded with valid XHTML and CSS. They don’t understand all of the steps in between a blank sheet of paper and a finished product, and because of that, they have a hard time understanding why they have to pay for what they can’t see.

6. Every client is different, making it almost impossible to estimate accurately

Clients rarely understand this, but as designers we know that for the most part, it is the client who drives the pace of a project. I’ve worked with some clients who look at the three comps I send them, they pick one, and we’re done. I have other clients that want to change the background color 15 times before going back to the first option. Some clients insist on more revisions, some suck up your time with lengthy phone calls, and some ask more questions than most design students. Once you’ve dealt with any of these clients once, you can estimate accordingly. I know that one of my favorite clients is very easy to work with and very rarely has any revisions. I always quote his projects lower because I know they won’t take long. I have other clients for whom I automatically tack on extra hours for extra revisions, because they are notorious for multiple changes to every detail of every page.

But, when you get a brand new client, how do you estimate? High? Low? You have no idea what type of person you are dealing with. Even the craziest person can sound normal in an introductory email conversation. Often, you’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and price the project in the normal range. And, then, when your new client turns out to be “Revisionzilla” from the land of “Let’s schedule another call to discuss that,” you’ll soon realize that you have gone way beyond your estimated hours, and find yourself screwed once again.

7. The details aren’t clear in the initial estimate

Designers often screw themselves by not being clear in the initial project estimate. How is the client supposed to know that they only get so many revisions if you don’t tell them? How will they know how many comps to expect? It is up to us as designers to make it crystal clear that the client only gets x amount of revisions. Any additional revisions are extra. They only get x number of comps to choose from. Any additional comps are going to cost more money. We need to let clients know what is and isn’t included throughout the entire project. Are you going to provide support for their new website? Will you charge for phone calls or shipping or stock photography? Make yourself clear!! Or, risk losing money on your project.

8. As freelancers, we don’t have any back up

When I was a full-time designer, it was easy to argue with clients over price. I worked for a decent-sized company and we had set prices. There was no haggling, and if someone wanted to give me a hard time, I only had to hand the phone over to the owner. I don’t have that advantage as a freelancer. It’s just me. And people know it. Potential clients expect to pay less because I am on my own. They understand paying a lot to a large company with overhead and employees and insurance, but feel that I as one person should not be charging as much. And, without a boss to back me up, the arguments can become exhausting.

9. Creative people don’t always have the best business sense

I don’t mean to offend anyone; it’s just a simple fact. Most people who are naturally inclined toward business, finance, and accounting are not naturally creatively talented. On the other hand, we creative types tend not to be money people or numbers people. I don’t know about you, but my nightmare job would be to spend all day every day working in Excel. It actually makes my stomach turn. Because so many of us aren’t naturally brimming with business-related skills, we sometimes get taken advantage of by clients who ARE professional business people.

10. Designers are just too nice

Let’s face it. We designers can be wimps. I’ve given into more than one sob story about someone who lost their job and is trying to make ends meet by selling this or that out of their house: “I’ve scraped together all of the money I have just for this website. Can’t you do it for $X?” And, what about the, “Oh, while you’re designing my site, feel free to tweak my logo.” Ugh! What’s worse? Designing a website around a hideous eye-sore of a logo, or designing a new one for free as part of the web design job? We are suckers! We’re just too nice! The funny thing is that, 99% of the time, I feel completely blessed to be in a field where my colleagues are so darned nice. We help each other, recommend one another, post advice for free on our blogs, support each other…it’s great! But, when it comes to getting paid what we deserve, our niceness oftentimes comes back to bite us in the behind.

So, it’s easy to see why designers get screwed. What can we do about it? Look for a post coming soon outlining steps we can take as freelance designers to start getting paid what we deserve for the work we do.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you! Why do you think designers get screwed? Do you have any stories to share?

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