Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Freelancer’s Dilemma

Payscale still a mystery.

New freelancer’s have so many questions about the business of design and long for straight answers. Many join professional organizations for answers and guidance or shell out good bucks for seminars.

A few nights ago, here in Baltimore, I attended one such a seminar held by a prestigious graphic designer’s organization. The theme was centered on developing a client base and pricing appropriately. It should be pointed out that the event was free of charge.

A fellow (who I’ll keep anonymous) discussed his 13 year entrepreneurial stint as the sole proprietor of a design studio boasting phenomenal award winning success. After a slide show of his illustrations and other design work he discussed how he connected with some of those name-brand clients—Rolling Stone, Utne Reader, Playboy, Forbes, and Business Week among others.

While many of the younger members in the audience were obviously impressed and probably a bit jealous of his success they seemed less than satisfied with the answers to questions about pricing.

I think what many people wanted to hear was a simple formula to calculate a price. As if illustrations and graphic design were carpet or paint and could be cast in terms of square footage. As if!

In defense of the guy, he did mention The Graphic Artist’s Guild’s Handbook for Ethical Pricing Guidelines, although it was said quickly as though everyone were aware of the book. I wouldn’t know what to ask for at the bookstore from his reference. It is a great book for getting an idea of the going rate for all kinds of design services and can introduce a new designer to a wealth of resources for their business’ administration.

But many of the questions regarding pricing were side-stepped and assertions were made that you should really only charge a bundle if you have real talent. Huh? Who is deciding that—the Talent Regulatory Commission?

Finally, after listening to many questions about pricing that didn’t seem to satisfy audience members, I asked the question that opened up a can of worms for me.

Why haven’t costs for graphic design changed over the last 15 years?


© Copyright 2009 Guy Arceneaux All rights reserved


  1. An interesting article, Guy. I feel it is a situation that causes much strife among freelance designers in general. My feeling is that since a well designed piece has the tendency to look like it was easy to do, it can lose value from the offset. The way to ensure the value of any design project, as you know, is to involve the client from the beginning. That way they will be able to see the process and see the value firsthand.
    - Matt Penna

  2. Well put! My experience has shown me that clients prefer a designer who represents themselves (or their agency) as a strategic partner. Being involved as a partner is the best way to establish that dialogue that saves
    misunderstanding and ensures trust with major corporate strategy development. Designers should grow into that arena as well, but that really is Creative Director's territory.

  3. Guy, there is a folk story that illustrates the mindset that has befallen our clients. At least the ones who try to negotiate down our rates with arguments about reduced overhead, etc.

    A Chinese emperor summoned the greatest artist in the land and commanded that he paint the perfect rooster. If the painting was to the emperor's liking he would be greatly rewarded with vast sums of gold. If the depiction of the rooster was inaccurate, the artist would be condemned to death.

    With his marching orders in hand, the artist was sent on his way. Whenever the emperor would ask to see work in progress, the artist would reply that it was not ready for viewing.

    The emperor was a patient man but as days turned to weeks, weeks to months, and months into years — his patience was tested. Eventually, guards were dispatched to summon the artist to the palace.

    Upon arriving the artist was told he had 15 minutes to render the requested painting of the rooster or be put to death. The added pressure of the death threat and the 15 minute time limit did not phase the artist. When the artist completed his painting the emperor was elated but also dumb-founded.

    The King remarked, "If you could render such perfection so quickly why did you make me wait?"

    To which the artist replied, "Your majesty, it took me five years to learn how to render the perfect rooster in just 15 minutes."

    In closing, did you ever notice how people always complain about the cost of an ipod? Yet they gladly pay the price because of the way its DESIGNED. I mean that in the context of aesthetics and function.

    (sorry for the long comment)


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