October 10, 2022Freelancing

What’s your rate?

I get this question a lot. Having exchanged some words, potential clients inevitably ask it - “what is your rate?”

A simple question should have a simple answer, right?

Well, with me, this is not the case.

First off, I’m not a developer. Clients pay me for design.

This is an important difference, because it’s quite easy for a developer to quote an hourly rate - after all it is the same process for every client. Take in the requirements, estimate time (or not), and put your head down, start coding.

With design, it’s a bit of a different process.

Consideration #1: There is a saying in the design community: “everyone is a designer”.

That means non-designer, average folk, also think they are designers and have excellent taste in visual design. It’s a problem for the designer because ultimately design is subjective. If the client does not like what they see, they could simply ask for a revision upon revision upon revision.

You might think to yourself - what’s the problem with hourly billing? Just keep charging for the revisions. You definitely could, but this does not align the goals of the designer with the goals of the client. The designer could simply continue producing mediocre work and keep charging until the client is dissatisfied and leaves. Hourly billing is not fair to either given limited budgets.

Consideration #2: Design is definitive in scope while development can carry on indefinitely.

Given the definitive nature of design, it’s pretty easy to draw a starting and an ending point for the project. You start when there is nothing on the screen, and you end when you’ve designed the agreed-upon screens.

Development on the other hand is more of a process. There is always a better way to do something, code to refractor, features to add. In this case, hourly billing makes perfect sense.

Consideration #3: The value of design is subjective.

With code, it either works or it doesn’t. You can say with more clarity when something is finished - because you can test it and it works. With design, you could be finished but you have zero clarity as to whether it actually works. Unless you are contracted to do some very specific A/B-testing design work, it’s hard to know whether what you produce can be valued easily.

Because the value of design is subjective, we have to come to terms of agreement between designer and client as to what constitutes “complete” and “successful”. Professional freelancers know this all too well - they manage scope and define what success looks like before they ever embark on a project.

Consideration #4: Client’s budget

While I may not know what the would-be client’s budget is at this point, it’s a critical factor in determining what I may quote.

Some people might throw their hands up in the air and say “what the what?! why does it matter what the budget is? This seems unfair, charge your standard rate and treat everyone the same!”.

To that I ask: what if the mom and pop shop who want a simple website cannot afford what I would charge a fortune 500 company? Should they be disqualified from working with me even if I want to help? What about an open source project with one dedicated self-funded developer?

Consideration #5: Value being created

This will trigger some people. How can my rate be based on value provided - do I even know what that value is? Am I making accurate calculations? Is it fair?

I can’t say with certainty that I’m providing some quantifiable value and that my rate would be accurate from this calculation. But, I can use basic observations and “common sense” to determine if the client is getting a lot more value from my service.

For example, does a solo developer client who wants to improve their portfolio with a design lift get the same value out of said design as an auto SaaS startup servicing the larger part of the state they’re in? I think the answer is obviously no. The company servicing auto dealerships is likely netting revenues in the millions and the said cannot be said of a single person.

Some people will find this unfair. That is ok. I have my own standards and principals and it doesn’t bother me to charge more to a company that will benefit significantly more.

Consideration #6: Design is not easily resumable.

While a developer can drop the work and another can step in and for the most part pick up where the first left off, designers cannot be afforded this luxury. When a designer drops a project, another has to start from scratch. Very rarely is a designer good enough to pick up where the other left off in the exact same style. They do exist, but they are not freelancing.

I can already hear the developers reading this screaming at me “but Gene, don’t you know how hard it is to read other people’s code?! I have to start over too”. That may be the case at times, but I don’t think it’s 100% of the time.

Because design is not resumable, we have to quote differently and consider the fact that we must get the job done 100% or it won’t work. Yes, you could still price this hourly, but for designers, we aim to get to 100% so we often charge by a larger milestone. We may charge some up front, some mid-way through and the rest in the end. Naturally, this increases the rates.

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