10 Reasons Freelance Designers Get Screwed

posted by Manda 54 Comments

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 that 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 Graphic Design 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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Mark McCorkell March 24, 2010 at 3:58 am

Whenever I was studying design, I really did underestimate the type of stress clients were going to eventually cause me. I’m not really doing much freelance now because I’m working full-time for an agency. But a big part of why I’m not doing anything freelance is because I have been turning down time-wasters that aren’t willing to pay for quality designs! I’ve told a few people point blank that I offer more of a quality service as opposed to a low-budget solution. I refuse to do anything that could potentially dilute the quality of my portfolio at this stage where I’m still establishing my name.

It seems that the best way to make it as a successful freelancer would be to either establish yourself online and get clients coming to you through your website. Or to get work out-sourced from agencies. That way you won’t have to deal with the “give me everything for 50 bucks and 10% discount at my store” guys on the street that try take advantage.

Have you ever been in that awkward situation with friends and family, Manda? Where they want you to do the work for next to nothing? I hate being asked to do anything like that, but it’s very hard to say no without sounding horrible!
.-= Mark McCorkell´s last blog ..Logo Design Love: Book Review =-.

Manda March 24, 2010 at 11:26 am

I’m so glad you have the strength to stand up for yourself, Mark. I wish that more designers would. It is a hard spot to be in sometimes. Even working for an agency as a freelancer can be tough. You’re getting all of your information 2nd hand, so you really can’t determine what the client wants; you sometimes find yourself pleasing the agency people’s taste when you know the client wants something different; and you can rarely show that work in your portfolio. It’s a trade-off that we freelancers make for the privilege of working from home and creating our own hours. Sometimes it’s great, and sometimes you wonder if it’s worth it!

As for your question, I have absolutely been put in the situation where I’ve been asked to work for family or friends. Sigh. And not just on design work. I’ve been asked to set up networks, fix computers, and download and install software. Not to mention give free business advice. It’s a truly difficult situation because if you don’t help them out, you’re a stuck-up jerk. And, if you do help them out, they seem to completely forget you’re working for next-to-nothing, and always demand that they have priority over all of your paying clients just because they know you personally. And, worse still, there have been a few times where someone I know has volunteered me to help someone THEY know!! 2nd-hand free work! It’s too much!!

I try to take solace in the fact that this happens to everyone. Plumbers are dragged into bathrooms at dinner parties, massage therapists are asked to rub out knots for even minor acquaintances, and photographers are asked to “Just bring your camera along” to weddings. It happens to all of us. I just try to weigh each situation and make an educated decision depending on who the favor is for, what they want, and how busy I am at the time. And, if it’s for my mom, there’s no question, I’ll take the job every time 🙂

Deb March 24, 2010 at 10:06 am

Great Article! The point about creative people not being business-savvy is SO true in most cases. It is so rare to find the two qualities in one person. I am glad that some schools are now offering entrepreneurship classes as electives for the artistic degree programs.

I have worked freelance in several disciplines (some creative, some technology-based), and have found these points (in your article) to be true no matter what type of service or product you provide. Thank you for putting my daily fears into a well-writtin article that can be broadcast!

Manda March 24, 2010 at 12:00 pm

I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, Deb! I was worried about offending people with that “designers aren’t business-savy” statement — but you’re right, those two qualities rarely go hand-in-hand. And, if you do happen to be a designer with good business sense, you still usually don’t enjoy the business side of your work. Who becomes a designer so that they can do accounting and billing on the side? Not me!

Asa Schultz March 24, 2010 at 11:10 am

Curse your brilliance, Creative Opera! I came here to read this one article, and then get back my homework. But now I have found myself following the link trails from one engaging article to the next! Curse your brilliance!

Manda March 24, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Ha Ha!! Thanks so much for this, Asa! You’ve really lifted my spirits with this kind note 🙂

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Minna March 24, 2010 at 12:28 pm

I had the unfortunate experience of working on a website for a relative’s company. The biggest problem was that he had very little idea what things should cost, and especially since it was just me, he didn’t feel he should pay how much some other large firm was trying to charge him, and I felt bad charging him! I can’t count how many times I felt disrespected, even attacked, when he would ask me outrageous questions (“how do I get us #1 on the search engines”) and I would try to give him an educated answer but it wasn’t the one he wanted to hear. Especially the one where I tell clients, “being ranked on the search engines shouldn’t be your #1 method to drum up business.”

I finally decided to drop him as a client… because the last straw was when I referred another fellow VERY EXPERIENCED freelance SEO to him to help him, and he would not pay him because he didn’t see IMMEDIATE results, or the results that he thought he should be seeing. Not only did he not pay him, he also decided to go behind my back and hire some other web site company that claimed they could get them what he wanted. Turns out what they are doing is scamming him (I won’t go into detail), and who knows if anything is actually helping them. Well actually I know it’s not, because I can still check his site analytics.

Whew sorry I guess that turned into quite a rant…. LOL. Lesson learned though – you should never do paid work for family, and you should always stick to your guns.

Manda March 24, 2010 at 12:45 pm

That is such an unfortunate story, Minna!! It sounds like your relative just wanted the #1 website in the world for free. That’s reasonable, right? Ha ha!

I feel terrible for you, but I can completely (unfortunately) relate. In these cases, there just isn’t anything you can do but take deep breaths and remember this situation the next time a friend or relative asks you to do design work for them. I too had to drop my relative’s website. At first I felt bad, but then I realized that if he was a client, I would have dropped him long ago. He got many more benefits of the doubt than I would give a normal person. It’s not my fault that he was completely unreasonable, by my or anyone else’s standards. And, of course, this wasn’t your fault either. In the end, it sounds like he got exactly what he was looking for, and exactly what he deserved. I just hope you don’t get stuck sitting next to this person at Thanksgiving 🙂

Jenn March 24, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Yup. I’ve had trouble with clients that ask for a project to be done and redone and redone again, many many times. It’s SO unfair. A lot of clients think we have time to repeat a project and they don’t want to pay you for corrections and editing, they just want to pay the price that was initially on the table.

Thanks for this article. It’s good to know I’m not alone!

Manda March 24, 2010 at 12:53 pm

That’s a terrible story, Jenn! Could you imagine asking a painter to paint your walls over and over different colors for free? Or asking a mechanic to continually put on different sets of tires for free? It’s so sad that we all can bond over these nightmare situations! Ha ha!

I remember I had a client once who didn’t have any pieces ready to begin the design of his website — no text or images, not even a page structure. I explained to him what type of turn-around time we were looking at once he got everything to me, and he replied with, “Just take the info from these other sites (gave me URL’s of competitor sites) and throw up a temporary website while we work on the final website.” WHAT?!?! All the sudden I was expected to design two websites for the price of one??!?

It’s so important to be clear upfront in your contract so that the client knows what is and isn’t included. You’ll be glad to have it as backup when they try to get away with all of those redesigns!

Minna March 24, 2010 at 12:59 pm

Thanks for your kind words Manda! I would have also dropped him if he were a client long before it got really bad, but on the other hand I know that I also did not treat him as I would a client either, but only because I felt that I shouldn’t have to earn his respect and trust and it aggravated me when I still felt like I had to prove that I knew what I was doing. Actually it’s funny, in one of our arguments, he confronted me by saying something like “do you treat your clients this way?” 😉

I also wanted to add that I have actually done work for another relative (my sister-in-law), but I did not charge her for it. Instead I use it as a portfolio piece / playground for new ideas, I have a link to my site at the bottom (which I do not do for paying clients) and she respects my time and knowledge when she asks for any updates. So working for relatives CAN happen without the drama… but it really depends on your relationship to that relative and being up front about what you are doing for them.

I won’t get stuck with him at Thanksgiving… well for the most part, I try not to even talk about it at all when I see that part of the family. He isn’t snarky at me, probably because he realizes he was wrong 😉

Manda March 24, 2010 at 2:53 pm

It’s nice to know that it works out sometimes 🙂 Unfortunately, it usually ends in disaster (as does any project where a person — relative or not — is looking for free or discounted work), but that is not always the case. I spent a half day with my 8 year old nephew setting up a WordPress blog for him (He writes books! Such a talented kid!) and I enjoyed it thoroughly. He was so excited and it gave me a chance to bond with him. Now, whenever I come over, he drags me into the office to see his blog 🙂 Totally worth my time!! It sounds like your sister-in-law is also a great person — it’s always worth it to help out someone who appreciates it!

You’re probably right about your other relative! He’s probably embarrassed because he fell for the empty promises of the second designer. At least now he realizes that you know what you’re talking about 🙂

Ganesh Rao March 24, 2010 at 1:18 pm

Nice article! Very true. I’ll have my next client read this one.
The thing about web design that just baffles me is how ignorant most clients are. How can they spend so much time online and yet have absolutely no understanding of good design? I am striving to build a design portfolio, but most of my clients have low budgets or just don’t care for design. How does a new designer get started in such a market? Sad part is that in some of my projects, I’ve ended up doing much more than the client asked for just so that I can use the work on my portfolio, and yes I got under paid badly. But I try to convince myself that this is just the beginning and things will get better later on…sigh!

Manda March 24, 2010 at 1:38 pm

Hi Ganesh, thanks for your comments! When I am designing and find myself baffled by the bad taste of a client, I try to remember the way people dress and the way they decorate their homes. There are so many people who walk by on the street, and I think, “What were they thinking when they chose that outfit?” But, they love it. We all have different tastes, although some tastes are more conventionally thought of as “correct” than others.

I’d advise you, instead of doing cheap work for frustrating clients, to try volunteering your time with a deserving not-for-profit. Find a local animal shelter, a local school, a fire or police station, or homeless shelter and offer your services. For free. In return, ask that you be given creative freedom. Let them know that you’ll create their website with their content and with their input, but that the final design decisions will be yours. Let them know that you’ll be happy to work with their opinions, but ask them to respect your color and layout decisions as a professional designer.

In the end, you may not make any money, but you’ll have the experience of working with another client, and hopefully a brilliant portfolio piece. Also ask that you can add a link to your own website/portfolio at the bottom of their completed site. This is a great way to build your portfolio and do something nice for your community.

It sounds like you are really on the right track, Ganesh, and that you are a very hard worker. Keep at it! When I first started as a designer, I had three jobs just so I could pay my bills because my design pay was so low. Then, I had two jobs for years. Now, 12 years later, I finally freelance full time without another income. It does take time and determination, but you’ll get there 🙂 By the way, I love your email address!

Eric March 24, 2010 at 1:53 pm

Saw this article on the Creative Nerds Twitter feed and it sounded intriguing…not to mention timely. I had JUST gotten an email from a former co-worker who’s going into business for herself. Excerpt:

Can you discount me as a non profit?????? 😉 Takes a while to really get going!!!!!!!! Don’t want to spend a lot of money on a website, and don’t think I need a very busy or complicated one. But I am interested in making sure that my little business (specializing in ________) is seen as being credible and viable

See what I mean about timely? 😉

I’ve been a freelancer for ten years and have encountered everything you mentioned and then some. But I also have 25 years of business experience with a Fortune 100 company, so I’m able to deal with these situations in a way that keeps me sane and doesn’t alienate the clients. And I’m also fortunate enough to not have to take every job that comes down the pike.

We designers need to do a better job of explaining to the client some of the complexities that go into our work, without overwhelming them with technical jargon. It’s a balancing act. We also need to not apologize for our rates. If I charge $60/hour for maintenance work, I say so upfront, and then I assure them that I can get a LOT of work done in an hour. (And I can.)

And, every now and then, I hope everyone gets blessed by the kind of client I just completed a site for…one that walked in, handed me a disk with some photos, and said “build me a website.” He walked out, never asked the price, and gave me complete creative freedom. Fortunately, he liked what I did, and paid my price without a quibble. Those are the clients that keep us going, and make the other challenges seem worthwhile.

Manda March 24, 2010 at 3:01 pm

Hi Eric,

Thanks so much for your comments! I completely agree that we as designers need to be able to explain the value of what we do, and the reasons costs change from designer to designer and project to project. I also agree that for the most part, the real horror stories are few and far between. The bulk of my clients have been wonderful to work with, communicative and very understanding. And, even though these reasons I’ve listed above are all true, most of them can be combatted by us as a design community. It is important that we take the time to explain to clients what we do, why it takes so long, and how their money is being spent. It’s up to us to explain the value of our work. It is also up to us to be clear upfront what a certain price does and doesn’t include. Unfortunately, most of this comes purely from experience, and before things get to the point where they are running smoothly, we all have to learn a few hard lessons. Hopefully we’ll be able to save a few broken hearts by sharing our stories with all of the new and upcoming designers out there! 🙂

Catherine Azzarello March 24, 2010 at 3:14 pm

Great article, Manda! I especially like #3 and have recommended your entire post from my site’s related freelancing article.

Looking forward to hearing what we can do about it!

Manda March 24, 2010 at 3:28 pm

Thanks so much, Catherine, for your recommendation! I read your freelance article this morning and thoroughly enjoyed it 🙂 I left a comment, but I don’t see it. Perhaps it went straight to spam? Either way, I truly enjoyed your post!

Shaan Nicol March 24, 2010 at 9:12 pm

I’ve been a part time freelancer for quite a number of years but it wasn’t until I recently lost my job at a multinational record company that I decided to go out and indulge in it full time and I have to agree with all your reasons here.

I love my time as a freelancer, business owner, but i’m still striving for those days off, long lunches and flexible hours, I work just about every hour I have at the moment, haha

Great post all the same though!
.-= Shaan Nicol´s last blog ..Weekly Tweets for 2010-03-21 =-.

Manda March 30, 2010 at 8:57 am

I think many of us are in the same boat as you, Shaan. There is that illusion of sitting on the beach with a laptop, casually working on a website in between dips in the ocean, lengthy vacations, and short work days. But, in reality, just because you’re a freelance designer (instead of a full-time designer with a firm) doesn’t mean that you don’t work with the same tight, demanding deadlines, or the same last-minute, rush jobs. You’re still managing printers, answering phones, and troubleshooting websites. You’re still multi-tasking throughout the day, working on different projects for multiple clients. Really, the only thing that changes now that you’re a freelancer is that you also have to do your own billing, your own books, your own marketing, etc. It’s really a BUSIER life, and because it is your own business, you don’t feel that you can walk away at 5pm each day — you feel the pressure to put in as many hours as you can. And, when you’re just starting out, you also feel an extreme pressure to take every job that comes your way — whether you’re too busy or not — because you’re scared to turn down work (and income).

I don’t know if any of us are living the fantasy, Shaan. All the designers I know work day and night. But, there will be a time when you are busy enough that you can be choosier about the projects you take on, and that feels good. And, even though you may never have the freedom to take long vacations whenever you like, you will have the freedom to leave the office in the middle of the day to run a few errands or take the dog for a walk. The positives in the life of a freelancer may not be as romantic as most of us envisioned when we first chose this path, but I think it’s still a pretty good life 🙂

Congratulations to you on making the leap into full-time freelancing!! It sounds like you’re doing great!

Mark McCorkell March 25, 2010 at 3:18 am

Some day one of us Designers is going to have a Robert DeNiro “Taxi Driver” type moment with a house full of clients! 😀
.-= Mark McCorkell´s last blog ..Logo Design Love: Book Review =-.

rafael armstrong March 25, 2010 at 8:27 am

Excellent piece. I had this whole thing written out comparing designers (who, it seems, often end up getting screwed by clients) with the now somewhat clichéd image of plumbers (who, I presume, fare better in this department). In the end, I found that it all boiled down to this:

We get screwed (I know I have) when we treat our freelance business as our passion (which isn’t necessarily bad). What we really should be doing is treating it (our business) WITH passion.

And now, I must go tend to a pot of water for my coffee, which must be boiling by now. 🙂

Manda March 30, 2010 at 8:42 am

I’d love to read that plumber piece, Rafael! It sounds really interesting!!

I think you’ve said something extremely important here. We all do love what we do to such an extent, that sometimes the thrill of the design or the upcoming job gets in the way of common business sense. If a client calls and asks for a Flash cartoon, my immediate response is, “That sounds like fun!” instead of, “Okay, how long will this really take, and what is the going rate for animation?” As we get older and more experienced, and as we learn by being “burned” a few times, I think the business side starts to come through a little more prominently. If we could all keep that in mind (business first), there definitely would be fewer cases of designers being screwed 🙂

Gianluca March 25, 2010 at 10:12 am

I have been IT Consultant for many years, then I decided to leave that nerdy world to get involved into the more interesting, artistic and creative world of art. I am just starting with webdesign and spent a while learning photography.

Unfortunately I have to face customers anyway and the problems are very much the same: clients won’t never understand what they pay for. From my experience in IT I learned that it could be very handy to give them an idea of the work we do behind the scene talking in hours.

“Making a logo should take 15 hours work.”

It is also a good idea to involve the client and ask for his opinion presenting him sketches and partial stages of our work. Instead of jumping to the finished work.

Keep on fighting designers!!! :))

Manda March 30, 2010 at 8:36 am

I am in complete agreement with you, Gianluca! The more we can explain to clients what it is we do and why it takes so long, the better. The main answer to our problems is open communication. It may take some extra time to go through the project with the client, explaining the process, but in the end, it will make things better for both parties. Congratulations to you on your big move!! I wish you many years of success 🙂

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Paolina March 28, 2010 at 3:08 am

I am soooo tired of the freelance scenario that I am thinking of changing careers all together. It saddens me to say so because I love my craft and been doing it for a long time. However, leaving in Rome, Italy and being the mother of one wonderful 2 year old, makes it even worse than any other place in the world. I have been screwed over one too many times.

Loved the article, will pass it on to my nephew who is currently working in Washington DC and does some freelance too.

I love this blog!!!!

Manda March 30, 2010 at 9:07 am

Paolina, it makes me sad to think that you would consider changing careers! I’m not sure how things work where you live, but if it is an option for you, you may want to try to change your client base from individuals to agencies. There are many freelancers who take on work from large advertising or design agencies when they are too busy or have an overflow of projects. The lovely thing about this setup is that you usually can continue to work from home, you can still take on or turn down whichever jobs you like, and you’re still a freelance designer — but you work out an hourly rate (and the agencies will be willing to pay you a fair rate) and that is the rate you always work with. The beauty of working with agencies is that they understand the going rate for designers, so they won’t complain about your rate; they understand your work so they won’t continually ask you questions or ask you to explain your process; and they will pay you when the job is finished — you won’t have to chase them for your paycheck.

If working as a freelancer for an agency doesn’t appeal to you, you could always get a full-time or part-time position with a design firm. When you’re used to fighting for yourself and working all hours of the day and night, it’s actually refreshing to let someone else deal with the hassles while you just work on design for an 8-hour shift and go home. If you find a firm with a project manager, you won’t have to deal with clients at all!!

I’m so glad you found the article useful, but I hope you’ll look at all of your alternatives before leaving the design field. I bet you’d miss it 🙂

Joe Valdez April 2, 2010 at 10:57 pm

This article is dead-on. The hardest thing is to estimate right, the clients almost never understand what goes into the entire process.

Home Design Business April 5, 2010 at 7:13 pm

I agree its hard to compete with upfront/outsourced pricing, but you gotta prove that your work and service is of much higher quality. Thats why its important to make name for yourself so you stand out from the rest.

Strat Parrott April 6, 2010 at 10:10 am

Great article. It is very difficult as you say to get people in the right mindset for what it is they are asking for. The design process is just that, a process, and for the client is an educational experience. Many, however, do not want to be educated due to time constraints or just not caring which will generally lead them to a poorly designed piece of collateral that just doesn’t work. It also makes them weary of future design projects and leaves them wondering about their ROI.

My basic approach and what I will give away for free is the consultation. I basically educate the client up front and let them get other quotes and ask me questions about what is being quoted. I do limit this to 3 hours. In my 9 years of experience I find that many firms and freelanced pad their proposals with jargon that is unnecessary and confusing to the client.

In most cases after I demonstrate my knowledge and ability to communicate with the client, they are more willing to trust me an understand my proposal better. This also allows me to understand the clients needs and expectations through a discovery process. This is just what I find works for me, it also forces the meetings to be productive ones.

Trey Cook April 6, 2010 at 12:26 pm

So true. Very good summation of the whole issue here. I can’t wait to see your next blog post on the solution.

Kareem Rabie April 13, 2010 at 7:13 am

great artical man, i enjoyed every word of it
i am new designer
but i guess that true
it happenes with me
reltaive and friends ask for help for free
it bugs me , but what can i say , i have to apply othewise i sound what you can say ” cares only for money ”
right 😀

Melissa April 14, 2010 at 9:26 am

I just had a client refuse to pay 50% up front so now I’m not sure I want to bother with them based on what I’ve been reading. The 50/50 pricing system seems to be relatively standard, would you proceed with a client if they did not accept this or would you take it as a sign that this could be a bad situation to get into?

Nischal Tiwari July 8, 2010 at 11:30 pm

I am Freelance UI Designer from Nepal. Once of my client captivate design assigned me daily design works and agreed to pay every end of the month. I worked on every project seriously and deliver for them. But as the days went , i found they were giving me so much of pressure, So, i decided to work just for that month and told them about it.. Now its been several month now.. still they haven’t paid me a single penny. What should i do now ? Neither they reply my email, nor they talk with me in the IMs.

John Alden | Web Tasarimi July 11, 2010 at 8:41 pm

Nicely put list items mate. All of them have valid points of their own. But there is one that i always face, The fact that people DO tend to want to pay less to a one-man band. Yet they don’t really understand the requirements and the time required for a fully completed project.

I feel you mate :/

Gen August 19, 2010 at 11:53 am

Great article, Manda! I think you really got to the heart of it with #7 and #9, but I think you also supported a few of the (IMO) negative habits of our industry in some of your other paragraphs. Mostly, though, I think any opportunity for designers to discuss these challenges and come out better, is excellent. So thanks!

Honestly, I think designers get screwed for mostly 3 simple reasons:

1. We fail to lay out clear boundaries and scope of projects. Just as you wrote, we don’t say “you get 3 revisions, after which I will be happy to revise at $x per hour. Or “you have until x to provide your written content in electronic form, after which the project will be considered complete and billable.”

2. We fail to communicate our value effectively. i.e., in business terms. It is *not* about our customers “getting” how much time and talent has gone into our training or our craft. It’s not about making customers view design as a legit enterprise. It’s not about customers crowing over us and appreciating our artistry. It’s about a business decision between you and the customer. That’s it. Communicate your value like this: “I charge $100 per hour for free hand illustration. I charge $85 per hour for (fill in the blank). Later, when the client wants another revision, you say, “that will take about 3.5 hours.” And then the customer will decide whether it’s worth it, or not.

3. We fail to stick to our guns. If you want to haggle, cave in, and get screwed, go for it. But if you want to be paid an amount you are comfortable with for a scope of work that is also reasonable, it’s up to you. TELL the customer what the price and the scope are, then STICK to it. Practice answering your customer with a good-natured, “I can certainly do that for you, but it’s outside of the scope of the project agreement. Do you want to add it?” As an added plus, when customers are used to this, and then you give them a freebie here and there AFTER establishing a good relationship, they truly appreciate it.

Finally, I’d also add that it is not nearly as hard to provide some upfront pricing information as one might make it out to be. Customers really appreciate it, and it will immediately weed out those whose budget is such that you’d have ended up wasting time by meeting with them, let alone starting a project for them. This is better for everyone. Not everyone has $2,000 for a project. But if that’s what you charge, then let the customer know, so that s/he can go to a cheaper resource.

Putting some pricing guidelines/examples on your website is totally not the same as giving a price quote or guarantee…unless you screw up and present it that way. So don’t say, “Logo Design: $299.” Instead, try “Custom Logo Design from $500” or “Custom Design – Logos, Illustrations, Icons: $75 p/h” or whatever your price point is. What you’ll see is that customers will ask you, “what does that $500 one include?” but they won’t necessarily expect that it’s going to be what they need. And NOBODY will ask you for a $99 logo anymore as it will be obvious that you don’t do those.

Anyway, sorry to be long. I enjoyed your article!

Manda August 20, 2010 at 10:50 pm

Hi Gen,
Your points here are spot-on. I’m right there with you. We do get screwed, but in the end, it’s really our own faults.I’ve been working on a post with thoughts exactly like these as a follow-up to the Freelancers Screwed post. There are MANY things we can be doing to avoid these issues, and the things you’ve mentioned are right on. I don’t think there is an emoticon for **standing ovation** but you deserve one 🙂

There are many fields that I personally don’t really understand or have a lot of experience with — law, medicine, automobile repair — and when it comes time to pay those bills, I can be a bit defensive myself. I wonder if I am being “taken” — if I am paying for more than I am getting in return. It’s not that the lawyer doesn’t deserve his fee, it’s that I don’t really understand what those fees are for, and/or those fees weren’t outlined for me upfront. Our field seems so cut-and-dry to us — we forget that to most people, web design is foreign. They really don’t know what goes into it, how long it takes, or what it is they are paying for. It is our jobs to make it clear. Or deal with the consequences 🙂

Laura Malick Smith August 25, 2010 at 4:55 pm

This made me laugh and cry. I love design so much, but I hate bidding and even more shaking the money tree with clients.

I’m getting better, but I still underbid. I keep wondering when I’ll be spot on . . .

Tanel August 26, 2010 at 12:22 pm

Good points there.
I’m a freelance flash developer and I usually get screwed because I fail to state the end of the project in my contracts so my clients come back to me with ‘small fixes and updates’ all of the time after stuff is done. And I must say, I am a wimp doing them for no money 😉

Shovan August 30, 2010 at 6:46 am

Soo true, totally agree

@zoemedia September 2, 2010 at 8:42 am

This is brilliant. Even as a freelance Editor and I could relate with every word! Well done for getting this out there. I have emailed this post to every freelance designer I know. I want them to know that they are not alone! x

Christopher Leake November 8, 2010 at 5:11 pm

This post was awesome!!! This is so true! I’ve been screwed so many times, it’s not even funny anymore! LOL I use to fall under the catergory of “Mr. Nice Guy!” Not anymore! I tell the clients upfront, Where’s my money?! LOL

Linda November 20, 2010 at 4:22 pm

Good article! Thanks. At the end you say, “What can we do about it? Look for a post next week”. I would like to read that article. What’s the link for it?

Brett Widmann December 16, 2010 at 1:08 pm

This is very true. Designers should base their worth on their skill level and stick to it. Don’t let someone think you are worth less.

Brett Widmann March 8, 2011 at 1:10 pm

I’m hoping to go all freelance someday so this was a helpful article full of things to watch out for.

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