THE DESIGNER'S GUIDE TO MONEY
Just how much should you be paid? Tom May asks a range of creatives how they handle the tricky issue of costing, gleaning tips for getting paid appropriately for your design work
For most of us, working in a creative discipline is not primarily about the money. It’s more of a calling, a need to express yourself creatively, while being passionate about creating great work. Unfortunately, when the landlord is banging on the door for this month’s rent and the bills are mounting up, none of that is much help.
The good news is that on the whole, design is a relatively well paid profession, and it should be able to sustain you financially as much as it does emotionally. But there’s a skill to extracting the right value for your services, whether you’re negotiating your salary, setting your freelance rates or pricing up projects at studio level.
To help you get it right, we explore these three areas, and also get some expert advice on how to get the maximum value for your work.
INCREASE YOUR SALARY
Negotiating a salary is hard enough for any professional, says Ted Leonhardt, a seasoned designer and author of Nail It: Stories for Designers on Negotiating with Confidence. But it’s especially difficult for creatives.
Why? “The biggest problem is that creatives by their very nature are more empathetic than the general population,” he points out. “Indeed, our ability to create work that connects with people relies on this empathetic sense that we have. So if you’re trained as a creative, you give in to the vulnerabilities that you feel about your work, and end up undervaluing your monetary value.”
So what’s a designer to do? “The first, and most important step is awareness: to understand that this is completely normal,” says Leonhardt. “Then step two is to harness this ability to be empathetic to read the emotions of the people you’re negotiating with, and use it in your favour.”
In short, Leonhardt recommends you approach negotiation not as an adversarial bargaining session but as a collaboration in which you guide those you are negotiating with; much as you would do on any design project.
Of course, you also need to do your research. “Widely available salary surveys provide a way for determining your worth, and it’s important to know the range,” says Leonhardt. “Professional associations are the best place to start.” If you can back up your demands with evidence, you can have a sensible discussion without being lowballed. For the same reason, Leonhardt recommends that you don’t reveal your past salary, even if asked; switch the emphasis towards what you’re worth now, not when you first entered your last role. Above all, conduct any salary negotiations with a sense of self-worth. “Creatives always tend to discount their own value,” he stresses. “This can happen even when someone
comes to you first, when you automatically have an advantage. Instead, you need to communicate strongly your point of difference.”
ASK FOR A PAY RISE
It’s a similar story when you’ve been in your current role a while and feel you’re due a salary bump. It’s good to address your feelings on this issue, says Rohan Nanavati, art director and owner of brand design agency Roar Studios, but a combative attitude is unlikely to get you very far. Again, empathy and discussion will win out over tantrums and ultimatums.
“You want your employer to raise your pay happily, not under sufferance,” he reasons, so play the long game. “Keep connected to your manager, and try to figure out what your studio values. Approach them about a pay rise in a straightforward manner, and try to keep the conversation informal. If the rise doesn’t happen immediately, work with the manager to figure out how you can be of more value to the company.”
In short, figure out what your studio needs, and how you can be of use, then get noticed through the contributions you make and extra responsibilities you take on. “That way, a pay rise will seem natural and absolutely deserved,” says Nanavati. “A studio will always value a designer who connects and takes ownership of the issues at hand, and will want to keep hold of you.”
SET FREELANCE RATES
If negotiating a salary can be intimidating, setting your freelance rate is no picnic either. Again, research – both formal and informal – is vital.
“There are a lot of ways to find out the market rate for design work in your area,” says designer and illustrator Tad Carpenter of Carpenter Collective. “For example, if you have a day job at an agency, look into their billing and how the finances are handled. I’d also sit down and ask someone out there doing it: how they bill and set rates. After all, it’s 2017: ask about money, it’s fine. Don’t be gross about it, but be kind and honest. Ask how it all works. It’s a scary situation that so many of us were in, and are still evaluating every day. You’d be surprised how open another designer will be when free lunch is involved.”
Alice Lickens, a freelance illustrator, author and designer based in London, did a lot of informal research herself when she first went freelance. “Mostly I asked around friends and other designers and illustrators to see roughly where rates sat,” she recalls. “I had a ballpark idea in mind that was about right. So I came up with a pricing strategy, and upped my prices every couple of years or so.” Initially she was wary about raising prices, and says she stuck to the same bracket for longer than she should have as a result. “I then realised that I was falling into a gender trap of being uncomfortable about asking for a raise. One of the benefits of being freelance is setting your own rates, so I was delivering a spectacular own goal by being so cautious. I upped my hourly fee and didn’t lose a single client.”
It’s a common tale we’ve heard from so many designers: rather than losing you clients, upping your fees over time can often make them seem to want you more, giving the impression that your work is of higher quality and value than others’.
Of course, some will always try to lowball you, but the beauty of being freelance is that you can just say no, although it’s not always easy. “Saying no can be the hardest part of our job,” says Carpenter. “Every email that comes in is the opportunity to create something new, exciting and memorable; I truly love creating work for clients. But at the end of the day, you have to stand up for your own values and self-worth as a designer. Because no one else will.”
Jonny Wan, a graphic artist and art director based in the UK, adds that you shouldn’t underestimate the complexity of pricing models, and need to get your head around them quickly. “When I first went freelance, the biggest challenge was understanding all the factors I’d need to take into account when quoting a fee,” he recalls. “I had to think about usage, buyouts, licensing. How long would the client use the illustration for? A year, 10 years, in perpetuity? I also had to factor in the territorial aspect of where my work would cover; would it be local, national or international?”
At this point, he decided to seek an agent with the experience and knowledge to negotiate the finer details, leaving him solely to concentrate on the creative work. “From the fees my agents were charging clients, I built up a good picture of how to break down and itemise a job to make sure I was charging fairly for jobs I took on independently. Although having a good grasp on fees is essential for any newcomer, I think sometimes it’s just better to let someone else whose day-to-day job is to handle fees and costings do their thing.” (For more advice on agents, see right, Help From an Agent.)
PRICING AT STUDIO LEVEL
When it comes to agreeing a price for a studio project, the sums get bigger and the stakes higher. “We find there are many challenges to pricing
up studio projects,” says Matt Rice, director of London design studio Sennep. “One is reining in our own creative ambitions to fit a set budget. Another one is to try and foresee obstacles further down the line and try and estimate time, in advance, to overcome these. The second one can be helped by having a contingency budget.”
While as a freelancer you may have become used to quoting a fixed price for work upfront, that’s a dangerous road to go down when it comes to studio projects, Rice advises.
“The biggest mistake you can make is to agree a fixed cost without a clearly defined scope and set of deliverables,” he believes. “So instead, we divide the job up into one or two week ‘design sprints’. During each sprint, a series of tasks – ‘deliverables’ – need to be achieved, and we agree a standard rate per sprint with the client. We explain that if the nature of the project changes, these deliverables may be re-prioritised and replaced, and new sprints may be added.”
This process has come about as the result of a long learning curve, he explains. “A couple of years ago we had a few projects run over by a significant amount. That was a real wake up call in terms of budget management. Since then we have tightened up our process a lot.”
SCOPE THINGS OUT
The most significant improvement Sennep has made has been encouraging in-depth scoping sessions with all stakeholders before they start a job and, more importantly, before they agree to final costs. “This is essential with complicated projects,” says Rice, “particularly ones that involve integrating with third-party tools and services that we haven’t used before.”
The scoping period generally takes place over a series of workshops, spanning one to three weeks, and gives the client a much more detailed understanding of what they are getting, what is expected of the studio, what’s expected of any involved third parties, and what the process will be when the project kicks off.
In short, it’s about planning ahead carefully. “In the past,” Rice explains, “one of the reasons for running over was producing a large amount of creative work leading up to a big presentation without key stakeholders seeing it. Going back to the drawing board at a late stage can be potentially disastrous for costs, particularly if you’re working to a fixed budget.
“We try very hard to avoid this now by working in weekly sprints and having daily stand-ups with the client to make sure everyone is in the loop.
The process is more transparent, and potential issues don’t fester and grow into bigger problems. We share design work and our thinking much earlier, quite often from day one. That way clients are much more invested in the outcome, because they have been part of the process and understand why key decisions have been made.”
To summarise: whatever stage you’re at in your design career, there’s a clear thread running through all of this. Whether it’s haggling over £200 for an illustration, going back and forth with a manager over a 10 per cent pay rise, or negotiating six-figure sums with a big brand on behalf of your studio, the same fundamental factors come into play.
You need the confidence that comes from research and hard data, whether that be surveys of freelance rates and salaries or detailed cost breakdowns of past projects. Beyond that, it’s about clear and continuous communication: evolving discussions that allow you, over time, to provide better value – keeping your clients or employer happy, and generating enough cash to oil the wheels of great design work.