I was knee-deep in a site build out when the door to my office opened and a man stepped in. He blinked at me, confused, as if he'd wandered in by mistake.
I spun away from my computer, racking my brain to try and remember any meetings I might have scheduled and forgotten. "Hi. Can I help you?"
"I'm looking for a web design firm," he said.
"Well, you found us. What can I do for you?"
He sat down on the other side of my desk to tell me about the web site he wanted built. I was aware of the red flag that had gone up in my mind: walk-ins are not a normal thing for us. Although our address is given on our web site, people always call or email first.
Almost as if he could see the red flag hovering above my head, my new acquaintance pulled out a thick binder and opened it on the table. It was chock-full of business plans, thoughts, statistics and sketches, and he proceeded to walk me through the web site he wanted.
15 minutes later he was still talking. We were about half way through the binder. It was a site of staggering complexity. To get you in the general ballpark, think of Nike+ but for all sports, add a monthly membership fee, and throw in some global databases of athletic activity for good measure. He wanted a mobile site, online forums, the whole nine yards.
It wasn't daunting in an "I can't do this" kind of way, but in a "This would take a lot of time and be a massive amount of work" kind of way. In a, "He'd better be prepared to spend a lot of money" kind of way. (Its a topic for another day, but no design project should ever be thought of in terms of can or cannot, just in terms of how long and how much)
While I appreciated the effort he had put into thinking through and documenting the idea, his intricately detailed binder had done nothing to lower the red flag still hovering above my head. I'd seen this show before. I had to qualify him, and qualify him fast.
I waited until he paused long enoug for me to jump in: "This all sounds like a great idea," I said. "And I'm really impressed with the amount of planning you've done so far. Let me ask real quick, what kind of starting budget do you guys have to work with to get this off the ground?"
I knew his answer was coming; anyone who's asked the budget question even once would expect it. "Well, I'm not sure. I was hoping you would tell me that."
"I won't be able to give you an accurate estimate until we spend some time scoping out the entire project in fine detail," I said. "So let's just consider this a wide ball-park number, just to see if we're on the same page."
"To design and build this kind of extensive web application," and I quickly went through the list of the features he'd brought up, "you guys should be prepared to invest at least..."
I gave him a number with six digits.
It was as if all six digits emerged from my mouth manifested as physical objects and flew across the desk to slap him one-by-one across the face.
His eyes widened and he gave a nervous chuckle.
"Of course," I said, "there's no reason why we can't roll a project of this size out in phases. We could build and design the core features first, then add on as you guys have more money to invest."
I might as well have been speaking Greek. He ignored me entirely and said, "I've got a quote from another web designer that said he could do it for $2,500."
A cocky little smile appeared on my face. "We don't attempt to contend with prices from overseas developers," I said.
"I'm not talking about someone from India," he said. "I mean a designer here, in town. In Memphis."
The cocky smile was gone, wiped from my face. Bullshit, I thought.
But for the first time, I felt the reigns of the discussion tugging out of my grip.
I had no fantasies of securing the job, of course. To be honest, I knew our chat would lead nowhere from the moment he'd bumbled into the office.
What bothered me was something bigger than this prospect, than this job, something simultaneously parallel and central.
I couldn't contain my disbelief. "You're kidding," I said. "All of this? You found a designer that said he would do all of this, for $2,500?"
He looked me dead in the eye and nodded.
He's lying, I thought.
I looked down at my notes. "You're telling me someone said they'd design and develop a web site with..." and I ran through the list of features again "...for $2,500?"
He looked me dead in the eye and nodded.
I was flabbergasted--again, not because I'd lost the project. Screw the project.
I couldn't help myself. "What's the name of the firm?" It felt incredibly unprofessional to say, but I had to know.
"I can't tell you that," he said.
We looked at each other across the table with my notes and his binder between us for a long, awkward moment. Finally I said, "Thanks for coming by, but unfortunately there's no way we could do a project of that magnitude for so little money without incurring enormous losses."
He thanked me for his time. I shook his hand and in my mind thanked him for wasting mine.
I sat and stewed for a few minutes after he left. For a while my anger locked on on him and his binder and his insane project that he wanted done for less than my wife and I had paid for our bedroom set.
I couldn't decide whether I believed his claim that another design firm had given him such an insanely lowball quote.
I didn't want to think about the possibility of another design professional--or, well, "professional"--throwing around numbers like that.
It didn't take me long to realize that my anger wasn't really directed at him. In reality, he was just a symptom, not the real problem but one of its many side-effects.
And really, even if the guy had in fact just been a liar who made up the $2,500 number just because it's what he had sitting in his bank account, it really didn't effect the actual problem here.
That problem problem that has nothing at all to do with our clients and the jobs they come to us with. And it's destroying the design profession like a cancer, eating us all from the inside-out.
A real world illustration in a semantic mine-field
To give an illustration of what I mean is to wade into a semantic minefield, but what the hell. I've got two legs, I can afford to lose one.
Let's talk logos.
Now, anyone who's ever created a real logo--and by logo I mean a meaningful, intellgient mark of actual value to the client for whom it is crafted, not some random, juvenile, lifeless Illustrator exercise--knows the amount of work and time they take to craft.
To create a logo that will simultaneously embody the spirit, goal and attitude of a company or venture while satisfying the decision makers in charge takes research, strategy, skill, pitches, presentations, revisions, persuasion, revisions, blood, sweat, tears, time. Time. Time. Time.
Plain and simple: logos should not be cheap.
They should never, ever, cost only a couple hundred bucks.
And yet, time and time again I've heard tale of competing design firms--actual, professional design firms--producing logos for $400, $300, $200.
And I mean actual professional design studios, not students looking for a way to pay for the semester's books.
If you can look me in the eye and tell me in one breath, without cracking up, that you are a design professional who can bang out a logo for $200, then you need to take a long, hard look at yourself and the way you run your business.
Let's just look at the numbers.
Let's do a simple math exercise together.
Let's start with a hypothetical scenario: you're insane, and you've just agreed to create a logo for a client for $200. Now let's run through what the process of designing a real logo might look like.
For argument's sake, let's say presentations, interviews and meetings with your client throughout the design process will rack up a grand total of five hours. Now, anyone who's done this dance a few times knows that's a conservative number, but we're just making a point so we'll go with it.
Let's say you spend an hour on research and strategy.
Let's say the brainstorming and concepting stage of the process takes you two hours. It should take longer, but hey, we'll work with two hours.
Let's say after presenting the concepts (and remember, for the sake of argument we've already considered the amount of time this presentation takes) and receiving feedback from your client, you spend another, oh, say three hours polishing up the top three logo concepts. An hour a concept, that seems fair right?
Let's say after another meeting, you find yourself with a concept that has floated to the top: the chosen logo. Let's say you spend, oh, I dunno, five hours on the actual execution of the logo. Again, you should probably spend more, but five works for our purposes.
Finally, let's account for an hour's worth of production work to package up the final logo and its many different variations, mock-ups, file formats, and so on.
Let's say, throughout the course of the project, you rack up an hour's worth of email composition and correspondance.
The grand total comes to 18 hours of work.
(Note: I'd like to stress once again that doing a logo right--and, being a design professional who takes himself and his work seriously, you of course want to do the logo right, yes?--should take longer.)
A logo in 18 hours, the equivelant of a few work days.
At $200, you are valuing the time of your professional design firm, the time it took to craft a logo, at about 11 bucks an hour.
There are college kids in Best Buys across the country putting video games on shelves and raking in more dough than that.
Guys. This is a real problem.
A serious, grave problem.
Here you are, a professional designer, valuing your craft at less than Best Buy values the correct alphebatization of Blue Ray movies and XBox video games.
Damn Your Butterfly Wings
Don't fool yourself into thinking that pricing your work so low is a personal decision that only has an impact on your firm. Because it doesn't.
Every time you hawk a logo for a couple hundred bucks or throw in a web site for free to get a promised bigger project from a client, you're making a decision that effects all of us.
You're creating a tiny tremor that grows in magnitude as it radiates away from you until it hits the rest of us at full force when we have to explain to our clients why we're quoting the logo you'll do for $200 at many, many times that.
You are actively contributing to the commoditization and devaluing of our profession and the work we produce.
While the rest of us are educating our clients on how important intelligent, dignified visual communication and design is to the success and advancement of their individual businesses--to business as a whole--you're reducing everything we do to something cheap, flippant, ornamental, insignificant.
You're making everything we do as designers into something that looks cool and is kind of neat to have, but isn't really, you know...important.
It's not the client's fault. It's ours.
Designers like to bitch about our crazy clients, and bemoan how little they appreciate the skills and value we bring to the table.
Sometimes, there's good reason for this--sometimes, some clients are crazy.
But if you ask me, it's almost never really the client's fault. The client doesn't know any better.
Hell, the client, whether they know it or not--whether YOU know it or not--is, deep down, relying on you to educate them about the value of your work.
And trust me, if you can articulate the value of your work as a designer, and then actually follow through and deliver a product that yields real results and tangible value, your client will thank you. And they'll respect you and the work you do.
But if instead you shuck off design work for less than Best Buy pays college kids, you're sending a clear message that the work we do does not, in fact, deserve respect. Or appreciation.
Or, you know, money.
You're instead reducing everything all of us do to something superficial and unimportant. And our clients will hear and receive that message, and like it or not it will inform their perspective of designers, design work, and the design profession.
And that won't be the client's fault. Even the crazy ones.
The fault will lie with those who call themselves design professionals and yet clearly do not value design.