Pay the Designer!

by Jin, 12-08-08 // 55 comments

If you’re a science fiction fan like me, you might have heard of Harlan Ellison. He’s an award winning writer who wrote for TV series such as Star Trek, The Outer Limits, Babylon 5, and many more. Ellison is very good at what he does, and more importantly, he’s very outspoken about professionalism among writers. I use the word “outspoken” lightly here, and you’ll soon find out why.

During an interview he gave, for the filming of Dreams with Sharp Teeth, an autobiography film about himself, Harlan Ellison gave a passionate speech about something that’s important to people in the creative field, GETTING PAID. (note: the following clip contains strong language, but well justified IMHO)

If you don’t have the patience to watch the whole thing, here are some key transcripts. A woman from Warner Brothers calls Harlan up, asking to use a clip of his past interview for free.

“A young woman calls me, she says we’d like to use it on the DVD. I said absolutely, all you gotta do is pay me”.

She said “what?”

I said “You gotta pay me.”

She said “Well, everybody else is just, doing, you know, for nothing.”

I said “Everybody else may be an asshole, but I’m not. By what right would you call me and ask me to working for nothing? Do you get a paycheck?

“Well, yes…”

“Does your boss get a paycheck!? Do you pay the telecine guy!? Do you pay the camera man!? Do you pay the cutters!? Do you pay the teamsters when they schlepped your stuff on the trucks!? Would you go to a gas station and ask them to give you free gas!? Would you go to the doctor have him take out your spleen for nothing!? How dare you call me and want me to work for nothing!?


“They always want writers to work for nothing. And the problem is, there’s God damn many writers who have no idea that they’re supposed to be paid every time they do something. They do it for nothing!


I don’t take a piss without getting paid. I get so angry about this, because you’re under-cut by all the amateurs. The amateurs make it tough for the professionals.

Ellison may come off brutally abrasive in this interview, but if you dig for his other interviews you’ll find out that it’s just his personality. Regardless, he’s right on the money (no pun intended).

Creatives in all fields have been fighting for their wages and worth as long as greedy people have existed. However, it wasn’t until in recent years when laws of intellectual property have been enforced, albeit moderately.

Web design is a young creative field. Already, we’ve seen designers work for free, or undercutting each other. If you follow web design blogs in recent months, you may be thinking that I’m going to talk about anti-spec work. I’m not because so many people have talked about anti-spec work in far better detail than I could.

Instead, I’m going to talk about another related phenomenon that’s been hurting web designers: the devaluing of the web industry by cheap labor.

The early years of my career as a freelance web designer were blessed by the dotcom bubble. There was very little competition because every designer, from newbies to experienced had no trouble getting paid, and getting paid handsomely. Every company had plenty to spend on their web sites, whether it was their own money, or money from their VCs.

After the bubble burst, I found that freelancing became increasingly difficult. A big part of the reason had to do with the economy. Another factor was that web designers started working for free for spec work, or worked for very little in order to win a bid. The value of web design in terms of dollars, have shifted. Admittedly, during the bubble, design value was much inflated, resulting in clients paying thousands of dollars for a few static HTML pages.

I stopped freelancing and worked as an in-house UI designer for one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. I thought that working for a corporate company would spare me some integrity (no more competing with cheaper designers) and gain me some stability. I was wrong. I was hit by the biggest cheap labor scheme ever. It’s called out-sourcing. My project team was dissolved after having worked on a high profile, multi-million dollar web project for three years.

We rarely hear about doctors or lawyers having this problem. I think they are very smart people when it comes to earning as a community. If everyone charges at the industry standard, then it’s acceptable to propose a reasonable, livable figure to the client.

Whenever we lower our price to win a bid, we’re essentially hurting the web design industry as a whole. Devaluing our service gives clients a false impression that web design is cheap. Good web design is NOT cheap. It’s more than slapping graphics with codes and calling it a web site. Web design is about providing a solution. Such creative problem-solving service mixed with technical know-how deserves a respectable pay.

Just how much should we charge? I can’t answer that with a $ figure. However, I can only humbly suggest do not go lower than what your typical rate was during the good times. Instead of thinking if you should charge less, I recommend offering more comprehensive services. In doing so, you can even charge more.

A web designer’s role is ever evolving. Simply doing the technical work isn’t going to be enough. What separates a good designer and an excellent designer? I’ll spare you with the professionalism and love for the craft talk. That’s a given. I feel, increasingly, that a web designer’s role is offering the clients a solution. This is more than creating a web site from a technical perspective. Marketing, SEO, branding, social networking are the aspects we should offer to clients pro-actively. I’ll be Harlan Ellison-like here: It’s about the money. It’s about being paid. If you don’t care about how little you get paid, then switch careers and make web sites for your friends on the side as a hobby.

Recent economic recession has prompted me to write this article. I feel tough times are happening again, and it’s important to remind ourselves not to undervalue our work.


also feel free to contact me on twitter or via email
Karl Agius 12-08-08

Beautifully put… and unfortunately it applies to web application development as well as web design. I suppose everyone reading this is familiar with the “My nephew can do it for $50″ quote?

Dmitry 12-08-08

I think the problem lies in the field itself. Web design is something you can learn on your own — pick up a book, open an editor, and start learning. You can learn to make the first website from an online tutorial, and you can code it in a simple text editor. Now — there is a huge distance from this point in competency scale to the point where you’re a leading web designer — and this distance is what causes the variance in how much people expect to be paid.

Beginners who’ve just learned how to make a website think it’s easy — they’re the ones who are attracted to spec work and winning bids. They also think they should do it to get experience and build a portfolio. As you go up the scale, the time invested in your work and experience behind it grows and grows, and you expect to be paid a lot more. You’re not spending weeks on a project just to make a portfolio piece — you expect to be paid.

But because this scale is so huge (you can teach someone to make ‘a’ site in what.. a few minutes? — but you’d need years of experience to make really great sites with maintainable, clean code), the prices differ so much and people get confused about what to expect and how much to charge.

Now — contrast this with other industries. I can’t teach a doctor how to do their job in a few minutes. They need to go through years of academic studies to become a qualified doctor. There are many diseases, many different cases to treat, many variables to know. In the case of web designer, the deliverable is just that — “a website”, which is why beginners fall into the trap of thinking it’s easy and the market prices are completely messed up.

Shane 12-08-08

Direct hit.. As a copywriting student of Tony Flores and Clayton Makepeace, I am
reminded that freelancers in all niches and markets control the rates that we are paid. However, that only applies until we are successful in our work..Then it is time to get your worth.
Like I said before, I am still a student and I know I have much to learn..I appreciate you sharing..
Shane in Wyo

Charlie 12-08-08
Charlie 12-08-08

Another intersting thread going on from one of the founders of Massive Black, Jason Manley about preparing artists for this corporate attack on their work and how trademarks and copyrights work in the creative world.

Jin 12-08-08

@Karl, yes programmers included. Sites like RentAcoder and others are the equivalent of 99designs. When my team was let go, majority of the people were programmers with years of experience.

@Dmitry, you made some very good points. Every point is dead on. I’m not sure what we can do to change that honestly. There will always be people working for significantly cheaper. The web industry isn’t like others. We don’t have a board, union, etc. I’m not for regulations, but I do feel some kind of protection is needed. We have web events, seminars. But they’re more focused on techniques and trends than dealing with basic issues such as getting paid a fair wage.

@Shane, Thank you for the comment.

@Charlie, The Orphan Bill affects creatives everywhere. Web designers included. See:

Charlie 12-08-08

Yes, I totally agree it affects anyone in any creative field. I would imagine several large corps. are standing at the ready for it to go into affect with a creative goodies list they want to snag up. That list I’m sure will include widgets, paintings, and the like.

You mentioned the reason you wrote this article was because of the bad economic times. I believe the media is to blame for the fear of the economy and how things are going. I think companies use the fear as an excuse to cut costs, jobs, etc. We are talking ourselves into a depression.

James De Angelis 12-08-08

I Don’t have a lot to add to what’s already been written and commented, but simply leaving thanks for a great article. Got a kick out of the video too, great stuff :)

Joseph Levin 12-08-08

It’s a great article, no doubt. Ellison is a kick. However, I must say that catering to what needs to be done needs to be, well, catered-to and done .

I wanted to charge what I thought initially to be approx. 66-75% of the as-then ‘going rate’ for designers of my experience level and skillset to be competetive (the % varies depending on where I looked for my data concerning rates). I picked this rate for various reasons- as an attempt to attract clients, and since I worked out of my home and had insurance from my wife’s job, I had very little overhead. But that magic 66-75% wasn’t good enough.

In my geographic area, where the majority of my client base is located, I got the serious impression that many didn’t feel web design warranted them having to pay that much despite the de-facto expectation that a company needs to have a good website in today’s business-climate.

So I progressively had to charge less until I started getting a few clients (some of which would, it seemed, rather I did them a favor and made a website for them out of the goodness of my heart, rather than get paid….sound familiar?). But I needed to get work and make any money at all to help supplement my wife’s income and to make ends meet so we could pay the mortgage, auto loan, etc. I did spec for a short while (a very short while, mind you), and it did eventually get me some work. I’d damn well do it again if I felt it could get me work so I could make even a little money to get by. I haven’t done spec for a while, and I don’t ever want to do so again. But what can one do when the savings start getting low?

Now I don’t know about Ellison’s personal financial situation, but I doubt he’s in the same boat I’m in…let alone the same ocean.

What I did cheapened the ‘service’ in that I charged less than Designer X might charge. But I do not believe my service-LEVEL to the Client was diminished (or cheapened, what have you). On the contrary, I did my very best to provide a quality product and to meet my Clients’ needs…and to do it quickly with an eye toward practicality and saving the Client money (which in many ways sets me apart from larger firms.).

The market will pay what it can bear. My particular market did not bear as much as other’s.

To change the field and the market, my opinion is that one can only do the best job regardless of how much one is paid. Ideally, if everyone did that the overall quality of work would be great and designers could charge more. Either than or unionize and force basic rates of pay for certain kinds of work (which I don’t think I’d agree with until I see a good and equitable means of instituting such a thing).

Raymond Selda 12-08-08

This is really a great article! The kind of article I would ask my clients to read first before they nag me to lower my prices.

There’s a really good discussion of that same situation here:

Antti 12-08-08

Jin, what a great article. I really appreciate it. I’ve been there – from the multi-thousand $$ static sites to db-driven sites with CMS’ (all from scratch, too) for peanuts.

My example from today: I was in a meeting with a full development team (developers/designers, an analyst and a UX person). We were talking about UI and while I didn’t hear any of the “nephew” comments, I heard developers giving out usability advice. Interestingly, our “Bob” was there, and listening to him make me feel good. Sticking to his “Just the facts ma’am” attitude he held his ground and made other people understand what what the right thing to do. I was in awe of him, he was good, he knew what he was talking about, and because of his professionalism, the conversation stayed on track. Thanks to him, we will be able to produce that much more better of a product.

So what is my point?

Just like you said, anyone can make websites, some might even make them look nice, but only PROFESSIONALS can make them GOOD.

So pay them dammit.

P.s. And for all you Bobs & co. out there: If they ain’t paying – you don’t want to be working with ‘em.

trif3cta 12-09-08

*Standing ovation* – fabulous post.

Thank you.

Piotr Godek 12-09-08

i suppose i am the bad guy here, since:
1) i am self-taught
2) i did design a FREE WP theme :>
3) i offered my work for free to get references.

but i know that a good website isn’t created during lunch break ;)

first i’d like to agree that web design LOOKS easy. “hey, it’s just some simple graphics”… i’m in double trouble, since i prefer minimalistic design, and how much can you pay for a couple of headers and boxes ;)

then i’d like to rise another problem. i’ve offered my services to a couple of design (NOT web design) studios, architects, industrial designers etc.

and guess what?
1) many think that if they can design a building, they know everything about designing a website.

2)second: they want to be paid well for their own work and they know designing is not simple. but when it comes to web design, they think a teenager’s pocket money will be enough.

Jin 12-09-08

@James, thanks for the comment. I watched the video again, is it just me or does Ellison dress like a Jedi master?

@Joseph, what you’ve described is a very common scenario. I realize it’s easy for others to say, charge more. But I know in reality, when you have to pay the bills, you just have to do what you have to do. The point of my article is to raise the awareness, both to ourselves and to the clients. This is not something that’s going to happen overnight, or any time soon.

If the client is aware that we care about their business success by offering more than just a web site, she/he will be inclined to pay more (if budget allows).

A big part of freelance business is from referrals. Referrals from cheap clients will tend to lead to more cheap clients. That’s another downfall of selling our service cheap.

Thank you for your thoughts.

@Raymond, thanks!

@Antti, good point. When I met with several contractors a few months ago for wall repair work at the house, they gave me quotes ranging from $300-$600. I decided to go with the $600 guy. Why? The cheaper guys tended to agree with everything I said. I know nothing about wall repair work. If I hire a professional to do the work, I expect them to lead, not follow. (of course the $600 guy had rave online reviews and client testimonials too).

@trif3cta, thanks!

@Piotr, I think a lot of people in this field are self taught. Myself included. Nothing wrong with that! I think it’s common for people starting out to offer free work to get references. It’s still a practice that hurts others. Can you imagine the client telling the next designer “That last guy did it for free…”

It’s simple capitalism. People want stuff for cheap, or free. People offer cheaper prices to sell goods over their competition. There will still be competition even if all designers are being paid fairly. However, it’d be better to compete on what extra services, or niche you can provide, rather than on how much less you charge than the next guy.

Daniel Cousineau 12-09-08

On the topic of “initial free work for references” that’s the consultants equivalency to an internship. Every field has an”internship,” be it a Doctor’s Residency, apprenticeships, or literal internships, everyone “pays their dues” to get experience so they can finally start getting paid.

If designers (and as a coder I get this too, though luckily not to the extent that designers get it) want the practice of free designs that undercut their business to stop they should come up with some effective intern or apprenticeship system. If there are enough design shops (or shops with design wings), have them take on a nice load of new guys. Consultants take on 1 or 2 apprentices, etc. Have them work for someone else who is getting paid well so that they get the experience they need to get paid well and the market isn’t flooded with the freebies.

Alternatively, turn down the designer arrogance (says the arrogant programmer :P) and make sure the design community is as warm and welcoming as possible (it already pretty much is but doesn’t hurt to be vigilant). This way you can attract the newbies that are learning and before they go do commercial work for free you can direct them towards Open Source projects and Non Profits who desperately need web help. Doing an open source project’s website from start to finish is a GREAT experience booster, it benefits the community (you give back to projects that give others so much), and it’s a free project for a client who doesn’t have the money to spend anyways (meaning they were not a potential customer anyways).

Do not despair, however. At least in the coding world people are starting to realize the folly of outsourcing to programming teams in foreign countries for peanuts. The code they get back is sloppy, barely working (if at all), and costs more than a full blown custom in country project to maintain. Where as outsourcing was the it IT thing to do a while back, every IT anything I read now says “oh god, pull back, pull back!” Hopefully the design side of things should wake up as well.

Of course back on the open source topic I think it might be a great idea to build up a central location for designers to meet, Open Source/Non Profits can register a request for a new website and somehow guarantee that at least one person on the charity project is a newbie looking for experience. We coders already get a situation like this through contributing to the OSS projects themselves, its time designers some how got on the gravy train.

Chris 12-09-08

I’ve done a lot of freelance web work myself and I actually rely on cheaper developers/designers to fill in some gaps for projects that I can’t handle myself. Different tasks/services deserve different price points. I’m not going to pay one of my sub-contractors $100/hour to tweak some html. But I would pay $100/hour to one of my sub-contractors to design an effective UI/site-design, code it up in html/xhtml and provide cross-browser CSS.

And that, i think, is the point. There are always going to be cheaper alternatives. And some people/companies don’t know better. Ultimately, you probably don’t want those people as clients.

I think your real beef is with the clients who will pick a cheaper (and potentially worse) designer/developer than the designer/developer who will work for less. But if you find that everyone is working for less than you’d like then you’re probably charging too much.

As an aside: doctors and lawyers probably don’t earn as much you think. Lawyers, especially, largely because there is a HUGE surplus of people with law degrees. I think the average attorney’s salary is only in the high 70s/low 80′s (in the US).

Juan Gotti 12-09-08

I will tell you this. If you’re good, you have nothing to worry about, people will come to you because of what you can offer (experience, quality, integrity, clean codes, accesibility, standard compliant design, etc).

And believeme, nobody can make that change, you just stick to what you believe and everything else will flow naturally.

That’s how I think =)

Steven Clark 12-09-08

Harlan Ellison is now a new design legend for me, thanks Jin. He’s perfectly right, and I tend to not work nowdays rather than drop my prices (although I’m currently on holiday pissing everyone off – but that’s another story). There’s things I do for fun, and there’s work.

My work stuff costs money to produce and requires the transference of hard cash into my bank account before I’ll even start on it. Burned too many times in little ways. But although I’m self taught to a great degree, I also have a Bachelor of Computing, industry level certification in Web Design and Administration, and CCNA certificates. In other words, I’ve invested heavily in my career through education. This doesn’t make me better than self taught, because really I’d say I’m self taught, but it means I’m worth the money reimbursed through the years of povertous study, at the least.

When someone does suggest a young cousin I just say OK seeya, and I’m polite. If they want a better site later they might wake up, if they don’t it’s their business decision. Sometimes they come back, othertimes not.

Harlan’s speech should be played in advertising breaks during prime time television. Hire a muppet, pay muppet wages. Hire a professional and pay the rates. It’s only fair.

Excellent video mate. Thanks.

Steven Clark 12-09-08

Here’s a story from earlier in the year. I was working for a very large international logistics and shipping company based in Dubai doing functional graphic design work and copy writing. My rates were not that steep but definately not that low, and as I could only provide part of my attention it was an amicable enough situation for me as bread and butter work. They had sought me out because someone in the East wasn’t articulate enough in english, mainly.

About 1 month into the work they started borking about the hours it took to do certain work. I said well that’s fine but however many hours it takes is what it takes, and that’s the cost. I can’t really help that.

At 2 months things got unpleasant and after an AGM they abrubptly said goodbye, they were going back to the cheaper option overseas. Their expectation for my costs were about half or even less of what I had been charging? WTF? Anyway, the general manager of their corporate academy emailed and asked if I’d consider doing the same work for much less? I said very curtly no… and don’t ever offer me work again. I was very offended.

Harlan’s video reminded me. I recall just such a day, only an email one. :)

Who am I to work for free for a company that earns 2 billion dollars in a year?

Steven Clark 12-09-08

Although I did know a conman working for a charity and I was going to help the charity out a few years ago with lowered rates. But I was very cautious, knowing Bill, that I wanted cash up front.

Anyway 2 or 3 months go by and suddenly a TAFE teacher rings me abusing me about my “friend” ripping her and not paying her for work. Work she’d undercut me to get from Bill the convicted conman. Mmm…

Sometimes you just get to go to bed with a big smile :)

Karl 12-10-08

There is one thing which should be considere talking about creatives used to being underwaged. We consider ourselves being artists in love with their work. Of course we are, right? But there’s there other part your not being taught anywhere: Everybody who wants to make money, will make money. Every freshman in business studies thinks like that. But since we’re artists and it’s easy as a freelance artist to keep out of the numbers part for nice job we tend not to think like business man.

Thomas | Santhos 12-10-08

Good post. Totally agree with it. The problem is that almost everyone can learn to build a website. It costs you nothing. You read some books or tutorials and there you go. Doesn’t mean that your good allready…. but these people who do it more like a hobby are the big danger… Potenial cliënts might choose them because they’re cheap… One day I hope they all find out they’d better hire a decent designer and pay a bit more!

ff-webdesigner 12-10-08

It depens on us…like almost always…stay at your price and be more self-conscious…If you have a good price for your product it will be respected and will be seen as value…

Web developers (i.e. web application programmers) like myself have it easier than web designers. Dealing with databases and massive web application frameworks is still too daunting a task for the amateurs. However web design is something anyone can do after learning how to tweak their MySpace CSS. For example, I’m sure I could create a better design than one that uses a massive background image where the photo’s subject is hidden behind the semi-transparent content area. But there is still plenty of opportunity in creating themes for web applications with many technical requirements. Almost nobody is designing for the Elgg Social Networking platform which I’m very interested in after Ning eviserated their platform.

Alison 12-10-08

Good post. I just turned down a job because a prospective client was telling me that this “other guy” was charging much cheaper. I told him no, I won’t lower my prices, and that was that.

Jin 12-10-08

Due to length and my limited time, I won’t be able to respond to each of you. I appreciate you all taking the time to share your thoughts. I’m glad to hear from some programmers too.

Web design is not a localized field. Globalization makes the competition even tougher. This is true for programming as well, however as some commenters mentioned above, it’s not as bad since the learning curve of the craft is higher. I believe how the clients value our service is based on perception(In general sense). Lowering our service by a significant margin does hurt us. I’m probably not offering a sound fix for the situation. It’s hard. However I think being aware
of the consequences is a good start.


Eric-from-Boston 12-10-08

110% on Harlan Ellison’s page, people are ridiculous — and your comments ring true also.

i felt his passion and it got me fired up too

Kimh 12-11-08

Great article.

The recession is unfortunate; I’m just beginning to spread my wings after years of studying design and dissecting it and building a portfolio through referrals and working for an SEO company, and now it is difficult to score projects because of the current economic downturn.

I hope that in the coming years, the economy picks up again. I have faith that it will, but perhaps that is just my positive outlook on life. When it does, I hope that it helps make landing projects at a better rate much easier. :)

Steve Yakoban 12-12-08

You really captured the issues and the “designer’s dilemma”.

I have to say this was a good find as I am always struggling with “pay” or not to get “paid”I am not a professional but still consider myself an amateur. I sat down to set up an e store and had no clue what I should charge for services and what services to provide. I don’t want to out source either if I don’t have to.

David Airey 12-15-08

Hi Jin,

Good of you to comment over on Logo Design Love. Thanks for taking the time, and also for referencing one of my previous articles on spec work. I’m all for educating those not ‘in the know’, and hoping they value their services higher than ‘free’. 12-17-08

[...] bit of legwork before writing a post about spec work and came across this interesting rant (via  While I’m not quite this passionate or colorful about the topic as he is, I couldn’t have [...]

[...] Jin Yang recently wrote an interesting article titled Pay the Designer! It’s not an article on anti-spec work, although I touch up on it slightly. It deals with [...]

Amazing. Thanks for this.


Garro 01-21-09

Great Post!
Thanks :-)

Jim Hutchison 01-21-09

I love this. The unfortunate thing is that this situation is not limited to any industry – I work in the entertainment business as a lighting designer and consultant, and people who need my skills don’t understand that experience, quality, and skill comes with a price. When you read Craigslist gigs, for example, they are chock full of people who don’t want to pay jack but want the world, and want it yesterday.

Crap. Total crap.

Rich Gould 01-21-09

Harlan is harsh, but so right. That stuff BURNS me! Thanks for sharing

A devaluing of the industry due to people who know how to use Photoshop and/or make something look pretty has been the case for graphic design for years. Without doubt, in graphic design, the 2 elements that set professionals apart from amateurs is…
1: Designing for a reason and factoring in end-use
2: The versatility to shift styles to best meet the objective

If you’re a pro you’ll always be one step ahead.

Ken Brown 01-22-09

FYI, it’s telecine, not tele-steady. Always love referencing that video whenever the subject of working for free comes up.

Jin 01-22-09

@Anthony, Rich, Ken, thank you for your comments.

@Jim H, I’d imagine it’s true for a lot of professions out there. I asked a friend who used a work as a chimney sweeper if he had any problems with other people undercutting him. He told me no because there was a local chimney sweeper organization that have regular meetings. So everyone set a respectable, relatively similar rate.

@Jonathan, I agree. The problem is that clients don’t know that. It’s very likely that an established professional already has a network of clients and referrals so he/she won’t be affected too much. My point isn’t just about Pro vs. Amateurs. Two designers with equal skill set, one sets the price much much lower than the market norm will give clients a false impression about work’s worth.

@Ken, thanks! Corrected.

[...] needs to get paid for the work they do in the creative field. This was a great video found from here. Thanks David. Just a fair warning, there is harsh language [...]

Phil 01-26-09

This is a problem currently affecting so many industries it’s untrue. Web Designers / Developers / Sound Engineers, Session Musicians, Cameramen, Photographers. We’re all being undercut (sometimes by ridiculous amounts – check for developers working for $5/6 an hour).

The issue is that these people are obviously poorly skilled or have low levels of experience, but the companies employing them don’t know and simply don’t care enough to educate themselves about getting what they’re paying for.

The saddest part is the people charging the low fees think they’re earning themselves a good wage, but as pointed out, they’re preventing themselves from earning a very good wage.

This is going to be a very difficult problem to turn around.

MACO 01-27-09

This has forever been a problem for all creative providers. I was a sign designer / painter for many years before the advent of CG signage. People thought I had some kind of special kit or magic Mickey Mouse brush (Fantasia) that just whipped out the end result. They used all kinds of excuses trying to barter or haggle their way to a free or cheap sign. I’ve heard statements such as, “we’re a christian organization, so it would be in your best interest to help us.”, My brother-in-law would do it for me but he’s been really busy.”, “can I get someone else to do it using this design?”… sheesh man!… I wasn’t doing this for experience. I needed to eat and pay bills, raise a child, pay for my overhead and etc…
I once had a fellow come in who wanted a glue-chipped, gold leaf and sand blasted glass entrance door. I sketched a few designs for him where he was able to choose what served his need. At that time I never quoted a price verbally. I would simply note a price on the sketch. He picked the design he liked while asking if I could do it for less money. Of course I told him it was the least I could charge for such an articulate piece of work. He then tried to take the sketch with him, aledgedly to show his associates, wherein I refused. He would call me periodically wanting to haggle some more, once time asking me if I would sell him the sketch. I offered it to him for the price I had written there. He thought I was crazy I guess, so he hang-up. Finally one day, being fed up with his crap, I wrote a script for one of my shop hands to memorize for the next time the guy called.
Sure enough he did! I answered the phone only to hear the same old verbiage. I told him to hold on to talk to one of my new associates. (LOL) My employee picked up the phone announcing, “Thank you for calling Maco’s Cheap & Easy Sign Company!… What kind of crap can I offer you today?” The guy hung up of course only to call back asking for me. I cut him short telling him this… “I think I could offer you Turned Goldleaf in german crystal for the same price as magic marker on cardboard, and you would still think the price is too high.” You have no respect for my profession nor my creative ability.” I would love for you find another artisan who can offer the same beauty and quality, just to see what they will charge you for the end product.” I slammed down the phone expecting he would never bother me again. Ironically he sent me a letter in the mail two weeks later. He said he had searched for many days without result and that I was the only person he could find in our region who offered the work. He asked me to call him and he would no longer talk price. He just needed the glass doors.
I called him, told him I would do the job, except that the price had increased 20% since my last quote. He was quiet for a minute, I asked if he was still on the line. He answered saying, “Is that installed?” I said, “Hell NO, but I will not cover another installer’s damage if they break it.” damn if he didn’t pay me the additional 20% plus the install up front!
A few cliches… “If you desire worldly things then you will have to pay a worldly price.” “If you want to dance, somebody has to pay the band.”

Firgs 02-02-09


I wrote a similar article myself.

Drew Daniels 02-16-09

Nowhere is the sickening lack of consumer common sense worse than the tens of thousands of audio recording amateurs who now dominate the entire recording industry with dreadful audio. An audio guru once remarked, in fact, put out a book with the title “If Bad Audio Were Lethal, We’d All Be Dead.” Yet bad audio is the norm and good is as rare as an honest man. To put it in perspective, there are a million lawyers in the U.S., yet to get a good one, you’ll pay $1000 an hour. There are two million CPAs in the U.S., yet I pay $350 for the yearly 45-minute visit. There are fewer than 1000 good recording engineers in the U.S. and probably fewer than 100 great ones, yet try to ask for $250 an hour for expertise that fewer than one person in three million could even dream of, and all you hear is the laughing before the phone slams down. Consumers are stupid and greedy, but amateur suppliers are too, fueling the continuous vicious cycle of bad work for bad reasons. Will someone please tell us how to break the cycle? I didn’t think so….

brucemiller 02-16-09

As a tv composer, I run into this constantly. I’ll never forget when a show wanted to hire me, but the head of a very large studio/prod company was quoted to tell the show,
“any kid with a guitar will do”.
I did not get the show…………..this statement said it all!
bruce miller

Drew Daniels 02-17-09

Bruce’s point is all too painfully telling of the business situation, where young hotshots replace competent producers and executives. It’s very hard for our work to be valued when those who would do so are clueless and uneducated in the arts.

And, we charitible and optimistic creative types constantly forget or marginalize the simple fact that half the population is below average intelligence, thus allowing these hotshots to target them and avoid altogether, the need for craft and sophistication.

brucemiller 02-17-09

BTW, this particular exec was not a new young guy. He also comes from a respected showbiz family and should know better. Good luck to the new creatives coming up and trying to make a living. I would not be surprised if some day, somewhere, a show will ask for me to get to the dub stage immediately and bring my iPhone to come up with a cool “sound” for their show in some iPhone app. THEN, if the show sells, maybe i’ll be paid.
Look…….I am one of the fortunate ones with a viable career and am lucky enough to have made a pretty good living for quite a while. I started when technology didn’t offer the shortcuts we have today. Hire me……hire an orchestra and studio! That was the only way. My fear is for the young guys (and girls) coming up who are totally at the mercy of the “Biz”

While it might be easy to resolve to not undervalue our own work, getting other people to see the value is harder.

A prospective web client once told me that in her business, she could only charge what people were prepared to pay. Therefore, as she could only pay £xx, that was what I should charge my services to her at!!!!!

I think the logic made sense to her, but she ended up on my “no thanks” list.


[...] Pay the Designer, on 8164 [...]

Jonathan Hollin 08-31-09

I have a blanket no-free work policy with any client. When I quote for any project I take into account every cost that I anticipate incurring and I estimate how many hours I think a project will take to complete. Then I add a third, because Murphy’s Law can kick in at any point.

The rest is easy. I have a non-variable hourly rate, which is non-negotiable. Why should I work for less? To do so devalues me. So I simply don’t do it. I simply decline any project that compromises this value.

Even in a recession I’ve found that clients seem to respect you more when you won’t negotiate on price. The sub-conscious message to them is, “as I value my time so much, you can be sure that I’m going to take your time seriously too.” It’s reassuring to them.

Anyway, yours is a great article Michael. Very well written and right on the nail. Nice one.

[...] Pay the Designer [...]

Brett Mouron 12-18-09

Thanks for the post Jin! I used your article’s inspiration to write up my own experience with speculative work. And I had to post the video for it is a true GEM!

Brett Mouron 12-18-09

[...] Note: this photo was published in a Dec 8, 2008 blog entry entitled "Pay the Designer!." [...]