After 35 years running my own design studio I have developed a very good pricing strategy to calculate a fair an accurate proposal for clients that usually leaves both parties feeling good, and covers the designer should payment or collection issues become a problem.

The first step to determine a fair design fee for a job is to ask all the right questions and understand what the client is looking for. For simplicity purposes let’s use a 12-page brochure as an example. So, you have a client who wants a promotional brochure designer who can deliver a brochure with a lot of photos of their products and services in action and doesn’t know what size brochure they want.  The first step I take is to present sample brochures of similar jobs I have designed.  This usually makes it easy for the client to tell you what they like and don’t like. If they want 28 photos in the brochure, an 8-page brochure would mean very small photos to fit everything comfortably, therefore I might suggest a 12-page brochure so I can make their photos nice and large.  The other advantage of reviewing actual samples is to determine the size of the brochure they like, 8.5 X 11 or 7.25” X 10” is they prefer a smaller size that’s also very nice.

The second question I ask a client is will you be suppling professional high-resolution photos or would you like me to shoot your products or action shots of your construction workers in action, etc. This answer helps me accurately determine the cost of photography.  The total price depends on several variables, travel distance to shoot location, let’s say a second warehouse 2 hours away, hours the shoot will take or using existing pro photos will eliminate or reduce the total photography cost.  How many stock photos will be needed and the cost for a stock photography search time and cost of stock photos should be included.

The second step I take is to keep very accurate time records of the dozens of brochures I have designed over the years so I have a time record of how long it took me to design other 8- or 12-page brochures and refer to this time record. Now of course the total hours will vary from one creative brochure to the other since every job and every client is very different, so I take an average number of hours times the hourly rate I would like to be paid to determine an accurate total design fee. So, I highly recommend to your designers to keep a log sheet of hours on every job. This log record of hours needed becomes a very valuable tool to helping calculate an accurate price and walking away satisfied that your being paid well for your time.  This hourly rate method is also much better than throwing out a number that could be very inaccurate to the time needed to complete the job.  So choosing an hourly rate you are happy with and willing to work for is important to determine your final total price.  A second option with complex jobs where the creative time can vary substantially is to offer a range from low to high and a written promise to invoice the client lower or higher depending on the actual hours the job takes.  Some client will respect this idea and agree, others want a firm price and expect you to stick to it with invoicing their job.

Next, I ask the client about Copywriting.  Would the client like to supply the copy ready to print or would they like to supply a rough draft and have my copywriter follow up with an in person or phone interview and write creative copy and headlines that communicate all they want to say concisely? And I always emphasize a word expert knows how to communicate your message with brevity which is very important because no one will take the time to read a ton of copy.  Secondly my copywriters are great with creative headlines that tell the whole picture or get customers to read all the copy.  This approach usually makes my clients want help with a professional copywriter which is another Phase price of the assignment.

The next important step for is to write a good proposal. Every professional graphic designer uses a written proposal.  The days of a hand shake and a promise are ancient history and could be very foolish should a dispute arise.  Why do I say this?  Because clients often change their minds?  I have seen this dozens of times over the years.  You can deliver A quality creative designs in the preliminary phase and you could even get a very positive reaction to your work and get approval to proceed, then a week or two later I’ve seen clients come back with a stunning reversal and they don’t like anything.  And I’ve had unethical clients try to get out of paying my full invoice because they decide they didn’t like any designs.  This is totally unfair to the designer who has put in dozens of hours to try and achieve a solution the client loves.  If you hire an attorney to represent you in a dispute that goes to court and he loses your case, does that mean you don’t have to pay for all his time?  Of course, he must be paid.  The only way to protect the designer is to have a detailed proposal that will detail each Phase of the assignment, usually Phase 1 Photography, Phase 2 Copywriting, Phase 3, Preliminary Designs, Phase 4 Design Refinements and Phase 5 Digital Mechanical Preparation/ Printers File Preparation. And the contract should include the number of layouts promised in case the client decides to ask for 14 changes.  Most professional graphic designers have a clause that states if the client alternations, also known as AA’s exceed the number of designs or layouts promised at each phase those extra changes will be billed at X dollar per hour.  This clause is an extremely important to any professional logo designer, professional package designer or professional web site designer because I have had clients ask for 14 logo design changes for example.  And without this clause the client will expect all of their change requests to be done at the set price given.  It is totally reasonable to charge for extra hours should the client want to see 14 design variations before they decide on a winning design.  This clause will protect she designer from getting ripped off with endless changes from clients that can’t make a design selection.

Finally make sure to include all job expenses, Epson color proofs, UPS delivery charges, digital copies. Etc.  All business expenses incurred should be paid for by the client. But this should be detailed up front to avoid any surprises or disputes at billing time.  It’s okay to say “The exact number of Epson proofs needed may vary depending on client change requests therefore the total cost of expenses may vary”.  And of course, a signature of approval is critical to make the contract binding.  I have been to court several times over the years when clients decided not to pay their final invoice and my signed contract is so good, I won a judgement every time.  Collecting on that judgement is another challenge, but without a solid contract you don’t have a prayer of collecting your pay check without it.  Also get a deposit up front for Phase one of a logo design for example in case the clients hates all your best designs which happens to the very best designers. And I recommend you structure your Terms to get paid at the end of each Phase of bigger jobs as these assignments can sometimes drag out for months and it’s not fair to the designer to wait until all work if completed to get their paycheck because the client needs months to decide what they want or can often put design decisions on the back burner compared to more pressing business issues they have.

If you follow these simple proposal recommendations a good client will respect you and your professionalism and you will likely have a problem free job where its crystal-clear what design work is expected of you and a happy client who will come back to you for more work and refer you to others.

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