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Resourceful Designer: Strategies for running a graphic design business

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Resourceful Designer: Strategies for running a graphic design business
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Now displaying: Page 1
Feb 8, 2021

Are you missing out by not charging your clients for everything you can?

Running your own design business or freelancing as a graphic or web designer seems like such an easy gig. A client asks you to create something for them, and they pay you for what you design. Simple right?

For thousands of graphic and web designers around the world, that’s exactly how they do it. A Client brings them a project. The designer designs the project. The Client pays for said project. And the cycle repeats.

What if I told you many of these designers are leaving money on the table? How they could and should be charging much more to their clients than they currently are.

I’m not talking about design rates. I’m not saying these designers are worth more than the rate they are charging. Although they probably are.

No. What I’m getting at is there are many aspects of what you do as a designer that you could be charging your clients for. And yet, many designers don’t. And as such, those designers are missing out on money they could be earning. Are you one of them?

Case study.

Imagine a client hires you for a new project. To design a poster for an upcoming local festival.

Many designers will figure out how much to quote for a poster design. They may base it on an hourly rate. Maybe offer a flat fee. Or perhaps base their price on the value they’re providing, regardless of what pricing strategy they use. The price they quote is based on designing the poster alone. And that’s wrong.

You’ll notice most successful designers refer to what they work on as projects. They’re not working on a poster for a local festival. They’re working on a project for the local festival that involves designing a poster. You see, a design project consists of multiple tasks. And not all of those tasks involve actual designing.

Let me break this down.

A client calls you on the phone to see if you’re interested in designing a poster for their festival. You say yes and set up a time to meet their organizing committee to go over what is required of you.

You meet with them to discuss the festival, who it’s for, where it’s happening, when it’s taking place and how long it’s lasting. You go over what the festival's brand and message entail, and of course, what sort of information they want on the poster.

Once you’re satisfied, you go back home or to your office and prepare a quote. Maybe they have some follow-up questions that go back and forth before they agree on your price and you finally get to work on their project.

Your design process may include researching similar festivals from other areas to see what sort of posters they did. It may include browsing stock image sites to find the perfect images to compliment the festival's theme as well as your design. It may include contacting a local printer to ask about different paper stocks or finishing options. It may include coordinating with the festival’s web designer, if that’s not you, to make sure the poster and website follow a consistent brand.

Then, once you’ve designed the poster, you need to present it to the client. Perhaps you place your poster design on situation mockups to help the client visualize it in place. Then you email them a PDF, or maybe you present it to them in person.

Once the client approves your poster design, you prepare the final print files and hand them over to your client to bring to the printer. Unless you are also brokering the printing for them, but for this example, let’s say you aren’t.

Then you prepare the invoice, send it to the client, and take care of the payment and bookkeeping once it's received. Only then is the project over.

Out of all of that, for how much of it did you charge the client?

  • Did you charge them for the initial phone call?
  • Did you charge them for the travel time to and from any in-person meetings?
  • Did you charge them for the time those meetings lasted?
  • Did you charge them for the time it took you to prepare the quote and answer any follow-up questions?
  • Did you charge them for the research you did or the time you spent browsing stock image sites?
  • What about the time you spent discussing the festival’s brand with their web designer or the time you spent discussing paper stock with the printer?
  • How about the time it took to present the poster to the client?
  • Or the time it took to prepare the mockups and final files for the printer?
  • And what about the time you took to prepare the invoice and handle any payment you received?

Did you charge them for any of that? Or did you only charge them for designing the poster?

Most inexperienced or struggling designers probably did the latter. Charge for only the poster. But that's wrong. The poster design is only one small part of the overall project you were hired to do. A project that started when the client called you and finished the moment you received the final payment. Everything in between is billable. Your time is valuable. You shouldn’t be giving it away for free.

Think like a lawyer.

Have you ever received an invoice from a lawyer? Make fun of lawyers as you will, but designers can learn a thing or two from how a lawyer runs their business.

Lawyers keep track of every phone call. Every sheet of paper they print out. Every email they send. And every minute a client spends with them. And they bill the client for all of it. Why? Because lawyers know every little bit of it has a cost or value associated with it. And since it was all done on behalf of a client, that client should be paying for that cost or value.

I’m not telling you to charge for every piece of paper or every paperclip you use. But, you would be in your right if you wanted to.

How I charge my clients.

Let me explain how I charge my clients.

In my case, the initial email or phone call from a client is free. Providing that call doesn’t last more than 15-20 minutes. 15-20 minutes should be enough time to propose their project and for me to ask some initial questions. If it goes on longer than 15-20 minutes, I’ll make a note of it and incorporate the extra time into my project cost. But normally, if it looks like the conversation will go long, I’ll ask them to schedule a time with me to discuss their project in greater detail.

I charge my clients for any travel time as well as the time I spend with them. That time could be for presenting a proposal, conducting a discovery meeting, making a presentation, or whatever reason I'm with the client.

Once I’m back in my office working, I keep track of the time I spend doing research for their project. That may include learning about the client and their industry or browsing stock image sites.

I use a tool called Clockify to keep track of the time I spend on a project. Clockify makes it very easy to turn timers on and off, assign them to a project and keep track of how much time I spend working on it. So before I start any research or anything to do with the project, I turn on the timer.

Just a side note here. Most of my projects these days are quoted using either project-based or value-based pricing. So I’m not billing by the hour. But I still like to keep track of how much time I spend on every project for my own benefit. That way, I get to learn how much time it takes me to do certain tasks.

If a client calls me while I’m working on a different project, I’ll switch the timer to their project for the call duration. Again for my benefit.

And I also know from experience how long it takes me to prepare and send out an invoice.

All of this is taken into consideration when quoting on a project. Of course, most of this is speculation and guesswork. But it’s accounted for.

  • How many trips will I have to make to the client’s office, and what is the average duration for these meetings?
  • What’s the travel distance to the client's office?
  • Will I need to coordinate this project with another designer, printer or other third parties?
  • How much research do I anticipate having to do?
  • Etc.

All of this is worked into the quote. Because my time is valuable, and if it’s spent on behalf of the client. Then the client should be paying for it. If I only charged for the actual designs I create, my business would not be as successful.

There are plenty of other aspects of what you do you could be charging for.

Consulting

I receive lots of inquiries from people wanting to “pick my brain” about design or branding.

"Mark, I have an idea for a new mail campaign for my business. I want to get your opinion on it." Or "Mark, my wife is opening a new business, and I was wondering if you had any ideas of what she needs branding wise to get started?"

You know the types of questions I’m talking about. Sure they may turn into paid work, but most of the time, they’re innocently looking for free advice.

Once in a while is not a big deal. But when this starts happening regularly, it eats into your valuable time. The time you could be spending working on projects you are being paid for.

It got so bad at one point that I implemented a consulting fee. Now, whenever someone calls or emails to ask for my advice. I tell them I would love to help, but I can’t right now. And then provide a link to a webpage where they can schedule a time with me.

The page I direct them to is titled One-On-One Consultation, and it allows them to book a 1-hour time slot at the cost of $100. And you know what? 9 out of 10 times, they follow through and book a time with me.

I used to get asked these questions and ended up spending my valuable time offering advice free of charge. Now I’m being paid for my knowledge. I’m an expert. That’s why they’re reaching out to me. So why shouldn’t I be paid for that expertise? And so should you.

I use a service called Book-Like-A-Boss for booking. But there are many other options you could use to set up your own consulting schedule.

Charging for add-ons.

Another thing you should charge for is add-ons. Add-ons include WordPress plugins or perhaps stock images—basically, anything you need to purchase to complete the client's project.

Every web designer that works with WordPress uses themes and plugins to enhance the sites they build. Many of these themes and plugins are free. But oftentimes, a premium plugin is required to get the job done. Premium plugins come at a cost. And in some cases, those costs should be passed on to the client.

For example, I love Gravity Forms for creating custom forms on websites. But not every website needs a custom form. In most cases, the default form that comes with Divi, the page builder I use, is good enough.

However, I have several clients who need something more than basic, and that’s where Gravity Forms comes in.

Gravity Forms is a premium plugin. It costs $59/year for one site.  So there’s nothing wrong with me charging my clients $59/year for the use of that plugin. I’d just be passing on the cost to them. The same cost they would pay if they were designing their site themselves and purchased the plugin.

However, I pay for an Elite license, which allows me to install Gravity Forms on unlimited websites.

But why should I incur that expense for something that benefits my clients? If it were a single client, I would pass the cost on to them. So why not do the same thing with multiple clients? Every client that uses Gravity Forms pays $59/year for the use of the plugin.

For the record, my website maintenance plan includes premium plugins. So if a client signs up for my maintenance plan, the cost of all premium plugins is included, which is another great selling feature for the maintenance plan.

Stock Images.

I mentioned Stock images above. There’s nothing wrong with charging your clients a small fee for any stock image you use on their project. Include them in your quote or itemize them as extra items on your invoice.

Think of stock image sites as image wholesalers. Meaning it’s OK to mark up the costs of the images you use.

Every year I stock up on DepositPhotos credits when they come on sale at AppSumo. The deal works out to $0.50 for each stock image I download.

However, if the client bought the images themselves, without the benefit of AppSumo credits or a DepositPhotos subscription, they would pay between $5-$10 per image.

So five stock images are used while designing a poster, why not charge the client $25-$50 for them?

There's more you can charge for.

The whole point I'm trying to get across is to help you realize there are things you do for your clients that you could be charging for.

It’s nice to think these things are just the cost of doing business. And in most cases, they are. But why should that cost come out of your pocket when your client is the one benefiting from them? It’s OK to charge your client for all the extra things you do beyond the actual design you create for them.

Don’t believe me? Try to think of the last down on his luck starving lawyer you’ve seen.

Designing might be your passion. It is for me. But passion doesn’t pay the bills. If you want to run a successful design business, you need to treat it as a business. And that means charging your clients.

What sort of things do you charge your clients for?

Let me know by leaving a comment for this episode.

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