Should a designer barter their skills and negotiate their rate? The rates are a common discussion that has come up several times in the graphic design communities for as long as I have been involved in the industry. Your level of skill, your schooling, your portfolio, the time it takes to complete the project, and previous client history all have a factor in a designer’s rates, but how the design values all of this put together determine their ‘worth’.
If I boil down the discussion to its essentials listed, the real point of the discussion whenever a designer asks “What am I worth?” is that they don’t know how to quantify their value and think others can calculate it for them. However, an outsider will never be able to determine your rates!
These discussions always end with the more experienced designers saying they can’t provide a fixed rate range for another.
What is your work worth?
If a designer is unable to come up with a rate for their work, they often ask the design community as a whole if they can help them figure it out. Those in the community that have the patience to sit through this discussion again will weigh in on the subject to attempt to help the newer designer.
However, the experienced freelancers will shake their head at this line of reasoning and chip in their thoughts on the matter:
“The barter system may be alive and well in some markets, but the service industry and specifically the design industry is not the place for this. Designers are being undervalued all the time as it is, and to agree to take something other than money would further under value the field. Only you can determine what the bottom dollar you can accept for a job is so don’t let anyone try and lowball you.” – James Cole
“I negotiated my rate once and won’t ever again. It sets a precedent which has been very difficult to reverse, and although at the time I did need the money, the demands on my time (in hindsight) effectively meant I ended up earning less than I would by just seeking opportunities elsewhere.” – David ‘Ed’ Edwards
Most negotiations for me happen when we discuss an aspect of the proposal that, after further discussion, they truly may not need or the scope of the project has changed.” – Ron Tinsley
When a freelancer first starts out, they might be tempted to barter their low rate to gain access to new equipment, a client list that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to contact, or falling for the tempting offer to free promotion or building their portfolio with a prominent piece.
“I’m inclined to think that one should never do anything for just one reason. So, get paid + looks great in the portfolio; get paid + learn from it; get paid + get to name-drop a great brand; get paid + get invited to speak at interesting conference; etc. But you notice how those all involve getting paid.” – Kevin Hassall
“I think you can use your judgment to determine whether or not the alternative resources are as valuable to you as the cold hard cash (is your client going to donate bars of gold or their vacation home in Aruba?), but a client who doesn’t want to pay you what you’re worth, won’t respect your design decisions either. Not saying that’s the case here, but something to consider.” – Alyssa Potter
If my client is getting something out of my service, I will get something out of him/her, I have bills to pay as well! Here everyone’s cousin is an ‘expert’ in Photoshop and they throw it in my face that I’ll be missing out on that amazing opportunity of working with them because said cousin will make them a cheap brand or site or god knows what.” – Ana Cardoso
Cash is king
When asking for a specific rate, start with your best base scenario of what you want, but have a goal, a midpoint that you can be satisfied with, and then have a walk always price that you won’t settle for.
If you agree to negotiate you should always ask why you receive a no – the answer may surprise you and can be something you can work out with the client. Only agree to receive a lower rate if you are adding an ‘if’ to the agreement; if you pay me up front, if you provide access to specific equipment, if you connect me to a more prominent client, etc. To use this tactic successfully, you usually ask for something that works out better for you, but doesn’t cost the client too much.
As a freelance designer, you must run your career like a business, and this includes having a set of rates that you are satisfied showcase how much you deserve. Although you must set hard limits on what you will do and what you won’t do for a specific rate and why, and have a policy in place with how you will handle clients when things become too difficult or the client breaks a contract.
My stance on the rates discussion is this; if you agree to negotiate a rate with a client, there is a smart way to go about it without undercutting your rate and receive the amount that will make you happy without cheapening your time or efforts.
My father has a saying he loves to tout often; price has no relationship to cost. If a designer thinks their work is only worth the cost of the materials it takes or the time, then they are cheating themselves of what they deserve.
What’s your say in the matter? Share your comments below or join the discussion in Designer’s Talk.