Design is like magic, stop giving it away for pennies

I’ve been a professional designer for almost 10 years; I’ve freelanced for a few small businesses, worked as an in house designer for medium sized businesses and have also worked within the advertising agency circuit, which is where I currently reside on a full time basis.

When I started out there weren’t many websites going around that allowed designers to openly sell items such as icons and themes which are the things that make designers really valuable to employers and businesses. Things are a bit different now though; we have a huge range of sites where we (designers) can create assets and sell them, which is awesome – everyone wants a way to earn some passive income, right?

So here’s the point of this little ‘ranticle’.

With so many of these services now readily available, designers are competing with each other to get as many micro sales as possible. It’s not uncommon to see packs of painstakingly handcrafted icon sets containing 200 plus original icons for sale for an unbelievable £1.95, or even completely free, or expertly developed WordPress themes that use multiple technologies and that are put together through years of learning and experience for, lets say ooooh about £15. The list of amazing products goes on…

Independent Traders

These prices are, in my opinion completely degrading and are devaluing our trade.

Look at the common supermarket as an example; years ago I’d have had to go to a hardware shop to buy a hammer (strange example I know, must be the rage). These hammers were expensive but it was of bloody good quality and the guy in the shop would even have a conversation with me and he might have even known my name. Fast forward to modern day, I can nip down to a cheap supermarket at 1am and pick a pack of hammers for next to nothing on a random Sunday sale, sweet! I didn’t even have to talk to the cashier – which was a bonus, as they looked miserable anyway… unlucky for the independent quality goods hardware shop owner though huh? Oh wait – there’s not many of them left now are there?

Still – at least the supermarkets are making loads of money from all these small sales.

Quantity over Quality?

If we keep flooding the market with our all-you-can-eat buffet style design, we’re going to price ourselves out of our own market, not just competitors. It’s already happening actually – web sites already exist and have done for a while where users can pay a one off fee and get a brand spanking new website out of it, fully customisable with their own logo, brand colours and everything (sense the sarcasm).

I recently ran into this when I had an electrician round to my house (an expert you might say). He came in and fixed my issue within 30 minutes and I paid him £25 – I felt it was value for money because he did something I didn’t know how to do so I was happy. He asked what I did for a living and I told him I “designed web sites” (keeping it simple here), and his response made me want to throw him out…

“oh, we just got our web site from that [insert web site that sells templates for pennies] – we got a web site person to do our current one and it’s not very good”

He was right, it was terrible and broken, clearly done by someone who was not an expert.

Justifying your costs

The electrician went on to ask how much I charge and I told him my day rate (my rate varies, but knowing my audience I told him £300 per day expecting to be knocked down if we started negotiating) along with a ballpark cost, I backed my rate and credentials up by dropping a few well-known client web sites i’ve worked on over the years. The shock in his face was a picture and I pointed out his hourly rate was £50 based on the £25 I just paid him.

I then ranted that he can charge what he charges because he’s an expert and similarly so am I yet my hourly rate was less than his. He still couldn’t understand my rates as he had just paid under a quarter of that for what he saw as exactly the same thing. I was fighting a lost cause from the outset so I didn’t continue the conversation for long.

People hire us because we’re experts and to become an expert in something takes years of practice, as well as money, time investment etc. When I hire an expert I expect to pay for their expertise, yet we’re selling our expertise for pennies on these sites, and all we’re doing is lining the pockets of the supermarkets. We wouldn’t get out of bed for less than £1 an hour so why are selling our work for less? To get noticed? Maybe… to sell lots of small things to make a lot of money? Obviously.

Once the market is flooded with free icon sets (oh wait, it already is), free high quality website templates (oh wait, it already is) and we can’t sell products at a good profit margin, just remember that it was us, who don’t know their own value, looking for a quick sale, that caused it.

By all means, sell your work – why the hell shouldn’t you?! But please value your work appropriately, you don’t have to be 99p shop to sell good quality products. There’s a reason I can’t hire an electrician for £1 per hour; the trade would die a slow and painful death which is why costs are, knowingly or unknowingly regulated by the experts themselves, people who know the value in what they do. Somehow designers don’t live by this seemingly common sense way of thinking and I’m genuinely concerned for our trade in the coming years.

If we keep going down this path there will be no room for everyday designers, just people selling their soul for 99p and super agencies who are simply required to exist for big companies and the workload they bring. Us folk in-between won’t be able to compete in a market that simply doesn’t value itself.


These “markets” aren’t going to go away, nor do I want them to – for all the bad they are great for exposure for independent designers, as well as a great source of passive income which clearly people are making money from – some designers and developers are even making a full time living from them but I’d love to see these markets start to govern the prices more sensibly. Should the prices within our industry become regulated, similarly to my electrician friend’s prices, we will make better margins and/or percentages and ultimately so will our trade. If everyone is charging the same; cheaper is cheaper and whether it’s 50% cheaper or 99% cheaper people will still pay for the service as long as it remains top quality.


Never forget that what we do day in day out, is like magic to regular people and consumers who come to us with a problem because we’re the experts. They’re happy because we solved their problem and they will come back to us next time for as long as the relationship blossoms and doesn’t get too expensive.

  • Dan Burgess

    Very wise words Rich. Agree with everything, it really is becoming a worrying situation. Another problem are those damn design ‘competition’ sites where a business can get hundreds of designs and only one designer gets paid, ridiculous.

    • antquinonez

      Admit it. You designers are f*cked. Move on!

  • iainf88

    Great article Rich, I couldn’t agree more. It has always been a problem with this industry, remember clip art? Sadly we have more producers of this ready-made design and even more clients not willing to invest in a unique identity, just too ignorant and hasty to make a fast buck. Then they wonder why it’s so difficult to achieve stand out in an overcrowded and cloned market place.

  • Rich Smith

    Thanks for the comments guys, glad to know i’m not alone in my views on the subject. The issue will never change really, and as much as I campaign for some for of policing, that will never happen either – you simply can’t govern pricing. I’d just like people to be more sensible about it, increase prices by 10-20% for starters and keep increasing them over time – like petrol stations 😉 I’d like to think there’s other designers out there that think “i’m not selling 10 hours work for £1.99 just because someone else is”

  • We experience this at work all the time, all these things like Theme Forest or Go Daddy’s ‘Build your own website’ are nothing but detrimental to the industry. It’s all about educating people, in the hope that they understand the age old saying of ‘You get what you pay for’.

    Excellent article buddy.

    • The flip side of the coin is that making designs for Theme Forest etc. provides passive income to designers..

  • There’s no point in getting angry at clients for not knowing the difference between a crap website and a professional one. The fact is they’re basically looking to get themselves on a Google search, and without explaining SEO you can’t make them understand why your service is better – and they hire you because they don’t want to know about it. And it’s not their fault.

    Moaning about pricing isn’t constructive; you’ll never control pricing because you can’t have a monopoly on a combination of creativity and free information without getting the Mafia involved. Instead of berating the customer and trying to educate the worker, try educating the customer. Maybe set up a site to give guidance on finding a web designer. ‘Cause just shouting at people is only going to inspire the designers who already agree with you.

  • David

    I couldn’t agree more with what you’re saying here. It’s an odd world. I was out of the web design game for about a year and a half, and just recently got back in to it. I set my pricing at what I was used to previously, and had to seriously readjust them just to make a dollar. People were going with the site builders on GoDaddy and the like. Granted, the flexibility isn’t there, but still…doesn’t matter to them. I love themes, so I may be somewhat of a hypocrite here, but I recently had a client who selected a theme and then left the creativity to me. When he took a look at it he was disappointed that it looked nothing like the theme. I didn’t know what to think, I didn’t want to copy the theme, I just used it as framework to enter my own images, buttons, etc… but apparently I was supposed to just plug text in and stock photos…leave everything else the same.

    I seem to be doing more content writing now than designing.

  • Doesn’t this mean you have to up your game and show your value?

    There’s thousands of designers that do what I do, some are cheap, some aren’t. When has it ever not been that way. If someone makes a free icon set that’s better than what you can do for a paying client, then the only way to counter act that is to practise getting better

    The prices of icons/themes aren’t degrading at all. I don’t understand how they can be if it’s the designers themselves setting the prices. There seems to be more designers out there than ever before, if setting prices low or free gets them more exposure then that’s awesome marketing

    There will always be customers like the electrician, clueless about design and willing to give it away to the lowest bidder, but surely those aren’t the kind of customers you want anyway.

  • Developer chiming in here. I feel like there’s something analogous with how much of our work “we” give away in the open source community (ever used jQuery?), and yet I don’t feel like our behavior makes it difficult for me to charge what I feel like I deserve. WordPress makes it easy for non-programmers to make sites, and there are terrible site generators whose code makes me cringe. Yet I don’t see programmers struggling to connect with clients who appreciate the quality they can offer.

    So is there something different about our trades? I love exploring how designers and developers can start working together more closely, and that includes the similarities and differences in how we view our respective trades. I’d love to figure out how to get the design community more involved in open source software, but perspectives like these don’t make it seem likely.

    • Rich Smith

      I think there’s a major difference in our trades is that design is entirely subjective amongst everyone – where as code is much less so; although best practices are clearly subjective within the development community. The 2 trades are very different – i’m of the belief that you cannot teach creativity and the conjuring + execution creative of ideas, therefor the value of the work is very much in the eye of the beholder, which is where this issue stems from; many people just don’t know their own value.

      • Peter Pottinger

        You would be wrong brother, in fact there are whole areas of studies dedicated to this very topic. You can major in it at almost every university.

        Perhaps its your attitude thats the problem and not the industry.

        • Rich Smith

          The people who attend creative university courses would be creatives at heart, the point you’re missing is that if you’re not creative at heart – you can’t learn to be creative. Yes you can learn to use photoshop and other tools for creatives, but that does not make you a creative person. It’s a natural ability – not simply a learned trade… i’ve seen many designers come and go purely on the basis that are simply not creative enough and solely rely on copying other ideas.

          Like I said, that is my personal opinion but it’s based on a solid understanding of the commercial design industry and the need to be very creative within the advertising sector.

          • Peter Pottinger

            The original way you said it sounded very narcissistic, creativity is a product of lifestyle. I believe every human is born as a combination of a blank slate and potential, our dna contains the potential for us to become anything. Its the environmental factors that lead to success or failure in our lives.

            So please don’t judge people who have a different lifestyle, they may not have had the same opportunities than you and repeating the tired of adage “you simply weren’t born with it” is a complete oversimplification and does noting but belittle others.

  • Chris Plummer

    There’s always someone more desperate for the work, or who is prepared to work for a pittance.

    They need to realise that low paying work only brings one thing, more low paying work.

  • JenniferJupiter

    Another thing to consider, too, is that $0.99 is worth more to some people than others in different parts of the world. Think of designers who may live in such places as The Philippines or South Africa. Making that amount for them means more than it does to you or me, and selling on the Internet means that we all share the same global market. I get where you are coming from, and I agree that it’s frustrating. However, realistically, it will never stop… people will always try to cheapen themselves with quantity over quality in order to make a quick buck. I know not all designers who charge so little are from 3rd world countries, but that does also contribute to it. But I’m a firm believer that if you produce something that is a good design, you deserve to be paid for your hard and long hours of work, and many people will recognize that. If they don’t, then just remind them, like the electrician, they get paid for the hours they put in for their work, and so should you. It’s sad that we always have to justify ourselves, but I guess that comes with the territory.

    • Heather Burns

      Ah, you’ve invoked the “Great White Hope” argument in defence of the template mills. By buying a (whatever) 99 cent logo, or outsourcing your web project to a little web design firm in the Philippines, the money you call pocket change is feeding poor hungry babies for a week! Dear God, won’t somebody think of the children!

      The “third world outsourcing as benevolent fairtrade operation” argument is self-serving, Western, patronising dosh at its worst.

      For one thing, “poverty” doesn’t have high speed Broadband and Photoshop. Poverty doesn’t have running water or vitamins either. The people doing this work are not “poor” even by their own standards.

      For another, the reason these countries charge 99 cents for their work is because most of it is plagiarised. If all you did was cut and paste off the web all day, your work would be worth 99 cents too. Many of these countries have a very different cultural and social morality than the countries they are selling to: copying and plagiarism are open, acceptable, and everyone does it. The proof lies in the number of Copysentry plagiarism alerts about my own work I have received about Bangladeshi, Filipino, Thai, and Indian web factories cutting and pasting everything they can get their hands on.

      The last person I encountered who invoked the “Great White Hope” argument was actually hiring many of those poor wee souls to make calls to businesses in the western world for a little business scam he was running. He’s sitting by his backyard pool raking in the money, promising all of his third world workers they’ll get visas to his first world-country if they meet their sales quotas. And that’s another blow to the argument: if you think the workers are getting anything more than a sliver of the money their bosses – who are probably in your own country, not theirs – are skimming off as their cut, you’re dreaming.

      • JenniferJupiter

        Wow, you sure make a lot of presumptions about someone you don’t know! “Great White Hope?” How do you even know if I am white or not? And where did I even mention people in poverty? I simply stated that a dollar here will go a lot further in 3rd world countries, which makes it harder for Western freelancers to compete in the online global market.

        I don’t really agree with outsourcing jobs, but it’s an unfortunate fact that it happens all the time. I don’t really understand why you had to go so far as to associate me with a scam artist, simply because I mentioned the fact that 99 cents are worth more in the Third World. Maybe if you stopped spending so much time making useless arguments and posting such condescending remarks to strangers on the web, then you would have more time to stop those who plagiarize your work. I understand that you would be frustrated with people in those countries who have cheated you, but you know that it happens all the time all over the world, even in your own country, right? I’ve had quite a few people from the same countries who have copied my art, but yet I don’t dismiss an entire ethnic group because of it.

        Furthermore, have you even been to the Philippines? Do you know any Filipinos or have you experienced poverty yourself? Maybe it’s a surprise to you, but there are a lot of amazingly talented people there who are *gasp* actually capable of learning art and design. If you go to any online art community, you can see for yourself all the brilliant work by Filipinos, Thai, Indians, etc. Many poor people have access to Broadband even if they don’t have it themselves, and downloading Photoshop is as easy as a few clicks away with the use of such sites as BitTorrent (although, of course it is illegal).

  • Peter Pottinger

    If your work is repeatable to such an extent that you are not receiving any value from it, you need to find a different line of work. It is repeatable because it is EASY, this is the difference you are not seeing. You can be an expert in shovelling shit, work 10 years cleaning toilets, you are an expert. Qualifying as a master electrician is beyond the scope of your understanding. Why don’t you become an electrician, because you would rather dally around with making icons *laugh* I’ve made icons in my spare time, its not a full time job brother.

    • Peter Pottinger

      I would also like to add that mom-and-pop businesses usually start with a templated website because their needs are not your needs. You have little empathy for others and only think of yourself most of the time. From my point of view, there is an opportunity in your parable. i’ve seen it a million times if I’ve seen it once. When these businesses evolve their needs will change and they may require *more* than what a template can offer them. This is called growth and is a very natural process.

      Instead of a me! me! me! attitude you need to start adopting an attitude of helping others which in turn will allow them to grow and rely on you.

      • Rich Smith

        For the record, i have never created an icon set and tried t sell it online. I’ve also never created any themes – i’m a commercial designer and I work full time for an advertising agency. This is not a rant based on me feeling like i’ve been done a disservice – merely an observation of the growth of these micro sales web sites, and my opinion on them and their affect on the industry, nothing more.

        Thanks for your very professional sounding comments though you seem like a real nice guy…

  • antquinonez

    Hopefully you guys can make a buck (or whatever your denomination is in your part of the world) doing what you want to do. In the future, which is now, you don’t make too much money exercising your skills/craft in many fields. No. You make it by selling your experience/reputation to solve difficult/interesting challenges. What does this mean? It means that there’s less money in doing what many people can do (given time) or where there’s no value add between good and better. Look at the recent history of once high paying jobs now outsourced for 1/4 or less of the going rate: developers (of all kind), x-ray reading doctors, tile workers. Some design-related professions barely exist at all as money-earners: Illustration, photography. Honestly, design’s not one of the better paying professions, even now. If you’re thinking compensation, get off the Wacom and go do something else. I think any occupation heavily ‘freelanced’ is f*cked. Freelance is operating without a safety net. It’s getting the milk without buying the cow. And getting better at your craft is not the solution, not unless you want to parlay that into something else, like becoming a business guy, or something rarer like a design-celebrity.

  • BobD

    A couple of things. First, electricians have to be licensed. There’s a barrier to entry. Furthermore, most people get the idea that bad wiring = risk of house burning down, so that barrier to entry is a strong one. Moreover, competition among electricians is localized — the going rate around here is nearly twice what you paid — but in design competition is much more globalized which makes the effect of supply vs demand even more dramatic. Add to that the low barriers to entry for anyone wanting to call themselves a designer, and a public that is poorly informed about good vs bad design. The analogy to electrician rates doesn’t work at all.

    Second, where did you get the idea that people think it’s magic?? Get a domain on godaddy and they’ll tell you that for $5/month you can have a professional-looking web site, no technical skill required, with 24/7 award-winning support to help you through it. That’s how people think about design. The same goes for logos, etc. Unlike painting a realistic portrait, which most people can’t do and know they can’t do, cheap or free software lets anyone put up a functional but crappy/generic website. And if they don’t want to do it themselves, global competition means they can get someone halfway around the globe to do a crappy/generic website dirt cheap.

    Making a living as a designer is tough, and the factors that make it tough aren’t changing in the directions that would make it any easier.

    • antquinonez

      Right on, BobD. 7 billion people and counting. Change or die (or flip burgers).

      • BobD

        That’s unnecessarily harsh. Some people manage to make a living in artistic fields, and if you can make a living doing something you love doing that’s fantastic. Nobody should go into an artistic career unless they have talent and passion, but I’m glad that there are people who do so.

        And as several have pointed out, the potential market doesn’t include people like that electrician who, in reality, probably doesn’t need much of a website anyway. If it has accurate contact info he’s probably doing okay with it. Some of the logos of companies I’ve been very happy with are just atrocious, clearly self-designed, but who cares? I picked them by reputation, for carpentry or electrical work or whatever.

        But the flip side is that companies who are the potential market for good designers aren’t going to go hire some unknown person off of odesk or whatever, or build a website with free fonts to save a little money, etc. Two completely different things.

        • Rich Smith

          I’d just like to point out that the web site isn’t for the electrician – it’s for his users and potential customers. User centric design has more than proved its value in the design industry.

    • Rich Smith

      My magic analogy was more one of mystery, in terms that people don’t know or understand how a web site is created. I’ve worked with people actually in the industry who didn’t even realise web sites were physically designed by a real person, in photoshop or similar. Thanks for your opinion though your points are valid but I still think my electrician analogy is relevant. Market rates are localised in design too depending on which sub sector of design you work in – it’s still a trade. Even if you take that analogy away – there’s still the bigger picture of getting paid a sustainable hourly rate for your work.

  • I agree with you that a lot of designers don’t know their worth, but I also think you’re romanticizing the issue a bit. There will always be designers doing the bare minimum and templates and icon mines. We have to be honest: the tools of our industry are VERY easy to pick up. Photoshop, Illustrator, et al can be learned in a weekend. It’s partially a problem of saturation and the market climate that resulted in what we have now. There is a very low barrier to entry here that electricians simply do not have.

    The only thing you can do when everyone and their grandma can call themselves a designer is differentiate yourself and know your worth. Design is easy to pick up, but hard as fuck to do well. The people out there getting the turnkey solutions likely don’t know or care what we do. For most commercial designers, they aren’t even the target market. There’s no point in feeling threatened by the business of people you most likely aren’t even intending to serve.

    What does piss me off is the low quality and how it’s hurting the web as a whole. I don’t care that people are willing to design for pennies. They’re serving a very different market. I do care about the people getting screwed in the deal when someone calls themselves a “web designer” without putting in the work to deserve that title. I honestly think that rather than complaining about the baseline, we should be trying to raise it for the people who don’t know any better. Don’t moan about the standard, raise it. That’s the way to the maturity of the field.

    I also take issue with the fact that you call it magic. PLEASE don’t call it magic. The mystification is partially the reason why people don’t value what we do so much. It caused the crowdsourcing phenomenon. Hiding our craft behind smoke and mirrors IS what causes that “pfft, I could do design” reaction. It’s why everyone has that “nephew who does this stuff”, because they don’t know everything that goes into an effective design. If you take people behind the curtain, show them point by point what they can expect from you and WHY this is hard work, they will appreciate you that much more. You’ve surely noticed the most successful designers are not hoarding their secrets. They’re writing, blogging, speaking, and empowering their clients and other designers.

    The comparison between your bargain designer and design professional becomes non-existent when you can shift a prospect or client’s reaction from a glib “this doesn’t look hard” to quiet awe after observing your process and project checklist. Finally, respect comes when they know they can trust you to get the job done, because you’ve shown them exactly how you do it. When you give them that power of knowledge, you become a trusted advisor and partner. Value is created through relationships. That’s how you get to “name your price” status.

    Unless, of course, they don’t even want to listen. Then you’re fucked.

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