Don’t Be Forever Branded as a Cheap, Low-End Designer

How many of you know the proper way to approach a diet? Many people don’t, which is why they fail to work. There’s a specific mentality you need to have in order to get through a diet successfully, and it has to do with what you believe about the permanence of your current situation.

When starting a design project, whether for yourself or for a client, there will inevitably come a time when it will stop being as fun, and you’ll have to rely on a form of willpower to see you through to the end of it.

Where does that willpower come from? Well, if you’re anything like me, it comes from looking ahead – you stop and consider what will be waiting for you at the horizon. Whether it’s fame, riches, or enough beer money to last you through the end of the week, something drove you to begin the project in the first place, and that same something is going to be your motivation when things get boring or unpleasant. After all, that unpleasantness is only temporary, and the reward you get afterward is much more significant than the momentary pain.

It’s the same way with dieting. Many people get stuck in the middle of a horrible diet, start hating their lives, their spouses, their dogs, and their squeaky tennis shoes, decide that it’s too much to handle, and quit. They forget that it’s all temporary.

Today, I’m going to talk about the diet-like phenomenon of working for low pay.

Better Than Cash

Many people, myself included, continually advise other designers to stay far away from shady clients who want you to do thousands of dollars of work for mere hundreds (or even mere tens). Let’s be clear, here: I’m in no way changing my position on that topic.

Creative professionals in general are some of the most ripped-off service providers in the world, in large part because of the misinformed mentality that our clients have about what our work is worth. I firmly believe that all designers should charge exactly what they’re worth and nothing less, not to cheat the client, but to legitimize the industry.

However, there’s an upside to working for discounted rates (and yes, sometimes even for no rates at all) which can deliver a much higher value to a freelance designer than a mere flat paycheck. Why? Well, when you work for a fee, you get paid that fee, and that’s it.

Shady man smoking a cigar in his office

There are usually no other forms of compensation available, which, to many established freelancers is no problem. We’re not running charities here, after all. But if you’re nearer to the beginning of your career, there are other things you can negotiate from your low-paying client that are many times better than money.

What’s better than money? Referrals, for one. I know designers love to mock clients who promise them “exposure” or other such nonsense – we all know that it’s BS and carries no real value for us. No one’s going to look at a beautifully designed business card, brochure, website, or presentation and think “by golly, I’ve just got to find out who that designer is!” (Maybe we think that, as geeky designers, but trust me, normal people couldn’t care less).

So “exposure” is worthless as a bargaining tool. Referrals, on the other hand, are worth their weight in gold to a freelancer at any stage of their career. When a paying client introduces you and your work to another potential paying client – a real person with real money and a real network – it can carry your career to heights you never could have imagined had you just gotten a flat check.

You certainly can and should be negotiating for as many genuine referrals as possible when you work with low-paying clients. They are a great way to boost your client base, and also to narrow down your career focus, since most referrals will be for potential clients in the same industry as your current client. As I’ve written about before, this is an optimal way for designers to work and collect valuable knowledge of the specific industries and markets they serve.

Taking It Off the Table

When you work for a lower rate, you’re essentially providing a service at a discount. Just like an internet service provider or phone company might offer customers a free trial period to entice them to buy, you as a freelancer can harness the power of free or cheap to up-sell your services to higher paying clients.

However, there’s a trick to doing this correctly so that you don’t end up getting screwed. It has to do with removing certain deliverables and negotiating non-monetary compensation from your clients so that they always take you seriously as a professional and never attempt to get more than what they’re paying for.

Poor Designer

Some people think that working for free or for very cheap is always the same as working on spec. This is most certainly not the case, and here’s why: when you work on spec, you’re providing the same level of service that you ordinarily would charge for.

This is bad. Really, really bad.

Designers who do this are not only devaluing their work, they’re also stunting the growth of their entire careers. When a client realizes that they can get thousands of dollars worth of work from you for mere hundreds, there’s a mentality that develops in their head about you, and about designers in general. Basically, they start to believe that your work just isn’t worth thousands of dollars, and you will be forever branded as a cheap, low-end designer.

This is not what you want. When you work for a low rate, make sure your clients know that they’re getting the “free trial” – a stripped-down version of your services that carries heavy restrictions and which requires them to provide you with value beyond just money.

If you quote a client a certain price, and the client is unable to pay it, the next price you quote should reflect a lesser amount of work. You client should get what they pay for, in other words. And for free work, it’s important to make up the difference very heavily in referrals and other networking opportunities. Never work for free for a client who is not well-connected or unable to provide you with a list of referrals – there’s absolutely no value in it for you and you’ll end up in the low-end pile indefinitely.

avoid-temptation

The key, like being on a diet or pushing yourself to finish a long, tedious project, is to think of free or low-paying work as a temporary arrangement, rather than an indefinite circumstance. If you give it all away for free or for very cheap, or you continue working for low rates for longer than is necessary to build your client network, your clients will never consider you for higher level work.

Why would they? If you’re lodged in the client’s mind as a $200 designer, why on earth would they automatically think of you when they have a $5,000 or $10,000 project? It’s just not going to happen.

On the other hand, if you’ve been providing your client with an appropriate amount of work for that $200, and they know you’ve been holding back on certain deliverables, they’ll be much more likely to consider you for higher paying work.

Why? Because they know they’re not currently getting the best of what you have to offer, and the value you’ve been providing them so far (assuming you’re doing an excellent job) will give them the confidence to trust you with high-level work.

What Do You Think?

How do you approach jobs that pay less than your standard rate? Is there a technique that you’ve found helpful to keep yourself out of the low-end pile?

Comments

  • This is so true. It’s easy to concentrate on quantity over quality and over burden yourself with reams of low quality work. This becomes a vicious circle and you only ever have time to produce low quality work…

    Acceler8 Media

  • Konstantin

    Thanks a lot for such a great article! It realy helps me to remind my working process with my clients!

  • This is so true. It’s easy to concentrate on quantity over quality and over burden yourself with reams of low quality work. This becomes a vicious circle and you only ever have time to produce low quality work…

    Acceler8 Media

  • Great Article! I think it can be applied to freelance copywriters like myself as well.

  • Reanelle Allen

    great article I can soo relate I will use some of your advice

  • Jason

    “On the other hand, if you’ve been providing your client with an appropriate amount of work for that $200, and they know you’ve been holding back on certain deliverables, they’ll be much more likely to consider you for higher paying work.

    Why? Because they know they’re not currently getting the best of what you have to offer, and the value you’ve been providing them so far (assuming you’re doing an excellent job) will give them the confidence to trust you with high-level work.”

    This is garbage. The inverse may be far more likely.

    To wit: Via referral, I recently consulted on a clothing startup here in LA who made the unfortunate (and far too common) mistake of hiring a cheap designer / developer believing they would personally drive all creative, branding, UX et al.. The owner, while exceptionally skilled in the manufacturing process had zero understanding what is required to launch a successful eCommerce site in an already extremely crowded marketplace. Making matters worse, he had not appropriately budgeted the requisite creative costs and had a poor understanding of the overall investment required to create something badass. I’m sure you have all been here at one time or another…

    So, after my initial discovery and ‘fact-finding’ meeting, I underwrote a minimal (and discounted) SOW to redesign and rebrand the existing ‘template’, with a staggered budget to insure he was not throwing ‘good money after bad’ – under the guise of on-going creative work thereafter. Now in my 7th year as a freelancer I saw the writing on the wall – but with one of my partners serving as the primary photographer we were en route to an exclusive relationship with a company we viewed as having strong growth potential.

    From the onset, the client demanded constant attention and his communication and timelines were not realistic or commiserate with the budget – something that was qualified prior to commencement of work. Regardless, for about 70% of retail, we came in and created a stunning website and branding that blew him away. However, as any designer would assume and contrary to the author’s points above, the client decided to bring in a lessor, inexperienced, cheaper team post launch (who took credit for our design via SM channels) who “could give him the attention he felt appropriate.”

    My (rather long-winded) point – is that for any designer worth their sand, the idea of ‘holding back’ is garbage. If you’re going to do something, do it well. Don’t deliver 70% of your skillset at a discount and say “well if you were paying more…” Make sure the client is aware how the budget relates to timelines and communication upfront. If you deliver something at a discount you’re proud of, the client loves and you do get hosed – walk away knowing you would NEVER have built a trustworthy, ongoing relationship with such a morally bankrupt client. If they want to chase bad design, let them.

    I should add, this client, after all but disappearing for a month following launch emailed in hopes we could meet soon.

    Great design is like crack.

  • Kevin Muldoon

    Designing ‘cheap and low end’ is a sure way to guarantee a designers status as ‘cheap and low end’. If you want the good clients, you need the track record that shows good results. ‘My work is not as good as it could have been, but my client didn’t want to pay’ is a hollow excuse that doesn’t win you the ‘good’ clients. Do the work, do it well, and if it’s actually good, the money will come.