The Value of Design
The goal, no matter what you sell, is to be seen as irreplaceable, essential and priceless. If you are all three, then you have pricing power. When the price charged is up to you, when you have the power to set the price, there is a line out the door and you can use pricing as a signaling mechanism, not merely a way to make a living.
I’ve been thinking about the value of design lately. What is it exactly that clients pay us for? What exactly are we selling?
I was a guest speaker in a portfolio class at Northampton Community College last week. I talked about building a quality portfolio, networking, and how to get into freelancing. There were a lot of questions about how to charge for your work and how to deal with those clients who try to push their aesthetic into the design trying to make you, more or less, a production artist just doing the grunt work while someone else (less skilled in design) directs the aesthetic. You know these types of clients. I think I answered them fairly well but I kept thinking about them day later and realized some things I said helped me answer some of the questions I had been thinking about.
If you really (REALLY) simplify the design process down, there are two basic steps: thinking and execution. The thinking involves the problem solving, the concept development, the organization while the execution is getting into the Photoshop and actually executing those things. There is a disconnect here between designer and client. Designers usually think their value lies in the thinking, the problem solving; but clients tend to think they are paying us for the execution. It’s interesting that as communication designers, we can’t clearly communicate what it is we are paid for.
But for our work to be truly irreplaceable, essential, and priceless, I think it needs to given as a gift. As I wrote a few months ago:
Gifts do something for both the giver and receiver. Gifts are given in the hope of enriching someone’s life, and finding our life has been enriched too. Gifts are given with the intent to change someone, and finding we’ve been changed.
Perhaps the real value in what we do isn’t in the thinking or the execution, but in the experiences we create after the work is complete and out in the world. Maybe the value of design is in the gifts we get to give, when we change someone and add something lasting in the world. If that’s the case, the true value of design only emerges after the money has exchanged hands. And you can’t put a price on that.