How to price your freelance design services

Find out how to put a price tag on your work — and why you’re probably selling yourself short.

Mat Vogels
February 4, 2016
Freelancing

Pricing your design work right is one of the hardest things a freelancer has to do.

I really struggled with this early in my freelance career, and I still find myself wondering what a fair price is for new projects.

But over the years, I’ve gotten much better at pricing, and charging rates that feel comfortable to me and my clients. Here’s how.

You charge too little

Don't make Dr. Who sad.

And I can say without a doubt in my mind.

Which is funny, because we freelancers hear the opposite (“You’re too expensive!”) all the time.

But this is all the more reason to stand your ground. You need to get better at passing on clients who want your talent at a discount.

In the end, you’ll not only be making less than you’re worth, but you’ll probably dislike working on the project itself. Which leads to subpar work, which leads to subpar referrals, which starts the whole process over again.

The reason I’m so confident that you, dear reader, are undercharging for your services is simple: You undervalue your work.

After all, it’s hard to charge a lot for something that comes fairly easy to you.

The big mental shift hit me when a mentor of mine caught me saying this:

“Why would I charge somebody so much for something that’s so easy for me to do?”

The answer is simple: Because it’s not easy for them.

Clients want your services because they can’t do it themselves. They can’t just buy what you offer at a store.

But it goes even deeper than that.

Because they aren’t looking for just any designer, or writer, or developer: They’re looking for you specifically. They like your previous work. It fits with what they want. There’s tremendous value in that.

What I’ve realized, and still have to remind myself, is this: When what you do comes easy, your rate should be much higher than your gut is telling you.

Which brings me to my next point.

For the love of all things design, please double your rate

Just see what happens! Worst-case scenario: you pass on a project that you would’ve been doing at a discount. Best case: you’ve now entered a whole new realm of clients, experience, and confidence.

The best part is, you only have to do it once. Because once you do it, you’ll feel more comfortable charging what you’re worth for every project.

That’s not even the best part

The best part isn’t even that you’re now making twice as much on this project. The best part is that you’re now much more likely to make the same amount on your next project.

You too could be like Peggy.

Why? Because $10,000 projects attract other $10,000 projects. Just as $500 projects attract other $500 projects.

Once you make the leap to charging more, you’ll attract other projects of the same or greater value.

So take the leap already.

Kill the hourly rate

Stop. Just stop.

Just say no to working hourly.

If you’re charging by the hour, you’re leaving money on the table, and making it harder to take on multiple projects at the same time.

I get the idea: Hourly rates mean you literally get paid an agreed amount for the work you do. It’s a direct correlation.

But this billing method predates tools like Webflow and Sketch. Tools that make the web design process much faster and easier. And hourly rates simply haven’t been able to keep up.

For example: It took me a single morning to design, build, and launch the Webflow Blog. 5 hours, tops.

Even if my hourly rate was $300/hr (which it’s not), I would’ve designed and built a powerful, well-designed, fully responsive website for just $1,500. Way too little for a blog that gets tens of thousands of views every week.

How many of you charge $300/hr? I’m guessing not many. And not many clients would feel comfortable with that hourly rate.

Charging on a project basis — what I like to call value basis — makes it much easier to find a rate that accurately reflects the value you provide.

But I think I’ve found an even better way.

How I price projects

I changed the way I price about a year ago, and I’ll never go back. Now, instead of thinking about hours or value, I think about project pricing in terms of headspace.

Because, let’s face it, even when we’re not working directly on a project, it’s still taking up headspace. Whether we’re in the shower or making dinner, we’re still thinking about. But it’s hard to charge our clients for this time.

So I decided to think of each project in terms of how much headspace I’d devote to the project, and then how long I’d be devoting this headspace for.

In my experience, it’s best to think of this in terms of weeks. So for each new project, I ask myself two questions:

  1. How long, in weeks, will this take for me to complete?
  2. How much dedicated headspace will I need for it?

It’s important to remember that your headspace is limited (and it will vary by person). You can only give so much thought to any given thing in any given week. If you spread your headspace too thin, your projects will suffer.

So, assuming you begin with a max headspace capacity of 100%, figure out how much attention the project will need for the duration. Some projects will demand 100% of your headspace, and that’s fine (and maybe even preferred). Others may only take about 20%, letting you take on additional projects (provided they take 80% or less).

What’s your headspace worth?

Defining project headspace is only the first step. Next, you have to figure out how much your total headspace is worth.

How do you do that? Ask yourself one simple question: How much do I want to make each week?

If you were to devote 100% of your total headspace (total amount of professional time, effort and thoughts), what value would that be?

You can also approach this from an annual perspective, and instead ask yourself how much you want to make each year, then divide by 52.

Example

Let’s say that your weekly value is $2,000.

If a client came to you with a project, and you estimate that it’ll take you a full month, at 100% headspace, then the price starts at $8,000 ($2,000 x 4).

The benefits of headspace pricing

Pricing this way will help you:

  1. Decide if you can take on multiple projects
  2. Make the money you want to be making, instead of what you can get

I’d love to hear all about how you approach pricing, and any tips and tricks you’ve learned along the way! Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter — I’m happy to continue the conversation.

There can be many reasons for a website to exist

I often witness some very unsolicited advising taking place. Some people tend to have premade answers when it comes to websites and more often than not, it comes from a good place. In spite of that, most of them don’t bother to ask anything about the project before weighing in.

left the tomatoes gif
There’s a reason why the tomatoes are on the plate. But how could you know that?

I get it. We all know our stuff. But a website can serve many purposes and unless you were part of the process, you don’t know what it is we’re doing here. And you don’t know the function of every component of that project. So thanks for the input but we’re good.

guy gif

That said, it doesn’t mean that everyone who will give their opinion about our work is out of line. We must always be open to constructive criticism and set the ego aside when it comes to problem solving. I just think we should be smart and think for ourselves rather than to take everything at face value.

Personality disconnect

Just like you, I don’t like to be sold to, and I don’t like when companies try to exploit my inner dumbass. Even though it has become some sort of buzzword, authenticity is what it’s all about — true authenticity that is. It’s what we should all strive for while we make our way through that colossal white noise vortex. 

Perception is the name of the game. We have a say in how people view us, and view our businesses. Even though we can only control a portion of the big picture, it’s our job to nudge that perception to where we want it to be. 

Pro tip: If you’re a brand (or solopreneur), don’t just find another brand to imitate. Truly ask yourself what you stand for and what you want to be. Be as genuine as possible. Define your brand’s personality and then act accordingly. Without any restraint, broadcast who you are to the world.

girls dancing gif
Take it all in people.

If you do what others do simply because you think: “It worked for them, it’ll work for me.” Think twice about that. I know, you know, and everybody knows this would do a disservice to you and your audience. 

For instance, you’re a freelancer and you present yourself as a funny easygoing person. You’re then hired to work in an agency for 2 months but 3 days in, it’s getting pretty obvious you're not funny nor easygoing. Uh-oh! You managed to pull a Plaxico Burress and you’re now stuck in a very unfortunate situation. 

Same goes for brands. You claim to care about the environment and people but then you use an antitheft device on your cars to violate the Clean Air Act. Whoopsy-daisy! Turns out you’re garbage and the environment was way down on your priority list. 

Try not to be on the receiving end of this.

The ones who will make it to the other side are the ones who dared to be different

Most people are scared to break the mould. They say stuff like: “If we talk like this, we could possibly offend blond mothers over 42 who also drive electric cars.” Or: “If we look different from the competition, this could maybe potentially make us lose business opportunities at some point perhaps.” Yes — solid point. Essentially, it all comes down to what type of brand (or person) we want to be.

The truth is, brands willing to take risks will always come out on top.

So with this in mind, I’ll paraphrase my very good friend, Paul Arden: “If you always play it safe, you’ll be the same as everyone else. And that’s seriously bad for business.”

But from the right perspective, times like these afford us a peachy opportunity to stand out. That’s right, I said peachy. While most are content with being bland, I think we should aim higher. Why not try to turn some heads and get some reactions? If we’re ok with people remaining indifferent, we fail. Because indifferent people won’t pay attention to us, talk about us, hire us, refer us, and so on. The Apples and Nikes of the world understand this. They apply it with precision and consistency. So if they can do it, why can’t we? My advice to you is simple: 

Be brave. Stand out. And know that, yes, that will probably alienate some people. Chances are, they weren’t the customers you wanted anyway.

As you were.

Mat Vogels

I'm a web creator and Webflow evangelist. Follow me @matvogels.

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