What to Do When They Can’t Afford Your Design

December 22, 2015


As a designer, it can be a struggle to communicate the value of your services and get paid what you are worth. What do you do when potential clients say they can’t afford your rates? I’ve had my share of horror stories, and I’m sure many of us have been approached with empty promises like “This would be great for your portfolio!” or “This will lead to more work and exposure in the future,” only to be left overworked, frustrated, and jilted in the end.

Here are some questions to ask yourself the next time this happens.

What value does the project bring?

Does the prospective client’s mission and values align with yours? Typically a designer’s best work comes when they’re passionate about the project and have a great deal of creative freedom. If the client is within your field of interest, you may feel compelled to do the work as an outlet to do something outside of your usual work. Therefore, there may be some intrinsic value in taking on the project.

Who are you communicating with?

When evaluating a prospective project, consider your interactions with the potential client. Are you reporting to a single person or working with a committee? Did the prospective client propose the project to you because of issues with another designer? (There’s usually more to the story than what you are told.) Watch for these red flags. Being underpaid and resenting your client is not a healthy mix.

Does your pricing feel right to you?

Ultimately, the value of your work depends on its worth to you. Will you be able to realistically cover your business expenses and sleep at night with your design fee? Do not feel pressured to diminish the value of your work or offer a discount. That should be your choice alone.

How are you communicating your value, educating potential clients, and positioning your company so you can justify your prices?

Clients may not know much about design or what it’s worth, but that’s not totally their fault. The design profession as a whole still has work to do when it comes to communicating the value of design to the masses. As designers, we are not only communicators, but educators as well. Our skill comes from becoming mini-experts on a multitude of topics through research conducted with each new project. We also have the ability to create solutions that drive sales, evoke calls to action, and permeate an entire organization’s corporate culture. That’s pretty powerful stuff! And your clients need to know that.

Positioning yourself as more than someone who “makes things look pretty,” “a set of hands” or a “pixel pusher” can demonstrate your expertise as an integral strategic business partner. Provide case studies. Collect testimonials. Offer strategy sessions. Have a firm grasp on who your target market is and place yourself where they are. Everyone is not meant to be your client.

Is it a fair exchange?

In lieu of payment, a prospective client with little to no budget may still be able to offer value. For instance, if the client specializes in services that your business could use (such as PR services or marketing), then perhaps you can negotiate an exchange of services for use in your business for a period of time or utilize other resources they may have, such as office or meeting space.

Answering these questions should give you the confidence to believe in your own abilities and the value that you bring to the table. It is okay to say no to a project. No job or dollar amount is worth compromising your worth as a designer.

Here are some resources you could give the prospect that cannot afford your services:

Partner with local colleges and universities with design programs that ensure that students receive credit for their work. This way, technically the client isn’t exactly getting “free” work and the student designer still receives value from the experience in the form of a project grade. Also, in the academic setting, there may be an opportunity for the client to become better educated on what goes into the design process.

Refer them to someone else. If the project really isn’t worth it to you, there is likely someone willing to take it on for a lower price. Elance, Instagram, Craigslist and other websites are full of opportunities. The pro is that the project gets done. On the flip side, this does not really help to elevate the value of design in the client’s mind.

Suggest affordable tools. It’s possible that the client may be so new that they don’t really need a high-end solution at this time. In that case, direct them to free or low-cost software applications such as Canva and Squarespace.  This can enable to them to DIY while they raise the money for professional design services.

Grants and “design for good” initiatives. Programs such as CreateAthon, 48in48, Goodie Marketing, and Good Thinking Atlanta connect creatives looking to offer pro-bono services to non-profit organizations. The organization may also be eligible to apply for grants that may cover the cost of your services.


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