Eric Karjaluoto

Bill For It

Designers’ biggest problems come from confusing work and passion. I am one of the worst offenders: Not billing for time worked; Writing-off massive parts of budgets; Allowing excitement to affect estimates.

Sometimes I bill improperly because I enjoy design. At others, it’s because we need work, to keep cash flow even. The most embarrassing reason I have for not treating my business like a business is that I feel guilty. I look at deliverables and think, “Those are just images and words; how can I charge that much?”

Of course, this is just anxiety. Pricing is simple: we charge by the time involved. Most jobs look easy until you know what it takes to complete them. This is even worse in design, as good solutions are often simple—which makes them seem like they required little time/effort. (Hah!) Regardless of your hesitations, prospective clients call because of the promise design holds. They don’t buy a commodity; they hire designers to remove obstacles.

They might want to increase sales, improve workflow, or build a connection with an audience. Each of these ends has greater value than the websites, advertisements, and identity systems created to facilitate them. Recognize this and look upon the service performed from a business standpoint. What’s it worth to a client to have these problems solved? See design as a commodity, and you’ll never be paid what you deserve. You become a professional when you commit to the greater business value you provide.

Most don’t realize what designers put into making projects a success. As our agency gained experience, I allowed stupid things to happen. A number of our clients paid less than 25% of our billable rate on projects that crept too far. On one job we wrote off over $100,000 in unbilled time. On others, I provided suggestions before locking down the gig, and gave away time that paying clients were entitled to.

Do you think a lawyer does this? Shit no! They bill when they’re on the bus thinking about the job. They bill for paper clips, postage stamps, and photocopying. Writing off time means taking a few percent off a job; not throwing away tens of hours. This is because they aren’t in it for the fun; they just perform a service. Don’t want to hire them? Then don’t. Otherwise, pay the bill.

So, instead of whining about not making enough dough, point the finger at yourself. The reason you aren’t properly paid is because you act like an amateur. You want work to be fun. You beg for clients’ praise. You fail to see the value in the process. You refuse to treat design as a service that requires compensation.

Today, you learn a new mantra. It is not about inspiration or passion. Instead, it is that of the fiscally-responsible designer. Please repeat: “I will bill for it.” I know… it sounds a little weird the first time. That’s just because designers have done it wrong for so long.

A prospective customer wants help planning a project to secure funding? Bill for it. A client calls to talk about a job? Bill for it. Project scope increases? Bill for it. Brainstorming solutions in the shower? Bill for it.

Get ruthless with your estimates and billing. Price accurately, identify scope creep, communicate points clearly, and bill for every moment worked. I don’t propose unethical behavior, but failing to bill for your time, cheats everyone.

To make up the slack, you work more hours than you should. This cheats loved ones of time together. As pressure increases, you get less efficient, cheating your clients. Your agency becomes financially weaker, risking the employment of colleagues, and cheating them of security. This trickles down to clients who’ve invested time, money, and trust in your studio. Get into financial trouble, and you cheat them of having access to a reliable design partner.

Clients are reasonable. If they knew you worked this way, they’d ask you to stop. They didn’t ask you to kill yourself for their projects, nor for the sake of “good design.” They can probably afford to pay a little more, relax on a couple of points, or change the scope of a project to make it more economically viable.

The benefits of billing fully are substantial. Having money in the bank lets you buy better equipment. This affords faster service, quicker turnaround, and higher value for clients. A positive bank balance allows you to be more selective with the jobs you take on, and find better fits. Not scrambling at every moment means you get adequate rest, making you present, clear-headed, and easy to collaborate with. (Honestly, no one wants you burnt out at 35.)

If you’re good, you have to take what’s yours. Otherwise, you only have yourself to blame for whatever crummy situation you might be in. Design is a service business. It pays neither dividends, nor any residuals. Get paid now, or you never will.

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