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Tips for Pricing Your Creative Work

This topic of pricing is always on my mind. Just as soon as I feel like I've figured it out, some other doubt creeps in and convinces me that I'm doing it wrong. Please tell me I'm not the only one who feels this way. ;)

I ran across this article the other day (aimed at graphic designers, but would really work for any creative entrepreneur) that gave some amazing advice in this area! Here's a quick summary, but it'd definitely be worth it read the entire article yourself when you've got a spare 10 minutes.

What should I charge?

This is the one area that I have the most anxiety about. I'm constantly worried that I'll anger current designers (and therefore come across as amateur) by underbidding on jobs, and also worried that I'll scare off potential clients by overbidding. It makes it even more difficult by the fact that most designers don't share their prices on their websites. (What's up with that anyway?).

The advice in this article is basically to start with what you feel comfortable with (which is likely well below market value). Chances are good you'll get loads of work at that price (because when you sell for Wal-Mart prices, people come in droves). As soon as you feel like you're getting way too many requests to handle... up your prices. Continue doing so until the workload evens out and you're receiving the amount that you can do at the rate you want to be doing them. By that point, you'll likely be receiving a much higher rate of pay, so won't need to be working so many jobs anyway.

Flat Rate vs. Hourly Billing

I am amazed at how many seasoned designers disagree with which of these approaches is "best". It makes me think that there really isn't a universal answer to this question. I like the approach of this article... start out with a flat rate for your Mom & Pop businesses around town and then ease into hourly billing when the projects you get start becoming larger and more drawn out. (I've also heard that if you land a client like Nike or Pepsi, though, you don't want to charge them by the hour. Just tell them up front that it'll be $2 million and they'll be fine with that. However from what I hear, a typical large company seems to prefer paying per hour, more like a contracted worker would be paid. Considering your work for them is likely to take a few months, that probably how they see you anyway).

Whichever way you bill, it's probably best to keep tabs on your "hourly rate" to make sure you aren't being paid $5 an hour. Even if you charge by the job, make sure that you're charging enough to cover all your time and expense. You're a trained professional who is doing a professional job; you should be paid accordingly.

How Can I Avoid Being Stiffed?

Here he talks about making sure to get at least a 50% deposit down before starting work. That's great advice (although for jobs under $1000, I'd probably just get it all up front). Typically if a client is going to stiff you, they probably wouldn't be willing to even pay a deposit, so that will weed out most of the jerks right away. Plus if they still stiff you after paying the deposit, just hold their project ransom until they pay the rest. You've been compensated for part of your work and they ended up with no finished piece, so... it's really on them to do the right thing if they expect to receive their finished product.

Should I have contracts?

My school professor tells us to ALWAYS HAVE A CONTRACT, but I tend to agree with this guy more. Small clients (like a $500 logo design, for example) really aren't worth the hassle of taking to court if they do stiff you, so having a contract is not especially helpful in that case. However, it is good to realize the importance of laying out expectations in writing before you begin - which can easily be covered in a few emails. I would hesitate to begin any job without at least that much, because at the very least, it's just plain awkward to present a finished piece only to have the client say, "Um... that's not at all what I asked for." Best to have it written down somewhere in their own words what they asked for as a reference for everyone to refer back to.

Other Tips to Avoiding Busters

This just seemed like common sense to me. If someone promises to pay later... avoid taking that job. If they want free work up front with the promise of royalties later... avoid taking that job. Just be smart. Don't work for free. (Unless it's for your mom.)

Do I need an accountant?

Here's another instance where my professor has always told us, "YES, you need an accountant," while this article seems to be saying, "Well... yes eventually." It's probably smart to get an accountant involved as soon as you're setting up a structured business, but if you're still at the "advertising on Craigslist" stage, you probably won't have the funds to hire an accountant just yet. So don't worry about it at that stage. Once you're raking in the jobs though, it's definitely advisable to make sure you're following all the right tax laws.

What's a Kill Fee?

His definition of a kill fee was not at all what we've talked about in class, which I found odd (although there was a better explanation in the comments section). Basically my understanding is that a kill fee is what they agree to pay you if they cancel the job halfway through. It's probably best to have that amount specified in the contract, because especially on a large job, you don't want to get stuck doing work for free (and potentially losing months of your time when you could've been working on other jobs). This is also a reminder to get a deposit up front on a large job.


Again, I'm not sure he defined pitching correctly - I'm pretty sure pitching is what an agency does when they're trying to land a corporate giant of a company. But his point stands that it's really bad for business to do spec work. Working with the hope of getting paid is generally going to amount to not ever recouping your time costs. That being said, as artists it's typically hard to stop creating, so having your items out there on spec is probably always going to be something we tend to do as a habit. Just don't try to make that your sole business model.

How Do I Send Invoices and Track Sales?

He recommends Quickbooks. I say just pick a solution that works for you and be consistent. You will get repeat clients and it's nice to be able to quickly pull up their past sale(s) and be able to speak knowledgeably to them about it. Not only does it lend credibility to your business skills, but it's just nice to have your books in order!


  1. This is interesting for someone that isn't in the business. Though the contracts part stood out to me [as a lawyer, of course it would]. I think you're completely right about not needing one for little projects, but if you had a basic form contract that you used for every project it wouldn't really take that much extra time. Also there is always that thought that if someone CAN sue you, you're more likely to try to avoid it...even if they probably won't. Though on a side note, emails that clearly indicate you made a deal could possibly be enforceable in court as a contract anyways.

  2. this is so helpful! i didn't know a lot of this!! :) thinking of you!


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