A lot of designers flinch at that question, but it’s a fair thing to ask. It’s also unfair to dismiss it with a counter question like “How much does a car cost?” Most clients have a good idea of what a car costs, but they may have never purchased serious design work before, so they have no idea what a website costs.
Designers need to lighten-up a bit and try to be more helpful. That’s what we’ll try to do here. Remember, these are our opinions; other designers will have their own theories.
It costs how much?
Shortly after a client calls we do a bit of research and come up with an estimate on cost. We also clearly list our baseline fees on our Services page. Obviously, we can’t be exact at this stage, but if a potential client is going to have sticker shock, we try to get it over with as soon as possible.
But how do you know how much work will be involved until you’re more familiar with it? That’s a great question. That’s why we call it an estimate. As we gain more insight into your project we’ll get more precise with that figure so that by the time you get a proposal, it’s a number you won’t choke on (much). And, if we get deeper into the project and discover that it’s more complex than you originally described, we discuss it together.
What’s your budget?
Of course, the flip-side to the “How much does it cost?” question is: “How much do you want to spend?” This question makes most clients nervous because they think that the designer is trying to trick them into disclosing their budget so that they can take all of it. That’s only partially true.
Give us a number and we’ll tell you what you can get for that amount. Then we can talk about whether you need that much design. But most of all, that number tells us how to guide you toward the best solution and avoid designs outside of your price range.
As an example, this is how we work
If you say your budget is $20,000, and we think that amount is appropriate, we’ll show you a $20,000 solution. If you say $5,000, we’ll see if we can build a $5,000 solution. But they will be two different solutions. We won’t charge you $20,000 for a $5,000 solution just because we know you have the money. But the least helpful thing is for us to come up with a $20,000 solution when your budget is $5,000. That would waste everyone’s time.
Don’t make it a secret
Design is a solution to a problem within a set of constraints. There is no bigger constraint than your budget. So don’t make it a secret, don’t make it a mystery. It’s a budget, not a missile launch code. It’s the biggest data point you have, and we need to know what it is.
If you ask five designers for estimates on the same project, you’ll get five prices that vary wildly. This can be disturbing. We get that. We’ve seen amazing websites built for $1,000, and crappy ones that cost over $100,000. You’d be tempted to think designers just make these prices up. You might be right. Let’s see how this happens.
Websites have a lot of moving parts, so cost proposals can have a lot of variables:
This is the biggy. The degree of difficulty. The goals, size, and complexity of the project. How much horsepower is needed to solve the problem. A website for General Electric will cost more than one for Ed’s Plumbing. The bigger the scope, the bigger the check.
Experienced designers cost more. And experience rarely means programming skills. It means a broad understanding of the web and how people use it. Reducing complex systems into simple interfaces that work on dinky screens is a skill that improves with practice.
The more impact the website has on your organization, and the more you profit by it, the more the work should cost. A well-built website is not an expense, it’s not an investment. It’s a profit center. You’ll make far more money from your website than we ever will.
Supply and demand are always factors. How busy is the designer currently? How far out are they booked? How badly do they need the work? How much do they want this?
Yes, being hip is a real factor. But coolness is in the eye of the designer. Some designers cherish building avant-garde art gallery sites, others prefer pawn shops and nail salons.
The size and structure of your organization have a direct impact on project management. Coordinating schedules and communication takes longer with twenty people than five. Committees can suck the life out of projects.
ASAP. Please don’t tell a designer that. It means nothing any more. Everybody wants it yesterday. Oddly, the single biggest obstacle to an on-time launch is usually failure of the client to deliver content on schedule. Go figure.
The digital design business doesn’t really have a “cost of goods sold” like a retail store does. However, we do need computers, servers, software, mobile devices, support, connections, subscriptions, and endless education. Not to mention doctors, lawyers, rent, food, insurance, beer, therapy, and salaries.
Let’s face it, you pretty much know within 10 minutes whether or not you’re going to work well with somebody. Designers are people too — They do their best work for clients they like. That doesn’t mean we cut our fees if you smile at us, but it doesn’t hurt either.
10. Asshole tax
Sorry, but this is a real thing. Sort of the inverse of the “Compatibility” variable. It’s a surcharge for being a rude or obnoxious client. We don’t charge this fee, because we don’t work with mean people.
The proposal’s biggest component by far is the project’s scope. If we have an idea of the type of work you’re after and know your budget, we can tailor the solution to meet that budget. The important thing about scope is that once it gets agreed upon, it doesn’t increase — We’re building what we’re building.
Any decent design solution takes your resources into account, and one considerable cost we haven’t touched on yet is website management. Who in your organization is going to be maintaining and updating your website on a daily basis? Unless otherwise agreed upon, we don’t manage websites, we just build them.
So, we need to know how you work as a group. How many people will actively edit or maintain the website? How much time can they commit to it? We also need to know their skill sets.
For example, if a client says, “We want a newsletter sign-up form,” our next question is, “Who’s going to write the newsletter and manage the email list?” If we don’t get a clear answer, or the designated person lacks the skill set, the newsletter will probably fail.
If we build a system that you can’t sustain, we’re not doing our job. We haven’t solved a problem; we’ve created one. Good designers don’t deliver systems that they know can’t be effectively managed.
Okay smarty-pants, so answer the question. How much?
As mentioned above, we can’t speak for others, but this is how we do it.