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Why are designers still so expensive?

From Canva to 99designs and Themeforest there are now more ways than ever to get presentable graphic design for not much money. So how are professional visual designers and studios still able to charge so much, and why do clients still engage them?

A while back, I was at a wedding and a person I met asked me this kind of question. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard it. Like all good things the answer is not a one-liner. The truth of what’s happening takes some explaining, but read on and when you meet a designer (at a wedding?) you’ll be well prepared on this topic.

You still get what you pay for

In almost everything you buy there are inclusion and quality levels which roughly correspond to price levels. As people who are smart about buying design know, design is no different in that respect.

The ‘disruptors’ offering design services (99designs, Fiverr, DesignCrowd etc) are limited to include work that can be done by someone outside your culture and delivered online, assuming you live in the First World. People inside your culture who could do the work could not afford to live in your culture on the prices generally paid on those services. Given the nuanced cultural nature of design, and assuming you don’t want people in your culture to starve, this is not an issue to gloss over.

Other disruptors rely on the client (you) to do a lot of legwork to make their product useful. Things like Canva and Themeforest essentially just offer you tools with which you can finalise your design requirements. OK if you have the time to learn, design, implement and maintain, but for many it’s better to pay someone else to do these things well and to a deadline.

Quality is the other reason that serious clients still favour ‘real’ designers. Sure, you can get lucky with a nice original design on Fiverr, but cases of plagiarism and weak design skills are common. Read an excellent article on this here. Also see here and here, but note that 99designs and co put resources into dominating Google search results with their own positive stories.

Service quality can also be an issue with offshore Fiverrs going cold and not responding to messages once a project becomes difficult.

Another aspect of these limitation and quality issues is what you’re actually getting for your money. Although the end outcome -- logo, brochure, website -- sounds like the same deliverable you’d get from any designer or studio, there is a huge gap when it comes to expressing your business goals. Simply whipping up a logo does not take into account who your customers are, what else they’re seeing, what you want them to think or what unique qualities of your business will appeal to them. All that comes under ‘brand strategy’ which is the foundation on which good designers work. Formulating brand strategy can easily take just as long as designing the visual brand and takes a fair amount of discussion to do well. Brand strategy can be highly valuable, setting a course for your business to get where it’s going through design.

The actual cost

Just say you need a poster designed for your community club of some kind, and only have a budget of $100 to spend. I’d say that makes you the perfect client for Fiverr or 99designs. You go ahead and spend $100, you get the poster design and you’re happy enough with the outcome. Great, right? Not really. In any collection of people there is always an aspiring artist or designer of some kind. Often they will take it more seriously than just an aspiration. That person in your community group, no matter how amature their skills, will have far more insight into your audience, style and goals than anyone from outside your community. Unfortunately, by using Fiverr, you just deleted an opportunity for that person to develop their passion.

Let’s ramp it up a notch. Say you’re starting a bakery and need a logo. You spoke with a local designer who quoted $5,000 to create your brand and some essential collateral items. On 99designs you see you can get a logo, sign and business card for $750. So you spend a day or two composing your brief for a competition there, in between lining up suppliers and working through kitchen layout.

The first designs come in and they all look like bad clip art and kids TV show graphics, so you spend another morning refining the brief. You have to choose one from the second set because you’re opening next week and don’t have a sign. Getting the logo finalised and off the 99er takes 2 more weeks and lots of messaging, during which time you’re open but your POS doesn’t work and you bin about $100 worth of stock each day. You get the design to a sign maker but the file format is wrong. In your third week of trading the sign goes up but is a lot smaller than you thought it would be.

Customers finally know you’re open and start to come in. In the fifth week you’re on the other side of town picking up some flour when you see a cake shop van which has your exact same logo. With all that time, trade, stock and now your visual branding wasted, paying $5,000 to get you off on the right foot is looking pretty good right now.

Let’s refocus on value, not price

Remember when everyone used to think that Facebook was free? Now we all know that while there is minimal initial investment, using their services has costs in privacy, data and even your own well-being. Similarly, design industry disruptors appear to cost less but often provide very low value. Professional designers and studios still give you the best total value and provide the best potential to lift your brand through design.