Design Process and Pricing

At first, a quote of $1000.00 or even $500.00 dollars for a “simple” logo may seem expensive. When assessing the price of anything there are multiple factors worth considering, including value you get from the thing over time and the effort that went in to it’s creation. I am concerned with the latter for now, a small effort to demystify how graphic design happens and why it is worth the cost. Before we can discuss how pricing or the value of work, it’s necessary to understand how graphic designers make things, the design process.

Design work is a process taking time and effort, it does not occur in a flash of brilliance.

Design work is a process taking time and effort, it does not occur in a flash of brilliance. The design process is how a graphic designer solves a problem. Most often a visual problem and most often for a client. The process can be divided into steps. The steps are fairly universal, but the execution of the individual steps can vary widely. Each designer has her own best way of working and producing good solutions.

In the broadest sense the steps are, as described by Hugh Dubberly * : observe, reflect, and make. These big buckets aren’t entirely actionable so we need tease out a more useful list of steps. A more practical version might be: define, research, explore, design, refine, evaluate, implement. These terms are just placeholders, describing a kind of action and different terms may be used by different by practitioners and different disciplines. Most of the steps are not self-contained, they overlap and/or bleed into one another. Designers engage in than more one step at a time and will often repeat or loop a sequence of steps. Explore, design evaluate may be repeated many times for example.

*A Model of the creative process, Dubberly et al. March 2009

Step 1: Define

Graphic designers are good at identifying problems. Designers usually get problems from a client in the form of a brief. A brief can be as simple as a conversation or more formally an actual document that outlines a problem. (The client may not use the term “problem”, but it is ubiquitous in the design field and a useful term for helping to understand the process) A good graphic designer will have many of questions during this initial exchange. Some queries may seem irrelevant or excessive, but the designer is trying to fully understand the scope and nature of the issues. These discussions are concerned with correctly identifying and coming to an agreement* on what needs to solved. The problem that is initially presented may not be the problem solved. This is the justification for hiring a graphic designer, for their viewpoint and expertise, both in making things, but also knowing what to make. In the end, the designer and client reach a consensus and move to the next step

*Certainly there are instances where the problem is obvious and no discussion is needed.

Step 2: Research

The questions asked in step 1 are the basis for most of the research phase of the design process. Research helps to define the parameters for an appropriate solution. The nature of the inquiry may include visual research, marketing research, researching the clients business, competition and customers, interviews, surveys, and enthographic research like cultural probes. Identifying similar solutions helps determine what to avoid as well as conventions and vernaculars that may me mandatory. This step is about defining the design space.

Step 3: Exploration

The exploration step, sometimes called brainstorming, involves generating a myriad of ideas within the previously established design space. All ideas are acceptable here. This step is strongly tethered to the research step. Many of the avenues explored here are the direct results of research. The first part of exploration revolves around divergent thinking, with the designer exploring many varied directions, without judgements as to viability. This is then followed by a more convergent phase where the stronger ideas coalesce. This step and the next step are where much of the confusion over remuneration originates. Clients often believe they paying for these two steps, the perceived “creative” part, and undervalue or are unaware what comes before and after.

Step 4: Design

This step transforms the sketch or the notes into something cool, into a solution, an actual design. The strongest solution(s) from the exploration step are developed and rendered digitally. Depending on what the designer and the client have decided this may be a single or multiple directions. It takes more time to develop multiple solutions, so smaller budgets may restrict the breadth of options developed. The prospective designs are iterated until they successfully solve the problem and meet all other necessary criteria. The product of this step should closely resemble what will be implemented.

Step 5: Evaluate

Somebody judges the design work. Informal feedback is generated and acted upon throughout all the previous steps. It is at this point that more formalized evaluations happen in the form of critiques, presentations, or focus groups. Evaluations may happen once or many times. The prospective audience can be involved in some capacity or the client and the designer may be the only evaluators. In a large firm, work is evaluated repeatedly in-house before a client sees it.  All the feedback is valued but not all are applied.

Step 6: Refine

Feedback from the evaluation step is implemented. The nature of the feedback determines the next step. Simple refinements lead forward to the implementation step. Other kinds of feedback can lead to back to any of the previous steps. The most likely step to revert to would be design, and then another evaluation step. It is possible if things have gone a bit sideways to return to exploration or even research. If everything is copacetic, we move to the last step.

Step 7: Implement

The design is delivered. The client receives the agreed upon final product. This step could be as simple as emailing a file, or as complicated as working on a months long advertising campaign. It can involve print production, website deployment, preparing files, collaborating with printers, web developers and marketers. This may be the end of the client/designer relationship. The best case scenario for both parties is an ongoing working relationship. The designers job is easier and the client will see better and more efficient solutions the longer they work together.

Now that we have a sense of what is involved in making a thing. We can give an approximation of how price is generated. If for example a designer spends two hours on each step (a low estimate for most jobs), and we say there are seven steps and gets paid $50.00 an hour (around the same as an auto mechanic), we end with $700.00. Every project is different and the time breakdown per step can vary, but we get a rough idea of what is going on. The price reflects a fair market value for the time and expertise involved in its production. Also, worth noting is that many projects will only need to be developed once, good design can last decades, even a lifetime, graphic design provides excellent value over time.