The secret to saving an underpriced design project (and avoiding it next time)

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One of my very first clients asked me to redesign a “simple” website. Being a young graphic designer, I was so excited that someone was about to pay me to design something (anything) that I ran full throttle into the project with no contract and little research into the size of the existing website. I probably could’ve made more money flipping burgers when it was all said and done.

So if you’ve got a lot more work ahead of you and you’re watching your hourly rate plummet with a sinking feeling in your stomach, follow the steps below.

Step #1: Where did you go wrong?

Determine how you got here. Did you underestimate the amount of time you needed? Did you run into an unforeseen complication? Did you go outside of the scope of the project? Were your terms of completion too broad? Did you (eep!) not sign a contract specifically outlining the scope of the project?

As they say, knowing is half of the battle. Once you can pinpoint where you went astray, it’s much easier to prevent it from happening again.

In my case, our terms were to “redesign the website.” I failed completely; I failed to outline the scope of the project or research the breadth of my client’s existing website, and my client was under no legal obligation to pay me for a job well done let alone something he wasn’t quite happy with.

Step #2: How much longer are you in for?

Be realistic. How much longer will it take you to finish the project? Are you capable of finishing the project?

Step #3: Are you willing to do it?

Decide whether or not you’re going to finish the project.  Do you bite the bullet and finish the project? Do you throw in the towel and bail? Consider the risks. Can you afford to lose a client? Do they know any of your other clients? Might you lose new clients due to this?

I chose to finish the project. I wanted the experience under my belt and to keep a client with many ties to the local business community happy.

Step #4: Change your ways.

 

Going forward, fix the problems from Step #1.

I vowed then and there that I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice, and I haven’t. Sure, I’ve had jobs where I probably should’ve charged a bit more, but I’m a lot more careful in researching the scope, size, and time it will take for me to complete a project. I keep track of my time on projects to better estimate similar future projects. And I never, never, start without a written agreement.

Have you ever severely underpriced a design project?

How did it happen? How did you recover? What lessons can you share with the rest of us? Leave a comment on this post describing how you dealt with it and what you’re doing now to prevent it from happening again.

About April Greer

April is a go-to freelance designer with a rare combination of creative expertise and technical savvy. She is available for subcontracting and speaking engagements – visit Greer Genius for more information.

Comments

  1. Very good article. I’m going through this right now and could kick myself. I should know better by now. What I’ve learned:
    –cover every scenario in your contract. Identify what happens if the client does not keep on schedule.
    –identify the costs per hour if the client changes the scope.
    –set parameters for each task. IE: design time, programming, project management, copywriting, testing, corrections: not to exceed ‘given’ hours.
    — always refer back to the original agreement with the client.
    –STICK TO IT!

  2. Great advice. Will put it to use.. I’m in the middle of one of these right now – a rather detailed drupal site, that I completely underestimated/underpriced. With no contract. Rookie mistake.

    • @Mary,

      Glad to hear that you’ve recognized your error. Drupal can be a tricky project to price, so be sure to fully discuss with the client what expectations they have of the site prior to offering a quote.

      Furthermore, when you do write up a contract, be specific! For example, if they decide later on that they want users/logins, that’s outside of the scope of the original website and with a detailed contract, you can then point to it and say, “that’s outside of the original contract. Would you like me to quote that add-on feature?”

      Be up front with your clients and they’ll appreciate it! I did that exact same thing with a Google calendar modification and the client decided that they were happy with it as is. I wound up integrating it into the color scheme and the site turned out fantastic…and is in my portfolio!

  3. Preston,

    Great post. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who started out so excited to get their first client – that I neglected to think about the nitty-gritty of a contract, copyright and payment terms. Lot of great tips for rookies and experienced designers in your article.

    Thanks for sharing!
    Melissa

  4. Thank you so much for the tips. I liked it, especially the first one.

    • @Vivian,

      Glad you enjoyed it!

      Mistakes aren’t bad so long as you gain experience from them to prevent the same ones from happening repeatedly!

      Best,

      April

  5. Chris is absolutely right. The “unforeseen complication” you mention on step one very often is that the job is prospected as “very quick and easy” then requests add up esponentially. sorry to say that even design agencies behave this way with freelancers. I’ve seen just yesterday on a freelance job board a request for a “simple website, just 4 pages” with a ridiculous budget, but in specification, the porfolio page had to be a photoportfolio where each photo opened a page with a case study. Even agencies don’t know what they’re asking for sometimes.

    • @Michela,

      Sage words of wisdom! Taking the client’s word for it that the project will be quick and easy is a BIG mistake. Only research and careful study of the project at hand will give you the best understanding of what you’re signing up for, and therefore, how to best charge for it!

      Thanks for your comment!

      April

  6. Start with a written contract stating the project’s estimated scope and deliverables.
    Include milestone payments if you need. Then make sire you get the clients signature.
    Company stamp if possible. Lastly get a downpayment at least so even if things still go horribly wrong, you have something to make up for the lost time.

    • @Morgan & Me Creative,

      My favorite of your points is the down payment. Make your clients take some of the risk by asking for a portion of payment up front. This makes them more apt to finish the project (since they’ve invested in it) and at least partially compensates you, the designer, if serious problems arise.

      April

  7. Very interesting. One thing I struggle with right now is what exactly to charge(Hourly or by project). I feel as though at times I undercharge my clients. I also find it difficult to charge for my services mainly because I do it part-time.

  8. Well … I’ve been doing this for a long time now and when I first started out I was pretty fresh out of art school (not design school – art school). While I had the talent, I had no actual experience working with a client or on a “real” project for that matter (designing merch for friend’s bands and DJs for next to nothing didn’t even really count in my book).

    I probably made just about every mistake someone could! It’s okay to make mistakes though, because you can learn a lot from them. Every mistake brought me closer being a better business person as well as designer.

    Luckily, sites like this exist now and lots of designers, like myself, are willing to share our experience and knowledge to help make this industry the best it can be.

    • Sherry,

      Isn’t that the truth? It’s wonderful when we can learn from others’ mistakes, but sometimes the lesson only hits home when we ourselves fall flat on our faces.

      Thanks for joining us here at GDB!

  9. Hi, I have been reading your blog non-stop for a while now and LOVE it! There are so many topics you have discussed that were not even mentioned in my cover-all business classes. I was wondering if you used a template for your contracts, wrote your own, or had a lawyer draft one for you? Or if someone could lead me to post I may have missed covering this that would be great too!

    Thanks!

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