Note: This is a recently edited article I originally wrote in 2010. Since writing it, I’ve accumulated a heck of a lot of HTML and CSS skillz (I made this here website!), but I still do not offer my web design or front-end dev services to clients. There will be an article to follow specifically dealing with specialization, but there are definitely some points in this post I feel are worth sharing.
I might seem like a jack of all trades, but I’m really a specialist. I specialize in lettering, type design, and illustration—this is what I’m best at and is probably why you found my website in the first place. I find it strange that I get so many requests for web design—I went to school for graphic design, yes, but each sub-field of graphic design has its own set of problems, limitations, and guidelines.
Just as you wouldn’t expect any random person that owns Adobe illustrator to be able to draw a decorative letter from scratch, you can’t expect any print designer to be able to really and truly design for web. Web design is not print design, it’s a whole different and very complex animal. When a person encounters a book or brochure, they know how to use it. They look at the cover, they open the cover, and page by page they work their way to the end. Web design is, for the most part, not linear, and the way that people use and peruse the web changes constantly. To be a good web designer you must live and breathe the web. You have to pay attention to trends, read articles about best practices, essentially do whatever you can to stay relevant and current. If you don’t throw yourself head-first into the field, you end up making websites that feel “two years ago” or believing that Flash is still “The Next Big Thing”.
Not all web designers can code their own websites, but to be a good web designer you absolutely need to know what others are capable of doing. I believe all people that design for the web should be able to do basic front end coding (HTML and CSS), because so much of the design process can happen at that stage. I know a few web folks will get up in arms with me about this but it took me 6 months to learn most of what I needed to learn to edit Wordpress or other blog platforms and I am not trying to be a professional web designer. If you really want to know how I feel about it, check out this talk I gave. Also, unless your website is incredibly image heavy (like all of your navigation is image and much of your content is image) it just makes sense to do some designing in the browser as it is so much easier to make universal changes and move things around and see them (almost) exactly how others will. Not being able to do basic coding is like being a print designer that never sees proofs before things go to press. You can wait and make the changes later, but its just so much easier (and less expensive) to make things perfect before you send them off to someone else to “print”.
Web design is almost always a collaborative process—even the savviest of Wordpress hackers are still starting with a CMS that was built by others and usually incorporating plug-ins developed by others. You did not build your site all by your lonesome, you stood on the shoulders of many. Aside from this form of accidental collaboration, there’s also a great deal of honest-to-God teamwork involved on big projects. If you are a web designer, chances are you know developers of different skill levels and price ranges that will work well for different projects. Most print designers probably have a friend or two that knows html and can edit the heck out of blog css but very few have close relationships with back end developers (people that know ruby or php very well, etc). It makes sense to hire someone that has the means to make your website all lined up and ready to go and can put the right people in place to get the best result. They’ll know how much the developing will cost, how long it will take, how to make a site that can easily be passed on to a client so you don’t have to “maintain” it for them. I’ve seen so many people struggle with web design, not because they couldn’t put a .psd file together to hand off, but because they had to work with terrible developers after realizing the $1000 they spec’ed for development in their initial client proposal buys a website held together with bubblegum and masking tape.
The most common argument I get from clients that want web design is “But I just need you to do the .psd file designs, I have a developer friend that will put them together for me.” This is fine. If I wasn’t so completely picky and insane this would be great, but I see it like this: If you designed a tattoo for yourself, spent months thinking about it and drawing it, would you take it to your cousin’s friend that bought a tattoo gun on ebay because he calls himself a tattoo artist now? Probably not. How do I know that your developer will put things together right? I’ve never worked with him before. I’m not in contact with him, you are. Developers and designers need to be able to work together from the beginning of the project to the end of the project to make a site perfect. I feel for web developers because so few people understand the artistry involved in what they do. It takes working with a website that is a clusterfuck behind the scenes to really understand how important it is to invest in good development.
Anyway, to conclude a fairly long rant: Hire people that are best at what they do. It’s not that I (or other print-centric designers) can’t do web design, it’s that you should want to hire someone that will do it best—someone that knows the ins and outs of the web and can then hire people like me to do what they do best: draw ornaments, illustrations, etc. that will make the site sing.
As some of you may know, I purchased a Cintiq tablet a few weeks ago and have been having a blast with it. I’m not here to write a big consumer review, but I can say that it has changed my process quite a bit. I wasn’t a Wacom user prior to purchasing the Cintiq (all of my vector drawing was done with a mouse or the track pad on my laptop), and I did all of my sketches in pencil. I still love pencil sketching, but being able to draw within client-provided templates rather than using light tables and an ancient scanner is definitely awesome.
I was doodling on it one day and decided I wanted to make a rug out of one of my drawings and was super pumped with how it turned out. So pumped, in fact, that I want to make a whole mess of rugs! I’m still working out how to mass produce them, but as a treat, I thought I would do a screen cast of myself drawing a new rug design so you guys can see the whole process before I get out the utility knife. The first video is the sketch in Photoshop, and the second is me tracing it and perfecting it in Illustrator. Both videos are sped up so that you don’t get bored. Feel free to sound track it with your own music. I was listening to Yuck when drawing in Photoshop and The Cranberries when drawing in Illustrator if you want to feel like you were there with me. View the videos here and here. Enjoy!
Every now and then I get a really lovely email from an aspiring letterer that is about to publish a passion project of his or her own. They tell me my work was an inspiration and that they can't wait to share their creation with the world. I feel all warm and fuzzy inside for a moment...until I click on their link and realize that much of what they intend to publish is nearly a direct tracing of my work.
A lot of established illustrators and designers deal with the same thing—students or young professionals that rip them off without realizing it. Addressing these young designers can be really heartbreaking because you know that they had the purest of intentions. So here's a little post to all the hungry, young designers that are struggling to find their own voice, but end up a bit too close to their inspirations. There are definitely people that maliciously rip artists off left and right, and this post is not for them. They are evil and cannot be helped.
It's OK to copy people's work.
To be a good artist / letterer / designer / guitar player it takes practice. A lot of it. More than you can even fathom when you're starting out. If you wanted to become a great guitar player, you wouldn't buy a fancy guitar and immediately start composing songs... you would pick up a song book, or look up some tablature music on the internet, and teach yourself how to play using other people's music. You would emulate the greats and learn from them, as they learned from others in the past. You'd spend hours alone trying to be like Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page or whomever you really admired. Then, once you were well practiced and felt confident in your abilities to play, you'd form a band, you'd write your own songs, and you'd find your own voice.
When you're learning, it's not wrong to copy people—to learn from them the way that they learned from others before them. What many young artists have a problem realizing though, is that the work you create while practicing and learning is completely separate of what you do professionally. Just because you can play OK Computer cover to cover doesn't mean you should record an album of your renditions and release them under your name, not making any reference to the original. You know that any such action would leave you up to your eyeballs in legal problems. Copy all you wish in private, and once you feel confident in your skills, create your own original public work.
Not everything you make should be on the internet.
Young designers and illustrators are plagued by an issue that didn't really affect those of us that are in our late 20s or older—they think that everything they ever create should be published to the internet. Blogs weren't really in full swing when I graduated college. Swiss Miss was in its infancy. Behance didn't exist. Dribbble wasn't even a twinkle in Dan Cederholm's eye. As graduating college students, we were told that having a website was important so that future employers could check us out, not so that the dieline could post about us and an army of bored designers could drool over our work during their lunchbreaks.
When you're starting out and have a teeny portfolio of student work, it can be very very tempting to publish everything you’re working on, whether it’s practice or actual published work. It’s especially hard because, more often than not, the work you’re doing at your day job is less than inspiring when you are starting out. It will be really hard to resist showing off the illustration you created that was inspired heavily by one of your heroes, because in reality it is probably one of the nicest things you’ve made. But that's the thing, every new thing you make will be (should be) the nicest thing you've made so far, because you’re learning and getting better with each and every new project. Resist posting the practice—the piece that you know is too close to its inspiration. Let that practice fuel original work and then publish to your heart's content.
Note: A number of folks misinterpreted this sentiment—yes, it is wonderful to show process online and there are very excellent forums, such as dribbble, for receiving feedback on work as you are progressing. Showing process for projects you’re working on is different than showing exercises in which you practice by tracing others work.
Diversify your inspirations.
I did a little post about inspiration vs. imitation before, and one of the main points was that it is easy to accidentally rip people off if your inspirations are too limited. If you're heavily inspired by only two people, your work will look like a combination of those two people's work. The more work you look at and the more work you are inspired by, the more diluted those inspirations become in your own work. Your ultimate goal should be for people to look at your work and NOT immediately think "oh she is a big fan of this person". If you diversify your inspirations, the chances of this happening become much smaller.
History is important.
Your contemporaries might seem like the most obvious place to start when it comes to finding inspiration, but look beyond them. Have you ever gone on a music site to look up a band's inspirations and found all kinds of cool older bands you liked? You were opened up to a whole new world of awesome music and at the same time formed completely new opinions about the contemporary band you were into. The same goes for design and illustration—if you're only looking at your peers for inspiration, you're not getting the whole picture. They were inspired by artists from the past and found a way to create their own original work—look at their inspirations and the people that inspired them as far back as you can dig. If you're inspired by both historical sources and contemporary artists, it is much easier to create work that feels fresh and new.
Train your eye.
In order to avoid ripping other artists off, you have to first be able to identify other people's work. Before you went to art school, art was just one big category that everything non-boring fell into. The more you learned the more you started to see the differences in technique, the themes that happened during specific movements, the way one artists put brush to canvas vs. another. By the time you graduated you could hopefully tell the difference between a Picasso and a Braque, even though when you were a freshman it all just looked the same.
As you study design and illustration, something similar will happen. At first all print-makery illustrators will look the same, but soon you'll be able to point out who did what and eventually the differences will become so clear that you'll be shocked when your non-art friends don't see them. And then the nerds will welcome you into their world with a parade and cupcakes.
When you are starting out, you accidentally rip people off all the time because your eye just doesn't see the difference between what you're doing and what someone you're inspired by is doing. You think (anti-awesome) thoughts like "she doesn't own swashes!". Over time though, once you spend a few months examining a lot of people's work, you can look at 10 different script letterers and think "OMG they are SO different! How did I not see it!" If you don't train yourself to spot the differences, you'll never be able to see them in your own work and it will be very difficult to make anything original.
Just because it's not illegal doesn't mean it's ethical.
Something that I sadly hear too much is that "it's not illegal to copy someone's style". Sure, if you create an illustration that is completely derivative of someone else but not a direct rip-off or tracing, they might have a hard time suing you. That doesn't make it OK to make derivative work. Remember when you were on a road trip as a kid and your brother played the "I'm not touching you" game by putting his hand/finger as close as possible to your face without actually touching it? It annoyed the shit out of you. When you complained to your parents, he shouted "but I didn't touch her!" Sure. What he did wasn't a total violation of your space, but it didn't feel good, right? If your parents weren't completely annoyed with the both of you by then they'd hopefully explain that just because he wasn't officially breaking the rules it didn't make what he was doing OK. It's very unethical to knowingly copy someone else's illustration style when not doing work that is an obvious homage to them. It is illegal to actually copy someone's intellectual property or claim all or part of their work as your own. If you've ever retorted with "well it's not illegal" you already know you've done something wrong and are just trying to justify your actions.
Everybody knows everybody.
The design and illustration community is teeny tiny. It's shocking how many people in our world know and talk to each other regularly. Thanks to the internet, fans can reach out to artists and alert them of people ripping them off. There's even whole blogs set up to watch over this kind of stuff. If you're ripping people off on purpose, I'm glad that there are a thousand ways for you to get caught and that there are oodles of people out there that will secretly think you are a bad person. If you're ripping someone off accidentally, this can be severely detrimental to your career without you even knowing it. When you try to apply for a job with a portfolio full of derivative work you might not get the job and never know why. That person took one look at your portfolio and thought "they're rippin-off my friend!" and then politely showed you the door. It seems crazy that this would happen, but I get emails all the time from friends pointing out people that applied for internships with portfolios of work that rips-off everyone we know. It is very very important to acknowledge your inspirations and try to distance yourself from them as much as possible.
Whenever I'm alerted of a possible rip-offer, I try my best to educate rather than chastise and gently nudge them to find their own voice. If you see someone ripping-off someone you know or admire, I suggest you do the same—initiate the conversation as a helpful and concerned new friend, not an angry enemy. Most of the time the offenders aren't aware of how obvious their inspiration sources are. We're all guilty of it when we're starting out, but hopefully this article will remind some of you to keep that practice work out of your portfolio, which will keep the angry blog commenters off your back.
Always keep practicing (and practicing, and practicing), keep looking at beautiful work, keep researching others to look up to and be inspired by. In no time you'll be making beautiful original work of your own.
Jonathan Hoefler wrote an amazing comment that I want to share as a part of the post: If I can propose an 8th point, which is especially apropos in the type design world: “There’s a difference between making an imitation and selling it.”
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you’ll often find high school students with their sketchbooks out, camped out in front of the Giottos and Dürers. It’s a time-honored way of learning: see, try to reproduce, and discover. I think about this whenever I receive a heads-up that someone had made a derivative of one of our fonts: the Requiem-with-snipped-off-serifs that we’ll see in a font distributor’s website, or the Gotham-with-a-different-M that’s profiled to great applause on some online showcase. What makes these acts so troubling — and, by the way, unquestionably illegal (it’s not at all a grey area) — but makes the eager high schooler so charming?To me, the key difference is that the aspiring serif-clipper is not only passing off the artist’s work as his own, but is doing real damage to the artist he purportedly admires by competing in the same marketplace. It’s a time-consuming and expensive distraction to investigate these things, but one we’re compelled to do every single time, since each purchase of a knockoff represents lost revenue. And when we share these discoveries with the organizations that have unwittingly bought the knockoffs, it invariably reflects poorly on our young serif-clipper: if there was a relationship there, it is now ended. Everybody loses.
But the 17 year old with the sketchpad is entirely different. He’s not passing off his Velasquez as a Velasquez, and he’s not passing it off as his own — in fact, he’s not passing it off at all. It’s a learning exercise, and if it’s presented at all, it’s always with the appropriate context. (“I did this in art class, from the Gubbio Studiolo at the Met.”) It also reveals what young artists finds fascinating, what they struggled with, and what they learned. It’s been my experience that these kinds of acts are met with great encouragement and support from the professional community.
Frederic Goudy’s commandment to typographers was “stop stealing sheep.” My advice to aspiring type designers is “stop selling sheep.”
Stefan Sagmeister made the most compelling and positive remark I’ve ever heard on this topic and I’ll summarize it here: When you create something original you give birth to an idea and then nurture that idea until it’s mature enough to send into the world. If you copy someone else, you’re depriving yourself of the amazing feeling of creation, of making something that is yours and yours alone. You’ll undoubtedly love and care for the baby you’ve created more than the baby you stole from the grocery store.
I know many of you went to art school and I’m assuming most of the people reading this article are designers, illustrators or others working within the world of what we reluctantly call “communication art”. When we graduated from art school, a career was promised to us. We wouldn’t spend our days covered in grape jelly, masturbating before crowds to win a spot at the Whitney Biennial—we would live normal lives, work at offices, bask in the glow of our computers. We would have stability and wouldn’t have to worry about how our “art” would pay the bills. Our parents were happy, we were happy, our fine-art friends called us sell-outs and all was right in the world.
We found our first job. After a couple years we wanted a change of pace and found a new one. Things were good. Life was easy. Mornings were spent perusing cute overload before the coffee kicked in. We designed without ever having to really deal with clients, invoicing, negotiating—all the icky businessy stuff that bums everyone out. Our left-brain atrophied.
Then one day we woke up with the itch. It became more and more powerful as we dragged ourselves to work on blizzardy days or suffered through hangovers under fluorescent lights and drop ceilings. At 7am, half awake under the weak arc of water emptying from our shower head we said to ourselves “I’m going to do it! I’m going to go freelance!” We threw on a towel and the world felt sparkly and new. We’d make our own hours! We’d sleep until noon if we wanted to! We’d no longer worry about using up all of our sick days. We’d be in control! (The freelancers reading this are without a doubt rolling their eyes at the naiveté we all once possessed). We gave notice at work and a few weeks later our dream was a reality. As time went on though, we realized this reality was not always a dream come true.
Now we were more than creatives, we were business people. If we were one of the lucky ones, we picked up enough client work to keep us from retreating, tail between our legs, to our previous lives as employees. We completely fucked ourselves over on those first few jobs but eventually cobbled together a relatively good standard contract and learned to say enough is enough after the 10th round of revisions. This is not the stuff we learned in college. If you even thought about contracts and invoices before that art school diploma hit your hand I commend your professors, but most of us were off in la la land developing identities for fictitious products, complaining about how we only had seven weeks to get that logo right.
You can learn a lot of the business end of design and illustration by trial and error and reading articles and books, but one thing that is seemingly impossible to get a grasp on is pricing. Whether you are a student, a young designer, or a seasoned pro, pricing jobs can be one of the most frustrating parts of the creative process. The cost of creative work is shrouded in mystery and very subjective. While it makes some people uncomfortable to talk about art and money together (as we all know creatives are really meant to suffer through life and die penniless), they are incredibly similar when you think about it. What is money other than dirty rectangles of pressed tree pulp? Because we all believe it has value it is valuable.
I know you’re all dying for me to get down to brass tacks and explain how to price for each and every design situation, but what follows won’t be anywhere close to a definitive guide, just some of my own opinions and words of wisdom on how to avoid screwing yourself and the rest of us over by doing too much work for too little pay. We’re in charge of assigning value to what we do. Alright, here we go!
Pricing hourly punishes efficiency.
So this is a pretty bold statement and like any bold blanket statement it should be taken with a grain of salt. Hourly pricing can be incredibly advantageous in certain circumstances, like when you receive that first email from a potential client and, through their thousand word introductory essay lousy with emoticons and unnecessarily capitalized words, they paint a clear picture that they are completely batshit insane. You know that there will be many rounds of revision in your future and that over the course of working together you’ll be as much a therapist as a designer. Totaling those 500 hours at whatever your hourly rate is will equal a pretty good pay day.
It’s more than just crazy people that can make hourly pricing worthwhile though—pricing any long term design project hourly can be advantageous, as long as you communicate clearly along the way what kind of hours you’re devoting to the project. If the first time your client sees your total hours is on the job-concluding invoice, a world of hurt awaits. It will be like being audited except somehow more unpleasant. Be prepared to forward them every approving email, to itemize every minute spent on the website / book / whatever.
Pricing hourly seems much easier than flat rate pricing, but because you have to give clients a ballpark full-cost price upfront (the total hours you plan to work x hourly rate), you can end up in a very tough spot if you don’t have a firm grasp on how long it takes you to do things. You’re nearing the halfway point in the project and are already over the total hours you’re contractually committed to. What does this mean? It almost never means that you’re paid double your original fee. Even if you can eek out a little extra money from the client, by the end of the project your hourly rate will look more like the one you were earning at the Blue Comet Diner at age 16.
So once you have a grip on your work flow and become more and more efficient, hourly pricing makes perfect sense, right? You know how long it will take you to do something, you price for it, everyone is happy. Unfortunately this is a half truth. Sure you’re getting paid well enough and certainly making more hourly than you probably were at your old day job, but I’ll paint a picture as to why this is a flawed pricing model: Two designers are hired to produce posters for a music festival. Both have the same hourly rate of $100 per hour (a reasonable rate for someone that’s been in the biz for a few years and has a few accolades under their belt), but one designer works much faster than the other. Both are equally talented, but one is far more efficient. At the end of the job, the designers turn in their invoices—he worked on it for a total of 18 hours and she a total of 7 hours. He is paid a respectable fee of $1800 and she $700 for producing the same result. Your rational mind says “Well, he did work more hours than her...” but part of you knows that this isn’t completely fair, and that part is correct. This becomes epically clear when working for big name clients.
Here’s another scenario: You’re hired to do a monogram for a giant international company. They’ll want to use this monogram on everything from price tags to billboards to TV spots and they want to use it forever (in perpetuity until the sun explodes). They have a pretty clear idea of what they want and you know that it will take about 10 hours total with the initial exploration, back and forth revisions, and finalizing. Even if your hourly rate is $250 / hour (a pretty high rate), the total you’re earning for that logo is $2,500. If you think that is a good price for a professional designer to earn crafting what is essentially a logo for a huge company, you are mistaken. So if you aren’t pricing hourly, how DO you price?
Licensing and Rights-Management
So while pricing hourly has its disadvantages, it’s a good place to start. Most designers take into account the hours they’ll put into a project when coming up with a price, but the seasoned professionals use it as part of the way they quote a project, and not as the only defining factor. Once you feel comfortable with your hourly rate and can somewhat accurately predict how long it will take you to do something, there are a few other things to consider that will boost your prices and turn this design hobby of yours into an actual sustainable career.
As a designer, when you hear the term “rights-management” it takes you back to your intern days doing photo research, trying to find non-awful royalty-free images after your boss told you all the rights-managed photos were way too expensive. How does rights-management apply to a designer or illustrator? Photographers aren’t the only ones able to manage the rights of their work. You inherently own the rights to anything you create, this is why it’s incredibly important to read every contract for every job. Often times clients want more rights than what they are willing to pay for—the biggest red flag word being “work for hire”. This means that the client owns all the rights to anything you create for them. They essentially, legally, become the author of your work.
As a graphic designer, work for hire is a bit more acceptable in many situations since you’re not authoring new content as much as creating a beautiful context for other people’s content (speaking specifically about any sort of layout design). Where rights management usually comes into play is in the context of identity work, and this is why logos are priced the way they are. It’s understood that the clients will need the rights to the mark you create so that they can trademark it and use it on unlimited applications, so when pricing for a logo you should take that into account. In addition to a fair hourly rate, clients pay for the rights to use that logo in an unlimited capacity.
Aside from giving away all the rights to your work for an additional (hopefully ginormous) fee, you can give them away for limited periods of time or for limited applications by licensing work to clients. There are fewer ways to do this as a graphic designer, but licensing is an incredibly (incredibly!) important part of being an illustrator or letterer. Of the couple hundred client projects I’ve done over the past few years, very few of them have required a full buyout of all rights, and the ones that have required them paid my rent for the better part of a year. Here are some factors that go into pricing a job based on licensing:
- How long does the client want to license the artwork for?One month? One year? Two years? Five years? In perpetuity?
- In what context is the artwork going to be used?Do they have the rights to use it on anything? In print only? Web only? Broadcast? Tattooed on their faces?
- If the job is reprinted, will there be an additional fee for a reprint?
- Do they want an unlimited license or do they need to own the rights?
- Are these rights transferrable if the company is sold?
- What kind of company is it?Is it for a Mom-and-Pop business, a multi-billion dollar corporation or something in between?
By now your head must be spinning. This is some complicated stuff right? Maybe, but this is how you can actually make a living doing illustration and design and maybe even eventually quit your but-they-give-me-health-insurance barista job. What follows is a fictional pricing example to show how powerful licensing can be. I’m going to write it in the context of lettering, which is priced essentially the same as illustration. Graphic designers should still pay attention though, because when I talk about buyout pricing, that’s essentially what you’re going to be thinking about when pricing logos. My price points will be higher than what a fresh faced n00b can probably charge, but should at least illustrate how much of an impact licensing can have on the cost of artwork.
Dear Ms. Hische,
I’m an art director at Awesome Agency Inc, working on a campaign for an international clothing brand (on par with the gap) and am writing to gauge your interest in creating artwork for us. We need one five-word phrase illustrated in a script style. The artwork should be highly illustrative, attached are some examples of work you and others have done that are in the ballpark of what we want for the campaign. If this sounds appealing to you, please send us a quote by end of day tomorrow so that we can present your work, along with a few others we are gathering quotes from, to the client. Thanks so much and look forward to working with you!
They didn’t give me much to go on here aside from the actual work I’m creating. It sounds like a cool job, but I’m going to need to do some investigating before giving a proper quote. The biggest young designer mistake here would be to quote a flat fee without finding out what kind of usage rights they want.
Thanks so much for thinking of me Arthur! I’ll put together a quote this afternoon. Do you want me to price for every usage scenario or do you have some specific uses in mind?
All the best,
Usually here they’d write back with some very very specific uses in mind which makes it a bit easier to quote, but sometimes you’ll get a letter that looks something like this:
Great to hear back from you! We’re still in the exploratory stages of the project, so we can’t give specific usage situations yet. Please quote for creation of artwork for presentation only and for a few ballpark usages.
What We Know
- This is for a big international clothing company.
- They are gathering prices from a few different people.They’ll present several artists to the client who will chose based on style or lowest price depending on what the client’s priority is.
- They want a price for presentation only.This means you create the artwork and they only have the right to show it around in-house and to the client, NOT to use it in any way for their campaign.
- They want a number of usage scenarios.This is on top of that initial creation / presentation fee.
Pricing for Presentation
If you’ve done any editorial illustration work (magazines and newspapers), you know that the rates are pretty standard across the board: $250-$500 for a spot illustration, $500-$750 for a half page, $1000-$1500 for a full page, $2000-$3000 for a full spread, $1500-$3500 for a cover. These are all pretty normal prices and there are of course magazines that pay higher or lower. I tend to start with these prices in mind when thinking about pricing for “Presentation Only”.
They want a five word phrase that is highly illustrative, which equates to “a full page illustration” or so. Because this is for advertising and not editorial, adjust your rates depending on the client. This is for a big company, so my presentation only fee might be somewhere around the $5000-$7000 mark depending on how complicated what they’re after actually is. If this was for a smaller company, the presentation only fee might be closer to $2500 or $3500.
Sample Usage Scenarios
If a client doesn’t tell you specifically what usage rights they need, you should make sure there is a good range represented. In this situation, I’m definitely going to price based on the length of time they need it, plus some general examples of what context the artwork will be used in. When you send your quote, it should be broken down as clearly as possible so there is no confusion as to what the clients are paying for in each stage of rights licensing. This would be the quote I would send back:
Below are a few sample quotes for the project. As I did not have much info about what usage rights you needed, we would need to talk specifically about anything not mentioned below once the client has a clearer picture of what they need.
Presentation Only: $7000
2-3 initial pencil sketches shown, one chosen to be created as final art. After final artwork is presented, the client may request up to two rounds of minor revision. Additional revisions after this point will be billed at $250/hr. If the client chooses to not move forward after pencils are presented, a kill fee of $3500 will be paid for completion of sketches. If artwork is completed to final, the full fee will be paid.
Usage Scenario 1: +$5000
The client may use the artwork in magazine and newspaper ads (domestic and international) for a period of 1 year.
Usage Scenario 2: +$7500
The client may use the artwork in all print media (domestic and international) including but not limited to magazines, newspapers, point-of-purchase displays, posters, and billboards for a period of 1 year.
Usage Scenario 3: +$10,000
The client may use the artwork in all print and online media for a period of 1 year.
Usage Scenario 4: +$14,000
The client may use the artwork in all print media, all online media, and broadcast media for a period of 1 year.
The client may use the artwork in all media including print, online, and broadcast in perpetuity.
Thanks so much for thinking of me for the project, let me know how these numbers go over and if you need any clarification about the different usage points.
All the best
So this is a pretty basic breakdown, but it gives the agency/client a lot of price points to consider. If I wanted to break it down even further, I would price based on 2 year and 5 year use and give different prices for U.S. only, North America only, etc. Most importantly, note that all of the usage scenarios are on top of our original presentation only / artwork creation price. The prices are not cumulative in this example quote, so each +$ is only added to the presentation fee. The top price in this scenario is $32,000 (I saw there was some confusion in comments so thought I’d clarify). These prices might seem completely outrageous to you, but they’re actually pretty reasonable when we take into effect who the client is and what kind of rights they’ll probably need. If you’re an up-and-comer, your prices might be a bit lower but the percentage markup should remain about the same. Imagine if we had priced this hourly!
How do you know if you priced right?
If the client writes back immediately and says “These numbers look great! We’ll send along a contract for you to go over in a few days!” It probably means your prices are too low. If they write back and try to negotiate you down a little bit, you were probably pretty spot on, and if they write back and say that this is well beyond their budget, you get to decide whether or not you want to figure out a way to work within their budget or whether you want to walk away and take one for the team. When you’re offered a very low budget by a very huge client, you can always feel good about turning it down knowing that you are helping to raise the standards of pricing for others.
Why doesn’t anyone ever talk about pricing?
There are a lot of reasons why designers and illustrators are reluctant to talk about pricing, the most obvious being that no one wants to shout their annual income to the masses. Once you start giving away your general prices, it’s not incredibly difficult to add things up and figure out a ballpark of what an individual or company makes in a year. A personal note: don’t assume that the pricing structure above means that I’m swimming in a pile of money. My half-retired dentist father still makes more than I do. The fake job I used as an example above is an advertising job, and I used it as an example because pricing for advertising is one of the darkest arts of all. There are wild differences in pricing from presentation to buyout, and a ton of factors that affect the price. It’s great to surround yourself with friends or more experienced designers that can help you price a job. You can always consult The GAG’s Ethical Guide for Pricing, but definitely use it for ballparking more than definitive numbers.
The Pricing Domino Effect
It’s incredibly important for even young designers to always quote respectable prices. It can be very tempting to create artwork for a “cool” company for very little pay and the promise of insane exposure / an incredible portfolio piece. Every successful designer and illustrator has at one point succumbed to the siren song of the “cool” industries (there are a few “cool” companies that don’t try to take advantage of designers but they are the exception and not the norm). When you are starting your career as a freelancer, it will be incredibly tempting to take on any work that comes along, no matter how unfairly companies are trying to compensate you. Remember that you are talented and that your talent has value and that ultimately it is up to you to determine how much people value your talent. By helping to keep pricing standards high, you not only help yourself by avoiding the title of “The Poor Man’s Marian Bantjes” (essentially the creative equivalent of a knock-off handbag), you also help every other young designer struggling to get paid out there, and help every designer that came before you to continue making a living doing what they love.
A footnote for the haters:
For whatever reason, whenever anyone writes an article like this—asking designers to raise the standards for themselves and others, calling out companies for unfair pay or empty promises—there are always a few anonymous contrarians that berate the author for preaching from an ivory tower, not understanding what the masses are actually going through. I have been lucky enough to have success in my career, and I want to use the knowledge I’ve gained to help others have success. Why anyone would complain when someone is advocating for better wages, I do not know, but it always happens.
As I’ve watched my flowchart get reposted around the internet a bit, there is a topic that is always brought up in comments that I didn’t address on the chart itself: internships. I purposefully avoided talking about them on the chart, just as I avoided diving into great detail about non-profit work—because both are pretty complex matters. When it comes to non-profit work, I know several designers that make their entire living working at or doing freelance for non-profits. On the chart, I wanted to get the point across that most non-profits are legitimate businesses and that while they aren’t declaring profit at the end of the year, they still have expected operating costs and your design work should not necessarily be left out of the mix. Anyway, I’m already off on a tangent, let’s get back to the issue at hand.
When I was in college, my university wouldn’t give you academic credit for an unpaid internship. Local design studios knew this, and knew that if they wanted an intern from Tyler School of Art, they would have to fork over some cash (albeit very little cash). It worked out great. Of the three internships I had in college, all were paid. That doesn’t mean I was raking it in, but I was able to change my humble diet of ramen to…pasta.
There is (and has always been) a giant trend to compensate interns in “experience” alone. It’s one thing for a 18-year-old that has never opened Photoshop to walk into a tiny design studio and expect little or no compensation, but the more I talk to young designers struggling to get work, the more I see people in their early and mid-twenties (most with bachelor and graduate degrees) having to settle for unpaid internships in their quest to find a real job. These are people with real skills and they are being taken advantage of. Everyone knows that you won’t get rich from an internship, but companies (even tiny ones) can afford to pay you something for your time, even if what you’re being paid amounts to little more than minimum wage in a city like New York. The big argument you’ll hear against paying interns is that you are learning a lot from the company or designer you’re working for and that their time is so valuable that they are working at a loss to educate you. This is complete bullshit. Well, maybe not complete bullshit but definitely a hearty serving of it.
If you’ve ever had an internship, you know that many of your duties revolve around doing things that other people really don’t want to do—from general office and gopher work like shredding papers, organizing, standing in line at the post office, and getting coffee, to the slightly more design-industry-related stock photo researching. In my opinion, this is the stuff you should definitely be getting paid for. I’m sure someone could argue that you learn something by hovering over a trash can for three hours to the discordant buzz of a shredder, but seriously. Pay that person. Reward them monetarily for being your tedium slave. However you verbally package the skill set they’re building while doing your chores, you are delusional if you think they enjoy it.
Where it gets a bit tricky is when interns are actually doing something of value for a company. Many of you readers will jump in here and say “Well you’re practically an employee! You should be paid as one!” This is true, especially if you are working enough hours that it becomes difficult to have a second pay-the-bills job, but it’s a bit more nuanced than that. You are doing things that are employee-like—converting Quark files to InDesign files, archiving, prepping files for the designer to send to print, maybe even doing some light design work that will most likely never be shown to the client. Should you be compensated for this? Yes, of course. Again, I think interns should be monetarily compensated no matter what. But as you know, money isn’t everything and the most important part of any internship or junior level job should be the experience and knowledge you take away.
I know you all picked up your pitchforks at the mere mention of the word “experience”. Like “exposure”, “experience” can be a very toxic word when used by the wrong person. We’ve all at one point had a job or freelance gig that offered this intangible payment in lieu of real money. Some of us lucked out and actually received a wonderful education, and some of us walked away with an in-depth knowledge of copy machine maintenance. The thing is, anyone heading into an internship absolutely wants experience. If you aren’t looking to learn something and improve your skills in every job you have over the course of your career, you have probably found yourself in the wrong industry. But before you agree to a low paying job, examine what you’ll actually be learning there. Sometimes that experience is very valuable, especially if your employer takes a lot of time to personally educate you—it’s almost like getting paid to go to grad school.
It can be very difficult to have this kind of one-on-one education at a larger company. If you’ve ever interned for a company with more than 50 employees, you know that generally you’re not getting the attention of a supervisor for more than an hour or two every week. That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions to this rule, but (for the most part) a supervisor willing to spend quality facetime with you—time spent actually educating you and critiquing your work—is as mythical a creature as the unicorn. Your job as the office intern is to help out and demand as little time as possible from your employer. The education you’re receiving has more to do with office politics than design. In exchange for this, for being the unseen helper cog in the company machine, you should be paid and paid fairly well.
Employers: before you get in a big huff, I’m not saying you need to pay interns in gold bricks. There is a giant chasm between what interns are usually paid and what qualifies as fair wages in a big city. Have a few less fancy coffees in a week and you can afford to pay an intern ten dollars an hour. Also, we can totally see through the full-time jobs disguised as “internships”. You’re not fooling anyone.
Future Interns: Should you ever take an unpaid internship? I’d advise against it unless under very specific circumstances (like job shadowing or a position in which you’re not actually doing useful work for an employer). The reason why there are so many unpaid internships is because so many people are willing to work for free. My university didn’t allow its students to take unpaid internships and by doing so forced local businesses to offer paid internships if they wanted to employ one of its students. Someone has to step in and say “this is the standard and what you are offering is below the standard” before anyone will stop and take notice. Should you take a lower paying internship that offers more hands-on training experience and one-on-one time with a supervisor? In my opinion, yes absolutely. While you should be compensated something for the work you do, your employer’s time is valuable, and if they are taking time to give you a proper education, the lower pay can be well worth it.
Dear Designer McDesignperson,I am a current senior majoring in design/illustration. I was wondering what I can do to promote myself and get freelance work?....[five paragraphs of life story]...any advice you can give would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!"
I am asked this question constantly (as are other designers and illustrators that are doing fairly well for themselves). Each time, I wish I had a precise and perfect answer to give to the sender, but I don’t—not because I forget what it's like to struggle for work, but because what works for one person does not necessarily work for all people. If you are a student or someone starting out in the field, here's a bit of advice I can give you for how to get work and promote yourself.
Don’t be a dick.
If you are friendly and enjoy talking to new people, you will hands-down have an easier time promoting yourself and getting work than folks that are not (sorry anti-socialites, but it is true). The truth is, it doesn’t matter how talented you are, if you are a total a-hole or incapable of talking to other human beings, it will be a massive struggle for you to get repeat clients or even to secure clients first time around. So much of the design and illustration industry is building relationships with people. It's a bit different for illustrators than designers, (illustrators tend to not meet most of their clients face to face nowadays), but nonetheless, if you are personable the chances that an art director will want to hire you / work with you are way higher than if you aren't. Imagine if you had to put together your own “dream office environment”. Who would you populate it with? At first you might think to take the most talented folks you know, stick them in a room together, and wait for the magic to happen, but you would ultimately be disappointed with the results. You need a good team dynamic, you need people that can keep their egos in check, and most importantly you need people that you generally want to be around if you're going to be spending 9 (16) hours a day with them.
Designers: You guys might have a harder time getting (paid) client work than illustrators. There aren't any direct venues for promoting yourself as a designer other than winning design competitions, and even then you are mostly promoting yourself to other people within the design industry or not far removed from it. Think about it. If you were a normal person in the process of opening your own restaurant, how would you go about hiring a designer? You certainly wouldn't think “hey, why don’t I go see what’s happening on Design Observer today” or “why don’t I spend the day browsing that obscure design magazine?”. You would ask your friends if they knew any designers. And those friends would ask their friends. So essentially, if you're not a few degrees away from that potential client, your chances of working with them are slim. But how do you promote yourself to people that don’t know they need design? This is the toughest question but one that has a few solutions:
Befriend other designers.
It seems so simple, but so many young designers see their peers as competition rather than the folks that will eventually be sending them all of their work. If that restaurant owner's friend is a bit savvy, she might have recommended a really great designer to her friend. That designer's pricing was far above what the restaurant owner could afford, so she recommends a designer friend that is slightly less expensive. That friend really wants to do it but is a little too busy at the time (and the budget is decent but too low to warrant several all-nighters). But wait! Didn't some really nice recent grad just send her a (VERY SHORT AND NICE) email with a link to a really great portfolio? Maybe that new designer would be willing to work within the budget? Problem solved. Restaurant owner gets a beautiful new logo, and fresh-out-of-school designer gets paid all by making use of her network of friends.
Have a website.
This might be a no-brainer, but a ton of young people looking for work don’t have a functioning website because they're still struggling to build some crazy flash bonanza themselves. STOP. Unless you want to do web work for a living, sites like cargo collective, indexhibit, and carbonmade are perfectly fine ways to make portfolio sites. Many professionals use them as they are easy to update, which you will learn is THE MOST important trait a portfolio website should have. Illustrators, this goes for you too.
Do work for friends.
The first point is more about networking with designers, by “work for friends” I mean actually do work for the people that you hang out with day to day that aren't designers. If you went to art school, you undoubtedly have a slew of friends that need design work, be it business cards, logos, websites, etc. Work something out with them where you can either be paid a friendly fee, or barter with them for something you need, even if it's a few extra hands the next time you move house. A lot of people will want free work, but if you've ever leant money to a friend, you know the chances you're going to be paid back are around 30/70. It's the same with your design skills, giving them away for free, even to friends, probably means no future return. If you have any doubt about whether or not you should do something for free, I made a handy flowchart.
Charities are a great jumping point for getting freelance work. You won't necessarily be paid anything, but at least you can feel good about the free work that you're doing and hopefully garner some good portfolio pieces out of the experience. Also, people that work at charities know people that work at non-profits (paid work) and THEY usually know people that work at legitimate businesses (well-paid work).
They might not immediately get you client work, but having a few accolades under your belt will certainly make potential clients feel confident when they hire you, which can often times translate to less of a struggle to get things approved (if they trust you, they’ll be less likely to question every move you make). You can of course build up a rep without winning competitions, see “don’t be a dick”.
Pay attention to the industry.
You have to keep up with what’s happening with design, who's who, etc. You'll end up in a ton of professional social situations where you will feel like a total moron if you can't hold an intelligent discussion about a crazy famous person/campaign in the industry. At least work on your ability to fake knowledge about things. My favorite method is what I would call the “delayed reaction acknowledgement", where you look confused at first, ask for one more detail about the event, and then let a fake eureka moment flood over your face “Ohhhh THAT person, of course!”. Works every time.
Have realistic expectations.
don’t expect that you'll get out of school and then be immediately inundated with freelance work. It takes most people years to build up enough client work to branch out on their own and work entirely freelance, so when you're fresh out of the gate, expect to have to have a day job of some sort to support you while you build up your client list. Designers have a leg up because they can have a design day job while doing design freelance at night. Having a day job is also helpful for more than just paying the bills when you start out, you learn SO MUCH about the industry from every job you have. Even seemingly crappy jobs can teach you a lot about production or at the very least help narrow down what you do and don’t want to to do with your life.
Illustrators and Letterers: You guys have it a bit easier because essentially you're trying to promote yourself to designers. As an illustrator, your initial bread and butter will most likely be editorial work (magazines, newspapers, or online publications). To promote yourself to art directors within the editorial world, there are a few things you can do:
Actually meet with art directors.
This seems really old school, but it totally works. Again, if you're a people person, you'll have more luck with this, but never turn down an opportunity to meet with art directors. Art directors are content curators, even if they don’t have a job for you immediately, they may in the future, and if they feel a personal connection to you over someone that is doing similar work, they're more likely to hire you. This works best if you live in New York or Los Angeles or a city that a number of publications work out of, but really there is a magazine or newspaper in every town. Worse case scenario, meeting with people helps you hone your people skills.
Learn proper email etiquette.
Do not write novellas to art directors—if you're going to write an art director, keep it short and sweet. don’t attach massive pdfs of your work, don’t pressure them to write back to you with criticisms. Chances are, they are very busy, and if you make them “work” for you, it will annoy them and most likely tarnish future working relationships.
Put portfolios up everywhere online.
When art directors are looking for illustrators, they consult portfolio databases along with annuals. Alt-pick is a good one, illustration mundo, alt pick, and behance are also good. Deviant Art might work within some very specific circles, but for the most part (I believe) is not highly searched by editorial, publishing, or advertising art directors. Many of these places are free to sign up with, some require a low fee, but no matter what they will most likely be worth it in the beginning. See also Have a website above.
While designers might not immediately benefit freelance-wise from being featured in annuals, illustrators absolutely do. Art directors looking for illustrators definitely check annuals to see who's who in illustration and find artists for assignments and campaigns. In my personal experience, American Illustration and Communication Arts tend to have the most return, but both are very hard to get into. The Society of Illustrators Annual is very highly respected among the illustration community and is worth submitting to if only for glory within the industry. European annuals appeal to an entirely different market and I cannot speak extensively on them as for the most part I only enter the american annuals (which already add up to a lot in fees by the end of the year).
Buy lists from adbase or other similar services.
You can actually subscribe to services that give you thousands of contacts for art directors. This can be extremely useful for sending out promotional material or making connections. It can feel a bit “cold call"ish, but if you keep your emails light and friendly and non-spammy, this kind of contact can be very helpful.
Look into artist representatives.
Reps don’t work for everyone, but some people benefit greatly by having an artist rep. I was one of those people. My rep helped teach me about a lot of what’s listed above and put my work in front of a lot of faces within a short frame of time. One thing to keep in mind though, is you want to work with someone who is there for you and is not just in it to make a buck. They should be mindful of your mental health, not push you to do things you don’t want to do, and ultimately help make your life easier rather than harder or more annoying. Generally I think smaller rep groups are better, as you get a more hands-on experience. What reps do definitely help with, is price and contract negotiation, paperwork, and promoting you to the advertising field.
One of the best things you can do for your career is to be productive. If you're not getting client work, do self-authored personal work. Most young people that are doing anything in the industry right now got there because of a personal project that propelled them into the public conscious. Not only will people probably feel more of a connection to this kind of work (because you poured your heart and soul into it) but it also shows future art directors that you CARE. That you love what you do and would be happier working for the rest of your life than sitting on the sofa procrastinating.
Send out promos.
They don’t have to be printed, they can be digital, but no matter what they should be memorable. From experience (and from judging competitions and whatnot), humor forever wins. If you're not exactly a comedian, make something that will make people think or just make something so glorious and beautiful that they can't help but show it around.
So there you have it, a relatively short list of advice. I've only been doing this for a couple of years, but so far a number of these things have worked for me so they may work for you. Like I said above though, everyone is different. Use your strengths, be nice to people, and in time you'll come out on top.