What should I charge for freelance design work?


I work 9-5 with a 1-hour commute, plus I bartend once a week. In the time that’s left I take all the rewarding freelance work I can handle. After about half a decade of freelancing in this way I billed 5-digits for the first time this year. It’s a humble amount, but it feels like a milestone, especially when I remember having no clue what my work was worth. If you are also looking to supplement your income with some freelance but aren’t sure what to bill, maybe this will help.

Charge a flat rate:

Have you ever been to a mechanic and the bill is twice what they quoted? Did you like that? Did you go back? I hope not. Likewise your clients deserve to know the cost of your work up front. In theory this is very easy to do. Ask lots of questions, get a clear scope of the job with all the details, in writing, and provide a clause to the effect that “the first round of edits is included, further edits are billed at $x / hr.” Then decide how long it will take to do a job, always assume that the work will come back for some last tweaks, so build that cushion into the total time. Then decide your hourly rate. Now multiply the hours needed by the hourly rate and the product is the “flat rate” for the job.

Flate Rate = (number of hrs + cushion) x (dollars per hr)

Simple as that. If you are unknown and have no portfolio, but are confident in your work, I would start at $20/hr. This is fair for photo editing, file correction, layout, menus, and general design work. Talent agencies are charging $50-60/hr to line up freelancers for this sort of job and paying the talent $25-30. So for you to bill $20/hr doesn’t grossly undercut the industry, but it still incentivize your services over another’s. As you get better and faster and build up a body of work, calculate for $30/hr or a little more for advanced work. Personally, I add a “shitty work tax” for jobs I don’t care to do and honestly would rather not take for anything less than too much.

Flat rates might scare you because you can get stuck with a bad client, or underestimate a job. Both have happened to me and it will happen to you, so be fair to yourself. I always take a hit on logo design. Logo farms have devalued logos, and small businesspeople don’t care and probably don’t need to worry about having a “good” logo. So you are competing in a very tough market. If you take a logo design job, take it for love and not money. Nobody is going to pay you for the dozens or hundreds of hours it takes when they can get something “good enough” for $150 from Costco (yes, for real). I’ve charged as little as $100 for a logo, to a friend’s friend. For close friends I don’t even bother charging, to messy, and I like to be able to walk away. The last logo I billed was $300, I probably had 30hrs into it and all I provided was the files for print, no card layouts or letterheads or anything extra. But I had fun and I’m proud of it. So just keep that in mind when quoting a logo.

If flat rate still scares you know that over time you might, like me, come to dislike billing hourly. For one, it punishes efficiency. I have stacks of paper samples, style libraries, font catalogues, relationships with printers and knowledge of their templates. All of this knowledge means an hour of my time is worth more than an hour of another designer’s. Plus flat rate gives you flexibility to bill what you want. For example, clients think that a 300x250px web add is somehow cheaper to design than a 10×8 foot banner because its “just a small web ad versus a huge banner.” But they could be the same amount of work. Just keep in mind that if you don’t know what something is worth, the client probably has no clue either.

Or in other words, what something is “worth” and what it costs you to make it aren’t always the same thing in the design world. Bill accordingly.

Bonus: flate rate let’s you take a portion up front. I don’t do this, but it’s an option you don’t get with hourly billing.

Say yes to printing:

I used to tell people I don’t handle printing, I’d even get annoyed when they asked. I’m a designer! Why is this person asking if I can order some damn coasters? But then I realized if someone is asking if me to get something printed it’s because they couldn’t be bothered to arrange it themselves. The client asked you because they didn’t want to deal with it. Take their money!

Huge agencies outsource printing and add a fee, even print shops are outsourcing many of their print jobs: and so can you. There are usually local services and tons of online printing services. Some online services will even mail the package to the client with your branding on the shipping box. How sweet is that?

The amount I charge for this service depends, but beware that a percentage markup is not fair and small jobs suck to broker. If a client wanted 3 t-shirts printed in colour it’s probably going to be $20-30 a shirt. I have to setup the job and get all the shipping details squared away so I’d ask for $100 + shipping. If its a design with continuous tone and needs to be printed DTG, or if the design needs separation work to go to silk screening the hours can grow really, really fast. Clients will likely balk at that price, then phone around and discover that it really is $20-30 each for such a small job. It can be tricky to make it worthwhile for yourself or the client. So I suggest you find a supplier, know the costs, and be upfront with the client that small runs are expensive and you have a fee to arrange it of a few hours work. The best jobs are when you do a logo for someone and they want 25+ 1-colour shirts. Jump on those, Vistaprint, $8/shirt, add ten percent.

Wedding invites, small business mailers, and trifolds are nice simple printing jobs to broker. You have tons of printing options and the costs are normally in the $100s to $1000s. Don’t be shy to add a decent dollar – you had to setup the file, call around, arrange shipping. $50-200 markup on jobs this size is not crazy. I’ve seen people markup much, much more. Even 40%. But that’s way too much. Be fair and get called back for more work.

The process is simple: Call printer, get quote, send to client. Bill client for brokering time with design time on a separate line. Get clients billing info along with approval and send to printer.

If you don’t set a precedent you’ll find yourself brokering print for free. With some of my older clients I did all the print setup and liaison at first and now I’m stuck doing it for free. It’s not a big deal, I send an email and ask “how much to print this or that.” But its a hassle being a go-between, and you need to be careful nothing goes wrong lest you be held responsable, or a client will send rush things at inconvenient times. So avoid this situation by charging a small fee for print brokering if you get asked to do it. If they don’t want to pay you, that’s fine, they can deal with it themselves. If you like the client you can do it for free to keep them. Your call.

Bonus: Invoice your printing fee as “file setup, printer liason, and brokering” and collect payment for your time separately from the printer’s fee. Supply the printer with the client’s billing info. Do not pay the printer and then bill the client. If you do, get the client’s money first and charge more for the hassle.

I do work for free (or at a discount)

I’m not talking about the person who responds to your kijiji add or sends a random linkedin message telling you if you make a “quick, simple logo, businesscard, webpage, and flyer” you’ll get “great exposure” with “possible future contracts.” Don’t ever take shitty work for the promise of exposure or for your portfolio. Shitty work only makes for shitty portfolios. But there are two occasions where I’ll work for less or free: charity and growth.

Polished charities with good people behind them and high standards are great chances to do great work. Most hiring managers will appreciate this sort of effort and I think this generosity makes you an attractive employee. Another reward of working for free is that you get to throw some weight around and influence the design more than you usually might. It can result in some genuine portfolio worthy stuff if you team up with the right client.

I can confidently advertise myself as a food/product photographer and that is something I learned by working for very little money. I make a lot of postcards with food images and eventually a client asked if I do the photography as well as the design. For a downtown restaurant the daily rate of a pro food photgrapher can exceed $1000, but I agreed to do the photography for $50. It turned out not great, but after hours and hundreds of shots I did get something decent. Years later, with practise, I can now easily bill around $200-$500 for a comissioned photoshoot. My fee is still less than others because I know the design purpose of the photography and I can spend much less time behind the camera. Even if I’m not quite as good as the full time pro, I don’t believe they can add value commensurate with their higher fee. And I know for a fact the client doesn’t think so. I now capture this extra income that I wouldn’t have if I never learned the skill and never built the body of work to prove the skills. I’ve also been getting paid to grow professionally. Now I take photos of non-food products like clothes, merch, books, cards, etc. This is what makes working for less worth it. If you aren’t going to benefit like this, charge full price.

That’s it

So that’s really all there is too it with freelancing on the side. Freelancing full time is a different dog, though. Maybe someone can share some tips on that?

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