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The cost of creativity

He and I were close.

At that age, when you kept track of such titles, I would have called him my best friend. And the rituals that went along with his arrangement were all followed. Great debates about what we knew about sports, and what we didn’t about girls.

So how do you value a friendship when you are asked to price a job?

This is a no easy task.

He and I spent our childhoods together. We lived a block apart, and were inseparable.

Then his Father passed away during High School. It was the fall I think. And we began to drift. It was just that he was much older than me now.

We stayed in touch. But it was never the same. It never can be. We grow on and up and towards other things. Those things that creep into our worlds and compete with sports and girls.

He contacted me last month and asked if I would do some design work for a record label he was starting. I agreed. This would be interesting work for a friend. Expressive work.

I offered to do the work for free. I think I feared the prospect of not only pricing a project, but pricing a friendship.

For me, working in freelance, the hardest part is the money. Not the earning of it. Not the spending of it. Not the lack of it. But the inevitable estimations of worth that one wrestles with.

Designers are naturally disadvantaged here. We design because we love. We enjoy what we do. Sometimes we tend to forget it is work, and not another creative adventure. And when you begin to calculate those other things in a job, it gets far more complicated.

Thankfully, he told me to charge him.

But there was more to think about.

There is something I haven’t told you about him yet. And I haven’t told you because it had never come up between us. Ever. It was a ten-ton elephant we simply ignored. And I always valued that.

He is very very wealthy. An entire paragraph of ‘very’ would not be enough to describe it.

So I found myself in a difficult position. While I would never find this as an opportunity to over-charge, I certainly had a chance to collect on my full rate. But then there was our friendship. The whole thing exhausted me as I fought over how to cost the job. I finally settled on a price with a small discount.

Days later, it seemed like a silly exercise. Because of our past, this job will have a legacy value far beyond its cost. It won’t be the money either of us will remember. It will be the work.

My mind should be here.

If I can’t find the way to express his music then will I feel truly thankless.

Art and commerce have an uneasy balance in all of our lives. Costs and figures and negotiating have a way of blurring the focus we should have towards the work. It is why pro bono work can be so fun. It is why creative directors have so many other things to do during their day besides create.

The stresses. The paperwork. The bad dogs, sick kids, missed busses and fights with our significant other can all factor into a job. Every job brings with it a new set of challenges. Some of which will not come from the work.

Just like there is a cost of doing business, there is a cost of creating. I am still learning how to put a price on that.

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ARCHIVE ID 2503 FILED UNDER Miscellaneous
PUBLISHED ON Dec.25.2005 BY Jimm Lasser
Frank’s comment is:

Thanks for being transparent. It's good to know there are others who struggle with this pricing issue as well. I think part of the problem we are having is that when design strikes out on "its own" (whether freelance or as a small studio free of a larger agency), clients have a difficult time understanding the value of design. My electrician doesn't stress when he quotes me a price for electrical work on my home, nor does my dentist. Why? There is an accepted cultural value that has been accrued in the work they do. Design really has no such value on it's own...yet.

On Dec.26.2005 at 06:36 AM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

I have a fatal flaw that makes me want to give my work away for free. When it comes to friends, even more so. I want to just do more illustration and design for everyone.

I've been told by my best Louisiana consultant, my Voudou priestess, that it's wrong to give work away for free because it's never appreciated as much as when they pay for it. Time and time again I've seen this to be true.

Circumstances like Katrina have made me curb my bad habit, of course. So when a rich, young heiress I knew recently called me out-of-the-blue for some freebies for her book, and I told her I would make an estimate of cost, she blew a gasket. Here I was homeless at the time and she wanted me to work on "just some tiny little pictures" for a book she had being published. That lengthy conversation full of gushing compliments and cheerfulness turned on a dime and she got very angry at me for "charging her" for art. She was stressed: her mansion was damaged. (We all were stressed.) She'd always gotten graphics for free or nearly free all these years.( Her best work was art I charged $25 for.) If she wasn't so wealthy I'd have done it for free once again. The rich, I've come to see, are just not the same as you and me: they expect free stuff. Sort of ironic.

If there's a conceptual problem, find an equivalent job completed and match that cost structure. Or hit the GAG pricing handbook for where to start.

On Dec.26.2005 at 08:46 AM
James’s comment is:

My advice is never mix work & friendship. Always recommend another designer you can trust to do the work.

I've seen so many friendships suffer when work enters the equation - friendships broken - court cases.

Just not worth the risk and heart ache IMHO.

On Dec.26.2005 at 02:37 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

never mix work & friendship

I’m not sure it’s working for/with friends per se that’s the problem as much as an extension of what happens with too many pro bono projects—the designer figures all the money isn’t involved so all that management work doesn’t need to get done.

Things are less likely to derail when everyone knows why everyone else is there. If everyone’s main agenda is accomplishing a mutual goal and making some money in the process then people tend to just get things done. When other reasons are more prominent, communication becomes both harder and more important.

Additionally, the stakes are higher when it’s not just money. Thinking less of a client (or a client thinking less of you) and exchanging messages with accounts payable may not be wonderful but having the same experience with a friend is worse. Business with friends probably needs to be less casual than business with strangers.

On Dec.26.2005 at 03:19 PM
dina’s comment is:

this is truly one of the hardest parts of being a graphic designer running your own business. your business value should not be determined, or determine, your personal value. to be successful, you not only have to provide quality design in a timely manner, but for a fair market value. in fair market value, i mean a monetary value that will allow you to continue to work and live.

by assessing your business value, you agree to many things: (1) you run a BUSINESS, not a charity, (2) you expect this to be a business relationship, (3) you value your work to be as good as the next guys, if not better. (4) when you pay my rates, i will value you as important as any other client i have.

what i've found in valuing work, that it works best to use a flat rate. this ensures that you do not prioritize the work according to value (should i work on this client's stuff because he is paying me x amount of dollars, or this other client's work because it is an emergency, but he's paying me less?) but to timeliness. also, it avoids resentment towards your clients because they are all equal according to part of what makes a client valuable to you, money. and on their side, there is respect for you as a knowledgeable designer, as well as the knowledge that they shouldn't take advantage of your time as they are paying for it.

and what's interesting, and i think it is related to this, is that my most difficult (to put it lightly) clients are the ones that pay so little.

i ask myself this question: "if i were a lawyer, would i reduce my fees or work pro bono for a client?" or a variation of this.

my advice: (1) charge everyone the same. (2) if your friend wants a discount, refer him to someone else, and explain.


On Dec.26.2005 at 05:38 PM
Andy Malhan’s comment is:

I don't buy into the whole "don't do business with friends" idea. Several of my larger accounts are companies owned wholly or partially by very old and close friends of mine - the yardstick I use is fairly simple: If you're going to make money off something I do for you, then I need to as well.

Need a website for your company? Here's my (reasonable) estimate of what it'll cost. Need a wedding card for your son? Consider it my present to him.

It's simple, effective, and respects everyone involved.

There are times when I find my friends are in a bit of a bind financially, and as a friend, I'm only too happy to help them out by extending a very easy payment plan/credit line for the work and sometimes a discount. But the bottom line is that this is how I put food on my family's table so while I'll do my bit to help out when a friend needs it, I'd be shirking in my responsibility to my family, my work and myself if I gave the farm away for free.

I'm fortunate that I have good friends and they understand and agree with this completely.

When I first started out and didn't know/understand the value of my work, many of them were (financially) much better off than I was and they'd repeatedly say to me "Look, if you don't do it, I'll pay someone to. So why shouldn't I just pay you? That way I know I'll get excellent service, and you get business."

Hear and heed: a friend that expects you to work for free, ain't no friend.

On Dec.27.2005 at 05:13 AM
Alexey’s comment is:

So we have two issues here: "paying friends" and "how much is fair".

I also did some jobs for friends and buddies. And those were almost always paying jobs. Yes, my quotes in such cases are not something I would quote for someone else, but thus I get a happy (and returning) client and no bad feelings from his side. I personally am happy to do a job for a friend for any price, also for free, when it's asked for. I won't struggle or show way to another designer.

As for the pricing itself, it seems to be a hard issue also for professionals coming from satellite industries, like marketing research, et al. The best primer was my ex-boss, who, together with his partner), have grounded a marketing - creative - strategic - consulting - full_circle agency. They quoted 110�/hr, be it a managing job or a creative job. Seems fair, right? Well, as soon as you see an invoice, where a middle-hardcore website is being estimated at 30 hours, it doesn't seem so fair anymore. As I could see for the 2 years I was working there, the management couldn't estimate a single creative case correctly. We were always working at least 50% of time for nothing.

That's why for my freelance projects I always set flat-rate (something between a least possible price based on a sober logic and an agency's estimate charging a full-rate). A website this big ....�, a smaller website ....�, an identity programm — ....�. Anything over the top goes with ...� per item. The price includes 2 to 3 drafts and 2 revision rounds. I've never had any troubles with this system. And there is a minimal price I always charge, be it a simple website or a book. It always helps to mention this price, so the client understands what to expect and how far he can go. If the price is way out of the question, there is an hour or so of time I spent, which is okay in terms of client acquisition.

On Dec.27.2005 at 08:05 AM
Janice’s comment is:

this was excellent and eloquently written! thanks for the perspective... and i appreciate your honesty... this subject has been heavily on my mind lately...

On Dec.27.2005 at 09:45 AM
emevas’s comment is:

The rich, I've come to see, are just not the same as you and me: they expect free stuff. Sort of ironic.

How do you think they got so rich?

On Dec.27.2005 at 01:35 PM
emevas’s comment is:

The rich, I've come to see, are just not the same as you and me: they expect free stuff. Sort of ironic.

How do you think they got so rich?

On Dec.27.2005 at 01:35 PM
Kyle Hildebrant’s comment is:

I enjoyed this very much. Thanks for taking the time to write such a thought provoking (at least for myself) piece.

On Dec.27.2005 at 03:07 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Jimm— first of all, welcome to authorship. Sorry, that was long overdue. It's great to hear a new voice in the green room, even if it's another male voice.

Now, about doing work for friends.

First of all, I've learned not to do work for friends or family anymore. Too complicated, and it rarely ever turns out well.

But if I must, I don't treat it as work — because I know that the process will never be the same as real clients, because the relationship isn't a business one. Therefore, I don't charge for the work — which helps to keep it under my terms and control.

Now, if the scope of the work is sizable — and my friend insists on paying (a good friend of mine uses the phrase "...money must exchange hands") — then I simply give them a "real" estimate for the work, and tell him that it's up to him how much he wants to pay, from nothing to full fare. Whatever he decides is affordable and fair to him is ultimately what I'd accept. I've let him know how much the work and my services is worth, but left the price decision up to him.

Would I ever offer the same courtesy to a client? Of course not — I'd go out of business. But as I said, work for friends and family is never the same as work for clients. If you're going to accept it, then you'll have to put up with the conditions.

On Dec.29.2005 at 12:45 AM
Kelly Munson’s comment is:

I never charge friends, but I often suggest a "trade". Whether it's tickets to a rock show or a night out on the town, it is a good way for me to do the expressive work I love, help out a friend, and at the same time get some sort of compensation.

On Dec.29.2005 at 10:50 AM
Eric Diamond’s comment is:

If it is small I usually do it for nothing...or help them to do it for nothing. Otherwise either price it as if they weren't your friend or refer them to someone else.

The key to a good working/friendship relationship is boundaries...you need to keep both roles completely 100% separate and the second they start bleeding together you run the risk of losing both the client and the friend.

Been there. Done that. Learned my lesson.

On Jan.02.2006 at 06:08 PM
Eric Diamond’s comment is:

If it is small I usually do it for nothing...or help them to do it for nothing. Otherwise either price it as if they weren't your friend or refer them to someone else.

The key to a good working/friendship relationship is boundaries...you need to keep both roles completely 100% separate and the second they start bleeding together you run the risk of losing both the client and the friend.

Been there. Done that. Learned my lesson.

On Jan.02.2006 at 06:08 PM
Stacy Rausch’s comment is:

I had a recent situation where I did a business card and note card design for a friend of mine and my husband's (that he works with). I told him up front the amount I would charge, plus he had to pay for the printing/supplies.

When I got my check for payment, I was surprised to find he OVERPAID me by roughly $75. When I called him on it and told him he overpaid me, he said no, I probably undercharged him to begin with since we are friends, and he was doing what he thought was right.

Pretty good situation all the way around I thought... hope other jobs for friends go as smoothly in the future.

On Jan.02.2006 at 06:13 PM
Caren Litherland’s comment is:

Thanks for this, Jimm. It's uncanny, because I had been thinking of emailing Armin to ask if he would consider this as a topic for discussion.

This is something that I've struggled with for a while. But some harsh experiences (from the Karma Payment Plan to the No-Payment Plan) have taught me to be a bit...firmer on this issue. I think I've gotten to the point now where I know how to deal with it effectively.

Establishing boundaries is key. In person I'm fairly easygoing; I've got that whole open/seemingly naive/Midwestern thing going on. And in the past, a couple of friends have taken that and run with it.

Friend #1 asked me to design a fairly elaborate program for a large memorial service at Saint Peter's. My payment? Good karma. I kid you not. I still remember the face of this very successful woman (for whom, mind you, money is not a problem) as she explained to me, with no apparent trace of irony: "And your reward for doing this job will be good karma."

So for my first job on my own, I was paid in karma. Yes, I took the job. Shame on me.

Friend #2 asked me to design a dynamic, Flash-driven site for his architectural photography business. As the job was nearing completion, I ran into this guy on the street. We engaged in some small talk and chatted about this and that, and then he said:

Oh by the way. The daughter of one of my clients is just out of SVA, and she looked at the site [that I had designed/devloped, which was already online since it was essentially done, waiting for the client's images] and said that she could do a straight HTML site for half of what you're charging. I've decided that I don't need Flash, after all. So I've hired her to do it; we have our first production meeting the day after tomorrow.
Ouch. I never got a dime out of the guy, and the woman he hired to take my place took an entire year to design a flat HTML site that looked almost exactly like the one I had done, minus the Flash. Plus he used, without attribution, the copy I had written for the site. Yeah.

Needless to say, "friend" #2 is no longer a friend. Friend #1 has remained both a friend and a (paying) client. Both imparted lessons that I offer up here, intercut with some other things I have learned during my still-relatively-young career as an independent contracter:

  1. Get everything in writing. It doesn't have to be a formal contract (though it can be). A friendly suite of emails delineating both parties' expectations goes a long way toward keeping everyone honest and eliminating enormous changes at the last minute.
  2. Charge a flat fee.
  3. If money will be "exchanging hands," request partial payment upon proof of concept, and don't proceed without it.
  4. Be frank. Take a deep breath and say that you have mixed feelings about doing work for friends, and explain why. One of my most fruitful working relationships developed after I took this step.
  5. Never do a job for a client whose vocabulary contains the phrase "fun font." Heartbreak will ensue.
  6. Trust your gut. When in doubt, decline the job.
On Jan.02.2006 at 09:33 PM
omar’s comment is:

...Charge them regardless of friend. At the end of the day its a business transaction between a client and a professional.

On Jan.05.2006 at 04:19 AM
ben weeks’s comment is:

My father was a gold record winning pop star in the '70s before I was born. He got out of that line of work and into aviation full time when he met my mom.

Over the past 25 years, he's continued to write songs, love songs, gospel songs, encouraging notes to self, challenging inspiring reminders of the important things.

He's been involved in speaking for the last few years, quite a lot, all over the place. One girl from the audience after told him, "these songs have to get out there."

My dad had never recorded anything since his music days because he was disgusted with his own pride and ego being up front so much in those days. Plus his guitar was warping, studio time was very expensive to do an album properly.

Well, this girl it turns out died. Hit by a truck, asleep at the wheel returning home from encouraging a friend in need of some support. Instant.

So her parents make sure her wish about the music getting out there can be a reality. An old man of modest means gives my father a cheque for $2,000 for a guitar. The last $3,500 guitar in Steve's music store in Toronto is on sale for $1,999

And you guessed it, there's a budget for design as well. And I'm first on the list. I agree to do it, but imagine the pressure I put on myself. This cd is going to be given out for free because it has songs about Jesus on it and a lot of people don't know Jesus (a lot of people hate him too of course unfortunately)

Well looking at getty after giving up on trying to illustrate something I come across time magazine's to p10 photo bloggers. (Getty et al. charges like $5-8000 for rights for a small pro bono project..5,000q. at the time)

Well one of time's listed guys has the perfect image for 200 GBP and we're very happy with it. I did a million variations for the type as well. Lots of fun. If your not a christian I can try to mail you one if your interested.

But I really hear Jimm's post there about how hard it is to put values on emotional relationships. It's so weird and abstract to put a money value on helping someone. For my dad I just kept thinking that maybe if he suddenly died, that cd would almost be my most recent tangible record of his last 30 years of existance, my entire life. So it was almost terrifying to work on it. But I wouldn't have had it any other way. I love my dad and it was an honour.

On Jan.13.2006 at 02:23 AM