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The Value of Design

Nike logo with $35 price tag

Worth every penny

Being of non-designer stock I spent most of my life never worrying about the value of design. Things either looked ‘good’ or they didn’t and they were either ‘well-designed’ or they weren’t and that was pretty much the extent of my consideration. Over the past few years, however, I’ve come to understand that articulating and quantifying the value of design is an important part of our industry.

Articulating worth

During my years as a developer, I was blessed with the fortune of rarely – if ever – having to justify my work to external parties. The relative complexity of programming was enough to scare off all but the most eager nitpicker and, as it transpired, most people didn’t even care how something was technically constructed so long as their end product ‘just worked’. This was almost the exact opposite of what I witnessed with the design team who were constantly prodded and poked by clients dissecting their work. It took me a while to realise that this is exactly as it should be

Although I reckon (by my own layman standards) that few people are truly qualified or experienced to critique design, it seems to be a subject that we all have a jolly good stab at. It’s human nature, I guess, and probably nothing we can prevent which is why I’ve slowly come to realise that justifying and articulating the value of one’s work is a hugely important part of the design selling process. And by the selling process, I mean everything from that first proposal and pitch to concept brainstorming and the presentation of visuals because, no matter where you are in a project, you’re always going to have to convince someone that your approach is the right one.

“To create great work, here’s how you must spend your time: 1% inspiration, 9% perspiration, 90% justification.”

- George Lois

Still, it’s not easy and I must admit that no matter how many design meetings I sit in on, I find I’m still always filled with a heady mix of excitement and terror. There’s little more rewarding (or scary) than presenting a concept to a client, particularly one that we feel very passionately about. Articulation of our design work and its resulting value at this stage is crucial to the whole project life cyle, akin to giving your notions context to prevent them from being judged in a solitary void.

As far as articulation itself goes, although I enjoy laying the foundation of our ideas and discussing the journey behind them, I leave the actual presentation of the designs themselves up the designer who did them. After all, no matter how knowledgeable I could ever become about design, I’ll never be able to replace the person who actually created them. It then becomes up to the designer to put their money with their mouth is, so to speak, and take the client down a path of discovery and revelation, otherwise known as explaining exactly why everything was designed the way it was.

It’s at that point, if done correctly, that most people come to realise that design isn’t just about creating something attractive or eye catching or impactful (although these factors certainly do play their part) but actually about giving real thought, context and consideration to each and every element that’s been proposed. It’s through this simple process of discussion and explanation that the design is justified, the value of our time realised and the potential of the project fully unlocked. And if a designer can’t explain why something was designed the way it was, then I suppose you know something’s gone awry.

Quantifying the value of design in cold hard cash terms, though, is a little harder.

Quantifying value

At first glance, the value proposition of design doesn’t seem particularly complicated. The more one pays, the longer is spent on the design process (research, concepts etc) by more experienced and able people, the more considered the final solution will be and, by extension, the more likely it will be to succeed. Whilst a logical and sensible equation, once you start to dissect it, things get tricky. How long should be spent on the design process? How much should you charge for that time? How much is the end web site or entire brand actually worth? After all, supply and demand aside, value is subjective and means different things to different people.

Now, the Design Council tells us that for every £1 spent on design in the UK, we get £20 back, £4 of which is profit. Compelling stats, go buy some design! But it’s probably not as simple as that. A brand that ignites the imagination of the world, a logo for a startup that turns into multi-billion dollar business, or an ecommerce web site that disrupts the market and generates millions all probably skew the stats. Affixing a value on the outcome of design work isn’t as simple a case of mutliplying time spent by a 4x profit factor.

Mike Monteiro, the clever beast that he is, suggests researching clients and then charging based on the potential return your work might bring them. Although I don’t completely agree with this approach, it does stand to reason that charging £100k for an ecommerce site would be a steal if it generated sales of £1 million in a year. In that scenario, it doesn’t actually matter how long was spent on the product or what the day rate breaks down to because, even if it was one day or a thousand, it doesn’t change the outcome that was generated for the client.

“If you can stand in front of a client completely confident and explain why you are worth the amount you quoted, you should charge it.”

- Mike Monteiro

Still, knowing the end cash value of your creation isn’t always very obvious or possible to calculate and no side of design seems to struggle with this more than branding. Just look at the cost of some of the most recognisable logos in the world. Whilst it might seem perfectly reasonable for giants like the BBC and Pepsi to spend over $1 million on a new logos, the cost seems astronomical in comparison to even bigger behemoths like Google and Coca-Cola who spent absolutely ziltch. Sure, I’d take those figures with a pinch of salt as I’d bet Google as someone slaving over brand guidelines somewhere in the deep bowels of their organisation but, regardless, it does highlight the huge discrepancies between time, cost, value and worth.

Ultimately, it seems that no matter which way you approach it, the value of design is always going to be subjective to it’s context and relative to the results, or potential, of the project. If you can nail that perfect design in a single day does that make it any less valuable than if had taken 100? And likewise, does it matter if you charge £50 an hour or £500 if you can articulate and justify the value of your design time?

Of course, all of this is me looking into design as an outsider, someone who doesn’t create the work but is instead involved around with every other point around it. That’s a unique perspective although I daresay designers themselves will have their own thoughts about the value of their work. Care to share?


Design good. Justification, imperative. Value subjective, relative. Charge as much as you can… maybe.

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Author: Gordon McLachlan

Gordon is uncomfortably good looking.



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  1. Will January 6, 2014 at 12:44 pm

    Another way to determine budget is cost per acquisition. If your client wants to sell 10,000 widgets at £100 each for a 25% profit you are looking at a total cost of £75 per acquisition.

    So if you take away the production costs (to the client) from the £750,000, what you have left is the marketing budget.

    I think.

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