Recently, I was discussing pricing creative services with the writer Siobhan Colgan, who is helping me with the editing of my book. (If you’re also planning on writing a business book, she can help you with that. She’s pretty great.) Something she wrote to me really struck me:
“I’m so used to charging based on countable things (words, hours, etc), and also because I really enjoy editing and restructuring books, scripts, etc, it makes me question how much I should really be charging!”
Does that sound familiar? Have you ever thought to yourself “I can’t believe someone is paying me to do this?”
Clearly you’re not alone. This thought crosses my mind every time I’m sketching logo concepts, drawing icons, or looking for the right color combination… I had no idea when I was a kid that a job like this existed, and that I would be doing it one day. It still blows my mind how wonderful my clients are, and the projects they bring to me.
Not all of my job is fun. There’s administration, drafting proposals, agreements and invoices, sales and negotiation conversations, and email that comes in at all hours of the day. (The first and probably the only person I hire will be an administrative assistant.)
Still, I adore my work, and I’m charging a premium price for it, because I believe in my skills, professionalism and my creative vision.
This myth that pleasant jobs should pay less than unpleasant ones bugs me.
Often people that do administrative, service or technical jobs think that creative careers are glorified hobbies. My parents didn’t realize how serious my job was until I moved out of the house. On all of those lifestyle photos, creative freelancers seem to be mucking about in their pajamas, sleeping until noon, hanging out in coffee shops, sipping cocktails on gorgeous sandy beaches… That doesn’t look much like a job, so it must be fake.
First, this isn’t what our daily routine looks like. While sometimes I do sleep in late because I was up reading an amazing sci-fi novel until 4 A.M., my working hours really do look like work. It’s ass-in-chair-nose-in-paper (or screen) for hours and hours, with infrequent toilet breaks. It’s challenging work, and requires specialized knowledge and skills. If you think “my kid who likes them computers could do it”, well yes, actually your kid could be doing the same thing I’m doing—in about 10 years. (I know because I was that kid.)
Dismissing the specialized skills creative people bring to the marketplace is harmful and unfair. This is not some mysterious “talent” that was bestowed upon us upon birth—it’s the result of countless hours of work.
Some folks decided to spend 10 years in medical school and now they’re doctors. Others decided to spend 10 years with hunched backs in front of a screen and now they’re a writer. Both are needed in the world, and both should be paid fairly.
One funny phenomenon that I see is people assuming that artists shouldn’t get paid “because we love it”. But doctors and lawyers should get paid? Hmmm, does that mean they don’t love their job?
I don’t know about you, but I never want to walk into the office of a medical professional who doesn’t love their job. If you had such an experience, you know it: you were faced with an unpleasant person that made you feel small and insignificant. Those are the people who don’t care about their patients, only about the paycheck and the status. Should we pay the doctors who care about their work less? Really?
No, I believe the opposite is true. You should get paid more if you love your work, because you provide more value to your clients.
Don’t believe me? Here are 3 concrete ways your passion converts into actual value.
1. You work harder & go the extra mile
If you love your work and enjoy your creative process, you’re not trying to finish the project as quickly as possible. To the contrary, you’ll often put in the extra hours because you want to make sure the final work is the best it could be. You’ll pay attention to the details your clients may not even notice, because you care about your craft.
Your reputation matters to you, so you’ll only wish to put out the work you can be proud of. Even if the client would be satisfied with 70% of your quality standards, you’ll provide the full 100% because those are your standards.
My logo design process takes about 3–4 weeks, and large branding packages take even more time. Could I do it in less time? Yes, on a few occasions I did manage to do it faster, but I don’t aim for speed. I want to provide high quality of my services, and quality takes time. My clients know this, so they pay me more to take more time with their logo, and come up with a solution that works best for them. They don’t want to cut corners, because they’re as dedicated to excellence as I am.
Whoever wants to cut corners and do things fast and cheap is not my client. And they’re probably not your client, either.
If you engage with a client who doesn’t care about the quality of your craft and doesn’t want to pay you fairly, you’ll only get burnt out and frustrated. You’ll get very little joy from that project.
People who don’t care as much for their craft as you do, don’t create the kind of results you can create. You deserve to charge more because your work is better.
2. You practice your craft even when no one is paying you
When you love your work so much, it’s going to seep into your personal creative practice. This means that you get more opportunities to perfect your skills.
I regularly do personal design projects and experiments simply because I love it. I practice hand-lettering so I can keep my skills sharp. I explore different styles so that I can use them when it’s appropriate for a client project. I’ve got pro Photoshop skills because I’ve created a bunch of personal artworks before doing my first paid illustration.
I’m not saying that you have to work all hours of the day. You need rest and relaxation! But you know how it goes… your hand starts itching and reaches for a pen and before you know it, ideas and concepts and words flow out of you. It’s a part of you that won’t stop thinking about your craft, even as you’re standing at the top of a hill, or chilling on the beach. It’s a blessing and a curse.
People who only do their creative work when they’re getting paid, get fewer opportunities to practice and improve. You deserve to charge more because your work is better.
3. You have an insatiable curiosity and never get tired of learning
When you love your work, you want to learn everything there is to learn. You geek out on the details that mere mortals never hear about. You hoard books or video classes, visit industry conferences, and take any opportunity you can reasonably afford to learn from the best in your field through live workshops. You talk to people, gather critique and move beyond your little bubble.
If you don’t enjoy your work, you’re not motivated to learn. I’ve experienced it in my past jobs—I was so dissatisfied and devoid of passion that I didn’t bother to stay at the top of my game, and my skills have been deteriorating. It was only after I started enjoying doing design again as a freelancer that my desire to learn came back.
People who only do what they’re paid to do without love, only learn as much as they need in order to deliver the minimum viable service. You deserve to charge more because—all together now—your work is better.
To people who love their craft, work is not “just a job”, it’s our calling.
Too often, people’s callings get devalued. It’s difficult to put a price tag on “care”, but your care and attention to detail is directly responsible for the results of the project. People who don’t care often do sloppy jobs. Their mind is somewhere else, and it shows. It’s hard for a deeply passionate person to even imagine this, because that’s not how you operate, so you may not even be aware of how special your devotion is.
When you care about your craft, you check in on your clients to see how they’re doing, offer them help if they need it, and give them tips and advice because you want them to succeed.
Just recently, a client of mine has launched their website and social media channels. Their social media person didn’t use the graphics I provided, so I nudged them to do that. Then they made some changes to those graphics which resulted in errors, so I nudged them yet again to use my original graphics exactly as I made them. After a few back and forths, my client’s online visual brand was perfect, just the way we’ve envisioned it. And why did I choose to be a pain in the butt and insist on things being done “properly”? Because I care about the details. Because I’m here to stand by my clients when they collaborate with folks who are not as design-savvy.
When my clients are too busy or too confused to communicate their needs to printing companies, I pick up the phone and resolve the matter in minutes. Because I care.
When my clients have questions and need someone to brainstorm their ideas with, I’m here to give suggestions and talk them through their challenges. Because I care.
All this extra care I put in costs me my time and energy. I don’t bill clients per hour for all the emails and phone calls we exchange, or for all the admin I do on their behalf. They pay a fixed project fee, and I deliver a full service. But in order to make it manageable and profitable for me, my project prices need to be high enough so I can truly give my 100% without any feelings of resentment. It took me a long time to figure out the prices that allow me to do this.
I used to undercharge, and this had a profoundly negative effect on my health and well-being. It was only when I realized that by undercharging I was also doing my clients a disservice, that I became comfortable with charging more. When I undercharged, I had to put a cap on my support, so as to not drive myself into the ground. This didn’t make me, or my clients happy.
If you love your work, you provide more value to your clients, so you deserve to get paid more.
If someone ever tells you that you shouldn’t charge for doing the things you love, just send them the link to this article, and I’ll handle the rest.
We need to stop perpetuating this myth that the fulfillment we get from our craft is enough of a reward for our effort. “Exposure” does not pay our bills. Besides, you can create your own exposure—you don’t need handouts from clueless startup founders who don’t have enough business sense to form a budget.
In a capitalist world where food, water, shelter, transportation, healthcare, clothing and education are paid with money, creative professionals need to get paid in money. In a different society where all out basic needs were met, perhaps we could come to a different arrangement—but for the time being we’ll take the cash, thanks.
Creative work is work.
End of story. There’s no reason whatsoever why an illustrator, designer, writer, musician, inventor, developer, comedian, actor or any other person should just offer their work for personal or public consumption with no compensation. All the beautiful art, writing, music, cartoons, short films, apps etc. that you see out there on the internet? That’s a gift. We should be thankful, and not expect any more than that.
If we are to pour in all that love, care and skill into a project that someone else will be benefiting from, the money we receive must be on par with all that love, care and skill. Giving love feels great—but there’s only so much you can give, give, and give without receiving anything in return.
Honor your craft, and ask for what you need.
Every time you do this, it undermines the pervasive belief that creative people should sacrifice themselves for other people’s benefit. We’re just as deserving of appreciation and support as any other professional.
About Nela Dunato
Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.
On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...
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