Ask DN: What should I learn to increase my value as a designer?

almost 7 years ago from , Design by Marcus


I'm starting to get some clients here and there, for now it's mostly redesigns and repurposing existing content and modernising the existing look and feel of the website (I'm a designer not a developer). My latest stuff is on my Dribbble profile www.dribbble.com/mshanda

I've been learning design for just under 9 months and will always strive to improve my skills as time passes but this won't be enough to get that higher level of client.

What kind of things should I be looking to learn about so I can provide added value to my clients? I see a lot of talk about value based pricing but how can I add this mythical thing called value to my skill set? Is it a case of working within a specific industry a finding out what works and applying that knowledge to the work you do?

Right now I charge $22.50/hr, I've been told I should charge more but at this moment in time I'm not sure what value I can provide other than designing what I'm hired to do. Do you more experienced guys provide advice to your clients on top of the design work you hired to do?

Does anybody have advice on kinds of things areas I should learn about to make myself a more valuable and rounded freelancer?

Thanks, Marcus


  • Emily Campbell, almost 7 years ago

    Though it seems a paradox, if you charge more, you will be valued more. Think of it as brand identity. Consumers naturally assume that they are getting a value out of clothing purchased at Nordstrom's or Sachs, or from food at Wholefoods, when you can get equally well-made (or poorly-made) stuff from target and Kroger. People value things that are more expensive.

    Outside of the strict money conversation, increase your confidence. Refine your elevator pitch. Improve your process and the way you present your work. The more professional you come across, the more people will be willing to value your opinion. Instead of redirecting people from your portfolio to Dribbble with a punt ("I'm still learning to build websites so check out Dribbble instead"), get a square space account so you can present your work and process more cohesively. Any value I obtain from looking at your Dribbble shots is immediately depleted when I visit your landing page.

    Finally, moving away from the more cynical aspects of perceived value, experience and expertise will always increase your value. Continue to produce quality work, blog or tweet about the industry, and develop an identity. Consistency of excellence goes a long way.

    10 points
    • Pedro PintoPedro Pinto, almost 7 years ago

      This is great advice, I'm going to try to follow what Emily says.

      0 points
    • , almost 7 years ago

      Thank you for the information packed reply.

      I agree about creating a website, it's something I've been meaning to get done and I'm going to get started this weekend.

      I need to fix my outlook and come across more professional and the website will be the first step. As I get more work under my belt I think the confidence will come. I'll document my designs and start making small write ups to go along side them on my website.

      I really appreciate you taking the time you write a lengthy reply and I'll try and put what you've said into action.

      1 point
  • Paul ScrivensPaul Scrivens, almost 7 years ago (edited almost 7 years ago )

    All great replies so far. A lot of them seem to focus around actual visual design stuff, but I would say start understanding how your designs convert users over to whatever goals the design has.

    Every client is going to want a pretty design, but more importantly they want a design that improves their bottom line.

    How does your design improve that? Once you can start explaining those kinds of things to your potential clients then I've found there is less arguing about rates.

    3 points
    • Sam Pierce LollaSam Pierce Lolla, almost 7 years ago

      Great answer. Lots of designers go super deep into the visual stuff, but thats not going to drastically change the value you provide to most clients past a point.


      • Get good at really understanding problems and needs of customers and users. What do people actually want?
      • Get good at building workflows, UI, copy, etc that address these real issues elegantly.
      • Get good at supporting your solution, esp with research and evidence.

      All harder than it sounds, of course. But IMHO this is what being a good designer is all about.

      2 points
      • , almost 7 years ago

        I purchased Paul Jarvis' course about a week ago so hopefully it'll give me some good pointers on a few of the topics you mentioned above. It'll be good to start on the right foot with some guidance from an industry leader rather than working it all out by myself. I've heard Brennan Dunn's course is also pretty good so I might take a look at that too when I have some spare cash.

        0 points
    • , almost 7 years ago

      Thanks for the reply, I think this will be the hardest thing to learn and it's not something that can be taught by reading about it. I'm guessing experience is the key factor needed here and I'll have to have a considerable body of work behind me before I can offer valuable guidance to businesses/clients.

      0 points
    • Vinay ChilukuriVinay Chilukuri, almost 7 years ago

      Thank you so much for this piece of advice. I'm not from a graphic design background but from an HCI background and always approached design about solving a problem in a context rather than the aesthetics.

      Was always hesitant to make a portfolio because I don't have a heavy "visual" approach. Your advice is so encouraging.

      2 points
      • Will C, almost 7 years ago

        This can still be approached visually by providing a case story.

        I mean it's great that you design from a context orientated point, it shows you have understanding and able to build from that standpoint.

        0 points
  • Max SobkowskiMax Sobkowski, almost 7 years ago (edited almost 7 years ago )

    You've got only 9 months of design practice and already want more money? You should get experience, not from books or courses, but real life experience working on projects with real people, where you must resolve problems not just draw pretty images and talking your clients into a bigger check.

    I think the main point is to always ask yourself why you are doing things that you do? How will it work and achieve project goals?

    2 points
    • , almost 7 years ago

      Making more money is always my aim but I also really enjoy what I do. Experience will come but in the meantime I just wondered if there was anything that could accelerate my value and earning potential. I'm not a fresh out of college youngster anymore, I'm heading towards the wrong side of 30 so time is of the essence imo.

      The main reason I do what I do is because I enjoy it and I get paid for it. If there are things I can do to get a higher hourly rate I'll seriously look at them.

      0 points
      • Max SobkowskiMax Sobkowski, almost 7 years ago (edited almost 7 years ago )

        Usually the best way to accelerate is to work on your weakest sides, because they are the ones that slows you.

        Besides that, learning how to present your work really helps to get appreciation.

        0 points
        • , almost 7 years ago

          I'm always looking to improve as I still have a lot to learn and plenty of areas that need improvement.

          Learning how to present my work I'm sure will come from experience and having confidence in my craft. Neither can be learnt via book and will take time.

          Thanks for the replies Max, I really appreciate it.

          0 points
      • Pedro PintoPedro Pinto, almost 7 years ago

        Hey Marcus, what were you doing before entering the design world?

        0 points
        • , almost 7 years ago

          Hi Pedro,

          I was importing items from China and selling them on eBay. Never did particularly well so I decided to reinvent myself in the hope that I can create a whole new career.

          0 points
  • Alex PaxtonAlex Paxton, almost 7 years ago
    1. Charge more (Value is subjective here, use that to your advantage)

    2. If you say yes to every thing your client wants they will view you as a tool, not a collaborator. Assert your own opinions and don't be afraid to say no.

    3. Don't be easily available. Night clubs create an artificial wait so a line forms outside the club, making it look more popular to the potential customer. Same logic applies here. Tell a client you are finishing up a project (even in you are not) and need a week, works great for branding.

    1 point
    • , almost 7 years ago
      1. I'd like to do this but rates are always a touchy subject and I'd have to be very confident that I could offer value in line with the rate I'm charging. I'm still suffering from impostor syndrome unfortunately.

      2. I've been quite lucky with my projects so far and had the freedom to do what I want to a point. I do explain my designs to the client and haven't had to any demands to make major changes to my work so far.

      3. I like this and I'll use it when I have more demand for my services. Right now I'm available to work so it doesn't make sense to potentially lose a client because I want to appear busy. I can see how it would be useful if clients really want to work with me and I honestly don't have enough time to spare. I could have work lined up for the coming months and plan ahead somewhat, it would be pretty awesome if I can get to that stage.

      0 points
  • Kevin SuttleKevin Suttle, almost 7 years ago

    Learn to code. Know the medium for which you design. https://twitter.com/kevinSuttle/status/441968556322734080

    Learn APIs. Lorem ipsum does nothing to inform your design. Stop designing containers, and start designing content. Design is about reduction to its purest form. Using real data will help that.

    1 point
    • , almost 7 years ago

      I'm signing up at treehouse this week and coding is on my immediate agenda.

      As for lorem ipsum, I'd love to create copy for my designs but I'm not the best writer but it's on my list of things to improve at as is learning about copywriting.

      0 points
      • Kevin SuttleKevin Suttle, over 6 years ago

        Think of it more in terms of goals for balancing content that the user is coming to your site/this page to learn, and content the business wants to convey. This is like a wireframe.

        Copywriting is more about brand, voice, messaging, etc. This is like hi-fi content.

        0 points
  • aroon Sharmaaroon Sharma, almost 7 years ago (edited almost 7 years ago )

    This is a great thread and much useful for all the follow designers and aspirants ! Thanks Marcus for asking the right question, people usually find difficult to ask and thanks to community to give lots of valuable advices.

    0 points
  • Jamie Dickinson, almost 7 years ago

    I think the folks advising you to increase your rate are missing the point of your request for advice. It is scary to raise your rate and I believe you should, however you don't sound confident enough to do so just yet. When people approach you they aren't aware of your rate. They've seen your work, liked it and think you can add value to their business. This a very important thing to remember. How you conduct yourself within these early stages will dictate the entire relationship - and rate hasn't even been mentioned yet.

    When I switched over to design I positioned myself as a novice/newcomer paying my dues and it did terrible things to my confidence when I knew I was better. Now, I'm in a role where I'm seen and respected as an expert and I'm excelling in my job and freelance work. So I think it's important to not reflect on your status as a newbie to design. Obviously, don't lie and give people wrong expectations, but don't talk yourself down.

    There have been lots of good advice so far. I don't think learning to code will answer your immediate problem. I think it will be an important string to add to your bow and will add an immediate superficial value, but unless you face the larger, more intangible challenge of understanding and communicating your unique value then you'll still be very much in the same situation long term.

    Someone mentioned talking to people in their own terms rather than the ones your comfortable with and that's very good advice. For example if a client asks you to use purple text on black background because it's their favourite, your immediate response would be that the contrast would be terrible and the clients personal opinion shouldn't be a factor in the design. The correct way to respond is to speak to the client in their terms, and usually that's money. If we use that colour combination, then the customer can't use the website, and if the customer can't use the website, you'll see a drop in sales.

    I have nearly always been in house and came from a marketing background first. I think this has also given me a good understanding of the business goals that need to be achieved and how I fit into that. Again I think that this is a really important thing to understand when communicating with (potential) clients.

    Somethings that have helped me and may help you...

    • Networking and talking to people. I've started going to more seminars and conferences and making friends with others in the same field and found the experience to be hugely beneficial. You'll learn that you're better than you think and you're just as good as others that are more well known or working on higher paying projects. That may be difficult in Leicester - I'm not sure of the scene there. In Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds and Brighton I know it's really kicking off. Sometimes it just takes one or two individuals to get together first. Look on Meet Up, Eventbrite and Lanyard.

    • Read - I go through spats of reading lots and then nothing. In early 2013 I was reading lots, some Wally Ollins, Seth Godin and other similar books which resulted in a big boost in motivation and ideas and I ended up with a promotion (after a lot of hard work)

    • Twitter - I've found this to also be a good tool to networking online, finding out about events and learning resources.

    • Get a proper website and email address. Image is important if you're going to charge a certain rate and Gmail won't cut it.

    • Following on from that learn how to send a good email. Not a templated pitch email, but learning to write a professional, concise, well written email

    • Don't be too keen.

    • Learn how to present your work and client work that is relevant. I've found that clients don't have a whole lot of imagination. You need to walk them through it visually and explain rationale well.

    I can't emphasis how important your image is to potential clients. Because when you do get the money subject they'll have already have formed an opinion on you and your value.

    0 points
    • , almost 7 years ago

      Wow what an amazing reply, you've hit the nail on the head in the first 2 paragraphs. You are 100% correct when you mentioned I'm not confident enough to raise my rates. Even though my designs might be half decent I don't feel like I'm worthy of a higher rate at this current time.

      I think if a new client seems especially eager to work with me I'd be more confident I could get a higher rate but it's not something I'd contemplate with my current clients.

      Previously in my profiles I'd written "newbie designer" but I realised that was a silly decision and would hurt my chances of getting work so I changed that. My impostor syndrome isn't as bad as it was and the more I do client work the closer I am to admitting to myself that I am in fact a real designer.

      I thought learning to code would be useful to gain more work but I'm starting to think I should concentrate more on the design side of things because I still have much to learn and trying to learn another skill-set might not be the best course of action right now.

      Learning about marketing would definitely be good to learn as would a hundred other things, it's overwhelming and wish there was a detailed curriculum for "The path from designer noob to designer extraordinaire".

      Your tips were good and I'm trying to implement some of them already. I want to create a website for myself relatively soon and it will be a better place to send potential clients rather than my Dribbble profile. I follow a few cool designers on Twitter and read there stuff regularly but I don't tweet myself as I don't think I have much to offer for now. With regard to email I try not come across too causal or formal and instead settle on something in-between, this is an art in itself and I sure I'll improve with time.

      I want to come across more confident and professional and building my own website will be a good first step in my opinion.

      Thanks again for the brilliant reply.

      Regards, Marcus

      0 points
      • Jamie Dickinson, almost 7 years ago

        No problem. Imposter syndrome is more prevalent then you think. It's something I still struggle with as someone who went a non-traditional route.

        Learning to code is a good idea, but again so is learning a whole host of disciplines. I begun learning a few years back, but have let it get really rusty, so I'm more or less back to where I was. But even a good theoretical knowledge is good. Since then I've been focusing more on UX design. But the point is, it doesn't matter how varied your skill set is, you'll struggle to identify your true value unless you begin to believe in your own hype. Which is so much easier to say than it is to do.

        Additionally, networking with others in the industry may bring you into contact with collaborators who need a Designer.

        I'm fairly bad at following my own advice, because I still host all my work on Behance and still have a single landing page website.

        To be honest I wouldn't really worry too much, you have bags of enthusiasm and motivation to be better and I think that's one of the most important qualities any professional could hope to have these days - learning to communicate this passion will play an important part.

        Learning to code, or learn UX, or focus on digital marketing or on visual design maybe the right thing to do, but only you know that - and that is massively overwhelming. I'm sure with your attitude it won't take long to learn these new disciplines.

        0 points
        • , almost 7 years ago

          Thanks again Jamie.

          If I put even half the advice I've received here into action it'll help me tonnes.

          I'm designing every day as I work about 20hrs a week with a startup. That'll help add finesse and realism to my designs because they require quite a high standard. I'll try to learn about UX in the meantime but I can't see myself throwing myself into it fully till I'm happier with my current level at UI design. I prefer to dedicate myself to one thing at a time.

          Previously I sold items on eBay that I imported from China (& never did very well) so what I'm doing now couldn't of been more different. I'm really enjoying what I'm doing and I'm actually excited for the future, in the past it had always been my biggest worry.

          Anyway my first personal project is make a website, I've seen cool app called Blocs that'll help me whip together a site quickly. Might be worth you checking out if you don't fancy coding your site from scratch.

          0 points
  • Sjors TimmerSjors Timmer, almost 7 years ago

    Aza Raskin said it quite well, the hardest part about design is people: http://www.azarask.in/blog/post/be-a-designer/

    You can learn about people in 3 areas: Talking to clients and get what you want (negotiation) Working with clients to help them understand what they want (facilitation) Understanding how people use your work (user research)

    All these elements should help to make you stronger and more valuable

    0 points
  • Chris DChris D, almost 7 years ago (edited almost 7 years ago )

    You put UX/UI designer, but you don't have any UX work to show. You should remove the UX part of your title until then because when I see that happening, I can only assume that you're labeling yourself without knowing what you're labeling. It shows how green you are.

    Secondly, marketing sites strongly dominate your selection of work. As a client, I see that and say "ok this guy basically knows how to design marketing sites" and hire you for that job only. You should show mostly the work that will attract the clients you want.

    Dribbble is an awful place for a portfolio. It will generate interest in your work and give you visibility, but it will not get you the higher paying clients you're trying to attract. High value designers show thought process, design process and can tell you the outcomes on the business that their work had. It's impossible to do that in 400x300 characters and a short paragraph.

    Back up your design decisions with data, reasoning, and benchmark what you've done against a competitor. Point out the deltas and tell the client "this will do X for your business." Ask if they have a long term design strategy. They won't - most small businesses can't think in terms of design beyond their own noses - but asking them that will show that YOU are, and therefore your value perception will rise.

    You're selling them something that will have to carry their business for the longest amount of time possible. Design trends will come and go, and you're trying to help them avoid the design investment as few times as possible over the next 5-10 years. Be empathetic and talk in their terms, not in abstract designer speak. They care about their business, they know they need design and they likely have a reason for seeking out a professional - so tell them why the work your work will get them the results they're looking for.

    Don't just raise your rates for the sake of raising your rates. Clients who have worked with multiple designers in the past know what they're paying for. They could be coming to you because your rates are low, but at the cost of quality. Sometimes they're looking for that. Be honest about your expertise, otherwise it will blow up in your face. The best part about design is that with every new project you learn & get better. A year from now you could be a badass if you work at it enough. You could also be in exactly the same boat. It's totally up to you & how many projects you complete between then and now.

    0 points
    • , almost 7 years ago

      Hi Chris,

      Your right about the UX stuff, I had a perception what UX is but I've just read the definition/explanation of what it is and I'm not. What I thought was UX actually comes under the description of a UI designer so I've updated my various profiles accordingly.

      Lately work that's going on my Dribbble profile is past client work, I need to find time to do some more practice/mock projects. I've purchased a book that should come this week that'll be full of mock projects and accompanying briefs so I have no excuse not to dive in.

      For the moment Dribbble is the place to showcase my designs but I'm determined to build a dedicated portfolio within the next few weeks. I'm in two minds whether to get something quick and simple up or spend a lot of time on it.

      It has been in my mind to offer a more thorough explanation of designs when I make my portfolio and while they'll be quite simple and crude to begin with hopefully I'll be able to convey my decisions more confidently and eloquently when I have more experience under my belt. I've purchased Paul Jarvis' course but haven't got round to watching it yet and I've also heard good things about Brennan Dunn's book, both seem like they be good for the business side of things and positioning yourself in a more professional sense.

      I'd never raise my rates for no reason, only when I've improved and can offer more expertise to my clients is when it would be appropriate to do so.

      I hope I can become a "badass designer" and know this won't happen if I rest on my laurels. I really enjoy learning new things and continual development is something I want to be part of going forward.

      Thanks for the brilliant reply.

      Regards, Marcus

      0 points
  • Vinay ChilukuriVinay Chilukuri, almost 7 years ago

    Hi Marcus, I strongly recommend you to check out the book, 'Designing for Emotion' by Aarron Walter. Very very important skill to have as a designer.

    0 points
    • , almost 7 years ago

      Thanks, that's another from the A Book Apart series, maybe I should look at picking up the lot.

      0 points
  • News TodayNews Today, almost 7 years ago

    Get into user research.

    0 points
  • Jordan IsipJordan Isip, almost 7 years ago

    Focus on solving business problems with design and learn basic metrics and a/b testing to measure the results. Eg. Increasing conversions on landing pages or, the obvious, increasing sales on an ecommerce site.

    0 points
  • Jordan BowmanJordan Bowman, almost 7 years ago (edited almost 7 years ago )

    Especially if you're a web and mobile designer and looking for something valuable to learn, you may eventually want to learn HTML and CSS. I know you mentioned that you aren't a developer, and that kind of thing may seem daunting, but:

    • HTML and CSS are very straightforward coding languages as compared to other programming languages like JavaScript. They don't have things like functions or loops – it's just about learning how to do things like place a paragraph on a page and then make it have the font you want. Obviously it gets a little more complicated than that, but the point is it's nothing to be intimidated by. There are lots of places on the web to learn HTML/CSS for free, like Codecademy.
    • Many web designers these days find it difficult to separate code and design. When you need to build a site that's responsive for instance, it becomes a little complicated to create just a mockup.
    • Even if you don't end up actually coding for the client, you will be informed in your designing by your knowledge of code, both in the design process itself and in handing it off to a developer. You'll know what's possible and what's best practice.

    You're only nine months into designing, but you've got some great stuff on Dribbble so it may be time to start expanding your skillset in addition to all the pricing/freelancing advice given here.

    0 points
  • Nitin GargNitin Garg, almost 7 years ago

    If there is one thing I have learnt hard way in past 3 years of consulting it's – Choose the right projects.

    This may not be the immediate issue but once you reach a stage where you do have options – always carefully pick projects you feel passionate about and something that can offer back a lot more than money. I feel eventually this process gets very similar how an investor will select a startup. Working with a team or a concept that you feel "would-be failure" or not challenging enough – is extremely harmful to own growth.

    And to make yourself valuable – apart from the skills/experience, also keep working on workflow. Timely deliverables, professional looking invoices, efficient communication, including client in process – all work as great tools to earn confidence and make clients comfortable pay the right amount.

    0 points
    • , almost 7 years ago

      That would be ideal, right now I'll take projects regardless of whether I feel about passionate about them or not but so far the things I've worked on have been fine. I'd love to get to the point you mentioned and be able to choose my projects based on a personal interest.

      With regard to professionalism, it's something I'm trying to improve. I've got the invoicing down but need to work the other aspects so that'll that be an going process.

      0 points
  • Adrian HowardAdrian Howard, almost 7 years ago

    Right now I charge $22.50/hr, I've been told I should charge more but at this moment in time I'm not sure what value I can provide other than designing what I'm hired to do.

    Flip it around. Charging more will make it easier for you to spot the value that you are delivering.

    Or, more simply: raise your rates to discover better clients.

    1) Raise your rates.

    2) The amount clients pay your is a (rough) guide to the value clients get from you. The ones I provide a lot of value go "Damn. He finally caught on". The ones I provide little value to will complain or say no.

    3) Pay lots of attention to the clients who are fine with it. Figure out what makes them different. Why do they value you more? Find more folk like them.

    4) Pay lots of attention to the clients who complain. Are you miscommunication your value? Fix that. Are you actually not providing value? Politely disengage or get better.

    5) Everybody happy? — goto (1).

    Step (4) in the above has given me a stupid amount of learning on how I present what I do and the value that it gives.

    As ever YMMV :-)

    0 points
    • , almost 7 years ago

      Thank you, that's a pretty clever process and I'll be using that going forward. At the moment I don't have any complainers so that's good but they are all relatively new clients so I don't think it's fair to raise my rates with them. I'll pitch at a higher rate with new clients though and see how that goes.

      Thanks for the reply.

      1 point
  • ポール ウェッブポール ウェッブ, almost 7 years ago

    I am currently doing the things Emily is talking about, like raising my price and updating my portfolio so my new price reflects my work, and vice-versa. Confidence cannot be understated.

    0 points
    • , almost 7 years ago

      I'm going to try and do the same, but the confidence part will take a little longer.

      0 points
    • Darian RosebrookDarian Rosebrook, almost 5 years ago

      I agree right now and identify with this and Emily's comments.

      I was charging way too little and I lacked the confidence to get higher quality clients.

      Since then I went back to the basics of design and started learning them from the ground up again. It's not pretty and it's dull, but I am realizing there are a lot of things I never came back to master.

      I'll be making a huge effort to launch a course on what to learn as a new designer and I'm currently doing my due diligence by teaching what I'm learning to help others and help solidify my knowledge on it.

      Having something that is public facing like my newsletter is great in keeping me accountable to learning new things and growing my confidence in presenting what I'm working on. These all funnel into my confidence and knowledge when tackling more challenging and rewarding work from bigger quality clients.

      0 points