Educate your clients

If your client doesn’t understand why you need a bigger budget, it’s up to you to educate them.

Titus Smith
4 min readFeb 20, 2018


A tweet showed up in my timeline right before posting this article, and I think it’s a much better intro than I had written:

Solid advice from Bryan Buchanan (if you have time, the whole thread is great)

Sometimes, budgets are negotiable. I always encourage my freelance pals to ask for more money if they feel underpaid, but not without explaining why. Given the quick turnaround, I was wondering if we could increase the budget by $300? $2000 for five illustrations is less than I normally charge; can we make it $2500? These requests are reasonable and won’t scare off serious clients (a personal rule of thumb: as long as the discrepancy is less than $1000, I feel comfortable with a one-sentence explanation in my counter-proposal); however, it’s important to remember that art directors usually have little-to-no control over their budget, so you may have to educate them on why you’re worth the pay bump.

Education validates your work

Last year, our team reached out to two different studios about animating some quick scenes for a pretty fun NFL project. Both were interested in working with us — a trusted collective with whom we’d worked before, and a younger tandem whose fresh look had caught our eye. Each team countered our proposed budget, but only one explained exactly why their time was more valuable than we had originally estimated. Guess which one landed the gig?

Designers should never be afraid to ask for more money, and always prepared to explain why. Whether or not the creative process is meticulously explained on your website, each client deserves a personal note detailing the reasons why their proposed budget isn’t sufficient. It’s unfair to assume that your contact understands the painstaking process of animating individual frames, creating dozens of original icons, or quality-checking user experience — let alone that they’ll be able to articulate any of these to the person(s) approving your final budget.

When working on a larger proposal (my rule is $10,000+), it’s helpful to pretend your client is the IRS. Assume they’re very interested in how you do business and try your best to itemize a list explaining where their money will be going. Sketching, storyboarding, vectorizing, animating, coloring, coding, QAing, etc. — share an estimated amount for every step and produce a total cost in your proposal. You don’t have to give away every detail of how you’ll spend your time, but I’ve found value in short write-ups on the less obvious tasks. (e.g.: the first time I ever hired an animator, I had them explain exactly what “tweening” meant and why it was such a huge part of the budget; even employees at a company like ESPN—which is segmented into so many different departments, you may never work for the same contact twice—need educated every once in a while). Whether you work hourly or per project, clients appreciate this kind of breakdown. Err on the side of over-communication.

Education can help eliminate cheap design

Realistically, you shouldn’t expect every client to start paying you more, no matter how well-articulated and convincing your position may be. Even if an art director is lobbying for a larger budget on your behalf, any number of obstacles could present themselves — real issues I’ve faced include underestimating development costs, running into conflicting projects with higher priority, and simply running out of money in the budget. I still believe it’s important to teach clients about your worth because of what could happen the next time; if a contact learns that he or she should have budgeted more for your particular skill, they’ll remember that the next time you (or anyone else) is contacted for that same service.

There are definitely exceptions to this rule, but I believe all clients want to treat their designers fairly. I’ve never intentionally lowballed anyone, but more than once I’ve been an entire decimal place off with my initial budget proposal. If I suggest $1,000 for a $10,000 project, it’s because someone else has worked on something similar for 90% less than what you’re probably worth. Some designers pass on a low budget without any dialogue or counter proposal. The best designers — the guys and girls that I want to work with — explain their prices and educate me on their process. With patience, this type of ignorance can be corrected, to the benefit of an entire industry.

By explaining your creative process, not only can you help set the paying standard of your particular craft, you teach clients about the value of design. It boosts your worth, as well as that of any future designer (including yourself) the client employs. You may also halt the inevitable skid of ignorant clients hunting for inexpensive design, widening the gap between starving and comfortable artists. The truth is most clients — even dream clients — won’t understand your process at first; if so, they’d propose a fair budget in the front end. It’s your responsibility as a designer to educate your clients on the price of your services, especially when you know you’re worth it.



Titus Smith

Design Dad. Running things at The Hideout Design Company LLC. If I were a typeface it would be something heavyset.