Buyers of commercial art should understand that time plays a relatively minor role in how it is priced. Yes, time and money are related in my overall fee structure, but I do not price a job based solely on the time it will take. In fact, time is sometimes so minuscule a factor it should almost be ignored. There are some (but not many) jobs for which I get paid hundreds of dollars that I complete within an hour. Does that mean I make hundreds of dollars an hour? No. When somebody pays me to make art for them, they are paying for the art. They are paying for the art and everything that comes with that package: my unique approach, the process by which the art is made, my time researching and sketching, and for every instance in which the final art will appear. I may spend a long time or a little bit of time making an image, but that image may spend a lot more time making my client money.
What is the value of my illustration to your magazine, book, package, website, menu, or whatever? How easily is what I do replicated? How valuable is my perspective and style to you? How can I help your thing, whatever it is, stand out or feel a certain way? If you’re honest with yourself, after answering this question, you might find it easier to walk away and use a stock image or take the job in house. That’s okay. I want to work with people who truly need me, or at least, who really want what I do. These are the kinds of clients that motivate and inspire me. If this sounds entitled, in a way it is. I’ve worked hard to develop my art and craft, and that is part of my value. If my fees include what I mentioned above, they also include my years of experience and hard work. Am I entitled to asking for more? As long as I'm in demand, the answer is yes*. Am I entitled to expect more every time? Probably not. There will be times that I need to accept jobs that frankly undervalue my work, but that’s business. A highly controversial feature of the rideshare program Über is surge pricing. While I do not jack my prices higher when I get busier, I do make compromises when things are slow. The value of what I do rises and falls with the market. I think that’s fair. To deny even low paying jobs during slow times would be hubris. To not ask for what I'm worth when times are good would be undercutting myself and my peers.
There is a lot of talk about our rights as commercial artists, whether designers, illustrators, or whatever. Rights to fair pricing, rights to ownership and control of our original art and intellectual property, rights to our “trade dress”, etc. I’m not deriding the notion of rights, but I think we can get all fired up about our rights and forget the real issue: what is our work worth? What we are worth is an entirely different question! Everybody has the same rights, but not everybody has the same value. I worry less about fighting for my rights as a creative, and worry more about having actual value and making sure it is understood and respected.
Some of my larger clients require that I sign a contract. A typical clause will indicate that my relationship to them is that of an independent contractor and not as an employee. (This means I pay the taxes and do not collect company benefits.) I couldn’t be any happier about this arrangement. I am not an employee of any company, and as such, I do not work by the hour. Whether a job is easy or complex, the company pays me to create something that helps them meet a business objective. Yes, if a job requires me to stipple a giant mural, time will naturally increase in importance in the quoting process. Or if it requires that I spend time planning a curriculum or being onsite, then there is a clear relationship of time to value. Similarly, if a job is killed and the image will not end up being used, then my time must be compensated in a kill fee. But ultimately, I add value to a client’s project by doing what I do best: offering my perspective and applying my creative voice to their business problem or objective. Excited to help and affirmed by a fair agreement for payment, I can start putting in the time. But my time is not my product. Time does not equal money.
* A healthy sense of entitlement on one hand, and gratitude on the other, should not be mutually exclusive. I always try to uphold the highest regard for my clients and work my butt off for them regardless of their budget.
The crap work you offer in exchange for crap fees will ultimately crap on you.
Good, Fast and Cheap. You can have any two, but not all three. Or so the design industry guru types say. It's an old standard, a design industry dogma, that you're going to hear many times before you're done art school or after you've watched a few designer talks.
You can have good and fast, but it won't be cheap.
You can have good and cheap, but it won't be fast.
You can have fast and cheap, but it won't be good.
The logic of the first is that if you pay me enough, I'll do good work and turn it around in short order, prioritizing it above all other projects. I'm able to afford the sudden shift in priorities and the risks this entails because of the higher compensation.
The logic of the second is that if you can wait longer than usual, I'll do good work and not charge you as much for it. I'm able to put the time in for something good at a discount because I'll fit the job in the free time I have between other jobs. I don't have to prioritize it above others, so it's less of a hit to my schedule and cashflow.
The logic of the third is that you can have the work done quickly and affordably, but it won't be of very high quality. Because you're not paying me a lot, but you also need it quickly, I will by necessity rush it and ignore certain details, prioritizing a form of functionality over any nuance or beauty.
I think some call this aphorism the Designer's Holy Triangle. I don't like that name very much, but let's just go with that for now. While I think there is a lot of truth behind this law, it's not actually very helpful in the long run. Yes, for rush jobs I charge more, and for jobs that will be really really good, I estimate that they will take a lot more time and require higher fees in return. But in reality, nobody wants to produce crap work, and if you're anything like me, it's almost impossible to deliberately do something of inferior quality.
One thing I dread is making stuff that I will later regret. It is almost always the case that I regret something about my work after I'm done. But I can at least stand by the fact that I tried my hardest. My work is precious to me, and I care about what happens to it when it goes out into the world. I don't ever want to see something I intentionally made crappy on Pinterest — or any other place — with my name on it.
I believe that making crappy work for any reason will only hurt your image in the long run. You may not show it on your portfolio, but Google might show it in an image search. Whatever happens, that thing you made because you took on a job you actually didn't want will be seen by others, and some will know who did it. And that's something you can't afford in the absence of infinite time and attention.
You may not love everything you've ever created. But you will not grow by creating deliberately crap work due to a budget. The choice is yours — choose to make good things and find other ways of leveraging the compromise. Maybe the client won't pay for a rush job, but perhaps they will give you other benefits. Perhaps they'll include your name in the credits even though they weren't intending on having credits at all. Maybe they'll mention you or blog about you. Who knows — look for a way to sweeten the deal for both of you. But don't make crappy work, not for you nor anybody else. Your time is limited, and so is other's attention. If they see only your crappiest work, or even just one crappy piece, that will speak louder than you might want or expect.
If anything, the "Designer's Holy Triangle" is pretty passive aggressive and reeks of entitlement. I've never heard this good-fast-cheap axiom spoken out of goodwill toward the client. Like people who declare themselves as "taxpayers" in a sentence*, the sentiment often comes with a whiny, holier-than-thou sense of entitlement.
Should you find yourself faced with the choice to do fast and cheap work, you probably don't actually want it. It makes no sense to take on work that will drain your creative energies and steal time from your more profitable jobs. It also makes no sense to have to explain to your client that you're going to do a crap job for them because of their crap budget. If in fact you do want to take on a champagne job on a beer budget, you probably see it as a good opportunity and a worthwhile sacrifice of your blood, sweat and tears. In such a case, playing by the good-fast-cheap rule would be self-sabotage.
Granted, there may be varying degrees of good in your service and product. There may be some features that come at a premium. But your name goes on every thing you produce, and you want to be sure that all are worthy of your logo — your seal of approval. When you go to buy a car, you don't expect to get a Lexus at a Toyota price, but you know both are good quality products with favourable reputations. A client may not be getting the Lexus version of your work, but the "Toyota" they drive off the lot will still be a vehicle of your reputation and brand. You should always be able to stand behind your product. You and your clients should be able to confidently declare that you do not make crap work. Because not good is not an option.