The Art of Business: Design on a Shoestring

Small budgets are a fact of life in the graphic arts world, particularly since the Internet and outsourcing has increased the number of designers willing to sell their souls to bargain-hunting clients.

While a small budget may make your job as a designer harder, it does not make it impossible, and in many ways it frees you to tap your imagination and come up with something truly creative.

When potential clients make it clear that their budget is low, ask, “Do you understand that a small budget means you may have to sacrifice bells and whistles, such as color, paper, complexity, and animation?”

If clients can’t grasp this fundamental, you have two alternatives: Educate them quickly; or run. It’s one thing for a client to ask you to work with a budget smaller than it should be, and quite another to tack on unrealistic expectations. The latter is your greatest enemy in any situation, but particularly in the low-budget scenario. You won’t be able to spend your way out of the dilemma and you’ll wind up with a grumbling, unsatisfied client — a result that’s never in your best interest, even when it comes with a stack of cash.

Selling Creativity
You can provide something else to replace expensive design elements: original, compelling design. Once you’ve vetted a client and his or her expectations, it’s time to pitch your value-added proposition — your creativity.

Explain to your prospect that a low budget precludes a shotgun approach. Because they have a small amount of cash, they have to make doubly sure their campaign hits the target with a marksman’s accuracy. Only an effective design can do that. Their budget may restrict how much money they can spend, but it doesn’t affect the quality of the design, and it’s exactly because they have a small budget that they need a good designer. That good designer, of course, is you.

Show them samples of your own work but also samples of other designers who have succeeded in using low-budget elements. If the potential job is a Web site, pull up examples of sites that tell the story with simplicity and grace. Talk about your plans to build a campaign that uses dollars well, not just uses dollars.

Managing Efficiency
Once you’ve sold your client, the real work begins. The only way to make a low-budget job profitable is through efficient management and excellent communication. Ensure that you’re working directly with the person who wields approval authority. You don’t have the time and money to waste on miscommunications, up-the-ladder reviews, office politics, and indecision.

Review the design process and build a schedule that’s reasonable for both you and the client. Have the client sign off on this “process building” every step of the way, either contractually or informally through emails.

Next, be sure the client shares real budget figures with you. You don’t have time to dilly dally with false budget information only to learn later that there really aren’t the funds to take your design to completion. Explain that every dollar has to be tightly managed in order to get the best bang for the buck, and you can’t manage those dollars unless you know how they stack up.

Ask your client to rough out ideas or to select from your very early mock ups, so you don’t spend a lot of time on design directions ultimately abandoned. Get approval every step of the way so that you avoid costly design retreats. And strongly resist major design changes from the client unless they truly improve the work.

Finally, recruit your client to be your partner by supplying you with photos, logos, and other existing artwork to be incorporated into the project. Most companies have a plethora of marketing and sales material just waiting to be mined and repurposed in your piece. And make sure they deliver clean, copy-edited copy; you don’t have time to rework their text as well.

Creativity for Peanuts
Your primary job is to squeeze the most design possible out of your client’s design dollar. To do so, you’ll have to be inventive. In print, many great designs have been executed in black and white and with typography alone.

As Don Sparkman suggests in his book, Selling Graphic Design, you can imitate a two-color look with only one ink by selecting a dark PMS color that looks black but also screens back for a second color. Or use colored paper with black or another ink to give the impression of multiple colors.

You can substitute charts and graphs for expensive illustrations and select royalty-free stock photos or photos taken by a professional within the company instead of expensive location or studio shot or using pricier photos from a stock house.

Finally, do your research and save money in the big-budget areas such printing, which can account for a significant percentage of a project’s cost. It’s here that you can make up the profit you lost when you accepted the low-budget job in the first place.

Put together a detailed request for proposal (RFP) and follow through by submitting it to several vendors. This is a time-consuming process, especially if you’ve already found a few vendors who provide great pricing and service. But vendors are competitive, and if they believe they’re competing for each job, they’ll work harder to come up with a better price.

When you draw up an RFP, break it down fairly extensively (or ask the vendor for a breakdown). This will help avoid miscommunication and give you the opportunity to negotiate on a line-by-line basis. If you like Vendor A, but Vendor B is offering a better price on line 18, you’ve just found the leverage to ask Vendor A for a better price.

Efficiency and Creativity
The only way to make low-budget jobs pay is to efficiently manage your client and effectively use your creative skills. If you fail in either capacity, you’ll lose money, a client, or a campaign. Do it right and you’ve got a day’s wage, a client for life, and a great sample for your portfolio to show the next person who shows up on your doorstep with a shoestring.

Posted on: March 20, 2006

1 Comment on The Art of Business: Design on a Shoestring

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.