Why The Value and Perception of Design Don’t Match

What do you think is the value of design? Do you think non-designers hold the same perception? I don’t. I think for most people the perceived value is less than the true value. Why?


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Why are the value and perception of design so out of line with each other? Why the disconnect between the value we know we bring and the typical client’s perception of that value?

About a month ago you may have seen a video that was shared on a more than a few design blogs. The video was a two minute montage showing graphic designers in movies and on television. Watching it you get a sense of how Hollywood portrays designers.

While the video is specifically about graphic designers, I think the portrayal would be the same if it was showing web designers.

It was not the most flattering portrayal. The montage shows designers in a very different light than how we would describe ourselves. For example at the end there’s a comment about hiring a designer for a logo, paying hundreds of thousands of pounds, and getting a squiggle in return.

I think the portrayal unfair as I imagine you do as well, but I can understand where it comes from. Our clients don’t see all the work we do to create what might ultimately be a squiggle. They don’t see all the research that went into the choice. The client just sees the squiggle, knows he or she could draw a squiggle too, and wonders where all the money was spent.

I doubt you think of yourself and your work the way it’s portrayed in the video so again I’ll ask why are the perception and value of design so out of balance and what, if anything, should we do about?

The Value Designers Bring to a Design

When a client approaches me to design and develop a site, these are some things I consider part of the design phase for the project. I consider myself designing when I’m engaged with any of the following.

Client Conversations — Design begins as soon as I start asking my client questions about their site, their business, their customers, etc. Any thing I do to understand the problem I’m being asked to solve, is design.

In fact problem definition is the most important stage of the design and different designers can get at the problem with different levels of skill and success. It may not come across as design, but get the problem definition wrong and no solution is going to work. You’ll be solving the wrong problem.

Content — What is it? What will it be? How much will be on the site and how should it be organized? Which content has the most priority? What content types belong on each page? How many page templates will be needed and and what will be included on each.

These are all important questions and their answers take considerable time and effort and are absolutely a large part of a design’s success of lack of success.

Navigation — Once you’ve figured out how content will be organized on the site you have to figure out how visitors are going to find and access it.

What should be included in global navigation? What will the labels of the menu items be? You likely can’t include every page in a global navigation bar so will there be secondary navigation inside sections? Will there be drop downs or flyouts on the main navigation?

What other navigational patterns and structures will you need? Breadcrumbs? On-page navigation that serves as a table of contents? How about in-content links to other content? These navigational issues and their solutions don’t always come across as design to clients.

Visuals and general aesthetics — Even where visuals are concerned much of the work is never seen. Choices in typefaces, layout, color, and imagery take time and effort. Prototypes often need to be created and modified to get feedback.

Does a typeface communicate the right mood and feeling? What’s the best layout to display the content? Should it be a grid? What kind of grid? Do the colors and imagery convey the same mood as the type? What subtext is communicated by your aesthetics?

Documentation — What kind of documentation is needed for the project? Will you create a style guide? What will the deliverables be and how often will you need to create them?

Responsive issues — The last few years have added some extra things to our workload and have us rethinking the way we design. There are the obvious layout changes, but what about the extra image versions? Do some need to be cropped for smaller screens or included at all? Many of our clients probably aren’t aware of the extra consideration we have designing for a mobile world.

Accessibility and user experience are design considerations that probably don’t get noticed as well. I’d include any developer topic we’re aware of as something included as design. For example some might not see performance as a design issue, but the visual choices we make certainly affect performance and what can be done to speed up a site, even if we never touch a line of code.

Anything we can do to make development easier, whether we develop our own designs or have others develop them is probably something we should be doing and so becomes part of design.

All the things we bring to a design add value. Do I know the absolute value? Can I put a dollar amount on it? Not really, but I certainly think a well-designed custom site is worth more than a generic design made to fit any business.

There will always be more consideration given to project specific details in the custom design. Any of those details could be the one that convinces someone to buy or subscribe or whatever it is you hope they do when visiting.

The Perception of the Value of Design

I think the majority perception is that design is what it looks like. Design is blamed when the interface is confusing, but oddly seldom praised when it’s easy to understand and use.

When the design works it’s assumed that’s how it naturally works. Design doesn’t get any of the credit. When it doesn’t work it’s because some designer got in the way of it working.

Non-designers generally see design as making things pretty. They don’t value design for what it is, only for the shiny coat of paint on top. Because they see the pretty and not all the work we do, they can’t see all the value we bring. They can’t see us thinking about content and where to place it.

My personal style is simple. I don’t use a lot of illustration or do the typical things you think of as aesthetics. I’ve had people contact me because they think I don’t spend much time on design and so my price should be low.

I’ve had people looking to hire me for a site tell me it shouldn’t cost much because it doesn’t need design as they hand me a list of things that need design work. These people don’t become my clients, because I don’t take on their projects.

Because much of what design involves isn’t included in the perception, design can seem overpriced. People think they’re paying us for how something looks and not for how we made it work. Simple, while good design, is sometimes seen as less valuable because it doesn’t include all the shiny.

It’s important to understand. More illustration, more aesthetic detail is seen as more valuable and so understandably more expensive. Some designers with more aesthetic skills are seen as better designers, more for their illustration skills than design skills. They may or may not be better designers or have better aesthetic taste, but they have more skills making things look good and so are thought to bring more value to a design.

Shrinking Markets

At the start of the year I talked about why I think the market for freelance design services is shrinking and will continue to shrink. In many ways it results from the disconnect between the value design brings and the perception of what it brings.

People who can’t see the value of design will choose cheaper options like Squarespace or Wix or commercial themes because their perception doesn’t include much of the value of design. The market pays for the value they perceive and not the value we think we bring.

Why pay several thousand dollars for a custom design as opposed to $50 for a theme? If you only see the aesthetic coating and like how a particular theme looks, why would you pay more for custom work?

The market for freelance web design services is segmenting. The majority don’t see value in design. They don’t see why one design is better because so much of the value in a design isn’t directly visible.

I don’t think everyone holds this perception. There are certainly some who know design is more than how something looks and that it’s also how it works. The majority don’t see that, though.

They can’t see in advance that your questions will get to the heart of their problem so your solution solves the right problem. They can’t see the semantics you’ve added for assistive devices. It’s all just a jumble of code.

Clients want to pay the least they have to and not feel like they’re getting ripped off. The majority see web design as a commodity, something they need with little to distinguish one solution from another with the exception of how it looks. Those people are going to choose the least expensive option in most cases.

The main thing they can see is the pretty and the wow and adding insult to injury, they often won’t have the same level of taste we do. Taste is part of what makes a designer a designer. It’s as much a skill or talent as anything else we do.

Clients want your designs to stand out based on how they look, but probably to a lesser standard of quality to what you or I might know is good. That makes themes and DIY builders look even more attractive because they’re likely built to a mass aesthetic.

What Should You Do About It?

If client’s don’t see all the value in design what should you do? Years ago when this site was on a different domain and I was just getting started as a freelancer, I had pages on the site trying to convince people of the value of design before convincing them to specifically hire me.

It didn’t take long to see it wasn’t worth my time to convince people of the value of design. It’s more efficient to find more people who already see the value than to convince those who don’t.

You have to appeal to what your client thinks is the value you bring as opposed to trying to convince them of value they don’t see. Sell your services based on what most people see as the value you bring, which is the way your designs look. They have to at least be better than commercial themes and DIY site builders.

I think the market is varied and there are and always will be people who understand the value of design. I suspect these people will choose larger agencies over freelancers or bring design in-house. Those who stick with freelancers will choose the designers who stand out the most which will often be those who create aesthetics that wow.

It only makes sense to appeal to what people think is the value in your services if you want to sell those services. If people perceive design as how it looks then you should get better at making your designs look better.

You can’t stop doing the things that design really is, but you have to offer something that appeals to potential clients to get them to choose you. Aesthetics are one way to differentiate one designer from another, especially given the perception of design.

Those of us, myself included, who could improve on our aesthetic treatments should probably learn to improve our aesthetics. If not, you aren’t doing enough of what your client sees as the value you bring.

This doesn’t mean every design should feature illustration or that we all need to go back to skeuomorphic detail, but it does mean you need to differentiate yourself visually from all the themes and templates and DIY site builders out there.

Closing Thoughts

There’s a huge disconnect between the value of design work and the perception of design and designers. You and I know all the different problems we solve when designing a website. Most potential clients don’t. They don’t see all the work in choosing fonts or color schemes or many of the other things we do.

Some do, but most don’t. They only see the value in the visuals. They hold the perception that design is what it looks like.

Do we need to change the perception? I’m not sure we could even if we try. It’s a difficult perception to change and it won’t change just because we consistently point at something and say this is good design, this is good design over and over.

I think we should worry less about convincing the people who don’t see the value we bring and target those that already get it. At the same time we should understand most will see our aesthetics as the value we bring.

Because people put so much emphasis on how things look, we should make our sites look better. I’m not sure exactly what that means given the different tastes among designers, let along clients, but I think we need to impress clients more with the the aesthetics we add a to a design.

There should probably be something in the visuals that stand out and wow potential clients if we want to wow them enough to hire us.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

4 comments

  1. The post is very good. I am not a designer, but a business partner in a technology marketing company and artist. But I do see value in design. I proposed to the senior partner to have architect colleagues redesign an office space to improve company perception and he became furious. It almost ended our relationship. The amount of money was trivial compared to the value. Take a look at Jim Camp’s book called “No”. It is a negotiation with clients. No system is perfect but the ideas do work.

    • Thanks Mark.

      Sorry it took me a few weeks to get back to you.

      Obviously you’re an example of someone who does get the value of design and I know there are others. The senior partner there is clearly the opposite. I bet he only saw the money it would cost. He couldn’t see how it would bring more back in.

      Thanks for the book recommendation. Sounds like one I’d enjoy.

  2. Late to comment, but I found your post by specifically googling “why people not not value design”.

    Unfortunately I see it more and more (as an identity and web designer) that the expense is viewed as a commodity (like a water, gas or electric bill) rather than a long-term investment. This leads me to believe that those who do not value design, ultimately do not value their business or product as much as they should, and therefore suffer. And the same can be said about designers!

    We put a lot of emphasis on what the previous commenter said about public perception of our space. We put a lot of thought toward the appearance of our work space and it reflects the level of design we do.

    We also do not negotiate with pricing, while just about every new client who comes through our door feels the need to talk us down from our price structure. It’s fine to ask I suppose but we do not do it. That extra $1500 or whatever it is, is there because we are professionals and know what it takes and we’re honest with out pricing. We do not nickel and dime clients after-the-fact. We follow guidelines presented in contract, based on scope. We are worth that extra money vs. the freelancer who is a bit less.

    But I ultimately wanted to mention that a large part of the value of design lies on the shoulders of THE DESIGNER. I see so many designers (freelancers and firms) who do not charge enough (or allow negotiation), which devalues the work of ALL OF US. We have the ability to control our own fate as an industry. Stand up for the value you offer!

    • Thanks Chuck. Good point about it ultimately being on the shoulders of designers. I get what you’re saying about pricing too low, though if you’re running a freelance business, sometimes the business is the priority. If the choice is take a job for less than it’s worth so I can pay next month’s rent and charge appropriately to not devalue design, it’s hard to blame someone for choosing to pay their rent.

      From experience I know that many of my clients weren’t going to pay the value I thought a design deserved. Often I said no to the job, but sometimes I couldn’t. Instead I found ways to make the project financially workable for me, even if that sometimes meant taking some of the value out of the work so it would be more in line with the price I could charge.

      I think a lot of the reason design isn’t valued as much as it should be, is because it’s hard to prove the value. If a site does well, can you honestly say it was due to the design and not the content or the marketing or any other number of factors.

      You also have to consider that good design often stays out of the way. A lot of times the best design is the one that doesn’t call attention to itself and slips into the background because it made the site so easy to use. A fellow designer can see the work you put in to make your design fade away. A non-designer probably won’t see it. They’ll more likely think that part just happened.

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