Why Your Freelance Web Design Clients No Longer Need You And What You Can Do About It

At the start of the year I recorded a series of podcasts looking at what I think is a changing market for freelance design and development services. I wanted to revisit the idea today, because I think I may have left a false impression with the series.

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I thought I may have erroneously communicated that designers are going to become extinct, that you shouldn’t bother learning new skills, and that it’s time to find a new career. I didn’t mean any of those things and thought I’d try to correct that impression.

I simply think a segment of the market for freelance web design and development services is changing and if you and I want to remain freelance web designers and developers we need to adapt to the changes within the next few years. If not, we may find ourselves without clients and work.

Which Segment of the Market Do You Serve?

One reason for the revisit is a recent post on CSS Tricks. Chris Coyier responding to a reader’s question offered a list of different market segments for web design clients. Here’s his list.

  • Websites that cost millions of dollars and take years and hundreds of people to develop.
  • Websites that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars produced over months by a high profile agency.
  • Websites that cost tens of thousands of dollars produced by specialized industry-specific agencies.
  • Websites that cost a few thousand built by an agency with a 4-week process that delivers slightly customized WordPress themes.
  • Websites that cost a 12-pack and a couple of late nights with your buddy who builds them for a living.
  • Websites that build other websites for a low monthly fee.

I don’t agree completely with Chris’ list, particularly the descriptions after the price, but I think the way he breaks up pricing is a good way to divide the market into high, middle, and low segments.

I think the market I serve is probably in the few thousand dollar price range, though I would say the sites I deliver are more than a slightly customized WordPress themes. They’re WordPress themes, but designed and developed from scratch and they often take longer than four weeks to complete.

Maybe I’m just giving more than I should for the prices I charge. It’s a possibility, though it doesn’t really matter (except to my bank account).

I see three larger market segments in Chris’ list.

  • Websites that cost more than $10,000
  • Websites that cost $1000 to $9,999.99
  • Websites that cost free to $999.99

The specific breakdown isn’t important. There’s a segment of the market that isn’t willing to spend much. There’s another that will spend a few thousand for a good custom design. And there’s a third group where price isn’t the issue. This last segment might still negotiate over the price, but price isn’t the limiting factor in their decision to hire a freelancer or agency.

At the high end (the millions, hundreds, and even tens of thousand dollar sites) the work is likely done in house or done by a larger and probably well known design and development firm. The high end of the market isn’t likely to hire freelancers. the work needs a team and will be more than one person has the skills to do. A freelancer might be hired to work on part of the site for a limited time, but these sites aren’t likely to be designed solely by a single freelancer.

At the low end people aren’t willing to pay the prices necessary to keep freelancers in business. This segment might serve as part of a freelancer’s income, but usually the work required far exceeds the price paid.

I have served this market in some capacity in the past. It was useful when I was getting started and needed to build a portfolio and practice my skills. This segment is best served by a combination of less experienced freelancers or people looking to pick up some extra cash on the side.

It’s also served by DIY products, low cost services, and site builders. It’s served by the Square Spaces and hosting company site builders of the world.

It’s the middle segment of the market I see changing. This is the market I serve and probably the one you do too. Naturally prices vary based on the project, but the typical site I design and build from scratch probably ends up in the $3k to $5k price range, often because that’s the limit of my client’s budget.

My clients usually want more than their budget allows, not because they’re bad people, but because they don’t know how much the work will cost, nor should they.

They list every request they have and because the requests exceed the budget, a large part of my job is to prioritize their requests with their goals and give them as much as I can within their budget. I’ll also give them a plan for how we can finish the remaining work, which they often come back to do later in the year.

It’s sad, but I don’t think most people truly value, understand, and appreciate what design is. Most see design as the aesthetic component of design and ignore the rest as though it happens on its own. That’s certainly not everyone, but I get the impression it’s the majority.

Clients who do get what design is are likely to move up to the higher end of the market. An understanding of design leads to an understanding of its value. I expect the people who get design to move past freelancers and toward small agencies. For right or wrong I think they’ll see agencies as providing a better return than lone freelancers.

The people who don’t get design or see it only as aesthetics will likely move down in the market. Price is a key issue to these people. DIY tools and low cost site builder services have improved a lot and continue to get better.

To be honest there’s not a lot of difference between the quality of site builder’s aesthetics and those of a typical freelance designer. At first glance you probably couldn’t tell who designed which site.

That doesn’t mean they are the same quality or that anyone can move a few things around and end up with a quality design, but the examples these services show as demos look pretty good. Let’s face it, many were probably designed by a freelance designer so why shouldn’t they match the same quality.

I think the custom design is better, but most of that better isn’t the aesthetic treatment. If your client sees design as aesthetics and the aesthetics of a low cost option look about as good as the aesthetics in your portfolio, why would those clients pay you thousands of dollars as opposed to a hundred for a commercial theme or an extra few dollars a month in hosting fees for a site builder?

Many of the people who we call clients today are likely going to choose a different solution than us for their sites in the future. They’ll still want sites. Websites aren’t going away and there will still be a need for people to work on them. The landscape will look different than it does today, though.

The Inevitable March to Commodity Status

The price of most things usually comes down over time as one product becomes less distinguishable from another of the same type. The first product typically made costs more than the thousandth product made. It’s common in most markets.

Freelancers do things to lower our costs and increase our margins, but we sometimes lower costs to attract more clients. The cycle leads us to modular options like frameworks, content management systems, themes, plugins, and the like. These further reduce our costs and potentially our prices.

Maybe you don’t use lower costs to lower your prices. I don’t either. Someone will though, and once they do they drive down the expectation of price for all clients.

True the DIY tools on their own won’t help non-designers make better design decisions. Just because a tool makes it easy to drag content around, it doesn’t mean the person using the tool understands where it would be best to put that content.

However, that same person probably doesn’t know the difference. If the person paying doesn’t have the same taste and skills as you, they aren’t going to realize they aren’t making the best decisions. They foot the bill though, so their perspective is the one that matters.

Inevitably, it will become easier and cheaper for non-designers to design. That doesn’t mean their designs will be better or even good, but it will be easier and cheaper and those choosing this option probably can’t tell the difference. To them web design will become a commodity.

It will also become easier for people like you and me to build themes and templates and sell them. Many freelancers do that now and I expect more of us will have to do it in the future.

It all drives the price of web design down. When you’re getting what you think is an equivalent design in a $100 theme why would you pay thousands for something custom?

What Can Freelancers Do?

All hope is not lost. Freelancers have options. We can move up the chain and join a larger design firm or team up with other freelancers and form our own agencies.

If you want to work on a million dollar site you probably need to get a job working for a large corporation with a poorly designed site and hope while you’re with the company they decide to redo the site and let you work on it.

We can also move down and build the lower cost options. Someone has to build all the themes and tools and site builders. There’s no reason it can’t be you.

The clients of the future are still going to need to hire people to tweak and fix their “done it themselves” designs. They’ll ned to hire for custom features they can’t create themselves.

If you’re someone with great aesthetic skills you’ll be able to charge whatever you want. The rest of us will probably find we need to lower our prices to compete.

I think there will be plenty of work to help improve designs initially created by clients or chosen by them as themes. The work might be to add an aesthetic treatment on top of an existing layout, but it will be work.

Some clients will discover their sites don’t work as well as they should, or lead to the results they want though they won’t know why. They’ll want to hire someone to make it better. They may not realize they have a design problem, though.

We’ll likely need to use language that’s less focused on design and more focused on the specific problems clients need help solving. Some clients won’t see the problems they have as design problems.

Think about the people who will choose DIY tools and site builders and ask yourself what problems they’re likely to encounter. In the beginning we’ll need to guesstimate, but over time the problems will be more commonly known. Create solutions to those problems and you should have work.

Just keep in mind that clients will probably expect to pay less for fixes than full designs. They’ll incorrectly assume it’s less work to add a little lipstick to their site than to design the site from scratch.

Perhaps you can sell information in the form of books, online courses, consulting. Maybe you’ll be someone who creates the tools.

I expect clients in the middle segment of the market moving lower to want lower prices. If you can find a way to deliver more than a DIY tool or site builder for a similar price you’ll likely find work. It probably means you’ll need to rely more on content management systems like WordPress and Drupal and take advantage of their themes and plugins.

Maybe Chris is ultimately right about slightly customized WordPress themes. I know people right now who make a living setting up WordPress, finding the right plugins for the required features, and tweaking a theme ever so slightly. Some of them charge about the same as I do for a custom theme from scratch. Maybe I really do need to charge more.

Or maybe this will be about reducing your costs further. You can build your own framework or library of components to help you build sites in 1/10th the time. They’ll remain more custom too, if you don’t share your framework and library and keep them unique to you.

Closing Thoughts

Again I do think the market I serve (and probably the one you serve as well) is changing in a way that makes it less likely the market will hire us in the future.

I think much of this market is moving either up or down; to larger agencies or DIY and site builders. It won’t be everyone, but it will result in less clients for all of us.

I didn’t want to leave the impression that web designers will become extinct in the near future. I don’t think that will happen. Design is a skill that will always make you hirable. At its core design is solving problems and there will always be a need for people who can solve problems.

It’s not that the market won’t hire us so much as it is they won’t be hiring us to solve the same problems we solve now and it won’t be under the same business and revenue models we currently have in place. I think freelance designers will need to adapt with the changing market.

Offering proof of your aesthetic skills will help. Building the tools our clients will choose will help. Offering services around the client’s chosen solution is another viable option.

Assuming you agree with me about this changing market, think about what kind of problems your clients will have using DIY tools and site builder services and come up with solutions to those problems that can make you money.

It will require changes in how we think about our business models, but it’s still within us to adapt and prosper. I would imagine there will be some who continue exactly as they are now and never notice any change, but I think overall there is going to be a smaller market for the services we currently offer.

Think about it. If the demand for freelance design and development services goes down while the supply of those services remains the same or possibly increases what do you think will happen?

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  1. Right now I am going to be transitioning into another job (as my current company will soon be laying me off), but I plan to get into an electronics or tech company. Won’t be any big position, just something basic while I continue school.

    I will say that as I get closer to finishing my site and starting to search for client work, these thoughts always pop into my mind.

    One of the main things is whether to charge per hour or per project, I think I like the per project model more. People who go with this model say it is less intimidating instead of saying I charge $50 or $100 per hour to someone who may not get the true value or design or development.

    Yeah, we all need to adapt to the era we work in. I think with cms becoming more mainstream, something will change. We’ll have to adapt our sites/apps to more devices and more resolutions for certain.

    But it’ll be a while before I even consider doing freelancing as a means of surviving full-time for a while. So not making much doesn’t mean as much to me now, but it should to current full-time freelancers. I wouldn’t mind teaming up with other freelancers, as you still retain most of the freedoms. Though I plan on being a software engineer for a large company later, so this may not matter to me as much.

    • Figuring out what to charge was one of the hardest parts for me. In the beginning I was always too high or too low. It took several projects to start figuring out where the balance was.

      I think either hourly or project can work. It really comes down to your clients and what works with them. I’ve found my clients prefer to know the total cost. An hourly rate leaves them wondering how long the project will take.

      I use an hourly rate to figure out my costs, but then I offer a price for the project, listing what work I’ll do for that price.

      If you plan on working for a larger company then it won’t matter as you’ll do your work in exchange for a paycheck and whoever gives you that check gets to set all these rules.

  2. This article is very informative, as to the issues of being a freelance web developer but has some caveats, particularly keeping businesses focused on the completion of their website.

    This is where DIY fails. DIY doesn’t provide a business coach, partner, mentor, or feedback from a human person that will keep the client focused. I recently started as a freelancer .. I have acquired jobs .. although my biggest impediment (after signing the contract and getting a down payment) has been continuing on to the next phase because clients are too involved with their core business. I have resolved this (to a certain extent) by implementing video conferencing and being personally available (via phone, email, and in-person) on “off-hours” to complete their site.

    So if many small business clients are too busy with their core business and are not disciplined in meeting to complete their website .. how does a DIY website builder keep them focused to solve their problem? What happens when the DIY site result is not pleasing to the client?

    I’m sure there are situations where small businesses and DIY sites are a good match. So long as the small business wants a static site they do not have to think about, once it is published, but feel the majority want something custom and tailored to their brand.

    Also, when you do complete a web design job for a satisfied client you can attain more work by offering other computing and business services (Social Media, Email marketing, Mobile apps, Network maintenance, etc). The goal is to become a business partner, which no DIY site can ever offer.

    • Thanks Michael. You might be interested in a series I wrote about my design process. The link is to the last post in the series Links to the first two posts in the series are in the first or second paragraph.

      The general idea was to design and develop the site in a way where my client would have to make decisions throughout the process. Because I include them more in the process, they’re more focused on it and they feel a greater sense of ownership.

      They tend to be happier at the end, because they get the site they want. Instead of me making every decision, I instead present two or three options I know will work and let my client make the final call.

      It’s worked well for me.

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