Freelance Designer 101: Pricing Strategies and Work Capacity

April 2024 Edition

Hey guys! 👋 

In my last post, I explained my process for onboarding new clients.

Next, I had planned to discuss how to write proposals and send quotes. But then I got several questions about how much to charge. I realized it's really important to first explain how to price yourself.

So in this post, I will focus on freelance pricing strategies: how to price your projects, figure out your work capacity, and plan out your project timelines.

Ready? Let's dive in.

How do you charge for a freelance project? | | Kristina Volchek | Designers Coffee Newsletter

How do you charge for a freelance project?

A note on hourly projects: Most of this guide will be focused on fixed-price, one-time projects. You may also be considering charging hourly, but for design work, I think this is very rare and impractical, especially for bigger projects.

Even if you are working hourly, you still need to provide at least an estimate of how long it could take, which makes it very similar to a fixed-price project. So this guide is still applicable to you.

There are several popular pricing models for one-time freelance projects. I’m highlighting “one-time project” because there are other models for ongoing work (like retainers, hourly packages, even subscriptions, etc…).

  • Time-based: How many hours it will take you to do the job multiplied by your hourly rate.

  • Market average: What is the average market price for similar work in your region, client’s region or their audience’s region.

  • Value-based: Normally for more experienced freelancers: how much profit your work can bring to the client.

You can choose a different one of these strategies for every project. You don’t need to stick to one for your entire freelance career.

1. Time-Based Pricing: Calculating Hours x Rate ⏳

With this pricing strategy, you quote a fixed price for the entire project based on your estimate of how long it would take. This price is agreed upon before the project starts.

First, you need to list out a scope of work, this includes all the tasks and major milestones involved in the project. Based on that, you can estimate how many hours the project would take. Then you multiply your estimated hours by your hourly rate and that becomes your lowest price (not the final quote).

This strategy offers income predictability and simplifies budgeting for clients (they know the cost upfront).

How to estimate project hours?

Your estimate depends on your speed, range of services and project complexity. If it’s your first project, most likely you have no idea how fast you are or how long it would take to design a particular element. No worries, with every new project, your estimates will get better.

For website design projects I break down each page into sections. Typical page sections would be the Header (or Hero), Testimonials, Featured Blog Posts, FAQ, etc… You can check out Tailwind UI for more examples.

My rule of thumb for design estimates is 2 hrs per section plus around the same per navigation and footer. If you are also providing development, then it also takes around 2 hrs to build a simple custom section. (Unless you’re using Framer - then design & development happens at the same time.)

How to estimate freelance project hours? | | Kristina Volchek | Designers Coffee Newsletter

If you need to do some simple branding, competitor and user research, it will add around 8-10 hrs to your project. By “simple branding” I mean choosing typography, colours, visuals, creating some simple text logo (if needed) and a simple brand guide (on how to use these colours & logos). Also, if there would be some custom visuals (e.g. illustrations, photos, graphics) you need to add it to your estimate.

PRO TIP: Another condition that can affect your estimates: developer handoff.

Preparing designs for developers is also something that takes time. You need to add all breakpoints, design notes, organise files, add user flows, prepare graphics for export, etc...

If you are building the project yourself (e.g. using tools like Framer or Webflow), you can skip some of these developer handoff tasks.

For mobile app screens, it’s a bit more complicated. Yet, I try to divide the single screen into “above the fold” (visible without scrolling, so users spend 57% of their viewing time here) and “below the fold” (requires users to scroll).

For the “above the fold” content I estimate based on the number of elements that still can be grouped into smaller sections (e.g. title + cards) and how repetitive they are. Smaller sections here would take around 0.5-1 hour to design.

Example of a simple website estimate:

Phase 1. Design in Figma (around 2-3 weeks)

6 homepage with 6 sections + about page with 2 sections:
Header section
What we do (5 services) section
Featured case study section
Testimonials section
Founders section
Contact section
About page with header + founder bio sections

Total hours: ~20 hrs (8 sections + nav + footer)

Once you estimate how many hours you need to design (and probably build) your project, you need to add a buffer time for communication, unforeseen issues, revisions, and feedback. A common approach is to add a percentage (e.g., 10-20%) on top of your initial estimate.

Then this final calculation is multiplied by your hourly rate. That’s how you get your fixed price for the project proposal.

Defining your hourly rate is quite challenging, but a common method is 2x your full-time job hourly rate (or you can use average salaries to calculate an average full-time hourly rate). Then you can test increasing or decreasing your rates (e.g. by $10) with each new lead. If more than 50% of inquiries accept your rates, probably you need to charge more. 😅

How much do I charge? (Yeah, some real numbers)

I charge $90-100/hr for design/development services and $100-120/hr for consulting. For these rates, I offer a full design cycle for websites and mobile apps backed by my marketing and growth design experience. I cover branding, illustrations, graphics and even emails or Google slides. I help my clients with conversion optimisation. I provide website development (using Framer or Webflow). I charge a lot because I offer a complete service - anything I don’t know I will learn, use pre-built solutions, or even outsource help.

Yes, it makes me a super-generalist. But that’s what the freelance market wants the most these days.

FUN: Once you decide on your rate, you can play with this awesome “How much should I charge“ calculator. It adjusts your base rate depending on how much you want to have this project in your portfolio.

Charging market rates for freelance project | | Kristina Volchek | Designers Coffee Newsletter

2. Market Pricing: Charging Average Rates 📊

Going with the market rates is one of the most simple pricing strategies that is suitable for beginners. If it’s your first freelance project, I’d recommend trying to find the average market price for similar work and charging 20-30% less for your first 1-2 projects.

🔎 Where to look for rates?

**When I‘m saying to look for pricing in your client’s region there is a risk. You need to keep in mind that if your client from a well-paying market (like the US, UK, Canada, or Australia) is looking for a freelance designer in other regions (e.g. Europe, Asia) - most likely they are bargain-shopping and not ready to pay American rates.

Unless they really want YOU. Which can easily happen to more experienced freelance designers.

PRO TIP: Don’t look at Upwork rates - they are usually lower than market rates. Plus, in general, the Upwork platform is optimised for lowering rates and satisfying clients (not freelancers). You can’t compete with rates there - someone will always offer a lower rate for the same amount of work.

In summary: if you’re a beginner (starting your freelance journey), then most likely for a simple one-pager (with simple branding, designed in Figma & developed in Webflow) you would charge around $1,500-2,000 (delivered in 2-3 weeks).

For a standard 5-pager with a content management system (CMS) for a blog (again with simple branding, designed in Figma & developed in Webflow) you will go with around $3,500-5,000 (delivered in 4-6 weeks). (I am explaining why the delivery time is so long in the section below).

3. Value-Based Pricing: How much value can you offer? 🤑

Personally, I find this model a bit confusing, but many experienced freelancers swear by it. I know in theory that with this pricing strategy, you charge based on how much profit you can potentially make for this client.

The most common formula suggests charging 5-10% of your client’s annual revenue.

I’m not sure about others, but when I work with freelance clients (especially for the first time), they are not very keen to share their finances. Many are not even telling you their project budget.

Value-based pricing for freelance web design project | | Kristina Volchek | Designers Coffee Newsletter

Also, even if you know their annual revenue and plan to charge your desired 5-10%, there are many things that you need to consider. For example:

  • How much money is in their industry? e.g. a consultant who charges $400/hr, it’s not the same as a single mom starting her blog

  • How big is your client? e.g. small business, startup, large corporation

  • Do you have a unique advantage? e.g. your experience or specific skills needed for this project

  • Can you promise a return on investments (ROI) thanks to your designs? Will your design actually affect their annual revenue? What if it will lower it - are you paying it back? 😅

  • How much can you cover with your services? e.g. Do clients need to look for a developer or any other freelancer? Can you do the full web design cycle: design & build? Can you do branding, graphics, development, basic SEO, speed or conversion optimisation?

As you can see there are a lot of things to balance. So in my freelance projects, I’m sticking to project-based or market-average pricing strategies.

🤯 Reality Check: How much can you work?

Since now you know how much you should charge, we can focus on how much you can deliver and earn. Let’s be real, you won’t get paid for 8 hours each day. Why? Let’s dive in.

🫰 Full-time vs Freelance: How many hours do you actually get paid for?

The biggest challenge for many starting freelancing after a full-time role is the mental shift to a different work style. The key differences are:

Not all your time is paid.

Imagine you plan to spend 8 hours per day with your laptop (the same as a full-time job). Do you think you will get paid 8 hours daily? Nope.

Most likely your working capacity is around 4 hours per day. Wait, what happens with the other 4 hrs? It’s getting eaten by project management, emails, calls, research, experiments, learning new tools and skills, estimating new projects, task switching, planning, etc… Things you can’t charge your freelance clients for. 

Miscalculations, failures, and self-education are not getting paid.

If you spent 30 hrs on a project that you estimated as 10 hrs - you only get paid for 10 hrs.

Or if you unexpectedly had to learn a new skill for a project, you’re not getting paid for that time.

You’re paid for the deliverables.

No matter how hard, challenging, or demanding your task was. If you spent a lot of time, but haven’t had any progress - you’re not getting paid. If it’s not finished, it’s not paid.

💼 How many projects can you handle

I don’t recommend running more than two freelance projects at the same time. Ideally, you work on one big project at a time.

The reason is simple - constant task switching and communicating with more than 2 clients at a time is extremely stressful and slows down your timeline with each new project added to your plate. Less delivered = less paid.

I’m telling it from my own experience. Early in my freelance career, I would often overbook myself with multiple projects. You never know if there will be something in your pipeline later, right?

So I was saying yes to almost every client who accepted my rates. I was working 12-16 hours a day while doing only about 2-4 hours of real paid work. The task switching, meeting my deadlines, multiple streams of communication, Trello boards, constantly learning on the go and adapting to new tools were eating 70% of my time. I felt tired, stressed and always busy. You don’t want to be there.

Your project capacity for freelance web design project | | Kristina Volchek | Designers Coffee Newsletter

Which Kofi do you want to be?

⏱️ Planning your deadlines

Let’s do some simple math here.

Now we know that you will have 4 productive hours per day. So if you plan to deliver a project with 20 hours of estimated work you tell the client it will take 5 working days, right? Not really…

If you’re running two freelance projects at the same time (for simplicity, 20 hrs each) then finishing both of them will take at least 10 working days (that’s already 2 weeks).

Plus, you’re waiting for your client’s feedback, let’s say 1 day each time (with different time zones it’s typical). For a 20-hour project, you would ask for feedback at least 3-4 times. This means your 5 working days are turning into 7-8 working days per project.

In that case, finishing two 20-hour projects will take you 15 working days, or around 3 weeks.

In other words, 3 weeks is the time estimate you tell each client. Not 5 days.

And this is a scenario without serious revisions, changes of plans, or client silence (which can happen). So I would not even call it a worst-case scenario.

Of course, you may finish these projects earlier, but it’s better to do the safe math and have some flexibility for unexpected events (what if you get sick?). This way when you finish the project earlier you exceed your client’s expectations.

Planning your timeline for freelance web design project | | Kristina Volchek | Designers Coffee Newsletter

With each new project, your estimates and understanding of your working capacity will get better. If you miscalculate the project price or spend way too much time on something outside the scope - just accept your mistakes, be honest with your clients and do your best. Each failure is a learning experience.

With this mindset, you will grow as a freelance designer, impress your clients and build your reputation.

Stay tuned for more

That’s all for now.

In the next edition, I will explain the next steps of preparing your initial project scope and your proposal.

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See you next time!

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