Successful Web Design – How to Price, Work and Deliver

Successful Web Design - How to Price, Work and Deliver

Successful web design requires you to start with the right conditions and prerequisites. In this article, you will learn everything you need about setting the stage for new project and the three main axis of the project. You will also learn about different pricing models, how to deal with discounts, negotiation, whether you should ever work for free or do spec work and much more. Are you ready to discover the secrets of successful web design?

Fundamentals of successful web design

You need two things in order to create a website that will convince visitors to make actions your clients want to see. First, you have to understand the foundation and principles of the business of your client. Second, you need to understand core motivations, needs and wants of his visitors. These two pillars are necessary for successful web design. Only when both of these pieces are in place you can create website that will be able to connect your client with potential customers.

First moment, first mistake

In the beginning of majority of your projects, you will be approached by client with specific need. This client will want you to design (and probably also code) new website for him or his business. In most cases, client will give you a brief summary of his business and ask for price and time estimate. This is also the moment where some web designers are doing the first mistake. The mistake I’m talking about is giving the client what he wants – price and time estimate.

In most situations, it is not a good idea to react on client’s demand with price and time estimate. Why? The main reason is that you know almost nothing about that client, his project and his business. Sure, you may have that brief summary, but that will be almost useless. The problem is that that client is not a professional web designer. Therefore, he doesn’t know what information you need for successful web design. That’s why he wants to hire you.

Let’s say you are interested in the offer. What you should instead of giving him or her price and time estimate? You reply to client and suggest meeting. Although e-mails and phone calls can work as well, I would still recommend meeting in person. On this meeting, your main goal is to learn more information about the project. You need these informations to be able to estimate its size, goals and target audience. These informations will also allow you to create price and time estimates after the meeting and send them to client.

You should never say some absolute price right on the meeting. It will create an anchor and that can cause issues in the future. When the meeting ends and your thoughts settle, you may find out that the price is either low (that happens very often) or high (that never happened). However, because you already give client some number, and created an anchor, every next number will look suspicious. Your client will want to know why the new number is higher or lower.

Answers such as: “I underestimated (or overestimated) the project.” are only sure way to hell. Why? You already told the client one number you were sure about (why would you tell him something unclear?). Now, he can begin to question your new estimate. Who knows? You may be wrong again. Therefore, don’t give any estimates too soon. Give your thoughts some time to settle.

Successful web design is hard

Web design is probably not the center of your client’s universe. Chances are that he has less or more distorted perception about web design process, prices, deadlines, prerequisites for success and also your skills. On one hand, website is often not the top priority of your client. He has other things do take care about thorough the day. On the other hand, website is an investment for your client. The first and foremost goal is, therefore, its ROI (return on investment)

The majority of clients are aware of their lack of knowledge when it comes to web design. That’s why they are looking for someone who can give them feedback on their projects. Therefore, some knowledge about business and marketing will be useful in order to create successful web design. Remember that you are the web designer, not your client. You are fully responsible for your web design process and that it works. This also means that you have to this clear when your client will start to design the web for you.

I once heard from another great web designer something I didn’t want to believe. He said that people will often call you and want you to design and build a website for them over the weekend. I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. Some people will really try that. Some people will also tell you what they think they need. Unfortunately, this will often be far from truth and will never bring desired outcomes. There is only one way to react. Say “No”. Otherwise, you will work yourself to exhaustion, even burnout. You will also never make any significant amount of money.

Successful web design takes time. Creating website that will support client’s business requires at least two months of work. This is also why many great web designers have fully booked calendars months in advance. Fortunately for all web designer with appreciation for great web design, the demand for high quality web design largely exceeds the supply.

Are you the right person?

The first question you should ask yourself, when you get email from potential client, is if you are the right person for the project. If there is one approach to successful web design, it is win-win popularized by Stephen R. Covey. This means that the cooperation on the project has to be beneficial to both sides, you and your client. Otherwise, you should reject it. This is also why it is crucial to learn more information about the project, client and his business.

You need this information to determine whether the project makes sense for you and your client or not. Part of being a professional is the willingness to reject clients if you are not the right fit for them. What if you have all information you could find and you are still not sure if you are the right fit? Sometimes, the simplest and fastest solution is to tell the client your hour rate. This will often work as great filter.

Let me also mention that many clients will approach you convinced that they need tailored website. The reality is that some of them may be wrong. For low-budget projects is often cheaper and faster to build website on customized template or use some kind of website builder. This way, client can invest his resources into high quality content and marketing. This will help the website achieve better results.

Is your client ready for new website?

Your clients are intelligent people. They understand the world of business and its environment. They are hiring you because they don’t understand web design and you do. Many of your clients have less or more distorted idea about web design. It is our job to educate your clients and show them how the real successful web design looks like. It is also our job to take them through our web design process that will result in supporting clients business.

This also means that you must fully understand the business of your client, his customers and his business strategy. These are prerequisites necessary if you want to be able to give your client any advice. In many situations, your client will have vague idea about the overall design and content of the homepage. He may also have some idea about what CMS he will need. This all is then wrapped in unrealistic deadlines. These deadlines can be tied with other marketing activities.

Sometimes, the situation will be even worse – your client will forget that he needs a website. The result? Even tighter deadlines and budget, less room to move and more spartan conditions of work in overall. Are you deeply convinced that client’s project makes sense?

Taking the project from the ground

Every project is highly individual and unique, unless you are working on ”package solutions”. Every project also comes with different prerequisites, constraints and requirements. The key for successful web design is that it is managed by professional web designer who is an expert in his craft – you. The first thing you need to do is to “anchor” the project on three axis. Let’s call these axis are “what”, “when” and “how much”.

It is on your client to decide which axis is the most important for him. Your client will probably argue that all axes are equally important. That’s not an option. Listen to his ideas and opinions. Then, you have to agree on choosing only one axis that will have the highest priority. In many cases, the most important axis will be “what”. In other words, the most important will be scope and quality of the outputs.

If the projects is tied to another marketing activities or business events, the most important axis will be “when”. If your client has very limited budget, the most important axis will be price “how much”. Projects focused on “how much” axis are the ones you should rather skip. These projects are very lengthy and money are not worth it. It happened to me couple times that project got very stressful because client chose two axis, mostly “what” and “when”. Unless your work is well paid, never let your client force you into this situation. It is not worth the stress.

Never send your client price estimate before your client and you will agree on what outputs will you deliver and when. Also, never move to the first phase of web design process if your client is still choosing between the axis. Otherwise, you may end up delivering something your client didn’t want at time when he doesn’t need it. As a result, your client will reject to pay you the price you didn’t agree on. In other words, pretty lose-lose scenario.

One more thing. Never try to guess the price or shoot it from the hip. As I mentioned on the lines above, this is very risky. You have little to no information about the project. Whatever price will you give your client, it will create mental anchor. Meaning, your client will subconsciously use this anchor to compare it with any other price you will say. It doesn’t matter that you clearly said that it’s just a rough estimate. You will be met with strong resistance every time you try to change it.

“What” axis

The most important thing on the “what” axis is making clear with your client what are his expectations about the scope and quality of your outputs. If you do this part right, you can in certain moment handover the outputs to satisfied client and send him an invoice. This is what I call successful web design … When both parties get what they want. Let me tell you that without clear specification, you may end up in a situation where both parties are convinced that the scope of the project is absolutely clear. It will take couple weeks maybe months before both of you find out that this assumption is not true.

In case of smaller projects, short specification along with specific number of revisions or meetings priced on the basis of an hourly rate will be enough. If you are working on bigger projects, then you should use some project management technique or method such as Scrum, Kanban and WBS (Work Breakdown Structure). On the following lines, we will take a look at WBS technique. When it comes to the rest of project management methods I mentioned, we will take a look at them in one of future articles.

WBS aka Work Breakdown Structure

The WBS, or Work breakdown structure, is a technique you can use for project planning and management. This technique is from aircraft engineering. The idea here is to divide your project on closed not overlapping blocks which you need to get done. Next, you divide these blocks into smaller and smaller parts until you can precisely estimate the time and price. Main goal is to cover all parts of the project you need to get done. Chronological order is not important at this moment.

When you use WBS to break down the project, it will be much easier for you to estimate the price, time and also to manage the whole project. Since the structure of WBS looks like a tree (or its roots), it is very easy to use WBS with mind maps. Since many web designers are visual thinkers, mind maps can also make it easier for some web designers to adopt this technique.

I should also mention that you will sufficient amount of information in order to apply WBS technique. It is highly possible that you will still have to make guesses here and there. Depending on your experience, these guesses will be more precise or less. Anyway, don’t worry. As you will learn more about the project you will gradually add new information and refine your estimates.

Quick overview

It is important to inform your client about everything he will need when you finish the work. In case you are working on the prototype and graphic design of the website, your client has to know that he will need someone to code the design into template. He will also need someone to create content for the website. Finally, let’s not forget on additional marketing activities. All these parts must be in place in order create successful web design. Otherwise, the whole project may fail.

If you can, you should always strive to finish the work and deliver outputs sooner and in higher quality than is expected. Whenever you achieve this, your clients will remember you as a good and reliable partner. They will also be more likely to contact you with future projects. And, positive references are guaranteed. Don’t try to achieve this by working for lower prices. It is counter-productive and your client would remember you as that “cheap web designer.” What’s more, he could start to recommend you as “cheap web designer”, instead of “great web designer.” Once you get this label, it will be difficult to remove.

“When” axis

When you solve everything related to “what” axis, the next step for successful web design is to resolve “when” axis. In other words, you have to start thinking about the deadlines for the project. Many of your clients will tell you that they need the website as soon as possible. Ideally, website should be done over the night or weekend. This is often what clients understand under the term successful web design. Paradox is that some “asap” project may never be actually launched. So, your first job is to take these unrealistic and unachievable deadlines back to earth.

What if you will be approached by client that really needs the website done asap? You should divide the work into smaller pieces that are much easier to manage. Then, you should create some kind of a minimalistic variant of the website that can be launched in shortest time possible. Still, doing this makes sense only in case of project that you really like. If the project is not interesting for you, it is better to move on and find another project to work on.

The right time to set deadlines

Remember that deadlines should be set only when you have sufficient amount of information. You have to know the scope of the project and also what methods will you use in your web design process. Otherwise, it is very easy to forget something and create deadlines and milestones that will be hard to meet. In case of smaller projects, it is possible to create schedule fairly quickly. For bigger projects I recommend that you use WBS (described above) or similar management method. Keep in mind that with time, the speed and precision of your estimates will improve.

Another thing you should consider are ongoing projects and services you are providing to other clients. My suggestion is to take about seventy five percent of what you can realistically get done. This will give you enough space in case something goes wrong. If you think that seventy five is low, let me tell you that some web designers are focusing on only fifty or even twenty five percent of their capacity. Regardless of that, their calendars are still fully booked months in advance.

I know that some people will insist on using all their capacity. This is a mistake you should avoid. The problem is not that you are not capable of getting all the work done. The real problem is that there may be some delays caused by your clients you simply cannot predict. Many web designers will confirm that delays caused by clients are a common phenomenon. That’s also why successful web design requires a lot of patience, not just hard work. Therefore, it is important to clarify with your client what will happen (Your 50%) if they will cause any delays.

Learning to stick to deadlines

Your highest priority for every project should be adhering to deadlines. If you can achieve this, you will get ahead of the majority of your competition. The sad truth about web design industry is that there is only a handful of professional web designers who adhere to deadlines. What if something happens that cause you to miss a deadline? The most important thing is to communicate with your client. You have to inform your client about the situation as soon as you can. Then, you have to do whatever it takes to catch up on work. Remember, there can be other people waiting on you.

There is also a little bit uncomfortable direct proportion between how famous, recommended and expensive you are and the pressure you have to deal with. In other words, the higher on the food chain will you get, the more will your clients expect from you. If your goal is to get to the top in web design industry, you had better get used to being disciplined. With discipline and self-management successful web design is almost guaranteed. Even if every work you produce will look like Mona Lisa, you will have a hard time surviving if your clients can’t rely on you.

“How much” axis

The price you charge for your work is the first thing your client will care about. It is also one of the most important one for him. In order to make this topic easier, let’s divide it into smaller parts.

Work related to getting the project

The first item on the “how much” axis is the work that is directly related to getting the project. This includes everything you had to do in order to get project. Unfortunately, there is almost no chance to charge your client for this work. Still, it is useful to at least know there is such a thing. Contrary to some fairy tales beginning freelance web designers belief, projects will not come by themselves. Clients will not start to knock on your doors. At least not in the beginning. Remember that every project you will get is only consequence of your previous actions and finished projects.

Real work on the project

The next item is about the real work you do on the project. This includes information gathering, analysis, user research, prototyping, user testing, graphic design, coding responsive templates, programming, copywriting, branding, etc. These are the things where you use your skills and knowledge and you can charge all of them. It is also highly probable that your clients take these items into account. Well, he hired you to get these things done and create successful web design.


This item includes introductory meeting with your client, every meeting done to review and discuss your outputs and final presentation of your work. Emails, messages and calls between you and your client also belong here. Some clients will think that this “minor” stuff is for free, unless you actually work as a consultant. Therefore, you should specify the amount of communication that’s included in the price and that’s not. You can also include it into price and notify your client when the amount of communication exceeds certain level. Keep in mind that amount of communication will increase with the size of the project.

Project management

Every successful web design project will require some management. Whether you work with team of people or not, there is still at least one person you have to manage thorough the project. This person is you. Without project management on your side, success web design is basically left to chance. Most of freelance web designers are pricing project management with hourly or some type of a fixed rate.

Pricing models and successful web design

The next topic related to “How much” axis is what pricing model is the best. We are going to discuss three most common pricing models freelance web designers are using. Choosing the right pricing model is crucial to successful web design. Believe it or not, right pricing model can reduce stress. With the right pricing model you will be able to cover your needs. Without any worries about money, you will be able to focus all your energy on your work.

Hourly rate

Hourly rate is probably the best known pricing model. I would say that this can also be one of the most dangerous models. The biggest problem with this model is that you are paid for the time spend on the project. If you are highly-skilled web designer who is able to get job done faster than other people, you may be shooting yourself in the foot if you are not charging more. Let’s say there are two web designers – Jack and Joe. Jack has more experience and work faster that Joe. However, they both charge the same hourly rate.

Let’s say that Jack can design a website (using professional web design process) in twenty days. The same work will take Joe thirty four days. He is less experienced and will need more time and iterations to achieve similar result as Jack. Who will get paid more? When we do the Math, we will quickly find out that Joe is the winner. Why got Jack paid less money than Joe even though he has more experience? The reason is that Jack was able to work faster and save his client some time.

This is why freelance web designers using this pricing model has to seriously think about their hourly rate. Web designers should also regularly increase their rates as they gain more experience, knowledge and increase the value they are providing to their clients. Otherwise, they may find themselves in Jack’s situation. Is hourly rate inherently bad? Not necessarily. You can make it work for you by adjusting the rate to the level of your skills and expertise.

I found hourly rate useful in long-term project where neither I or my client know long will the project take. Then, I regularly inform my client about the amount of hours spend on the project. One way to prevent the amount of hours going to high is by agreeing on specific ceiling with your client. Then, you regularly inform your client about the status. Whenever there is a need for additional work, you ask discuss it with your client and, if he agrees, charge these additional hours.

Before moving on to the next pricing model, there is one more issue I see in hourly rate. You are not paid directly for the actual quality of your outputs. You are, again, paid for the time spend on the project. Unfortunately, high amount of hours doesn’t necessarily mean high quality of outputs. Going back to Jack and Joe, we can see that expert can create stunning work notwithstanding the smaller amount of hours. In other words, sometimes, time is not proportional to the quality.

Fixed rate

Using fixed rate is probably the best option to choose mainly in two situations. First, you are selling package of specific services you can accurately appraise. Second, you conclude an agreement with your client on long-term cooperation. The main benefit of fixed rate for you is that if everything goes well, you can earn more money for less work. The main benefit for your client is that he always knows exactly how much he will have to pay you at the end.

The downsides of fixed rate are the paradoxically same. When something goes wrong, you will work either below the price or even for free. In case of your client, there is always possibility that he could get better price by paying hourly rate. If you are using fixed rate pricing, good rule of thumb is to clarify the number of revisions and iterations included in the price. If you are also using fixed amount of hours, you should also discuss with your client what will happen if this amount will be exceeded. How many hours are for free (if any)? How much will you charge?

Let me give you an example. I’m currently using fixed rate pricing with one of my clients. We agreed on specific hours per month I will be available to work on the project. When this amount of hours is exceeded, I will charge every additional hour based on my hourly rate. All of this is also stated in our contract.

Project share

Pricing model based on project share is predominantly used in startups and e-shops. It is very rare to encounter it in other web design projects. Before you agree with this type of reward for your work, make sure to get maximum information about the project, the company, its business and its team. Your reward will be directly dependent on other people. There is high risk that you may never see any payment at all. Project share pricing makes sense only if you have at least some control over the project and decision-making powers. Otherwise, avoid it.

Money-related questions

Next to the pricing model, there are other money-related questions we should explore and answer. These questions include upfront payments, how to approach changes in price estimates, how to deal with discounts and negotiation and also few words about working for free and spec work.

Upfront payment

My default recommendation for everyone interested in successful web design is to always invoice certain amount of money upfront. In case of new clients, this is something I wouldn’t start without it. Upfront payment has at least two benefits. First, when you have already part of the payment on your bank account, you will not delay the project. Second, it is more likely that your client will cooperate with you if he already paid you some money. The amount of payment is individual. Some web designers charge twenty percent, some even seventy percent or more.

Changes in price

Any change in price is a moment that can have significant impact on the relationship between you and your client. It will also influence the possibility of another work. Regardless of the price you’ve set, never change the way the price is calculated. If you are charging hourly rate, never change the amount of money you charge per hour during the project. Otherwise, you will look inconsistently and unreliably. The takeaway for successful web design? Think twice before you set your rate and change it only after the project is done.


Let’s make this simple. Never give discounts. Discounts can influence how you perceive the transaction. Meaning, you will no longer see it as win-win deal. As a result, your productivity and ability to deliver quality outputs can be damaged (consciously or unconsciously). The only reason for giving discounts is if you screw something up. For example, if you miss the deadline or deliver low quality outputs. This is when discounts are acceptable. Also, give discounts only retroactively.


The best approach to negotiation is to try to avoid it. When your client will try to negotiate the price, you should either reject it or lower your offer. So, if your client wants to pay less, you will do less work. Otherwise, it is not win-win situation. Rejection often works better than you would expect. I experienced couple situations where I got the job although I rejected to negotiate the price. You can also argue that giving any discount to your client now would be discriminating your previous clients. In short, no discounts and no negotiation.

Working for free

I’m strongly against working for free. One of the reasons is that people will treat you according to the price they have to pay. The less they will pay you, the worse. When you work for free, clients will not hesitate to come up with dozens of ideas for implementations. This is only a waste of your time and skills. However, there are two scenarios when working for free is acceptable. The first scenario is you are just starting out. If you are looking for your first job, work for free can be easy way to populate your portfolio and improve your skills.

The second scenario is doing volunteer work. If you decide to dedicate some time every your for charitable purposes, go ahead. However, I would recommend that you primarily focus on searching for opportunities to make at least some money than working for free. In the end, you need money to buy food and pay rent. No matter how you define successful web design, starving to death should never be your goal.

Spec work

Spec work is basically type of creative work when web designer creates something without any guarantee it will be paid. If you ever participated in any web design contest, this is what I’m talking about. Dozens of web designers submits their work and then wait to see if they will win and get paid or not. Along with working for free, spec work is something I recommend that you avoid. It can do more harm than good to both, client and web designer. Client will get design that may never work and designer may not get paid. Don’t do spec work.

Closing thoughts on successful web design

The idea of successful web design is to work on projects backed by well-thought strategy. These projects should be also challenging and help you grow as a web designer. Before you start, always clarify the three main axis (what, when and how much). Next, never work for free or give discounts, reject negotiation and avoid spec work. Always stick to deadlines, without exceptions. Remember that web design is business. In case of pricing, you can always reach out to other web designers and discuss your pricing with them.

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By Alex Devero

I'm Founder/CEO of DEVERO Corporation. Entrepreneur, designer, developer. My mission and MTP is to accelerate the development of humankind through technology.

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