Why You Don’t Have to Pay a Lot for Design

Cross-posting with my blog.

Let me start off by saying the title is not clickbait. Product design doesn’t have to be expensive, despite the rumour going around saying otherwise; not even great product design work. Yup, I’ve said it — great work can be cheap. But like with anything else that sounds too good to be true, there’s a catch: it’s called the Theory of the Unattainable Triangle.

Everyone understands these three components: cost, quality of work, and speed of delivery. Ideally, we want to pay as little as possible for great work delivered fast. But the claim of the triangle is you can only pick two of the three; one will always suffer.

Think back to college years — social life, good grades, quality sleep; which one did you have to sacrifice? Now look at adulthood — focus on family, career success, flourishing social life; rarely can you have all three.

The Theory of the Unattainable Triangle explained in a visual way.

In a utopian world every service we pay for is good, cheap, and delivered fast, but in reality everything is a trade-off. Saying ‘yes’ to something means saying ‘no’ to something else. Business is no different. Let’s un pack this.

I need quality design and I need it yesterday

Naturally, their expertise comes with a higher price tag. Everyone understands why a Ferrari costs more than a Volkswagen, and while there’s nothing wrong with driving a Volkswagen (I’ve had two!), if you need to win a race, I know which one I’d put my money on.

If you want great work done fast, you’ll have to pay up. It might hurt the bank account a little, but it will pay dividends. These people don’t just do the work. They do the work right — and sometimes that’s what matters.

You don’t know how affordable an expensive designer is until you work with a cheap one.

I don’t have a big budget, but I need this fast

This is what gave birth to poor customer service, thin margins, en-masse lay-offs, and subpar product quality. When it all has to happen fast and on a budget, it’s challenging to squeeze much quality out of it.

If you can only fork out the minimum pay for the quickest delivery, get ready to receive the bare minimum. Someone who’s paid little needs to get each client out of the way quickly to free up time for the next one. These creatives are factories; one in, one out. Quality is an afterthought, not a core principle. Not because they’re ill-intentioned, but because being paid little doesn’t allow them to think about quality. They need more than one client to put food on the table, and the sooner they finish with you, the sooner they’ll be able to start other work.

Photo of a man working on a MacBook, taken from above.
Photo of a man working on a MacBook, taken from above.
If a freelancer is racing against time and is not being paid well for it, they will cut corners

This is all fine and well if your project is not that important. I often hire on Fiverr and UpWork. But we’re talking transcribing a podcast or basic theme editing on my website — things that don’t matter much — not a design project that’s fundamental to a start-up.

Think of Rolex for a second — they don’t use discounts as their main sales strategy, because they don’t have to. They offer superior products, they know it, and if you want one you’ll have to pay up. Keeping that in mind, think about what it means when someone underprices themselves. What does that say about them, without them actually saying anything?

Be careful paying too little for work that matters. The bitterness of poor quality work remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.

I need good design, but I don’t have a lot of money

Photo of a glass jar spilling out coins.
Photo of a glass jar spilling out coins.
You need to fork out more than coins to pay for quality work

But even if you go ahead… the trade-off here is that you won’t get the work done fast. Your project will not be a priority for your designer, because you’re not paying enough. They may approach it as a ‘start-stop’ job, where they only work on it between bigger clients. They may push you to the back of the queue and work on your project whenever they can.

If time is not of the essence, it’s all cool — you get good work and you don’t pay that much for it. But what you don’t spend in money, you end up spending in weeks-long silence, chasing deliverables, and anxiety. Not the road I recommend you to walk, because moving fast in business gives you an advantage. You haven’t got the luxury to wait around for a superstar designer to free up time. Either find the money to pay them what they’re worth, or take the risk with someone less experienced.

Do you know what matters to you?

The bottom line is this: you can rarely, if ever, pay someone very experienced little money to deliver something of high quality fast. It’s all a game of trade-offs. If you want cheap design, you need to be willing to give something else up to get a good deal.

Helping startups grow through Product Design and Strategy. Check out my work at christianvasile.com