Pixel Pushers: Design on the Cheap

This post won’t go over well with everyone in the design community. Some of them might get their Pantones in a wad over what I’m about to tell you. But by the end, the rest of you will be thanking me. And to the designers that hate this post, it's better that you know the rules then to hate the game.

In a previous post I explained the need for good graphic design regardless of circumstance. When it comes to your blog and social media presence, the reality versus perception requires not simply great content – but great visuals. However, more often than not great visuals cost money or time.

Trust me, I still do graphic design almost every single business day, and I won’t candy-coat this: I want to get f@#$%^g paid!

Nevertheless, the intent here is to give you some insight on how you can get microbrew graphics on a Budweiser budget.

Master & Commander

First and foremost: creative control. The more you are willing to give it to your designer, the less you should expect to pay. If you've worked with them before and are confident with their style as it applies to your directive, then tell them you are willing to turn over full control of the visual for a break on the price. You will pique the interest of talented creatives, because they get off on doing unmandated design.


We designers hate revisions. If you're confident with the designer you hired, ensure them that approvals will come quickly, and there will be minimal revisions. In addition, tell them you're willing to put a “not to exceed” hourly quote to each round of revisions if they are willing to prorate their pricing. 

Feed the Hungry

Work with a young designer. They are hungry and willing to sacrifice price so they can build their portfolio with “published” work. This is the devilish Catch-22 that all designers go through. They can't get a job because all they have to show is student work. But how can they get real work if no one will give them the chance? So here's what you do. Reach out to local colleges and find the e-mail addresses for professors and department heads in the design department. Tell them your goals and intent, and what type of styles you're looking for, and ask if they can connect you with their best applicable student. Teachers want to get their students started in a positive career direction. So most often these e-mails are very well received.

The Mosh Pit 

The next and most hated option within the design community is to "crowdsource" the work. The idea around crowdsourcing is to use tools, groups and forums to request submissions – with one “winner” chosen by you. Designers, agencies and boutique firms fight to give you their best work. And in the end you will pay only one of them.

Why is this a hated option? Because the rest of us who didn’t measure up to your expectations get nothing for busting our asses. Granted we understood the ground rules going into the game, but it still stings. So if you use a crowdsourcing solution, might I also advocate you adopt a tiered compensation structure. Think about offering a little taste to the finalists as you narrow down your selection. It could be a stipend or percentage of the overall project. Don't be a douchebag. This is what we do for a living.

Bulk Discount

If you intend to do a lot of sequential work with a designer, try to work out an overall discount for the project. Just like you, freelancers want to know where their next meal (or AT&T Wireless payment) is coming from. So if you can assure someone a steady flow of work for a specific amount of time, she might be more likely to negotiate a package deal.

The back door

Another trick no one talks about is to seek the creative directors, art directors and lead designers from local ad agencies. Most agencies are so driven by their in-house pedigree that they provide everything you need on their “About” page. Reach out directly to the individuals and simply ask if they do freelance work. Remember, it is not your intent to hire them full time. Be straight up and tell them you are drawn to their ability but do not have the budget to hire the overall agency.

The garage sale 

You can pull great imagery and visuals from a plethora of very good design and stock photography houses that are relatively inexpensive and/or free. The following are just a few that I recommend:

First and foremost go here: 

Other services that have free or low cost royalty free images: 

Other inexpensive options include: 

The groupie

The last and possibly most important combination “death move'” you can pull on a graphic designer is “time and ego.” I'm going to dispel any notion you have that designers are not ego-driven. We all do this job so we can see our creations brought to life externally to our workplace. So take the time to make sure you're reaching out to the designer you think is best suited for the job, and adequately stroke her/him on how important it would be to your goals to work specifically with them.

Time: We never have enough of it. More often than not, pulling well over 40 hours a week at a full-time position and then juggling a half-dozen small freelance projects behind the scenes. That being said, if you have the luxury of time you can also drive down the price. Let's pull this all together in a mathematical equation:

Ego: Find the right talent + tell them how great they are + tell them they have creative freedom + tell them they have a project with multiple touch points + tell them there will be minimal revisions + they have copious amounts of time to accomplish the project = low price point. 

Free Lunch

Clearly all designers are going to be different and with unique circumstances based upon their workload. The best thing that you can do is find a designer you would like to work with, BUY THEM LUNCH (or beers), and tell them what you have in mind.

The Wild Card

When all else fails, tell them exactly how much money you have to spend. Sometimes the timing is right and you hit someone who needs a little extra cash. They will be highly motivated and will probably jump through hoops for you.

You get what you pay for

Obviously there is no reason for your independent site or social-media presence to look like your eighth-grade neighbor created it. Although if you are looking for a half-dozen fonts, each in a unique bright color – then he’s probably your guy.

Let me know if any of these suggestions work for you. And of course, I’m always willing to let you buy me lunch.

Posted on February 12, 2013 and filed under Business, Design, Process.