Charging the Rate You Deserve as a Freelancer

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If you're setting out to do freelance work as an illustrator or graphic artist in the advertising industry, either part-time or as a full-time career, you will need to establish your rate. Whether it's hourly, daily, or per project, deciding on a rate can be a daunting prospect.

Set the rate too low, and you'll be working yourself into the ground for peanuts. Set the rate too high, and you may not get any business at all. It's a fine balance, based on your experience and skill level and what you consider to be a justifiable compensation for your time.

Avoiding Freebies and Introductory Rates

Let's start with a warning. Agreeing to work for free or for a too low introductory rate as a way of drumming up business is an easy trap to fall into. A business wants you to do work for them, but they don't want to pay, so they ask you to do a little something for free. If it's good, you'll get more work later at a decent rate. Or you may be asked to charge a lower "introductory" rate, which is the company's way of saying, "Hey, we're taking a chance on you; you need to cut us a deal."

Very few professions operate this way. Imagine calling a plumber and saying, "Well, if you fix this pipe for free, I'll call you for more work later." Or "cut your price in half, and I guarantee more work down the road." In almost every other profession, the price is the price, and that's it. So you should have the same kind of respect for yourself. If a business doesn't want to pay you what you're worth, find another that will.

Charging Based on Experience

When you first get into the business, you are green. You haven't learned the hard-nosed, on-the-job lessons that will make you a true professional. You will have college experience, but that's not the level of professionalism you would get from working in a fast-paced agency for at least a year or two.

When you freelance in these early days, you are not doing it for the money; you're doing it to establish a client base and to get more varied work in your portfolio. At this stage, it's fine to charge $20-$30 an hour.

After a few years, though—say three to five—you will have gained insights that make you a better designer or illustrator, and you will have learned skills that cannot be gained in college. You can justify your newly increased freelance rate of $35-$60 an hour, or even more if you're in a bigger market like New York or Los Angeles that requires a higher rate to cover larger living expenses.

The More Experience, the Higher the Rate

When you hit the 5-10 years of experience mark and have a ton of excellent work and clients in your portfolio, it's time to raise your rate again. Now, prospective clients are paying not only for the quality of the work you can do but also for the time it took you to gain that experience. Some will find it a tough rate to swallow; after all, why should they pay you $65-$75 an hour when they can pop online and find a $50 logo or a designer on Craigslist who will charge much less an hour?

Remember to tell anyone who questions your rate that they get what they pay for. After 10-20 years, this rate can go up even higher. At this stage in your career, you have a vast wealth of experience to draw upon. You will be much quicker at your job, too. What used to take four hours may take you only 90 minutes now. You will come up with elegant solutions in less time, and the solutions will all be very useful.

Remembering Picasso

A helpful way to look at the value of experience is illustrated in this story about one of the greatest artistic geniuses of all time, Pablo Picasso. The legend goes that Picasso was sketching while sitting on a park bench when a woman—a very bold one—asked him to do a sketch of her. The interaction went something like this:

"Oh, my. I can't believe it. You're the great Picasso! Please, sir, you must sketch a portrait, and I shall not leave unless you say yes!"

Well, being something of a gentleman, Picasso agreed. He sat for a minute or two, studying the woman, and then put his pencil to the paper. With a single stroke, he made a fantastic portrait. The time the pencil was touching the paper must have been only a few seconds.

"It's … magnificent!" The woman beamed, gushed in fact, about how Picasso had captured her very spirit and likeness in the one stroke.

"How much do I owe you, sir?" the woman asked.

"Ten thousand dollars," Picasso replied, without missing a beat or raising an eyebrow. He was deadly serious.

The woman was naturally shell-shocked and had trouble gaining her composure.

"Ten thousand dollars?!" she said. "That's preposterous! Why it took you just a few seconds to do this!"

Picasso breathed deeply for a second and then replied, "Madame, it took me my entire life."

When you charge your rate, you must take into account all the years of experience that made you the designer or illustrator you are. You are not charging only for your time but for the many years of blood, sweat, and tears that it took to reach your level of skill.