Design is Not a Commodity: Graphic Design Pricing Examined

Stop me if you’ve come across this kind of job posting before:

We’re looking to rebrand our business/website/product/publication, and we’re seeking a graphic designer to help us develop a new corporate identity. If interested, send us your concepts for our logos, layouts, typography and illustrations, and we’ll pick the best work and pay you handsomely for it.

In this scenario, all candidates are to do all the work, and only one will get paid. Although it’s quite common, this practice is clearly unfair to graphic designers, much like asking Target, Walmart and Sears to all send you a toaster, and promising to pay for only your favorite one.

Hire a ton, just pay one

Some websites accept as many as a hundred design submissions, and only one is purchased. The practice of “hire a ton, just pay one” would be indefensible if it weren’t for one issue: While you can evaluate several different fully-built toasters before you buy your favorite, businesses can’t evaluate or compare any design work until it’s all finished and submitted.

As a result, companies get the required variety the only fiscally viable way that they can; by asking for many designs and paying “handsomely” for one. Since logos and illustrations are usually customized for the unique purpose, It’s likely that nobody will ever buy the unchosen work. Unlike a toaster, designs are made for just one customer.

After seeing so many of these fruitless graphic designer job offers, one designer jokingly turned the concept around on its creators:

I am a graphic artist and in need of a job. I have decided to fill this need the same way many people think the can fill their graphic design needs; with a contest!

Here is how it will work;

Send me one weeks worth of salary and benefits. I will keep all of the checks that are sent to me and use all of the benefits. Whoever sends me the best salary and benefits package will win the contest and get the prize of two days of graphic design work!!!

Good Luck! I am really looking forward to receiving your payment packages!

Graphic design is not a commodity

A lot of graphic designers (like the one quoted above) insist that “graphic design is not a commodity.” Their point is that creative design, unlike copper or crude oil, varies in quality. You pay the cheapest possible price for things like gold or electricity, but the same strategy shouldn’t be employed when purchasing graphic design work. With design, the more you pay, the better the quality, right?

Not always.

Designers are correct beyond any doubt; graphic design does vary in quality, and it should vary in price accordingly. But, the quality doesn’t always match the price, and as much as they hate to admit it, designers aren’t always the ones getting the short end of the stick.

Case and point: The logo for the 2012 Olympics to be held in London. This logo cost roughly $800,000 to develop, and it is widely considered to be controversially ugly and amateurish. Many were demanding a replacement logo from the minute this one was unveiled.

(Also, the website for the firm that designed this logo seems to be over 2500 pixels wide in certain areas. Many would consider this yet another unusual design choice.)

Clearly, design is not a commodity. Maybe that’s exactly why it’s unclear how much it’s worth. A business could shortchange a group of talented artists just as easily as it could overpay tremendously for amateurish “clip art.” Have you seen a designer get underpaid? Have you seen one make a killing? Do you like the 2012 London logo, or do you picture it on a birthday cake instead of a billboard?

Popular search terms for this article:

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Peter is Vice President of Digital Marketing at an investment holdings company in Washington DC and Co-Founder at True North.


  1. I have to agree, the 2012 London logo looks pretty ugly. But are you sure it cost $800,000? Somehow, I am unable to believe that.

    How could that possibly be true?

    I mean I have seen great logos being made for around $50-$200.

    But this ugly logo for $800,000?

    Can anyone point me to a link/article which discusses this in detail? I would like to know more about it.


    • Peter North on the 29th June

      Hi Nabeel.

      ABC News covered the story here:

      “The colorful design, which cost organizers nearly $800,000 to create, features four jagged, bold numerals stacked two-by-two and reading 2012.”

      Another really interesting find was a website where designers make their own attempt at the logo. Some of their designs really blow the approved logo away:

  2. Leon on the 29th June

    Great article! Couldn’t agree more!

    It’s a thorn in my flesh to see companies getting paid hundred thousands of dollars for lousy designs (like the 2012 Olympics logo). Like Nabeel said, some logo’s that costed very little can be some of the best.

  3. Dave Dover on the 29th June

    Controversial article. I am totally behind your ideas on value within design.

    As for London 2012, £800k is surely for the entire branding and marketing strategy.

    The logo is garish and extremely bold, but it does it’s job very well. It’s instantly recognisable, it got people talking about the olympics and is very fresh and new approach to the constant churning out of identities from previous Olympic Games.

    The Fubra gallery does have some nice logos in it, but they could well be labelled as boring, borderline lazy – Olympic rings, silhouettes of London skyline, the same set of 5 colours, any designer would find it quite hard to base a great marketing campaign around those elements. This is why I think the Wolff Olins campaign is effective, with a distinctly fresh approach to the games.

    In terms of design, I think the Munich 1972 games had it licked, simple structured design with bold colours and a mascot called Waldi which has no reference to the Olympics at all but still works –

    • Jes on the 29th July

      I don’t love the London logo, but designers of the logo do have their work cut out for them, based on the current rules that forced Chicago to redesign it’s amazing logo for the bid.
      “Earlier, the previous logo that featured the Olympic-style torch was ruled out by the International Olympic Committee, as it was against the Olympic emblem/logo rules which state that candidate city logos cannot contain any Olympic symbol. This includes the Olympic flag as well as any other imagery related to the Olympics such as a flame, torch, rings, medal, and so forth.”

  4. Martijn on the 29th June

    There is nothing wrong with that logo. It is different and it is a bold but is it therefore bad … The colors are maybe a bit flashy but in Black and white, this has indeed the potential of being a very strong brand. The logo has a spirit you can compare to nike, puma, mtv, … an appropriate reflection to me.

    The price however … wicked … how can you, as a design firm, justify this cost? Like they will have spent 10.000 hours on the logo or let’s say 5.000 hours … Bullshit.

  5. Jason on the 29th June

    The logo is fine. “Good” is subjective. The cost is crazy. No doubt about that.
    I have a feeling that the stated dollar amount contains more than logo concepts.
    At least I hope it does.

  6. graphixboy on the 29th June

    I have to disagree slightly. While I’m not overly happy with the fact, the bottom line is that the VISUAL portion of design is a commodity. Its readily available as just about everyone with a computer has access to a copy of photoshop or something similar. When anything is widely available, regardless of its quality, the masses will always shop based on price. The sad truth is that there are talented artists willing to work for a comparatively small price who are vary capable of making something that people will “like”.

    However, LIKE is only part (and it could be argued least important part) of the design equation. Most of the time its impossible to discuss the “quality” of any design when even the design community reduces the measure to subjective aesthetics, with the Olympic logo being a perfect example.

    The reason people think they can hold a contents for design is because they’ve never been educated to understand the value of intentional decision making that is the basis for the design equation. A “good” identity, website, way finding system, object, etc must meet certain criteria in addition to any aesthetic requirement to be deemed “good”. In essence it must solve specific measurable problems.

    When we look at something like the 2012 Olympic mark we’re seeing only a very small part of the design process. A good designer/firm will have done extensive legal research into similarities with existing marks, explored usage across many mediums from airplane tails to t-shirts, done psychology studies and much more. All this before striving to creating a mark that is easily recognized, memorable and represents specific emotions. Notice that I’m not including visual appeal in that criteria since its an impossible goal with everyone having a very different sense of what they like or dislike.

    The true design process is not being commoditzed since it is very specific to each client/problem and the only way to get a truly successful project is to work in partnership with the client to attain mutually agreed upon goals. Individuals and firms that are following this approach are likely having very few problems justifying their price.

    As long as clients don’t understand the benefit of strong design (or believe that design doesn’t extend past a visual mark) and artists are willing to work for cheap, design contests and SPEC requests will continue. In reality, design contests aren’t the problem. People who own a copy of Photoshop/Illustrator and assume that’s enough to be labeled a designer are the problem especially when they agree to work for cheep or even free.

  7. Avery on the 29th June

    While I agree with what is stated I’m a bit surprised to see this not so general work topic within the Work Awesome articles instead of something like Freelance Switch. Was that a goof somehow?

    I was really hoping this thing with the 2012 logo had finally burned itself out but I guess not. A few of the alternatives at the fubras site were quite good but overall the vast majority were absolutely terrible. The logo that was chosen is a bit rough but I’m OK with it.

    The cost difference between a simple $50-200 logo made by a talented designer with no self respect who is probably getting his jobs from craigslist or elance for some random schmuck and an agency putting together a complete brand package for the Olympics is a ridiculous comparison. It ranks on up there with the guys that point out that the chosen logo could be recreated in 30 seconds with MS Paint.

  8. Jason on the 29th June

    I agree with you Avery.

    Perhaps I was a bit too vague when I said “good is subjective.” While I agree that there are practical and theoretical standards that help define good design—Even the most studied and talented designers in the world will often disagree with what is “good.”

    Months (if not years) can go into researching work so that everything aligns with—why it was created / who it was created for…yada yada…and the bottom line is that most people will have no idea what kind of effort went into the work.

    I’m guessing that real success for the 2012 logo will be how many people are walking around wearing it…That—and the fact that we’re all still talking about it.

  9. Nicole B on the 29th June

    I agree that there are many very talented designers who are severely underpaid for their work, and there are also many that are overpaid.

    However, I want to point out, that there are a lot of times when “ugly” work is a result of the client, not the designer. There are a lot of clients that micromanage design, and designers are reduced to nothing more then pixel pushing monkeys who just operate the equipment. Especially when you get “design by committee.”

    Choices made by a designer are almost always made for a reason, from color to layout. But then some know-it-all will come in and say “well I ran this by 100 of my most trusted confidants and we don’t like the color blue so change it to red, my mom likes the color red. Oh and can you move this over here, and this here, and make this about 3 times bigger.” What are you going to end up with? A hideous piece of crap that no longer even fulfills the initial objective.

    If I had to guess, I would say the London 2010 logo was a result of design by committee and the reason it cost $800,000 was because the agency charges hourly and had to make a million revisions because none of their designs pleased every single person in the board room (Bob hates blue, but Susan LOVES blue and wants everything blue). I feel sorry for the designers who worked on the project, because they were probably put through hell only to be publicly humiliated and criticized in the end.

    Remember, you are supposed to hire designers for their vast knowledge and UNDERSTANDING of composition, layout, color theory, aesthetics and more. NOT just because they know how to use Photoshop and you don’t.

  10. Nicole B on the 29th June

    Oh and also, thanks for posting this article and bringing attention to this horrible practice of “get a ton, pay for one.” Its really unfortunate that this happens at all.

    I also want to say that designers need to stop falling for this, because the ones who actually participate are destroying the value of everybody’s work and allowing these companies to keep treating us like crap.

    • Jael on the 30th September

      I couldn’t agree more with you Nicole. We’re being taken advantage of, and those who participate in the activity are making look like bad guys because we are not involved in lowering our standards. We’re not objects, we’re real people. If we create a project, even if it is not used, I still expect to get paid for the time I spent in imagining it, creating it, revising it, and packaging it. It’s our career, we don’t do it for fun. How are we supposed to pay our bills if we’re always putting in work and receiving a rejection out of it?

      By the way, it seems that most readers of this entry are more focused on the logo example rather than the topic of the whole article.

  11. Peach on the 30th June

    Brilliant article.

    “Get a ton, pay for one.” is indeed very unfair to artists. Designers will have to realized that this system is unprofessional.

    Hoping for a better day for designers in the future.

  12. Christian Belzer on the 30th June

    Thanks for the article! Very interesting comments, too! Seems the community cares a lot about bad jobs overpaid.
    The “hire a ton, just pay one” has done huge damage to our industry and undercuts the value of our work a lot. Customers starting to think: I must be an idiot if I dont exploit these idiots

    We as a small agency do not participate in very few pitches. And that only if:
    – maximum number of agencies involved is 3
    – the presentation und preparations are paid
    – the ideas are copyright protected, won´t be used if not paid
    – the above points are sealed by a contract

  13. cate adams on the 30th June

    Well said nicole B,
    What is the point of a client hiring a graphic designer and then proceeding to tell them how to do their job.

    If they hired a mechanic would they tell them how to fix their car? No they tell them they have a problem that needs solving and leave them to it.

    It is such a lack of respect for our expertise.

    The designer should be chosen on their portfolio showing their problem solving abilities and then work with the client until the client is happy with the result and convinced that it will do the job.

    A good designer will understand what the client is trying to communicate with their audience, they will pick the clients brains as they are the ones that know their company, their product and their audience. Then they will come up with a design solution that suits those needs, they do need to resist the temptation to do something that is a show stopper if it is inappropriate to the communication.

    Weather the logo is good or not is not subjective, if everybody hates it it has missed the mark. It is not just about getting attention.
    Some designers do need to learn to work with the clients and see where they are coming from so that they know they have been listened to, depending on the person of course they are more likely to trust you and not feel the need to tell you how to do it.

  14. Jason on the 30th June

    Not sure if this quote is referring to my comments:

    “Weather the logo is good or not is not subjective, if everybody hates it it has missed the mark. It is not just about getting attention.”

    My point is exactly what you’ve stated…how can you quantify that “everyone” hates it? -In this particular case a definite minority approves of the logo—but that minority is still made up of individuals who may “know” good design…they just may disagree with you.

  15. cate adams on the 30th June

    The audience for this logo is the public and if the majority hate it then the design is not ‘good’ as it has failed in its purpose. I think!.

  16. Jason on the 1st July

    I agree—but you’re point is slightly different than what I was responding too… Many of the arguments have been about what people-in-the-know deem as good design. So, this particular comment was addressing that. If you read my earlier post you’ll see that I deemed “success” the number of people / olympic fans who will ultimately be wearing the 2012 logo—these are the masses for which the logo was created.

    I’m willing to bet merchandise sales, pin wearing, etc. will be fine.


  17. Niklas on the 2nd July

    I work as a singer and as a webdesigner and you can compare it with the singing industry with auditions.

    You get called to an audition with 100-1000 other persons who got the same songs sent to them to practise on for hours and hours and make their own interpretation of.

    Then the production company chooses who they want for the production.

    Almost the same? I don´t like it but what do you suggest. Not going at all, not submiting work, will lead to no jobs at all most of the time.

  18. Gemma Duff on the 3rd July

    Is it possible that the designers did submit better ideas, and it was the management of London Olympics Committee (the client) who chose the label. It’s difficult in this case, as the designer is trying to please the paying client, but in the end the client is the population of London judging it.

    Just a thought, as it often happens to me as a designer that I like a logo far better than what the client chooses.

  19. David on the 22nd July

    The 80’s called, they want their logo back…

  20. Origsoda on the 18th July

    I think the olympic logo is a bad analogy. I think this is an example of design by committee. …Something else that frustrates designers.

  21. Shaun Hensher | Graphic Designer on the 17th September

    Wow, I didn’t realize it cost that much. That is beyond absurd! I’m sorry, but that’s just highway robbery. Business owners must be careful not to get soaked for sure. On the other hand, they shouldn’t cheap out. Design takes time.

    I actually just wrote a lengthy article on the subject of graphic design pricing. Check it out, I think you’ll like it.

  22. Caleb on the 7th July

    Great post! Pricing design is extremely difficult because especially as a freelancer, you don’t want to undersell, but you also don’t want to oversell.

    Personally, I don’t like the London Olympics logo, but I can believe they paid $800,000 for it. At that point, they’re pretty much charging for the fact that their logo is being flashed literally all over the world. It’s the same concept the firms take when developing say a tv network branding package. Sure it’s a lot of work, but theres a premium to pay for something for such high profile use. One of the benefits of getting clients in high places, I guess.

  23. Sean on the 21st June

    Not until we all stick together and ask for what we deserve as professionals things are going to change.

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