Design for Money: Avoiding Penny-Jar Budgeting Tactics

Last week wasn't any abnormal week, as far as lead generation is concerned. I receive random emails all the time, some are big projects and some are small. Some I can work with, most I decline. It is nice to be thought of. And then I received an, what is currently the most, insulting email from someone that asked me to design a 900 square foot 2 bed/bath condominium. The email read:

"While we can’t pay you in the traditional sense, it may be useful to use a case study of before and after... amount we can spend is $5,000. I’d like to see what designers can do with that limited budget.

Are you interested in the "project"?"

Now, it should be stated clearly that any communication one sends out is susceptible to scrutiny and no, I did not ask permission to copy the text and frankly I do not care about that. It's not slanderous, it's fact. It's not being malicious, it's engaging in dialogue on what is and what is not acceptable. Let's continue.

I wrote, deleted, and re-wrote my reply several times with my hands shaking from anger on every single word. Although the idea of some amazing before and after photos appeal to the average consumer, I have enough of those to fill, well, over 900 square feet. It just doesn't appeal to my designer senses. So I fixated on a couple of furniture pieces before responding, you know, just to get my bearings, and with this type of budget I realized that I would be able to provide this prospective client one, singular sofa, and one coffee table of low quality. Not much, right? Truth be told, there is not much that I can do with $5,000 after tax, delivery, products, installations, and my time for 900 square feet of living, sleeping, and eating.

This is the market reality of this type of budget but let me get to the real point: time is money. Time worked equals time paid. Like I said, I appreciate that I am thought of in such a way that I can literally make miracles happen but I think I will myself from a doomed relationship because of dishonest expectations. Let me be honest, I do not work for free. And yet, neither do prospective clients, they have jobs too. If your boss asked to start anything new without pay or providing the resources/training, would you do it? If you told your mechanic it was interesting that you needed an oil change but rather wanted to only pay for the oil, do you think he/she would service your vehicle?

I equate this type of penny-jar budgeting tactic to lack of autonomous education. It is not my industry that must lay all the cards on the table and teach prospective clients on the value of design services. They receive the same shelter magazines as I do, they see beautiful spaces as do I, but, they must understand that all that work was paid for, right? Someone who thinks that a Trading Spaces scene will unfold in the intimate atmosphere of their living room with a designer, carpenter, materials and supplies is just purposefully ignorant.

When it comes to establishing a budget for a project, we have to balance the needs of the client with the needs of the firm. Sure, I might work for free some times, a valuable design cause or I wanted to give a little extra, but it is my choice. Just as I am sure that you collect a pay cheque I too have business needs and people who rely on me for a pay cheque. My experience, knowledge, professionalism, business practices, contacts, vendors, installers, suppliers, 8 years of education, and a professional certification come at a cost. So please, do not take the food from my table to fulfill your champagne wishes and caviar dreams, as it were, and understand that my service is my business.

An empty table feeds no one so this type of project is best left to the homeowners devices.

For more on this recent topic, read Courtney Out Loud: Value of Your Work. If you want to send me this mug, look no further.