The Career Inbox

“How do I price out an estimate for this project?”

Freelancing is both liberating and dangerous for new designers. Just as it provides the freedom to pick your projects, it also allows you to name your price — which is difficult for even experienced designers.

Updated June 19, 2019

I often field questions from designers who are working through professional dilemma’s that don’t fit nicely into a textbook. Many have volunteered to open our conversations up to the public. Identifying information was removed for specific individuals or companies.

Designer Hi Chris — I could use some advice.

I interviewed with a company last week. It looks like things are going well.

They asked me to look at a project they are working on and give them feedback as to what needs to be changed, why those changes would fix it and an estimate as to how long the changes would take. They sent me the video last night to look at. I know I’ll be paid but wasn’t sure how to estimate this.

How do I go about pricing this out?

I’m only doing prototypes from what my understanding is. From my bootcamp experience, my estimates with my projects were always off so I don’t want to embarrass myself by saying something I can’t do in that time frame.

Thanks in advance for your help.

Stock photo of frustration Stock photo of frustration, which is how a lot of us feel when talking about money. source:

Chris Let’s unpack a few variables...

1) You have a general understanding regarding your own capacity to work — namely, your speed.

2) You have a basic understanding of their project.

3) We need to confirm the scope of the work. Prototypes can cover a range of things. What exactly do they want you to work on and is there a path forward beyond this part of the project?

4) Deadline. How you work will be determined by this. If the deadline is tomorrow, are you willing to drop everything and do just this? If it is a month from now, does it impede other opportunities?

Mash these together, and you get a sense of the amount of time needed. On projects like this I advise adding a full third to the estimate to cover potential overages and the fact that everything takes longer than expect.

Finally, always try to undersell how fast you are going to take. It gives you a chance to overdeliver, which is always a goal.

Designer Ok, that makes sense. I’ll answer those and see where I stand.

They understand that I still have a full-time job and this is a moonlight project. So I think I have some time to deliver the results but don’t want to wait forever on it either as they have the client waiting for results.

Also, I just review the user testing video they included, but they didn’t give any directions as to what they are supposed to be doing. It’s just the designer going through steps of filling out forms and assigning tasks.

Am I able to ask what the tasks are or should I figure that out on my own?

I don’t want to ask questions that I should know and mess up the job opportunity.

Chris If the client has provided a resource that isn’t helpful, by all means ask for clarification. Personally, I would just ask if they have the script they used for the video available. Point out that having the script will allow you to better understand the steps they are taking rather than risk guessing incorrectly. They should appreciate your desire to move through their work with confidence that you know what they are attempting to get it right.


Final note The situation above was involving a new designer, already underway, and in the middle of a discussion around time estimates. There are several schools of thought around whether designers should or shouldn’t take on this type of work. When you are just getting started, tackling a side project, AND getting paid for it, I don't have an issue with it. It’s those unpaid, ‘portfolio-boosting’ side projects that I have a real problem with.

Still, we have to address that designers aren’t paid for the hours they work, but for the years of experience we bring to the table. The designer here is pretty new, so they weren’t bringing years of experience to the equation but they did have enough skill to perform the task — which brings us to the value of the work itself.

For this reason, I am suggesting that anyone interested in this topic pick up a copy of Dan Mall’s Pricing Design. It’s a quick read for anyone considering the move from hourly pricing and discusses key factors you'll want to consider before venturing into that territory.

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