Tag Archives: design and money

Design & Money: Understanding Value

Dear readers, I was given this opportunity, probably once in a lifetime, to write an essay on Design & Money. I was assigned to do it on a voluntary basis or in much more simple constructed words: “Do it for free”. I accepted those terms. To bring more transparency, I need to break down the concept of “Design & Money”.


Design has nothing to do with money — nothing at all! Design is a state of mind, a creative process of continuous development and improvement. Design is like art — a way to shape history; pointing out its beliefs and to be able to come up with great solutions that are practical and useful for that specific time-period. What’s important during the process is to accept the flow that makes it possible to bring great ideas to life. Ideally, design is about ideas that affect our present and how we create an idea for tomorrow, how we come up with meaningful solutions for the client, for the primary target, for the one who it might concern, for ourselves and for the purpose it’s intended to be used. Design is important from the perspective of profiling, understanding the market and applying a good quality aesthetic solution that the customer and market can accept for the reasons given in the context of a mission. Design is exactly what you think it is — You might be wrong but you should better try it first.

Money has nothing to do with design. It’s merely a tool of the trade; it reciprocates value for value. Money is not a concern except for those who wants to discuss the graphic and illustrated shape of money, but that’s another case. As a designer, you hold the most important tool in the process — the gift of accepting and converting a client’s need to a practical and useful design. Design has nothing to do with money but everything to do about creating a value.

In times of change we are forced to understand what value truly means and learn to be more flexible and be aware of the role of designers and money. This is increasingly true due to the fact that internet has emerged a powerful connecting tool in the recent years. From where I work I hear more and more often about businesses ordering their work from a wide range of countries were the pay rates are a bit lower compared to my country and companies are grabbing such opportunities of outsourcing their work, all in the effort to reduce costs.

Since a few decades it has become cheaper to print books in other countries and have them shipped backed again. Although we we have some great paper production companies and distributors over here it all boils down to the salaries of the workers, the stock and the rent. This will change further when the new digital reading tools are established and accepted on a broader market, and this in turn make printed material more or less confined to information-material or advertising & packaging design or exclusive printed books. How will this affect us as designers? What choices will we make for our clients? What’s the best medium of presentation for our clients’ needs? How can we take advantage of that knowledge?

We can, of course, give ourselves a greener world with digital distribution and online or offline digital design. When it comes to design and internet we will experience a wider market, when it comes to value and money we will experience a great change in competition since it will include designers from other countries taking part and offering services at their rates. More or less we are pushing ourselves towards a larger equality in the world economy and we need to keep in mind what the regular accepted costs are in other countries. But there are also other aspects than just world economy, an that is “The value of good design”. What are the customers buying? For what use and purpose is the intended design? Everything has a value and from a more interesting perspective it is the knowledge of how to create good design that fills and works for the consumers’ needs and in the best cases also gives other benefits. In those cases it will be more interesting as a designer to be not only talented but have a good reputation in the fields of quality and services as well as the costs. For some it will be better to accept royalty and licensing fee as additional perks. A third aspect is how and what regulates the copyright and how it changes depending on what country the designer or artist comes from. This will probably be a tricky part since not everything is bound by the Berne Convention and also it can be alarming for a customer who is not aware of how and where it can be used.

And then there is reputation, which is really hard to get. Even regular customers aren’t ready to spread your work by word-of-mouth unless they can find a value in endorsing your products. It only works out if you’re already popular and then customers use your name as another brand they own. Small firms have nothing to loose but larger corporations with more customers will either have to offer products and services at higher prices or have longer waiting lists depending on how many orders there are assigned to a designer.

Recently I got hooked up in a long conversation about customers who start their request with a “zero budget”. They would only pay the designer as much as a “bravo” or a handshake or tapping on the shoulders. It’s so easy fall for this simple trick. Either they will get a yes or no, or at least they will try to have a dialogue and get it for a bargain. They don’t want to pay what it usually costs. Working with such money-grubbing clients or working for a bargain or free doesn’t make a brilliant business model. In such cases its best to offer a royalty-based solution where your design fee depends upon the sales or plainly offer your services at your real prices with a no thank you note until they have come back to their senses; their needs won’t have gone away but they might just be forced to change their minds.

Clients know their budget and the possible earnings from their investment. As a designer it’s important to understand that as well since that’s the key to discuss proper payment. It’s also important to keep in mind all other factors that can affect the final design solution such as how the market will react, who the target audience is, how they will react to the design, the colors, the shapes and the messages being conveyed by the business. Another key to understanding value of your design is to research different economic and geographical regions, the standard practices and prices there. You should also include a legal disclaimer that prohibits the use of your design until the final payment is made.

Knowledge is the key to good service. Get the necessary knowledge and be service-oriented. But make sure that you don’t lose your time — which is now. It is in your hands to find and create value.



Magnus ‘Mojo’ Olsson
Swedish Illustrator, Artist and Graphic Designer

Design & Money: How Good Design Becomes Good Business

Incubis was set up as a design studio in the mid 90s together with a close friend from NID, Sabyasachi Paldas; My brother, Rohit, an architect, joined us in a couple of years. We started in a time where Design (especially Industrial Design) was relatively unknown (a time when NID and NIIT were used interchangeably and Design meant “Dress-Design”, whatever that is). There was no mobile telephone, no email and no internet, which meant that the only way to get potential clients to know you was to either connect through office switchboards or wait patiently for appointments in assorted receptions. One worked out of the backyard at home (or in offices of small clients who were often equally broke!). A PC with an Intel 486 chip was an absolute luxury that was the result of close to a year of toiling over a drafting board (How many designers are familiar with this term anymore?). Though things seem somewhat quaint and laid-back in hindsight, one was actually quite charged-up and hands-on about getting companies and entrepreneurs to know, understand and experience the power of design. Though often insecure about the prospects of our education at NID, we were still mostly optimistic, landing new clients (and learning at their expense) was satisfying in itself.

Our enthusiasm and reckless can-do spirit more than made up for our relative lack of experience—many mistakes were made and one had to learn to apologize often and then go out and find new errors to trip over. We were lucky to find many equally adventurous clients who were happy to work with wide-eyed rookies. These early clients deserve a lot of credit for letting us discover where design would take us and for being generous with new opportunities and guidance. We realized that we were mostly hired to give shape to and help realize dreams nurtured by others, and shine our unique point of view through the cracks.

We grew up with a sense that we were lucky to be paid to do stuff we genuinely enjoyed and money was seen as a bit of a side effect. We lacked the hard-nosed profit motive of true entrepreneurs and though that was a blessing in our early days, the lack of business nous became a major impediment to growth in later stages. I don’t think the queasiness of asking clients for our hard-earned money has left us completely, with often-disastrous consequences.

It takes some time to see design actually making an impact for clients and it is only once the multiplier effect kicks-in that both designers and those who hire them start recognizing the huge value and outsize returns embedded in the engagement. It’s important to recognize the contribution of design and ensue that time invested in projects as well as professional equity are rewarded without sacrificing humility and honesty-of-purpose.

It was only when we started expanding the team slowly that the need for more discipline and a systematic approach to managing financial and other resources became obvious. It would have been a lot nicer to have this simple realization dawn on us earlier on! When I look around me its quite clear that design is good for business when done right, however, not necessarily the best business to be in – So the motivation to go on irrespective of the financial upside needs to be high. Being an entrepreneur and being a designer are not always compatible and not taking oneself too seriously and retaining a sense of fun and excitement is what it takes to tide the swings.

Good design becomes good business when designers realize that they are providing a professional-service (not unlike dentists, lawyers and accountants) and high standards, responsiveness and constant improvement need to stay in lockstep with creativity and original thinking. It’s, of course, equally important to sensitize clients to the iterative and often indeterminate nature of the design-process so that they learn to see failure as a stepping-stone.

The thing about design as a business is that no two clients are alike and no two projects use the same process — One not only creates products, services and spaces for clients, one ends up reinventing the process behind the design service very often to suit new situations and expectations. This continuously-variable environment is where one needs immense reserves of intensity and stamina. Scaling-up creative services on this changing-canvas is a challenge we’re still grappling with. It is the sheer diversity of what one can do with design that makes this marathon totally worth it.

Design is all about creating an ecosystem with diversity of thought and constructive dissent backed by precision and clarity. It’s about multi-disciplinary teams that mesh together and sustaining a high ‘tolerance for ambiguity’. With age and experience comes the danger of becoming jaded and predictable; it’s important to then to surround oneself with and mentor young, passionate professionals and allow them to explore fearlessly. What I’ve also realized is that there is no ideal size and scale for a design company, however, I suspect smaller is more manageable and affords greater creative freedom.

What also keeps things exciting is finding new and impactful areas to discover. Getting out of a comfort zone and back into the learning curve is what really gets creativity going. Here in India, we’re fortunate to be in an environment where many things are broken and design is one of the most potent ways of fixing complex systems. We need to start caring about the outcomes of our work and gradually align ourselves to the kind of design that will deliver lasting and meaningful change.

Here are some images from Incubis’ iconic 100 m long iconic ‘Mudra’ installation at the T3 air terminal at New Delhi.

delhi-airport-mudras mudra-1 mudra-3 mudra-2


Amit Krishn Gulati studied industrial design at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad and is the founder and managing director of Incubis Consultants, one of India’s leading design firms with a diverse mix of Fortune 500 multinationals as well as several start-ups as clients. Incubis employs close to 50 professionals in Design, Engineering and Architecture at its New Delhi studios. Incubis’ clients value the unique ‘Experience Design’ process, which brings together user insight, local knowledge and innovative zeal to create a wide range of built-forms, spaces, products and service offerings.

Incubis is known for its design work in the low cost sector with innovative projects for Ginger hotels, Honda, Unilever and GE. Recently, Incubis conceptualized and helped create the iconic 100 m long ‘Mudra’ (hand-gesture) installation that has become the celebrated symbol of the new T3 airline terminal at New Delhi.

Amit is also one of the founding investors and design-advisor at, Barista Lavazza, India’s pioneering espresso retailer and at Eye-Q — a successful and fast-growing chain of affordable eye hospitals targeted towards low-income patients in small towns.

In addition to the consulting work at Incubis, Amit is involved with design education and is a visiting faculty at The School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, IIT Roorkee, and The National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. Amit is actively engaged in creating design awareness in India and served on the CII National Committee on Design for several years.

Amit is the recipient of several awards from organizations such as, the Plastindia Foundation, Indian Society of Lighting Engineers, Art Centre Europe, Sony Corporation Japan, National Gallery of Modern Art and the Ashok Jain Foundation.

Money & Design: How Much?

“How Much?”

Two words that have echoed all my professional life.

As young designers, we always knew what we were worth for a client: the value we would bring to his business, the increased brand value, the costs we would save for him but when it came to costing our own efforts to achieve this, we were hopelessly out of sync.

Years ago, I was called upon to do the product graphics and colour schemes for a tractor. A large industry with heavy spending on a research centre, it was an ideal client to have. The briefing was professional, the meetings were cordial, till the time came to discuss the quote. “ You would charge that to put just a few lines on the tractor?”, I was asked. “If it is just a few lines, you would have done it yourself, “ the young blood in me retorted. I dug my heels and got what I wanted.

But I have not been so lucky, all the time. In fact, most often I have been cajoled, requested, brow-beaten and bullied into accepting a lower fee.

“We cannot afford it now.”

“Let’s start with this, for now”

“We are not a corporate company with unlimited funds. We are an NGO.”

“We are not an NGO with foreign funding. We are an industry.”

The reasons were many. The excuses were endless. But it is rather clear: most people don’t want to pay for design. It is not like they do not have the budgets. Design is not perceived by many, as a service worth paying for.

These are the same clients, who would rather pay celebrities to endorse ordinary looking products, paying millions for the endorsements. Bag-makers are known to spend more on Bollywood stars like Kareena and John Abraham than on product designers. Appliance makers believe that paying cricket players like Dhoni a fee, is money well-spent, than spending on product development.

These are the same clients who believe that making an ad film and releasing it across all the satellite channels is a necessary investment for marketing than spending on appropriate design that will do the marketing itself.

These are the same businesses that understand stardom, more than value. It is the absence of star designers like a Karim Rashid that is also affecting the economies of the design industry.

Add to this, the fact that the design fraternity is small and fragmented. There are no stars. There are no rules. Each to his own. The professional bodies are also not making an impact, yet.

There are no minimum or maximum fees. I have had instances where designers have known to quote ridiculously low or exhorbitantly high fees. This may also be because of no minimum standards of work.

Designers, often do not have the patience to invest in a client. To give him value. To demonstrate the value created. To educate him on the profession. On why we charge the way, we charge.

When that happens, clients begin to look at you as a resource. That is when, designers will be called upon to develop new stuff when a business is set up. They would look upon you as problem solvers. And not as vendors. Or suppliers. Or contractors.

I am not surprised that clients find it easy to allocate money for vendors and contractors. There is no ambiguity in the product specs. If it meets the specs, you pay the value.

But good design itself is ambiguous. The value of good design will be felt much later than sooner. As a society that is so used to ‘making-do’, the importance of good design is hard to understand.
So, how does one get what we deserve?

  1. Spread the good word. Never lose an opportunity to disseminate the idea of good design.
  2. Discuss money with fellow designers. This will help understand if one in under-charging or over-charging.
  3. Do good work. Even for clients who pay less. This pays off in the long run.
  4. Build a design-aware constituency. When people appreciate good design, they would demand it.
  5. Get professional fees for design. Do not disguise it in implementation, publication or contracting expenses.
  6. Do not settle. Over time, people will understand why you charge the way you charge.

Till then, keep your chin up, when faced with the question: “How much?”

A Balasubramaniam is one of the early graduates of NID, (National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad) having specialised in Industrial design. He is known for his work in both the industrial sector and the crafts sector having done projects with Eicher Tractors, Eveready, Hero Motors, Usha, Crafts Counci, DC Handicrafts and the UNDP.

He has been involved in institution development as well, having headed the Fairtrade division of Oxfam, GB in India; co-ordinated setting up PRIDE, a design excellence division at NSIC; and led the design team of bamboo design and development projects in the North East for UNDP.

His foray into design education started with NIFT Delhi and he went on to teach and be a jury member in all the major design institutes, including NID, NIFT, SPA and IILM. Till March 2010, he was also heading the IILM School of Design, Gurgaon as its Dean.

He is the founder of January Design, a consultancy that works mainly with design and strategy projects for the MSME sectors of the industry, grass-root innovations and the crafts sector. He is also a consultant to the National Innovation Foundation.

He regularly writes on design issues in Times of India, Economic Times, Pool and other major design publications. His blog, Design Thoughts is popular for its cryptic commentary on the Indian design scenario.

Feel free to send him a mail.