Good Design isn’t Cheap and Cheap Design isn’t Good

14 Mar, 2016 Blog, Design Tips

After more than twenty years in the Landscape and Urban Design industry, one of the most challenging things to get right is estimating fees. But when it comes to design, should the cost of fees be the major factor in deciding the right designer for you and your project?

For some clients, fees can be the primary driver for selecting a designer. This may be valid, but in terms of the overall financial investment in your project, your designer’s fees make up only a small percentage of that overall investment. Today’s progressive developers and passionate government authorities understand that a good designer will ultimately save their project money through cost-sensitive design, and yield them much greater financial gain than the cost of their design fees. Check out some of the direct and indirect economic benefits of great parks here.

Unfortunately, in a competitive market, competition drives down fees, and for design firms to survive in tough times, they need to match those design fees with time and effort spent on the project. In short, you really do get what you pay for.

For the most part, the hourly rates between various designers or design firms will be pretty close (determined by staff wages and office overheads), so there should be little difference in fees between various design practices. If there is, it is possibly because there is a difference in time estimated to be spent on your project.


The process and experience…

Design is not a commodity. It requires intuition, innovation, experience, strategic understanding and philosophy. It isn’t just moving a mouse or a pen. It’s moving the hearts and minds of the end users. It begins with engaging the client, challenging the brief, working out what is really needed, after all, it’s never just a design and documentation service. The end result –  delivering work that grows and excites the client, leaves a lasting legacy and inspires all those who use the end product.

It takes a whole career to refine a design process, learning along the way with each and every project and Client. Each designer or design practice will have their own take on it, but it’s that design process that guides the outcomes, maximises collaboration, establishes buy-in from key stakeholders and draws on past experiences and knowledge to deliver something truly inspiring, memorable and successful.

Picasso was in a park when a woman approached him and asked him to draw a portrait of her. Picasso agreed and quickly sketches her. After handing the sketch to her, she is pleased with the likeness and asks how much she owed to him. Picasso replies $5,000. The woman screamed, “but it took you only five minutes”. “No, Madam, it took me all my life,” replied Picasso.



Understanding the process and comparing apples with apples…

A smarter approach may be to ask a designer to quote on the actual number of hours they plan to spend on each of the various tasks associated with delivering your project, accompanied by the hourly rates of each nominated staff member. This will allow you to truly compare offers.

In fact, most clients have an idea of what they want to pay for design services; many have budgets that have been pre-determined. Why not consider this: write a design brief that nominates the design fee, allow the design consultant to spend their efforts crafting the best possible service for that fee, and make the selection process focused on the non price criteria. Allow the designer to focus on the project vision & understanding, their experience, skills and process and I guarantee you will get even better value for money.

Understand the Power of Loyalty…

All great designers are passionate about what they do, and most great designs are a result of great collaborations between Client and Designer. Building a long lasting relationship with your Designer based on loyalty and mutual respect will guarantee that they will always go over and beyond for you and your project, regardless of fees. Unfortunately in today’s commercially competitive and politically equitable market, loyalty between Client and Designer is a diminishing quality.


Fees will always be a consideration for Clients in a world driven by maximising profits, but in a world where competitive advantage is now linked more and more to innovation, creative design and a point of difference, investing in good designers through loyal relationships and good design process is the new choice.

Three key takeaways

1. Try an alternative approaches to requesting design fee, this will allow you to focus on choosing a designer based on their vision, experience and knowledge of your project and your needs.

2. The design process is fundamental to the success of the outcome, invest appropriately in the process of design.

3. At the end of the day, the cost of a good design service can add up, but having a poor design service can cost a lot more money and time in the long run.

Vee Design