There are two sets of design professionals. The first set are commodities, and deliver value on a production level. These designers set their rates by the hour, and have a direct relationship between time and money. Typically these professionals have a fair amount of competition, and their market becomes saturated over time. They possess no un-fair advantage, and rely on self-promotion and marketing as a means to winning new work. What’s more, in the tech age, there is likely a product or service available that can accomplish what they are offering for a lower price with little-to-no disadvantage for the end-user or client.
Above I’ve described about 99% of design agencies and freelancers operating today.
The second set has de-commoditized themselves. They function on a conceptual/intellectual level, and have established themselves as disrupters in their industry. Think 2004 Apple. This set of professionals charge for the solutions they provide, not the amount of time it took them to solve the problem. Clients are willing to pay over 3x what the competition would charge because they’re providing a value, service, or product that isn’t available anywhere else in the market.
The latter is the 1%. There are a handful of designers and agencies that fall into the second category. 37 Signals, Undercurrent, Ben Pieratt, Frank Chimero, & Khoi Vinh immediately come to mind. They are offering something that is not readily available and can not be crowd-sourced. They’ve established their unfair-advantage, and bring concrete value to the table with every project. This group does not build business around self-promotion or marketing, instead the work seeks them.
With that said…
How have you de-commoditized yourself or brand? Can you measure your value outside the traditional time-for-money proposition? What is the problem you’re facing and is it worth solving? What is your unfair advantage?
These are all questions I pose to myself somewhat daily as a designer. As of yet, no clear answer has emerged, and more often than not, I find myself taking on work that puts me back in the first group. However, the second option is attainable if we reconsider our approach as well as think critically about the problems at hand. What is clear is this: If I’m doing work that provides similar or little value more than a pre-built template or crowd-sourced solution, than it’s the wrong kind of work.