Let me start off by saying the title is not clickbait. Product design doesn’t have to be expensive, despite the rumour going around saying otherwise; not even great product design work. Yup, I’ve said it — great work can be cheap. But like with anything else that sounds too good to be true, there’s a catch: it’s called the Theory of the Unattainable Triangle.
Everyone understands these three components: cost, quality of work, and speed of delivery. Ideally, we want to pay as little as possible for great work delivered fast. But the claim of the triangle is you can only pick two of the three; one will always suffer.
Think back to college years — social life, good grades, quality sleep; which one did you have to sacrifice? Now look at adulthood — focus on family, career success, flourishing social life; rarely can you have all three.
In a utopian world every service we pay for is good, cheap, and delivered fast, but in reality everything is a trade-off. Saying ‘yes’ to something means saying ‘no’ to something else. Business is no different. Let’s un pack this.
I need quality design and I need it yesterday
The best designers have experience, skill, creativity, and a track record difficult to attain. They are rare, they do superior work, and they are in more demand than ever.
Naturally, their expertise comes with a higher price tag. Everyone understands why a Ferrari costs more than a Volkswagen, and while there’s nothing wrong with driving a Volkswagen (I’ve had two!), if you need to win a race, I know which one I’d put my money on.
If you want great work done fast, you’ll have to pay up. It might hurt the bank account a little, but it will pay dividends. These people don’t just do the work. They do the work right – and sometimes that’s what matters.
You don’t know how affordable an expensive designer is until you work with a cheap one.
I don’t have a big budget, but I need this fast
We live in a culture of instant gratification, whether that’s same-day shipping, one-hour food delivery, or three-minute Uber wait times. Our expectations of brands and services are becoming unreasonable, and price is part of the problem. We want it all right now and we want it to be affordable.
This is what gave birth to poor customer service, thin margins, en-masse lay-offs, and subpar product quality. When it all has to happen fast and on a budget, it’s challenging to squeeze much quality out of it.
If you can only fork out the minimum pay for the quickest delivery, get ready to receive the bare minimum. Someone who’s paid little needs to get each client out of the way quickly to free up time for the next one. These creatives are factories; one in, one out. Quality is an afterthought, not a core principle. Not because they’re ill-intentioned, but because being paid little doesn’t allow them to think about quality. They need more than one client to put food on the table, and the sooner they finish with you, the sooner they’ll be able to start other work.
This is all fine and well if your project is not that important. I often hire on Fiverr and UpWork. But we’re talking transcribing a podcast or basic theme editing on my website — things that don’t matter much — not a design project that’s fundamental to a start-up.
Think of Rolex for a second — they don’t use discounts as their main sales strategy, because they don’t have to. They offer superior products, they know it, and if you want one you’ll have to pay up. Keeping that in mind, think about what it means when someone underprices themselves. What does that say about them, without them actually saying anything?
Be careful paying too little for work that matters. The bitterness of poor quality work remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.
I need good design, but I don’t have a lot of money
If that’s the situation you’re in, I’d like to challenge you. Let’s say you’re starting a tech company and you need an MVP. That MVP is crucial to your success, so if you can’t pay someone to do it well, maybe you should look for a little investment. Or maybe you should save up for six months before you go ahead. Or maybe think of alternative ways to pay. If what you need designed is crucial to your business, not having enough money to do it is a bad way to start. You should be setting yourself up for success, and hiring on a budget won’t do that.
But even if you go ahead… the trade-off here is that you won’t get the work done fast. Your project will not be a priority for your designer, because you’re not paying enough. They may approach it as a ‘start-stop’ job, where they only work on it between bigger clients. They may push you to the back of the queue and work on your project whenever they can.
If time is not of the essence, it’s all cool — you get good work and you don’t pay that much for it. But what you don’t spend in money, you end up spending in weeks-long silence, chasing deliverables, and anxiety. Not the road I recommend you to walk, because moving fast in business gives you an advantage. You haven’t got the luxury to wait around for a superstar designer to free up time. Either find the money to pay them what they’re worth, or take the risk with someone less experienced.
Do you know what matters to you?
It’s important to think about this before hiring. If you’re not willing to spend a lot of money, what does that say about the importance of what you’re about to do? If you need something yesterday, what trade-off will you have to make? How much money do you save by hiring someone less experienced, and is that risk worth it? These are all questions you need to think about, and there’s no right or wrong answer.
The bottom line is this: you can rarely, if ever, pay someone very experienced little money to deliver something of high quality fast. It’s all a game of trade-offs. If you want cheap design, you need to be willing to give something else up to get a good deal.