What if independent designers were able to sell their expertise as a monthly service? If they could, would that be a good experience for clients and designers alike? I think it would be, and that’s why I’m using this model with my consulting business, HatBox.

I’m talking about retainers.

Retainers are instituted by almost every white-collar service category. Lawyers, engineers, agencies, and architects of any stature adopt this model because it provides stability and has the potential to bring in passive income. Many of those professions, however, decide to charge by the hour when it gets down to the day-to-day. That’s the mistake.

Time vs. Value vs. Licensing vs. Service

The debate on how to price almost always falls into these categories, and each is used successfully by many. In the digital design world, I’d argue that time is easily the worst of your options.

How long you take on something has (at best) a loose correlation to the quality of the work. What drives business value? The quality of the work. Paying by the hour doesn’t make sense for clients, either. It encourages a designer to drag out the process and take a long time with their work. That’s the last thing a business should want.

Value-based pricing is the real sweet spot. From a moral perspective, it’s easily the best option all the way around. Unfortunately, the discovery process to lock down the value of your work can be lengthy or inaccurate. It’s also difficult for clients to budget what your value-based pricing is going to do to their monthly cost-basis before any financial benefits from the design work are felt.

Licensing is an interesting option, but there is no framework or history of this working well for an entire campaign or product. Licensing has almost everything to do with intellectual property. The artist or designer retains it. Most businesses would never allow the designer to control the rights to the IP, as it’s often their most valuable asset.

Retainers are the answer. The client knows exactly how to budget the work on a monthly basis, which is how they analyze almost every other cost. The professional has peace-of-mind that they can depend on a certain amount of income and focus on delivering business-value, not time-sheets.

Let’s finally divorce the hourly rate

Changing an archaic process always takes time, not because people can’t change, but because they rarely have the energy to do so. For designers this is a two-sided battle. You have to first adopt the belief that retainers are the universal answer, then you need to sell that belief to your clients. We can do it. We change the world every day.