how to bill for design

today is a day of being at home and catching up on paperwork.

billing for design is complicated, and most designers i know really hate it.  we set aside a day each week or each month for billing, during which we file, clean, do our nails, finish every project we ever started in our homes or our studios, realize that there are urgent errands to be done, cook elaborate dinners.... anything but manage to get around to the task at hand of billing our clients for the work we have done.  many of us go without being paid much of the time because we hate the billing process so much.

it is not the actual task of tallying up hours spent working on a design project that is the problem-- the problem is finding a way to comfortably tally creative thinking.  when i am working on someone's home, their home is in my head a lot of the time-- and wherever i am and whatever i am doing--  i might see the right coffee table, paint color, or idea for solving their living room problems.   how do you tally that time when you are doing one thing and thinking about several others at the same time?

and then there is the part of realizing how long it has taken us to do whatever the project is.  choosing paint colors took 3 hours? or finding the right sofa and the fabric to slipcover it took 12 hours?   coming up with a new floor plan for a tight kitchen entry/ pantry took 14 hours?  really????  sometimes when we go to tally it all up it feels like we must have been day dreaming and lolly gagging--  certainly not WORKING for all those hours. there is a real sense of dismay and self-recrimination on these billing days-- how could i have taken so long to complete that task?

and there is the real problem--  feeling confident that our time is worth what we are charging for it.  price, in the design industry, is based on reputation, experience, AND confidence.  then there is a complete leap of faith-- there is no regulation across the industry about what we charge for our time.  there are people who charge $25 an hour and people who charge many hundreds for a brief personal visit.   those of us on the lower end of the spectrum tend to work alone, and we tend, therefore, not to have someone else with whom to share our billing experiences.

over the years in my own work i have found a system that works for me.  my major work is at the beginning of a project-- i estimate the number of hours i think the project is going to take before i begin.  i look at that number for some time, and decide whether i am comfortable with the total price for this job based on that estimate.  i then adjust the number to one that i am comfortable with, usually lower, but every now and then a little higher-- and let my client know what my estimate covers.  once we agree upon the scope of work and the price--  i set up a payment plan with my client over the life of the project-- generally between two and four payments.

and then?  i just get to work and don't worry too much about the rest.


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