How much do websites cost and competition with Squarespace

I was asked for a quote to design a brochure website during the week. After gathering the basic requirements, I asked for the project budget. It was quite a bit lower than our starting price, which, because it was higher than the expectation of the potential client, struck him as expensive.

I discovered I wasn’t able to articulate the value that comes with our pricing as well as I would have liked. The skill in want falls under the role of ‘sales’—abbreviated from ‘sales person’, because it’s such a negatively loaded word. After a more well communicated follow up email, I realised I touched on a few thoughts I have been musing over, but not yet collected and clarified. I want to do that now; to think about answering the question ‘how much does a website cost?’; and to consider the value of studios/agencies/consultancies/designers play in comparison to site building services like Squarespace or Shopify, which I recommended to the potential client.

How much does a website cost?

It is, in most cases, a frustrating or worrying question for a designer to answer, but a seemingly valid one for a potential client. It’s like asking ‘how much does a car cost’? You could answer ‘between almost nothing and €2,400,000. For a website the same can be argued (maybe a little shy of the €2.4m at the high end). The answer misses the real purpose of the question, but the spectrum can be useful to demonstrate that not all sites are made equal, or priced equally.

A follow up question might be, ‘what type of car are you looking for, what are your requirements?’ The specificity makes the question more tangible. Considerations like children, carrying heavy loads, distance and climate are going to dictate a lot about choices that will be presented. The same works for the web, determining a project’s goals and requirements helps to paint the picture of what the site will look like.

Budget comes next. I find many people are reluctant to reveal a project budget, perhaps fearing that I will match the proposal to their budget, which is probably the case for mutually beneficial reason. (Mike Monterio covers this well in Design Is a Job, Chapter 9, Getting Your Money) Continuing with the car analogy. After determining the requirements of a car buyer, the budget determines what choices are available. Luxuries perhaps, like higher performance, better fuel efficiency. The budget also determines a baseline. If you walk into a Mercedes dealership with €1,000 cash and smugly slam it on the table, there’s no possibility, unless someone is very sympathetic to your cause, that you will drive back out. The budget is below the baseline.

In the case of the example I started with, the brochure website, the budget is below our baseline. We have the choice to reduce the price, to maybe scrape a break-even, but from experience, unless the project is exceptionally super-cool, that decision seriously effects all involved; standards somehow get tied to the dropped price, work is just ok, maybe things get uncharacteristically delayed—It’s a lose-lose. In those cases I like to recommend another option, sometimes another designer, and sometimes a DIY service.

In cases where the budget allows some breathing room, decisions can then be made on including desired, but non-essential, features usually on the basis of the value each adds to the project. Other price-influencing factors are the brand and reputation of the service provider. How reputable they are, how impressive their portfolio and clients list is, and what experience they have will all influence price.

The value we add: Differences between designers and platforms

As well as to the potential client mentioned before, I’ve recommended to friends and been asked about it, and things like 99designs, whether I’m concerned that they will make life difficult for us, and designers in general. Regarding 99designs, Eoghan McCabe has already put it better than I could. Regarding things like, Squarespace, Virb, 1&1 (shudder) and similar platforms/services/site builders, I view them just as tools, not designer replacements. (You can apparently publish a web page directly from Microsoft Word which I also don’t find particularly threatening, albeit a little worrying.)

In a Shop Talk episode, Chris Coyier suggests that if we’re not adding more value than one of those services, maybe we should get good at selling them. If the work we produce falls short of a Squarespace stock-themed site, then it’s difficult to justify charging more. An option could be to develop on that platform. (We don’t build on Squarespace, but I’m using them repeatedly as an example because I think the product is very cool and that there’s a place for it in the web industry.)

As web designers, I argue that part of the value we add comes from our experience applied to creating solutions and making decisions concerning content, user experience and visual design that make sure what we make works and is received well by the end-user; and partly in the customisation that our technical skills enable—for example, tailoring a CMS, as opposed to finding a generic solution that kind of works, or designing a bespoke e-commerce experience, as opposed to using a template which other vendors also use.

I’m hoping for some feedback from the ‘potential client in question’ and would love to hear your thoughts as well—if anything struck home, or particularly if you think I’m way off on something.

Paddy O’Hanlon is a web designer and one of the principals at Logo24. He is a lover of good semantics, well documented and architected CSS, and beautiful, content-driven design. (Really the design-guise is a cover-up so he can covertly feed his travel addiction and climb many rocks around the world). He tweets @Paddy.

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