‘I know this really great designer – she’s really cheap’

December 8th, 2014



The next time I overhear someone say this I think I might get violent. I guess I should stop spending my time crafting blog posts and learn to deliver a killer right hook instead then. Why does hearing this make me want to start hitting people? Because its gleeful assumption that the cheaper you can get your design work done the better is short-sighted, results in poor-quality work that leaves us all in a less valuable world and is rudely dismissive of the years it takes to properly develop skills into a useful product.

Here’s a rapid history of how I honed the design skills I make my living from:

My earliest encounters with being a designer were knitting based. Driven by an intense concern only a five-year-old could have, that my teddy would get horribly cold while I was out all day at school, I asked my Mum to show me how to knit and had soon mastered a simple pattern for plain, pint-sized jumpers. I quickly realised the possibilities that adding colours would bring and learned how to work them in, producing garments that would have made Noel Edmonds himself envious. Long before CAD or Illustrator I was basically knitting logos.

Then there was Roger, artist and dear family friend whom I now recognise as being my greatest influence. Whenever I had the chance I would squeeze in beside him, watch and copy. What I was really doing, I realise now, was learning all about how colour works, how to master tension to balance a sense of completeness with energy and how to draw the eye. This was a long-term apprenticeship that has served me very well – thank you Roger.

After that school, college and then university where I was finally introduced to the design process, Adobe, semiotics and the psychoanalysis of vision. These structures came together to house and harness my early passions, talents and skills.

Then work, where I gradually learned how to put it all together. I now know that the designer’s eye never stops; whilst awake it feeds on everything that has been designed by mankind or nature and whilst asleep it files it all away in an amazing lexicon of understanding. I know that my ability to manage relationships well is equally as important as the conceptual work I produce. I know how to care for my mysterious symbiotic lodger that goes by the name of ‘inspiration’ so that it answers when I call it. I’ve learned (more-or-less) how to deal with Ego.

All of this ‘history’ has given me hard-won commercial skills and a product that makes my business a success. It doesn’t sound like something you’d try looking in Asda for does it?

So, what does all this whimsy and belly-aching mean for you?

Let’s try a live example. What follows are excerpts from two actual telephone conversations between me and the then new MD of a long-term client (obviously I’ve changed his name to preserve designer/client privilege)…

HIM: Sorry, I’ve been quiet for a while, I’ve just finished doing our financial year end and to be honest I think the last MD over spent on design and marketing – a lot.

ME: Oh.

HIM: Yeah, I’m sorry but I’m going to have to put a near total freeze on what we spend with you because I think I could use that sort of money better elsewhere.

ME: Oh, I feel I’ve got to ask, are you thinking of taking your business elsewhere?

HIM: No, I very much appreciate that the quality of our brand, our messaging and the marketing collateral you create for us is excellent it’s just the overall spend. I can’t justify it at the moment…

***    I N T E R L U D E   O F   O N E   Y E A R   ***

(During which we work on a few very small and one medium-sized project for this client)

Ring ring… ring, ring.

ME: Hi!

HIM: Hello!

ME: How’s things?

HIM: Well, I have good news and bad news.

ME: And the bad news is..?

HIM: I’ve just finished doing our financial year end and the business made a not insubstantial loss.

ME: Oh!

HIM: Yeah, I mean as you know I really reigned in all of our expenditure last year as well.

ME: Yes.

HIM: But, there were some positive things – that one piece of work you did for us directly lead to that part of the business being successful beyond all our expectations. You really understood what we were offering and who we wanted to attract and your work really drew that marketplace in for us to sell to. So really, even though freezing the marketing budget did save us money it also prevented us from making several times that in extra revenue.

ME: (laughing) Yes. Exactly!


It’s not that I don’t understand there are many very real pressures on the expenditure lines in our businesses these days, but I think it’s that very pressure that should bring about decisions to spend smartly, not merely cheaply. And of course what’s interesting about the conversation above is not my client’s partial and obvious realisation that marketing leads to increased revenue but rather his more full realisation that it’s quality marketing which leads to increased revenue.

So, as we look forward to working more closely with this client again over the coming year, focusing on their business objectives and translating them into considered, well-designed marketing collateral to help achieve them, I do hope he is going about his day with this new sentence ready to drop into conversation:

‘I know this really great design company – they’re really creative, skilled and knowledgeable and they make a hell of a lot of money for my business.’


  1. Alice, I couldn’t agree more about the value of design. And knitting is a brilliant method of slowly learning, through eyes, hands, focus and reflection about the interaction of colour, texture, scale, shape and how this creates an emotional reaction that we often aren’t even consciously aware of. So your rant is very forgiveable. All good craft is learned slowly and painstakingly; and until you’ve learned enough to recognise the difference between craft and copy-crafting, you don’t know what you don’t know. Your CEO’s mistake is very understandable in a stressful context; and good to know your patience was rewarded.

    by: Annie on 10th December 2014 at 9:28 am


    • Annie, as master-craftswoman you clearly know your stuff, thanks for this excellent and thoughtful response, which I think elevates my comments section to a proper discussion.

      by: shaell on 10th December 2014 at 11:22 am


  2. A thought-provoking post, highlighting the difference between cost and worth.

    Anyone can get business cards printed, but it’s only those who have the talent who get called back again and again because they do quality work!

    by: Poppy (Clissold Arms) on 11th December 2014 at 1:03 pm


    • Thanks and you’re right Poppy, I think ‘worth’ and ‘desirability’ go beyond talent though, which is an innate thing we are lucky to uncover within us, it’s about developing that talent, honing skills, learning to be fully present and trusting everything you know and have learned so that you can take appropriate risks. That is when you are fully in your element and can produce work that is of genuine value.

      by: shaell on 11th December 2014 at 9:08 pm


  3. What you describe as a designer’s way of being is a mindful way of being. Really being present, paying attention and seeing what is in front of you. It’s only when we’re present to what is, that we can develop the mastery that Annie describes. It strikes me that many of our business clients, as your CEO, are either past focused (we haven’t made enough money this year) or future focused (we need to make more money, conquer more markets, be number one next year). When you sit down with your clients, you not only get them to think about design, you get them to be present, to think about what is, who they are, what they stand for and what’s important. That’s definitely not available in Asda (or any other well known supermarket) and is worth its weight in gold as your CEO discovered.

    by: Sandra on 13th December 2014 at 7:27 am


    • Sandra – what a perspicacious comment and glowing compliment, thank you. I feel lucky to work with such intelligent, rounded and thoughtful people, but more than that people who are actually, as you say, mindfully acting on the bigger thoughts that they have. Can you start a large company so we can work together every day please?

      by: shaell on 16th January 2015 at 11:59 am


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