Design critique for fun and profitFebruary 5, 2022
Last week I asked Twitter if anyone would pay for visual design critique as a service — I love helping people fix small visual bugs in their designs, but would a business pay for this?
While this series of events may have been a fluke, I promised to share everything I’m learning about this process, format, and outcome. While I’ve only completed two projects, the tone, price, and expectations have changed dramatically.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
I knew not to do this, but I still did it.
Never charge by the hour.
Never charge by the hour.
Never charge by the hour.
I don’t want to live my life thinking about the price of a minute, or being distracted by the clock as I try to solve a hard problem. In my first Crit, the two hour crunch made me feel like I was forced to compromise the quality of the final artifact. I chose to go way over time and spent 6 hours on that first project. The extra time helped me end up with a result that I can stand behind.
I should have omitted the “two hours” line completely in my tweet. The right move is to charge for the value being delivered. Businesses pay for outcomes and designers shouldn’t be punished for being fast.
After framing the Crit as a by-the-hour service, the second biggest mistake I made was framing the offering as a visual design critique only. After working with my first two customers, it’s clear that going below the surface-level critique in order to actually deliver a meaningful artifact, is unavoidable. Visuals are inherently tied to usability, accessibility, copywriting, navigation, and hierarchy. And so while I might start a project by observing where things can simply look better, it’s ultimately unsatisfying to stay at that level and not explore how things could also work better.
So now I’m in a position where a lot of people assume this service is purely visual. I’ve tried to remedy this by reworking the entire landing page to communicate that this service is a comprehensive product design health report. This framing sounds more correct, is easier to communicate, and I think is a more attractive offer for a business anyways.
Interestingly, one customer has explicitly asked that I only focus on their visual design, and to not touch any other aspects of functionality or usability. We’ll see if this is an exception, or something consistently in demand.
The fact that I could go from a tweet to $8k in revenue within 24 hours is mind-blowing. Stripe payment links have effectively reduced the friction of getting paid online to zero.
I’m the kind of person who thinks every project needs a name, a logo, a domain, and a whole process behind it. If it’s easy, it feels like I haven’t worked hard enough. Sometimes this is good thing — the positioning of a new idea or product is often important to nail right from the start. But quite often, believing that everything needs to become a Big Thing is a trap where good ideas go to die.
Ship early and stay experimental, because very few decisions are permanent.
My direct messages went wild in the 48 hours after that initial set of tweets, and one of the most common threads I saw was other designers saying something along the lines of...
I’ve been wanting to do something like this for so long! I didn’t know how much to charge, or if anyone would even be interested. I would love to try this, but...
What I found is that people dramatically overthink how hard it is to spin up a consulting service. But in my limited experience, the demand is there, and more people should try it.
In fact, I suspect that this micro-consulting model might actually be very attractive to startups and fast-growing businesses. Imagine the 4-hour accessibility audit, or the 6-hour icon system, or the 2-hour copywriting review — specialist designers could dominate niches like these, and probably even band together as a loose coalition of experts to cross-promote and sell these services as a bundle. Oh my, have I created an agency?
Design is more than the visuals, they say. It’s a holistic process, requiring deep thought about why things should exist, how products should work, what kind of customers need this, who will pay for it, and on and on. Visual design? That’s just polish, pretty pixels that aren’t delivering business value.
But you know what, it turns out that sometimes people just want their product to look good. And it turns out that profitable businesses sometimes just want someone to point out the tiny pixel bugs, the misalignments and misplaced typography, and not get bogged down in multi-week contracts that cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Of course design is more than the visuals. But visuals are still damn important, and I think founders are desperate for a designer who can help them cross the “something looks off”-chasm.
I haven’t freelanced since high school, so I’ve never needed to talk about this stuff publicly, and nobody ever thought of me as a person who billed by the hour. As a result, I’ve spent years building relationships with people through coffee meetings, mentoring, and portfolio reviews with zero expectations.
But I noticed within a few days of this Crit project that some people would jokingly ask if they needed to pay me for my time to answer a question, or catch up over Zoom. Of course not! So now I’m worried that — at least as long as people remember these tweets — people might think I’m less accessible than before.
Related to the above point about not charging by the hour, designers seem to consistently underestimate what “a lot of money” is to a well-run and profitable business. I talked to friends and asked about their company's policy of expensing contract work. Some told me that they don’t need any approval for expenses under $5-10k. To companies making millions of dollars per year, a consultant who can move their needle by even a tiny amount is worth thousands of dollars and not a second thought.
One of my first customers told me plainly that the artifact I delivered was easily worth $10-15k in business value, and that I’d dramatically underpriced myself. This was wonderful validation for the Crit experiment, and I immediately raised my price from $1k to $5k. So far one new customer has signed up at the higher price point, and I plan to continue raising my prices as the quality of the final artifacts gets dialed in and my track record grows.
These sound like crazy numbers to me, but businesses don't even blink — if my work moves the needle, $5k pays for itself in a matter of hours or days.
Still, even at these rates, it still seems uncontroversial to say that it’s really, really, hard to become wealthy by selling your time. The tried-and-true road to building wealth is to own part of a growing business. Over the years I’ve earned equity in startups and public companies like Microsoft and Facebook, and the market movements on those stocks is more meaningful than my cash salary. Designers and programmers in tech understand this, and it’s the reason you hear crazy numbers like engineers earning $800k to $1m+ in total comp.
Some reading on the subject:
- Wealth-planning resources for founders and startup employees
- Principal-Agent Problem: Act Like an Owner
- Big companies vs. startups
A few people asked if I was looking for an exit route from my day job at GitHub. No way. In fact, this kind of consulting work is only going to make me better at my core work. I have the opportunity to practice in a way that’s simply not possible during my weekday working hours. These Crits are a way for me to level up my hard skills and learn about new products, problems, and industries.
I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to practice design on real problems with real outcomes, without giving up the deeper, more fulfilling work I get to do building end-to-end experiences at GitHub.
A couple people asked me if I was going to get in trouble for offering this service. As long as I’m not sharing trade secrets, working on competing products, or neglecting my primary responsibilities at GitHub, things are fine. Big companies tend to have restrictive policies around moonlighting, and I’m thankful that GitHub is so friendly to side projects. Being supportive of this kind of “extracurricular work” is a subtle perk, but makes me appreciate my job even more.
A close friend shared some critical feedback with me after I put up the first version of my Crit landing page. Specifically, he pointed out that I was coming across as extremely confident, bordering on arrogant. Who the hell was I, promising people that I can fix their designs in two hours? Am I really that good? Am I over-promising? It felt to this friend that I was trying to figure out how much money I could make while doing the least amount of work, bolstered by my reputation and Twitter following.
Other people pointed out that my experiment was reinforcing a harmful stereotype about what design even is: a surface level veneer that can be fixed in a couple hours by nudging some pixels around on the screen.
It was also pointed out that the fast “off-the-cuff” nature of my tweets might be off-putting, alienating myself among my peers and co-workers. Even worse, this type of experiment might feel like I’m “monetizing my clout” which is a gnarly rat’s nest of concerns to untangle.
All told: I’m sure I rubbed a lot of people the wrong way and I’ll never hear from them. I appreciated the fact that a couple people did take the time to voice concerns with me privately and talk through how I might adjust the format and phrasing to feel more thoughtful and substantive going forward.
Taking a reputation risk is scary — I'm publishing my writing and Loom videos for the whole world to judge. The negative self-talk about what could go wrong is pretty overwhelming, and even though I've managed to push through in the last week or so, I think this Crit experiment is still very sensitive to public critique.
- It’s hard to ignore the fact that there are lots of people who follow me on Twitter, and this undoubtedly had an impact on my experiment. Clearly there’s a marketing-slash-distribution problem for better designers who choose to stay off social media, although my hunch is that those people can do just fine through word-of-mouth referrals. @ me with any thoughts on this.↩