Estimating for Website Visual Design

How do web agencies establish the cost for website interface (UX) design?

The way the website looks, the visual design, is a critical component of website development. This article covers how many agencies approach and estimate the cost of the visual design phase.

cost of web design only

On either side of this equation, it can be tricky to get web design costs right. How can you assign a fixed estimate for an effort and product that is by nature highly creative?  Something amazing can be created in a few moments or it can take hours of methodical iterations. A big concern for clients is whether they’ll have to pay the full cost if they don’t like the web design. We believe that in the hands of a professional, experienced design team backed by an effective project methodology, there shouldn’t be an issue. Good website designers base their work on design best-practices, usability planning and by thoughtfully considering their client’s business goals.

Before we get to the nitty gritty of the interface design, let’s review the fundamental steps that (should) precede it. Typically, when a new web project ramps up, there is a planning or Definition Phase in which the agency and client collaborate to define the project scope. Design-oriented documents that are generated in this planning phase may include a “creative brief” that defines the project’s creative goals and a “style guide” that outlines the rules for presenting the branding (fonts, logos, imagery, color palette, voice).  The next step in the Definition Phase, tackles UX (user experience) design and IA (information architecture), which  generates “wireframes” for page layouts. Wireframes are the blueprints of your website pages, devoid of graphics, and meant to confirm the content, features and priority of the page elements. Once the client approves the wireframes, then (finally) the visual design phase can get underway.  The interface designers use these planning assets as their roadmap for creating the visual elements for the website. They will incorporate the branding, color, imagery, style and tone into each page and then visually orchestrate all aspects of the website as a whole.

The amount of effort that goes into a website interface design can vary widely. For example, I have worked on large projects that included a creative director, two art directors and four designers. I have also worked on leaner teams of just one part-time art director and one designer. The amount of creative staff required is dictated by the scope and budget of the project.

Below, we will spell out estimated visual design costs for a typical project for our agency. For the sake of this article, we will fix the scope of our demo project to a small business website consisting of eight to twelve pages.  We’ll imagine that the client is a professional services company with no need for e-commerce or membership features, and no complex database requirements.

One of the first tasks is to determine how many page types are required. For example, a home page layout is very different from a blog page or a contact us page. Each of these pages requires a distinct layout in order to accommodate its content and functionality. The aforementioned Definition Phase has helped identify these pages.  If the website contains twelve pages total, but six are informational pages, then all of the informational pages can probably share a similar template/design and our designer would only need to generate one page for client review. Once approved, the programmers can then take the approved informational page design and duplicate it to make the additional similar pages. This saves time and money.

For our hypothetical, professional services company website project, let’s say we have to create the interface design for the following distinct page types:

  1. Home Page
  2. About the Company Page
  3. Blog
  4. Services Page
  5. Contact Page

Let’s also establish the following factors:

  • We have a well-defined brand style guide that fixes the logo, color palette and some graphical parameters.
  • We have a creative brief that describes the tone of the brand and explains the creative goals.
  • The design team consists of an art director and designer with at least 5 years of experience.
  • The client has provided some imagery and draft text for the pages.
  • This is an original design and not just a quick “skinning” of a template.

Now we can properly plan and estimate the design process based on our previous experience with these types of projects and the designer’s level of expertise. The first, and most critical page is the homepage. This is typically also the most complex. The homepage design establishes the entire website look-and-feel since it encompasses the branding, navigation, color palette, font styles, graphical elements, imagery styles and user experience. Once the client approves the design of the home page, then most of the heavy lifting is done because the home page design is extrapolated or applied to all the other site pages.

At Executionists, we develop two to three different versions of the home page design as part of our standard process. The designs may vary in any number of ways. Usually we like to create one page version that is on the conservative or safe side, and another option that pushes the envelope on design or user experience. The client will be presented with the designs and asked to provide feedback on what they like and don’t like. Our design team then reworks the pages to incorporate the client feedback and then we present a revised home page (usually just one at this point) to the client. The client gets one more round of creative “tweaks” and then hopefully it’s approved and final after that. Below you can see some examples of website home page variations we’ve presented to clients.

example of homepage design options 1 homepage-comp-versions2 homepage-comp-versions3

With the home page approved, the design team can create the remaining internal web pages for client review. In this round, the client will receive only one version of each page and gets one more round of edits. Once all the necessary site pages are approved, the layered Photoshop files are handed off to the development team to slice them and convert them into functional code and page templates.

Let’s apply some time estimates and costs to our hypothetical website design project:

Home Page: 2 – 3 versions with 1 round of edits and one round of tweaks. ~12 hours

About Page: 1 version with 1 round of edits. ~6 hours

Blog Page: 1 version with 1 round of edits. ~4 hours

Services Page: 1 version with 1 round of edits. ~6 hours

Contact Page: 1 version with 1 round of edits. ~4 hours

TOTAL: 32 – 40 hours of interface design time

Costs for the design phase also depend heavily on the agency billing rate. As of today (2016), our rate is $125/hr,  so design would cost about $4,000 for this level of project. Remember this is just the expense for the page design, it does not include planning, programming, testing and all the other necessary efforts that go into a complete website development project.

Did we forget about mobile design? Not at all. These days, all web design shops worth their salt will make sure to provide you with mobile responsive website. Mobile devices such as tablets and phones will display your content in a different layout from the desktop designs. In our example project, we are assuming that the mobile design will match the desktop design along with following best-practices for mobile usability. This means that the client will see the mobile design towards the end of the website development and can make design tweaks at that point. This saves us having to create additional versions of the above site pages in mobile formats for client review and approval. There are alternative approaches to mobile responsive design, but this process works well for the majority of our clients.

Factors that can increase design cost:

  • Disorganized clients. Cost and timeline increase with clients that have trouble making up their minds or have teams with multiple stakeholders that all want to give their opinion on the design can extend the process. This is why it’s important for the design agency to be able to articulate the design rationale to support the design choices and diffuse any attempts to go off-track.
  • Lack of imagery and graphics. If the project requires new photography or infographics, then additional time will be required to manage the photography or create illustrations.
  • Changes in scope. If the project changes requirements, then new pages or functionalities may need to be designed and programmed.

Factors that can decrease design cost:

  • Perfect client factor. If you want to stay on budget and launch on time, be a client that can clearly articulate what you want. This will reduce the amount of edits required and move the project along quickly.
  • Client readiness. Have a variety of approved imagery and content ready to go. This is much more efficient for the designer to use than rough or placeholder content and saves time in managing and editing content in the website development phase.

At Executionists we have won over 30 awards for our web and branding designs. We strongly recommend that your design agency understands your business and brand and can differentiate your business through appropriate design. Studies show that website visitors spend less than a second looking at your home page to decide whether or not your services, products or brand is right for them. The best way to keep them engaged is through design that differentiates you from your competition. If you’d like more information give us a call at (424) 245-5472 or click on the button below.

Richard Parr
by Richard Parr
Posted: May 13, 2015