David Airey is an independent graphic designer working with companies of all sizes since 2005.

Picasso and pricing your work

A question I’m often asked is whether to charge clients by the hour or by the project. The following short story is the best answer I can find in favour of the latter.

Picasso and Brigitte Bardot
Photo of Picasso and Brigitte Bardot, from Getty Images, via The Telegraph

Legend has it that Pablo Picasso was sketching in the park when a bold woman approached him.

“It’s you — Picasso, the great artist! Oh, you must sketch my portrait! I insist.”

So Picasso agreed to sketch her. After studying her for a moment, he used a single pencil stroke to create her portrait. He handed the women his work of art.

“It’s perfect!” she gushed. “You managed to capture my essence with one stroke, in one moment. Thank you! How much do I owe you?”

“Five thousand dollars,” the artist replied.

“But, what?” the woman sputtered. “How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!”

To which Picasso responded, “Madame, it took me my entire life.”

Quoted from How to charge, one of the archived posts on 1099 — “the magazine for independent professionals.” The post was written by Ellen Rohr, author of How Much Should I Charge?

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24 appreciated comments about “Picasso and pricing your work”

  1. Epic, David, love it :) Personally I charge per project. You can charge xxxx for something you do in 1 hour, but you have to value experience and skills. Thanks for this!

  2. Wow, great story!
    I always charge by project also, because then it is a bonus to ME if I am particularly fast and efficient. But it also doesn’t harm the client if I screw around and take longer than I ought to. Seems like a win-win to me.

  3. Everything took everyone’s entire life, and so everything should cost 5k.

    If I’d been selling Picasso a cup of coffee, I’d have charged him 5k for my lifetime of barista skills that went into that coffee.

  4. I had seen a cartoon retelling the same story, but had no idea it was originally a Picasso story, thanks.

    I believe taking into account how much time it will actually take you is important for you, as you’re running a business, but in the end it doesn’t matter how long it took you to make something, as long as it meets the deadline and it works.

  5. @Miles if your coffee art skills were as awesome as Picasso’s painting skills then 5k for that cup of coffee would be highly acceptable I think. But I don’t believe you have to study intensely to be a barista, and it’s probably not your own personal coffee shop that you built from the ground up and has now gained a following of millions of people. I bet Starbucks is making a hell of a lot more than 5k on a daily basis with their 5 dollar cups of coffee. Same principle… different scale. :-)

  6. Hey David,

    Would you mind if I use this story and relate it to my magic career? I will give you credit and link in, of course!

    Collin

  7. Love this. Excellent point. People all too often look at the “short” amount of time it takes to design something and forget that it’s taken years of training and practice to get to the point where something appears effortless.

  8. Paula Scher has the same story
    http://breezycreativedesign.com/2010/05/04/citi-logo-by-paula-scher/

    Which is great if your client “loves it” after 5 minutes of work. After 25 rounds of potential changes later, hopefully you did charge $5k per project.

  9. Good post, like you mentioned charging hourly vs project based is always a big topic. I still see the benefits of both sides.

    Project based is good if you work fast and the client likes what you created without giving you too much feedback /changes to do.

    On the other hand, if there are alot of edits and the client starts to nitpick at everything this could easily be more work than what you originally quoted them. In this case, I think hourly would work better.

  10. Brilliant!

  11. The story’s been attributed to others, Yaco, but I’ve no idea who first told it. I’ve gone by that blog post from 2000. Haven’t seen an earlier reference.

    Chris, eight years ago I itemised each hour on my invoices. It was easier to figure out when it was all new. But for a project that’ll take weeks or months, that’s not a way that’ll work well for me. If you’re charging for website maintenance or updates, where it’ll only take an hour or so, that’s something else, but not identity design.

    Miles, can I drop in for a coffee when I’m next in London? Although coffee or not, it’d be a pleasure to meet sometime.

    Collin, no need to credit me, it’s not my story.

  12. I’ve heard similar stories but it’s always great to hear alternative versions. Thanks for sharing, David.

    I generally charge by project. Charging by the hour on large website projects just wouldn’t be feasible for me or cost-effective for my clients. Once the site is live, if the client then just asks for amends or updates, then I quote and charge by the hour.

    One thing I have stopped doing lately, though, when I do charge by the hour I don’t include the hourly rate on my invoices. This stops the ‘I could have done that in 5 minutes’ comments. I simply quote and charge a figure that tallies up to the time I believe it will take me. After 15-years in this industry my quotes tend to be very accurate, but that comes with experience and it can be tough when just starting out.

    As for charging the ’5K’, I had a client say to me that he couldn’t really afford my quoted fee but because I niche in the area of his business he could see the benefits on spending a little more than others had quoted to have me work with him on his project. This was a turning point for me and I’m honoured to be still working with him today. As you say, David, (and I paraphrase) “Your clients choose you but you also choose your clients”.

  13. Small jobs I price by the hour, for large jobs I price by the project usually including two rounds of alterations.

    The client is always advised when we’ve moved to alterations mode and at which level of alteration we’re at. Once the two rounds are used up, I’ll usually price by the hour unless it’s extensive in which case an additional project fee is quoted.

    I also keep a copy of each round of alterations in case we get into an argument once the job is completed. I’ve found these days that clients understand much more readily that they can’t have endless rounds of alterations for free, which is what used to be assumed as the norm say 5-10 years ago.

  14. Wow thank you for sharing this story. I’m going to definitely be using it from now on.

  15. I’ve used this Picasso story when people ask me why a logo costs so much. What kills me is how a plastic surgeon once told me my prices were outrageous; which is baffling considering he probably makes $3,000 an hour for his procedures.

  16. Theres a great line in Johannes Itten’s Elements of Colour “If you unknowing are able to create masterpieces in colour, then unknowledge is your way. But if you are unable to create masterpieces in colour out of your unknowledge, then you ought to look for knowledge”. Being one of the Bauhaus and a master of colour theory, Itten’s focus was colour here, but I think its got a wide reach. A good design is based on knowledge or some kind of innate savant skill, maybe both, either way if your client thinks they can do better without either of those things, good luck to them. Art and design are regularly undervalued though, sometimes by the creator, sometimes by the client. Does anyone know how much Dali got paid for his famous Chupa Chups design? Two hours of work, a lasting successful trademark, based on a lifetimes knowledge and training.

    http://www.logodesignlove.com/chupa-chups-logo

    I doubt it was for free, when they tried to make the first movie of Frank Herbert’s Dune they tried to cast Dali as the king of the universe, he accepted but asked for thousands of dollars per hour, lavish sets and the right to change his lines. Needless to say it didn’t work out. I guess that’s the other side of the coin, you can price yourself out of a fun job just as easily. The main thing is to work with your client to help them understand the value of what you are doing and make an agreement that means you get paid enough and they get a design that they are happy paying for that will take their business forward.

  17. Thank you kindly for keeping this topic “top of mind.” I am constantly working to develop clear metrics to establish in the minds of my clients the value of their creative investment. The subjective nature of our science, craft, discipline intensifies when weighed against the tangible measure of a budget. Curious thing is, I’ve seldom heard a client complain about the prices they pay for daily Starbucks, their Prada or Coach or their shiny BMW or Benz. It’s as if they become blind to their best “self-interests” where identity generation, branding, marketing communications etc. are concerned. As creative professionals, our work is cut out for us. Best always!

  18. Ever since I started doing what I do for a living (brand development and identity design) I have never charged by the hour. Not that I disagree with it as such, but purely from my point of view If I’m undertaking a branding project then length can vary greatly between clients. My motto is that I will always work on something until both myself and the client are 100% happy with the final outcome. I dont agree with pricing a project based on the amount of revisions or initial concepts, as I feel this is taking a bit of a gamble on the fact that you believe you are going to nail the project within a set amount of time.

    I always base my project fee on the type of client (start up, corporate etc) and then create a figure that I know I am happy with and is within the budget that I believe the client should be expected to pay.

    OK, maybe once or twice a project has gone on for a little longer that what was initially judged, but I guess thats the just the nature of the industry we are in!

  19. Very tough when starting, Steve. For me, anyway. I was taking shots in the dark and getting frustrated when it was obvious I was doing a lot more work than the payment merited.

    I didn’t know about Dali and Dune, Andy. I’m sure that film was responsible for a lot of my childhood dreams.

    Cheers folks.

  20. This is something we need to remind ourselves of more than anything. I’m always wary of charging too much, but then when I think of all the knowledge and experience I’ve built up over the years, it makes me more comfortable in making that quote.
    Great anecdote retold though! Thank you. We all need to break the time barrier.

  21. One of my favorite stories ever and so helpful in recent days. Thanks for posting David! As always, great stuff.

  22. I worked as a locksmith for most of my life. I’ve encountered customers with the same question. IE: A customer asked me how much to open a safe, I quoted him $400, he agreed and then I proceeded to drill one tiny hole in the dial and open the safe. He asked why he was paying $400 for me to drill one tiny hole. I said that you weren’t paying me to drill the hole, you were paying me to know where to drill the hole.

  23. Such a great story, but most importantly amazing comments. I really have learnt a lot here. Thanks guys.

  24. David, I’ve heard an essence of this story before, but didn’t know it was about Picasso. I loved it then and I love it even more now as I know more about where the story originated. The idea makes so much sense. Even say if a logo is done in just 10 minutes, you couldn’t possibly have done so say, 20 years earlier with as much quality and expertise. You have worked all of the years leading up to the simple and beautiful and strong logo mark that you made in just 10 minutes time. I wouldn’t say to charge an astronomical price for a logo design: however, I would say to make sure you realize the value you are providing your client and to not sell yourself short!

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