Complete Guide: On Estimating Web Design Projects to Clients

In earlier times, before the Web was born, graphic design was pretty straightforward. Designers whipped up logos, packaging, signage, brochures and other printed materials. Easy. Well, easy for clients to understand, at any rate. For the designers doing the work, not so much.

As a 21st Century graphic designer, you're still expected to do all the print-related stuff and provide site designs services and other online eye candy for clients. Many client types don't see a distinction between print and Web work.
This applies particularly to small companies, which provide income for most independent graphic designers and many smaller companies.

Let's say you've landed a client. They need a site. The conversation usually goes something like this:

Client: I need a website to sell my widgets. And I need it pretty fast. Can you help me?
Designer: Sure. Do you have a domain name yet? How many pages would you need? What about product photos?
Client: No, I don't have a domain name, and I'm figuring it would be about five pages. I have some product photos. How much would it cost?
Designer: Well, let's see. I could probably do it for [insert ballpark number here].
Off our designer goes to prepare a written estimate or perhaps a full proposal along with a contract. The client signs the contract, and the designer rolls up his or her sleeves and gets to work.
Then, the monster is known as "scope creep" enters, and what was a five-page site turns into 10, 15, etc., along with getting photography handled and other tasks. If the client is excellent, and the designer has a fair contract, the additional work and expenses get billed. If not, the designer can be left holding the bag.
It happens all too often. The moral of the story is never pulling a number out of the air when a client asks, "how much?" Tell them you'll get back to them with an estimate.
Some designers estimate using a page rate. Others use the "going rate." Yet others try to figure how much time they'll have into the myriad tasks in developing a site. Ideally, the latter relies on the history of time tracking and billing.
Remember, as they say, "time is money." It is, in a genuine sense. Not tracking a couple of minutes here, a few more there adds up to lost hours. Lost hours equal lost revenue. That's generally a bad thing. Although the various methods for time tracking are outside the scope of this article, find a way that works for you. You'll thank yourself when you estimate projects down the road.
That brings us to the estimating process. The challenging thing with Web design and development is that there are often so many tasks to do, pieces, parts and players. When estimating, you'll need to consider them all.

Meetings & Project Management Tasks

How many meetings will be needed? At a minimum, there's an initial information-gathering meeting and a meeting to present the designs. There might be a follow-up meeting after the launch and, perhaps, a few more in between. Then there are the vendor meetings and maybe some others. These "meetings" might be physical or virtual.
Treat writing emails and phone calls in this section of your estimating. An email here, a phone call there that time adds up. If you've kept accurate past project time tracking records, you'll be in good shape to make a decent projection. If not, well, you'll need to give it your best guesstimate and cross your fingers.
Don't forget the time needed to open the project, give it a number, set up a project folder and organize whatever materials you've been given from the client at this point. This time is often not accounted for when making an estimate. Like phone calls and emails, it can add up, and you can find yourself leaking time and, ultimately, money. Beyond these tasks, there may be others, depending upon the nature of the project. I usually call this project administration in the estimate or proposal.


Learning about the client's business, industry and competition can eat up loads of time. The same goes for audience research. Many of this study can be carried out on the Internet. Clicking. Press. Write about it. Read. Clicking. Press. Write about it. Read. You've fallen into the dark hole of science, the next thing you know. Maybe you were there. I got it.
What you thought would take an hour or two turns into many more. Again, it's essential to keep track of your hours to estimate future projects accurately. I'll look over similar past projects and gauge how much time will potentially be needed.
Don't forget to account for time spent doing design and image research. That can include design styles, various themes, fonts and such. Researching images can often take hours. You know the drill. "Maybe the next image group has something better." Half a day has passed before you know it.

Content Writing

Will, the client, supply the content; will you do it or sub it out to a writer? If it's coming from the client, be sure to ask what form it will be in. If you need to type in words from their print material, it can be yet another time-eater.

This is slightly off-topic, but I believe, necessary. When tapping into a writer, it's a good idea to ask if they've written for the Web. It might be subtle, but writing for print and writing for the Web are different animals. Site visitors tend to scan pages more so than they do with print materials. Writing for the Web should be crisp and concise yet engaging. Then there're keywords and phrases to keep in mind and other search engine optimization (SEO) practices. It's no small trick, and a good Web writer will cost you. Well, your client, anyway.

Design & Development

Now we're in more familiar territory. How many designs will you present? What about revisions and/or design refinements? Those often leak out and can cost you a load of dough if you don't include them in your estimate. When making your estimate, define what minor and significant revision are. What a client thinks are a little change can be a designer's time-intensive nightmare. Modifications can be a sticking point between the client and the designer come billing time. Make your definitions crystal clear and in writing.
Now you have a design direction, and it's time to jump in and build the site. Yippee .. or not.
If the client has a domain name and hosting account, make sure you can connect to the server. If you can't, it's another one of those time-sucking black holes. Worse yet, if it's a redesign and the client had a falling out with their previous designer, or they seem to have fallen off the planet, you'll need to get the FTP info another way. I've had this happen all too often. The client doesn't have their hosting information, or the previous designer registered it in their name and not the clients. Getting with hosting companies, verifying identities or doing a back and forth with a less-than-helpful previous designer can be a significant headache. Find out what the status of their domain and hosting are before you present your estimate.

Here are some of the other tasks you may need to consider:
• Theme development (WordPress, Drupal, Joomla)
• Creating a wireframe and development site
• Scanning images, logos, etc.
• Recreating logos, if needed
• Image editing/retouching
• Custom coding or programming
• Slicing & optimizing graphics
• Create stylesheet(s)
• Creating & testing forms
• Usability testing
• Browser & cross-platform testing proofing/troubleshooting/corrections
Expenses to consider are:
• Is the client asking for something you've never done before? Can you bill for the time to learn it? Is it something you can sub out? If so, how much will it cost?
• Will you need to buy specific fonts, themes, scripts, etc.?
• Will you need to purchase stock or custom photography/illustration?
There are likely other expenses, so think it through and plan it all out.
At the end of the day
When a designer gives some quality thought to all this, the time it takes to build a site can be much more than they initially thought. A wise sage once said, "Everything takes longer than you think."
The corollary to the previous saying is, "Everything costs more than you think." Throughout a project, things can easily crop up, and you risk losing money on the gig. It's a good idea to include a contingency within your estimate. Your contingency factor might be 20 per cent or so. Also, have your policies for revisions and requests for additional work outside the scope of your estimate or proposal. As mentioned, ensure everything is clear to the client.

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