Basic Guidelines for Figuring Out Your Web Design Salary

Posted on May 23, 2015 by in Resources | 9 comments

Basic Guidelines for Figuring Out Your Web Design Salary

In today’s post I’d like to address a problem a lot of the Elegant Themes community has probably encountered: figuring out what your web designer salary should be and being confident in your findings when it comes time to negotiate.

Perhaps you’re in college and you’re entering the workforce for the first time. Perhaps you’ve been a freelancer and you’re in talks with a studio to land your first salaried gig. Perhaps you’ve had an hourly job that you’re trying to turn into a salaried position. Or perhaps you’ve had a salaried job for years but never felt like you could be certain you were getting a fair shake.

In any of these situations the basic guidelines below should help you come to a better understanding of your value to potential employers. Armed with this knowledge, it is our hope that you will then be able to go out and confidently negotiate a salary that accurately reflects the value of the work you do.

Understanding Your Market Value as a Web Designer


image via mamanamsai //

I have yet to meet the person born with an accurate, innate understanding of their market value. So if you find yourself entering the job market unaware of yours, don’t worry, that’s normal.

I think what many people start out by doing is simply adding up all of their monthly expenses and making sure that their paycheck will allow them to pay all of their bills. That’s not a bad place to start, but it is just the start, and only a small piece of the overall puzzle.

It’s important to account for other variables too. Particularly those that will give you a better idea of what you should or could be earning as opposed to the bare minimum you need in order to avoid homelessness.

Value Variables:

These “value variables” are my personal suggestions as to what should be taken into account when determining your market value. They are based on both subject research and about a decade of experience. I always account for them in the order listed below (from 1 to 4) and cede them in reverse (4 to 1) when in negotiations. Let’s take a look.

1. Position/Experience/Location – These are the standard guidelines by which almost all salaries, regardless of industry or position, are determined. Salary calculators use these meta data points (and others) to provide you with a spectrum of possible salaries for your position.

I would recommend visiting one of the following sites (or all of them) and figuring out where you fall within the spectrum they recommend:

Once you know where you fit in generally, you can begin to get a better idea of your specific value in relation to the specific job you’re applying to by taking the next three variables into account too.

2. Current Compensation – What are you getting paid now? If you’re a freelancer you should be (but probably aren’t) charging your clients a rate that takes into account things like health insurance, time off, equipment, overhead etc. If you’re not then it would be a good time to figure out what that number would be so that you have a better idea of how much that would turn into when converted to a salaried position.

3. Potential Employer – Having a good working knowledge of your potential employer and an idea of how they tend to compensate their employees can be a big advantage. I always try to ask around and find out as much as I can (without making people uncomfortable or overstepping appropriate social boundaries, of course).

Having a simple conversation with a few current or past employees of the company you’re looking to join can give you a good idea of how much they typically pay employees coming in at your level/position; if they tend to offer high, median, or low salaries; what their benefits packages are like; if they have a history of age or gender discrimination; and a whole lot more.

You may also find out that they’ve had a really hard time filling your position and they’re looking to you for something special that’s been hard to find. This kind of information will either directly add to your value or at the very least strengthen you bargaining position.

(As an aside though, I have a personal rule that if I feel like I’m going to war when I sit down at a negotiation table, it’s probably not a good fit. Who wants to start a working relationship feeling like you have to watch the other party like a hawk or they will likely screw you over?)

4. The X Factor – This doesn’t always apply, but it’s smart to be aware of it in case it does. I sort of mentioned it above, but to be clear, the “X Factor” as I call it, is any unique value that you bring to the table that no one else can bring.

By its very definition, this will be something different for everyone. One of the best examples I can think of is in the television show Mad Men. In the first or second season everyone seems to hate Peter, the young account executive aggressively vying for the main character’s job. He’s slimy, backstabbing, confrontational and just obnoxious to be around.

It gets to the point where Don Draper (the main character) flat out fires him. Only he isn’t allowed to fire him. Why? Because Peter had an “X Factor” or unique value that no one else could bring to the table–a close connection with a big client.

In the every day world of studio web design that kind of X Factor (let alone the drama of the Mad Men office) will likely not apply. However, knowing why your potential employer finds you valuable in the first place can go a long way towards making sure you are actually compensated accordingly.

In Mad Men it took Peter a while to figure out exactly why he was valued by the company. When he did, it did wonders for his bargaining power. (Unfortunately for his office mates, it might have made him even more of an unpleasant person.)

(Honorable Mention) Growth Potential – Some people might argue that you should factor in things like “growth potential” too. Meaning the potential you have to grow with the company and earn more in the future. In fact, this is a regular part of negotiations with potential employers; a selling point used to lower the asking price of a new hire.

“Sure, you may be accepting this position for less than what you are currently asking, but the potential to make a lot more with us in the future is worth coming aboard at a lower rate.”

I tend to find these types of offers/counter offers condescending, but it really depends on the situation and the parties involved to know for sure. Regardless, its still worth noting that you can’t pay your bills with potential. And in today’s job market the average turnover rate (or even company lifespan) also has the “potential” to be so short that these promises aren’t likely to add up to much, if anything.

However, if you happen to be in a position where the final number you’re negotiating for is high enough that either your preferred amount or the counter they are offering based on “potential” are both capable of taking care of your financial necessities, then “growth potential” might be something you want to consider. I still wouldn’t recommend making it the deciding factor though.

Calculating Your Web Design Salary


image via bplanet //

Ok, so the above sections have been all about the primary points of consideration when determining your market value as a web designer. But most of it is in the form of analogy or some sort of abstraction. Let’s take a look at those ideas in action with a straight-forward example.

An Example

Let’s say you’re name is Laura and you’re currently a freelance web designer in Los Angeles. You’ve been a freelance web designer for five years now, since you graduated college. You started out taking just about any work you could find at whatever they were paying. Sometimes, at the very beginning, you worked for free.

Over the last few years though you’ve worked hard and the quality of both your work and your clients has improved. You get pretty steady contract work from the same three to five studios in your area–plus some piece work here and there.

Your current hourly rate is $115/hour. This might sound like a lot to others, but you know that between sick days, holidays, very limited vacation time, health insurance, equipment, transportation, and other expenses–on top of the fact that you are rarely getting the exact same amount of billable hours each week–you’re actually making somewhere between $55,000 and $65,000 per year, depending on the year.

Right now, you’re considering joining one of the studios you’ve been doing regular contract work for. You’d rather focus strictly on web design as opposed to juggling clients, tracking hours and expenses, doing your own taxes, and so on.

What’s more, you’ve recently run the numbers on various salary calculators and see that in a full-time, salaried position, with your education and experience, you could be making $5,000-$10,000 more than you currently average per year as a freelancer.

You know that the studio looking to hire you has had trouble keeping designers in the position that’s currently open because it has increasingly required a more advanced understanding of web development practices as well design skills to keep up with client demands. This is your X Factor. You’ve kept up with related web development to such an extent that you can not only interface with the in-house developers better than the other designers, but you can help lighten their load by taking on a more hybrid design/development role.

The studio offers you a base salary of $70,000. You counter with $80,000 (citing your particular value as a hybrid) and in the end you settle on $73,000 plus bonuses and benefits (with a total compensation around $100,000).

Which brings us to our next section.

Accounting for Total Compensation

One aspect of a salaried position that many wage earners and freelancers may not immediately take into account is the full package of compensation which extends beyond just base salary.

This type of compensation can take on the following forms:

  • Bonuses
  • Stock
  • 401k contribution
  • Health Insurance
  • Dental Insurance
  • Other Insurance
  • Various Perks; including office/lifestyle accommodations as well as various deals/discounts around town.

Some companies will even go above and beyond these forms of compensation to sweeten their deals. What this means for you is that during negotiations you will need to determine how much this sort of compensation is worth to you in comparison to your base salary. Are you willing to take a base cut for good total compensation or are you married to take-home pay? This will of course vary from person to person. The important thing is that you consider it carefully and come to your own conclusion.

Final Thought

For many, this kind of number crunching and negotiation positioning is all a bit much. And that’s understandable. I think it’s pretty common for the average person to simply want to do the work they’ve trained for and not have to worry about getting had at the negotiation table. Unfortunately, the only way to ensure that you’re not getting had is to have a solid understanding of your own value and insist on getting paid accordingly. Or at least in the general ball park.

That’s my take on it anyways. I’m sure many here in the Elegant Themes community have a lot of valuable experiences to share on the subject too. So if you have something to add to the conversation, please take a minute or two to comment below.

Article thumbnail via Bplanet //

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  1. The fact of the matter is that being a freelancer can be brutal. Especially as we compete on a world wide market.
    For the first time in my 20 year career I have started toying with the idea of a career at a firm.
    And honestly I feel like I cheated myself by being a freelancer for so long.

    • I felt the same way so I took a job with an agency that I was getting regular work from whilst as a freelancer. Apart from a more stable wage I regret it a lot. Going from working for yourself to working for someone else with the restrictions that are placed within an agency is not enjoyable.

  2. Wonderful share, I was just searching about this on google i guide very well in this post Thanks for sharing with us and thanks for motivation keep up it
    Have a nice week ahead.

  3. I would like to meet your example “Laura” who has an hourly rate of $115 and makes between $55 to 65K a year. I don’t think that is realistic anymore.

    I’ve been an active “freelance” web designer and developer for 20 years. That income and much more was possible “back in the day” but I don’t think it is that prevalent or possible today as a freelancer.

    In the last five to eight years the web design market place has really changed. I have witnessed an incredible “race to the bottom” – that doesn’t seem to have a bottom.

    It is not only the world wide market but also teenagers and twenty-somethings who still live in their parents basement who have flooded the market with their willingness to work cheap and their impressive web skills.

    These groups of highly skilled workers with low or non-existent living expenses, no taxes to pay or children to feed can undercut prices and have driven the web design industry average income down in a hurry.

    Just having superb web design skills, business experience, marketing acumen to sell your services and value, a wide network of referrals and world class developer skills are not enough today. The web design/development marketplace is saturated with hordes of “hungry hounds” who will work for money that won’t even keep my lights on for a month. I know I employ them and I’m very grateful for them.

    I have adapted to the change by using themes such as Divi, (thank you Elegant Themes) creating a factory approach to super fast web site deployment that does well on very high volume and $500 turn-key custom built web sites.

    I have my own “X” factor that I’ve developed with 20 years of experience. I’m doing well with my web factory but not many freelancers have the know how and marketing skills to make such a plan work well.

    From the all the inquires I get from experienced “freelancers” looking for any kind of design work at a decent rate of pay I can only surmise that it is not a pretty picture out there in web design marketplace these days.

    If you can snag a job at a firm paying “$73,000” with five years experience like the example “Laura” then take it and work your butt off to keep it. Those opportunities are rare today. At least that’s what I’m told by the “hungry hounds”.

    • Mike,

      You brought up a lot of very good points about todays web design market place. At our firm, I spend a lot of time educating “some” of our clients on the benefits of having a professional agency “market” their company on the internet.

      The technology today has allowed just about anyone to build a website, the problem is how many of these people really have a good analytical and marketing background?

      I think a web designer would work best with a support team who can provide the client with the other skills necessary to have a successful online marketing campaign.

      Best Regards,

      Philip Polaski

      Online Ventures Asia

    • Well stated and right on the money. No pun intended. The way I work now compared to 2008 is very different. U.S. Front-end designers have to rely on themes, frameworks and bootstrap to develop responsive websites. If I were to develop a website from scratch using a blank sketch canvas, Photoshop and custom CSS styling and graphics, I’d have to charge $15K+ that many small businesses will not pay. Template allow non-programmers to meet small business CMS and ecommerce needs for under $6,000. However, I never look for work on job boards because then I’d be competing against those large web mills and post-graduate jobless kids in their parent’s basements with killer design skills.

    • The race to the the bottom is a bunch of crap. Perhaps you’re barking up the wrong tree in terms of which clients you’re attracting. Clients either value your work or they don’t, you need to find the ones who do. There are companies out there who do care about their web presence. If you can’t score bigger jobs, seriously, work on your salesmanship.

      The idea of doing an assembly line cookie-cutter website is the very reason you’re not getting the bigger jobs. If you think a client doesn’t have a budget, you’re basically going to put every client you work with in that state and framing yourself as a budget contractor, whether you know that consciously or not.

      As Philip mentioned, education here is key. Companies don’t need websites, they need customers. Even squarespace has this line right on their front page: “From goods to services, every business needs a space online to bring in customers.” Just having a website and knowing the technology isn’t enough, what are you doing on the marketing, copy, design side, etc. to help a company reach that goal. Putting up a website with a bunch of copy the client supplied and expecting them to hand over thousands is the very reason they don’t value your work.

  4. I have been in the IT business since 1994 and in Web design since 2000 and I have seen a lot of ups and downs including a few bubbles that have burst lol. However, I agree that the technology has made it simple to design a Web site and kids can do it now a days. However, the value in Web sites creation is not creating the Web site itself it is writing content and marketing. Although anyone can create an attractive Web site with great looking pictures, not many people know how to write effectively. If you have a Web site that looks good but does not have relevant content it’s not really going to be worth paying a lot of money for. There is a lot of competition on the Web but very few Web sites that have powerful enough content to generate revenue. It’s equivalent to the literary world, you can have a great book cover but if the story is not good then the book will not sell. In Web design you must to have the ability to create the Web site, the images and the content that is appealing, relevant and thought provoking in order to draw your visitors and rank high in any niche. When you have the ability to combine all of those elements you are able to charge what you want because your work will stand out from the other “wanna be’s” Webmasters. It takes time, patience, persistence, focus and dedication to consistently create Web sites that will make an impact. I personally know Webmasters that make 6 figures that are not as good as they are paid to be but they know who to market to and how to sell their services. Remember the Internet is still in it’s infancy and a lot of smaller businesses are not really good customers because they do not have a clue what having an effective Web site can do for their business. So a successful Webmaster has to wear many hats and the main one is sales consulting. In order to be able to charge the big bucks you have to know your craft and how to bring value to your client. It’s all about the clients bottom line, they have to make money in order to see the value in what you are offering. It’s a lot of work and in order to be successful it’s something that you have to love to do because to be a high paid Webmaster you have to be constantly learning and implementing different strategies. It is possible to earn a good living and as in all professions you will rise as high as your dedication is to be the best. I charge per project but typically average around $75.00 to $150.00 per hour. If you are good and your work hard and smart you can make 6 figures easily. But you have to know your stuff and you have to stay up a lot of nights perfecting your craft. Freelancing is nothing like a 9-5 so don’t think that you are going to be successful if you are hanging out, partying, watching TV or procrastinating lol Those activities are fatal to success in any walk of life :o) I wish you all much success in your future endeavors.

    • Well said Richard!… I agree 100%…

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