chapter 6

Web Design Estimates: Tips for Quoting Work Before the Project Begins

Web Design Estimates: Tips for Quoting Work Before the Project Begins

Do good work, get paid — that’s every designer’s dream. A world where estimates don’t exist. The unfortunate reality is that not only do they exist, but they can make or break your business.

Not to worry though, I get it. A few years ago I wouldn’t have even picked up a book on finances, let alone read a chapter on quoting design work. To be honest, I still probably wouldn’t pick up a book on finances, but the good news is, you did and you’re smarter than me for it.

In this chapter, because I feel your pain, I’m going to lay out my thoughts and tips on quoting web design and development projects. Fingers crossed: after this quick read, you’ll not only create stronger project estimates, but you’ll spend less time making them and more time doing what you love.

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A quick note about budgets

Back in the day, a wise man (my dad) threw a question my way that stopped me in my entrepreneurial tracks: “Have you made a budget?”

It’s a great question, and one that I believe needs to be addressed before you create your first project estimate. As we discussed in Chapter 2, your budget for the year will become your company's financial workback schedule; your goal; your north star. Without one, you’re navigating competitive waters without a compass.

In the spirit of finance, here’s some math to help illustrate what I’m talking about. Set a target dollar amount that you want to hit, or more importantly, set a target dollar amount that you need to hit. Take that number and divide it by 12 months. Then take that number and divide by the amount of projects you think you can handle in a month (for this example, let’s say two). What you’re left with is the dollar amount each estimate should be, in order to hit budget goals.

Budget for the Year = $60,000
Divided by 12 months = $5,000 per month
Divided by 2 projects = $2,500 per project

I know what you’re thinking. “I can’t just convince a client to spend $2,500 if the project doesn’t warrant it.” You’re right, you can’t — but what you can do is empower and educate yourself on the currency of time. At the end of the day, when you’re in a service provider industry, you’re not only selling clients your talents; you’re selling them your time, and you need to know if you have enough of it.

So before we talk estimates, have you made a budget?

The project / client interview

It may be cliché, but it needs to be said: the more you prepare, the greater the project will be. This is for your sanity and the sanity of your clients. When interviewing a client, you're playing the role of detective and your job is to gather all the clues necessary to create an estimate. You want to do your best to avoid 11th hour surprises from both sides.

Let me set the scene for an example of something you want to avoid (but we’re going to use a bathroom renovation project as a case study, instead of a web design project):

A proud contractor is in a newly-renovated bathroom, on their hands and knees polishing the granite floor they just installed.

In walks the homeowner.

Homeowner: “OMG, the granite looks amazing, I can’t wait to try the heated floor!”

Contracter: “What heated floor?”

And, scene.

It would stink to be either one of these people. So how do you avoid installing the web design equivalent of a granite floor without realizing it needs to be heated? I recommend a Project Questionnaire. It’s a simple document with a series of questions that might take you half a day to create while adding years to your life.

I won’t get into the specific questions to include in the questionnaire, but here’s a short list of the type of information you’ll want to gather:

  • Company's goal for the site: What are they looking to accomplish?
  • Competitive analysis: Who are the company’s direct and indirect competitors?
  • Brand requirements: Does the company have brand guidelines and/or identity standards that you need to follow?
  • Stakeholders: Will the company be assigning an internal project manager to this project, or is managing the project all on you?  

While this is just a short list of examples, be sure to cover as many of the elements that make up a typical web design project as possible. These could include elements like the type of products being sold, design inspiration they can share, their plan for photography and copywriting, any unique functionality they require as it relates to their business, and much more.

The one question that you 100 per cent need to include goes back to what I mentioned about budgets. The last or first question on your Project Questionnaire should be, “What’s your timeline and budget?” It can be an awkward conversation to have, specifically the budget piece, but if the client is asking for a heated, granite floor in two weeks’ time, you need to know if they can afford it.

Pro tip: Another name for the Project Questionnaire could be the Manage Expectations Document.

Hourly rate vs. project-based

Craig Somerville covered pricing strategies in detail in the previous chapter, so I won’t spend much time on it. The point I want to emphasize is simple — be sure to set your pricing structure and conditions before you create your first estimate.

If you’re going with a project-based estimate, be sure to let the client know your hourly rate for any work that goes above and beyond the project scope (and for any small jobs that you may take on from the client after the original project is completed). If you’re going with an hourly rate estimate, be sure to let the client know any terms and conditions that go along with your rate.

Pro tip: In both estimate scenarios, hourly rate or project-based, be sure to capture a deposit before starting any work.

Productized quotes: Basic, not-so basic, and far from basic

Even though we set a company hourly rate, I tend to recommend a project-based estimate approach for most work. It could be a bit risky depending on how smooth the project goes, but I’ve found that creating project-based estimate tiers, attached to dollar ranges, helps a ton.

Establishing these tiers helps twofold when talking to a client: they empower you to quickly conceptualize where a given project falls with regards to budget, and it educates a client on pricing and where their project falls on a transparent scale. This might be hard to do when you’re first starting out because you’ll have no project context, but once you have a few under your belt, there will be less tears if you set tiers (sorry, had to say it).

With that being said, I’ll fill you in on a little secret and let you know the names of our three project tiers: Basic, Not-So Basic, and Far From Basic. They sound, well, basic — but I’ve found that these tiers, as simple as they sound, help a lot when speaking with a client prior to drafting an estimate. Here’s a sample breakdown of the budget ranges and type of projects these tiers would cover.

Basic: $1,000-$3,000

This is your starter project package. The client most likely doesn’t have an online presence yet, and they’re looking for a simple website to ‘get in the game,’ so to speak.

Generally, our Basic projects have the following qualities:

  • They’re your run-of-the-mill, standard web design projects.
  • The client already has a logo and set brand guidelines to work from.
  • The site in question consists of three to six pages.
  • It’s a straightforward project with no special functionality.

Not-So Basic: $3,000-$5,000

This is your middle-of-the-road type of project. The client is looking for a little ‘wow’ in the finished product. They may already have an existing web presence, and are looking for a redesign to keep up with their competition.

Generally, our Not-So Basic projects have the following qualities:

  • They’re standard web design projects with a little extra tender loving care.
  • The client already has a logo, but is looking for a little art direction for the website.
  • The site in question will consist of six to 12 pages.
  • It’s a somewhat straightforward project, but requires special functionality on the backend of the website to accommodate for a company-specific order tracking program.

Far From Basic: $5,000+

Roll up your sleeves and get ready to dig deep — this is your all-in type of project. The client has a bigger budget and even bigger expectations. They’re looking for, and need, all the bells and whistles.

Generally, our Far From Basic projects have the following qualities:

  • They’re robust web design projects.
  • As part of the project, the client needs a new brand/logo designed.
  • The site in question will consist of 12 to 24+ pages.
  • There’s nothing straightforward about this project. The client requires a tailor-made design solution, and has basically asked you to come up with company-wide solutions for all their web and design problems.

The best use case for project estimate tiers? When a client initially asks for your rates prior to beginning a project with you. Being ready for that question can make the difference between landing the client or losing them.

Here’s a simple sample email exchange we frequently have when first interacting with a prospective client:

To: Web Designer
From: Potential Client
Subject: Rates for a Web Design Project

Hi there — I saw your portfolio site, love your work. Before I get into the details on my project, I was wondering if you could share your rates.


Potential Client

When we receive an inquiry like this, we usually provide a general response that outlines our project tiers.

To: Potential Client
From: Web Designer
Subject: Re: Rates for a Web Design Project

Thanks for getting in touch. Typically, our project estimates fall into the tiers outlined below. Happy to hop on a call to learn more. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate.

Basic: $1,000-$3,000
Not-So Basic: $3,000-$5,000
Far From Basic: $5,000+

Web Design Freelancer

Creating these tiers and sharing them when necessary will not only put things into perspective for the client, but they’ll put things into perspective for you and your team. It’s another way to create and manage your client’s expectations.

Pro tip: The quicker you respond to a client’s project request, the more likely you are to land that client. Being prepared to give your client a cost range upfront can help with that.

What did we charge last time for this?

It may be weird to think this way, but even though you’re providing a service as a web designer, you’re essentially a store with products to sell. It doesn’t matter if you’re a one-person operation or if you’re 100 employees deep, the sooner you start thinking this way, the better your estimates will become.

So what are your products? Your products are the services you provide as a web designer. They are your wireframes, mockups, product creation, HTML code, and more. And in the spirit of acting like a store, each one of these products and services should have a set price. By setting those prices, over time, you’ll have an established product services catalogue that you’ll be able to reference every time you speak to a client and create an estimate.

To start building your catalogue, you can simply keep track of what you charge for each task in a spreadsheet. At the end of your first year, not only will you have an archive of each design task, but you’ll have a method for quickly adjusting your prices year-to-year. Want to raise your prices by five per cent next year? Punch in the formula, and in seconds your entire catalogue will be updated.

By creating a consistent price list of your services, you’ll never waste time asking yourself, “What did we charge last time for this?” Instead, you’ll spend your time creating more quotes.

Pro tip: If you think of yourself as a store, you’ll realize that like every good store, you should have a great storefront. For you, that means a beautiful website that showcases your best work. Having this will lead to more project requests, which means more clients.

You work in tech — so use technology

This might be stating the obvious, but you’re going to want to use invoicing software to create your estimates. Not only will this empower you to create them in record time, but it will keep you organized. (Tax season will still be painful, but this will make it less painful.)

The other benefit of using invoicing software is the ability to accept payments online. Most invoicing software makes it easy for your clients to pay their invoices online, which means you get paid quicker nine times out of ten. Here’s a quick checklist of the type of features your invoicing software should have:

  • Ability to save client information
  • Time-tracking capabilities
  • Monthly and yearly reporting
  • Ability to accept payment online and connect to your bank account
  • Customizable, branded invoices
  • Mobile tools for on-the-go invoicing
  • Ability to easily track expenses

There are plenty of options out there, but here are a few popular options:

Do a little research and pick one that best suits your needs and budget.

Pro tip: Look for invoicing software that allows you to save the services you offer as line items with set prices. That way, over time you’ll have an online database of that product service catalogue I was mentioning earlier.

Don’t forget that first impressions matter

I couldn’t write about creating web design quotes without commenting on the design of the actual quotes themselves. For projects big or small, we try our best to put a little creative tender loving care into our estimates and project proposals. You may not realize it, but the estimate is the first thing you’ll be ‘designing’ for your client’s project. Use it as an opportunity to show how much you care about their business.

I would suggest taking a minimal design approach. Don’t get too fancy — at the end of the day, the client wants to see a clean list of deliverables with the associated costs. Here’s a good three-page template to follow for simple quotes that don’t require a full-fledged proposal:

Page 1 – Title page

You know, the things your friends used to ask you to draw for them in public school? As useless as a title page may seem, I like to use it as an opportunity to put our company’s logo next to theirs, as if to say, “We work well together.”

Keep it simple: company logos, title of the project, and date.

Page 2 – The outline

This is the page where you can get creative. Outline the scope of the project and your vision for it. Convey confidence and offer up your solutions for the problems they want solved. Be sure to include your estimated timeline for the project.

Here are some sections you could include in the outline:

  • Outline of Project: Breakdown the client’s design problem.
  • Design Approach: Map out your initial vision for the project, and let the client know how you intend to solve their design problem.
  • Timeline: Include a workback schedule, where each of the project’s deliverables fits in.

Page 3 – The estimate

Last but not least, the actual estimate itself; an itemized list of every deliverable, clearly laid out with the associated cost. While you should always include deliverables in your estimate, their presentation will highly depend on the pricing strategy you’ve selected.

In general, it should look something like this:


The only other thing you may want to consider including with your estimate is a short and clear disclaimer. Try not to use too much legal speak; just something to-the-point that’s easy to digest. If the client adds deliverables to the project after the agreed-upon price, a paragraph like this will cover you:

“This quote is an estimate and is not guaranteed. The quote is based on information provided from the client regarding project requirements. Actual cost may change once all project elements are finalized or negotiated. Prior to any changes of cost, the client will be notified. Quote valid for 30 days.”

Pro tip: If possible, include insight into your client’s business that you could only provide if you dove deep into their current site or online presence.   

Good quotes get better with time

As you grow, not only will your estimates become easier to create, but they’ll become larger in size. Set your yearly budget, gather as much project information as possible, establish your rates, and present the best estimate you can. You won’t land every client you create an estimate for, but if you apply the advice I’ve laid out here, at least you’ll know you put your best foot forward.

It sounds strange to say, especially coming from someone who doesn’t like to spend time punching numbers, but by perfecting your estimates you’ll make that designer’s dream a reality — do good work, get paid.

About the Author

Jeremy Watt, along with his business partner and wife, Julie Brown quit their retail and design jobs one day and started their ecommerce studio, UP LATER THAN YOU, the next. At the same time they launched Province of Canada, a lifestyle brand that focuses on apparel and home products that are manufactured in Canada. Their goal is to become the ecommerce equivalent of Chip and Joanna from HGTV's Fixer Upper.

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