Cheap Design or Affordable Design? What’s the difference?

Last Modified: Apr 20th, 2021 - Category: Branding, Marketing, UX, Web Design
affordable design vs cheap design and free design

Cheap design, affordable design, expensive design, even free design. All common ways of evaluating the price of one of the most important assets of any business: the brand.

But as we already know, price is not value. And therein lies the great confusion of many people who start a business and then wonder why they’re not doing as well as they thought.

In this article, we will try to elucidate the mystery of the price of brand design (or any type of design, such as web design, user experience design, packaging design, etc.).

Cheap Design vs. Affordable Design

This dual concept is one of the most commonly confused by most people. After all, if it’s cheap, it’s affordable, right?

The problem with this conceptual duality is that the opposite is not always true. A design can be cheap (ergo, affordable), but affordable is not necessarily cheap.

Let’s explain it a little better.

Definition of cheap design

cheap design example
Cheap design is… cheap

We say that a design is cheap when the absolute price of the good or service I want to acquire is very low.

For example, if I say “a logo design costs $100”, then we are talking about a cheap logo design.

However, with a cheap design, you get what you pay for.

If I pay $100 for a logo (or even less!), the chances of something going wrong are very high.

What can go wrong? Most things. Even our business.

To explain it better, let’s remember the characteristics of a great logo:

A good logo should be …

  • Memorable
  • Simple
  • Functional
  • Reproducible
  • Timeless
  • Distinctive

Is it possible for us to get a quality logo at a low price that meets all these rules?

Technically, it is possible. I’ve never seen it, but there is a statistical possibility.

Now: let’s say our logo meets all these conditions, but … do I have the materials I need to print it? Do I have the design guidelines that go with it? Do I have a brand book that gives coherence to the brand?

Most likely not, and every time we want to use the logo in any medium, we’ll have to start from scratch because we’ll only have a PNG file that (let’s face it) we don’t know how to use.

And that’s the best case scenario! The bizarre case of a cheap logo that meets the characteristics of a high-quality logo, something we’ve never seen before (but like I said, we’re open to the possibility).

cheap design can't be fast neither good
You can choose only 2 options… and even then it won’t work!

In reality, we’re most likely to get something of very poor quality, often partially (or wholly) stolen and indistinguishable from tens of thousands of identical logos.

Remember, we’re taking the logo example, but the case applies to any kind of design.

And if the design is affordable?

As we said, a design that is cheap is not the same as a design that is affordable. In the case of an affordable design, the price can be low or high, but in relation to our budget, the percentage of the price is accessible and beneficial for our business.

That is, the absolute price may be high or low, but the intrinsic value of the design exceeds the cost of it.

Let’s take the same example of a logo design. This time the cost is $1000. This is a medium / low price for an average brand design agency.

This amount may be relatively high for a single person starting a business. But it is an economical design for a small business, and it is an almost free price for a medium-sized business (let alone a large company ).

Image for diagram showing how affordable design is not cheap
This diagram shows how affordable design means a growth in value over time

But the most important thing is the concept of value: if I get a design that meets my intended standards of design quality and the goals of my business plan, and I can pay for it without the cost of the investment having a negative impact on other areas, then I have an affordable design. Even though it costs a thousand times more than the cheap logo.

Bottom line, the difference between a cheap logo and an affordable logo is a ratio relative to quality. There are very complex formulas to get this ratio that are not relevant in this article (but we will certainly include them in another post). For those who want to see a theoretical progression of design investment costs, there is an example in the Difference between KPI and OKR article.

Expensive design: is it really expensive?

So let’s move on to expensive design. Again, as in the case of affordable design, the term “expensive design” is relative. So much so that “expensive design” has a more direct relationship with “cheap design” than with affordable design.

To be clearer, when we talk about expensive, we are again talking about price, not value.

A design is expensive if the investment cost is greater than the value it provides. Click To Tweet

Since measuring the cost/value ratio of a brand identity is very complicated, let’s try another example. This time, instead of a logo, we will use the design of an e-commerce website as an example.

An eCommerce website can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000,000 depending on many factors.

One of the most common ways to run an eCommerce website, for example, is with WordPress and WooCommerce, either with a canned theme or custom development. This is a low to medium investment alternative.

But there are other CMSs that require a higher investment, such as Shopify, Vtek, and others.

And of course, there are solutions that don’t use a framework, but are custom developed.

Obviously, there will be differences in cost between the three options. The most important thing is that the ratio between these costs and time/return on investment is positive. The cost of the investment is not important if it delivers the results we want in the time we need.

Let’s take Amazon as an example. Obviously the design and implementation of such a platform has required a very large investment, probably well over $100,000,000 over the years. A number that is truly impressive.

Now let’s say the number is $200 million; how long does Amazon recoup that investment?

The answer is less than a day. In fact, a little less than half a day.

Sure, we’re talking primarily about implementation, and we’re not all Amazon.

Want a design example?

Spanish fashion retail brand Zara commissioned renowned designer Julien Baron to rebrand Zara after more than 20 years with the same look and feel.

Baron designed a highly controversial logo (at least for non-professionals). Simply put: a logo for educated designers who immediately noticed the genius of the logo construction and rebranding.

Reportedly, the designer charged $1,200,000 for this trademark redesign. Quite a hefty sum for a design, wouldn’t you say?

However, Zara has a revenue of 55 million euros (about $66 million) per DAY, which means that the investment was recouped in just under half an hour.

But that’s not all: the controversial logo went viral almost immediately, and media from all over the world gave it billions of dollars worth of coverage (for those who want to know more about this kind of strategy, that’s Growth Hacking)

Zara logo: great example of high cost affordable design
Zara’s design, a prefect example of high cost yet affordable design

Zara’s sales increased by almost 20% that month, and the logo became so iconic that 15 days after its launch, no one remembered the previous logo (which was very forgettable, by the way).

In short, for the cost of a little less than half an hour of billing, Zara got a memorable and iconic logo, massive reach, increased sales, and free advertising for a value that is impossible to calculate.

That’s the big difference between VALUE and PRICE. Fabien Baron’s “high” price tag was worth a thousand times more and is now a case study in almost every university or marketing and business forum.

So … expensive is better?

Reading the previous paragraphs, you might think the answer is YES. However, the real answer is “not necessarily”.

As I said earlier, expensive and cheap are variables of price, not value. And if the value isn’t great, it doesn’t make sense to pay a high monetary price.

Let’s go back to the e-commerce example.

If we hire an e-commerce developer to provide us with a website for $1000, we will certainly think it’s cheap and even doubt a deal at that price.

But if a web development agency charges us $10,000 for the same site with the same features, we already have a bigger investment there. And of course we expect a return in a reasonable time.

If the ROI is in the 90 to 180 day range, we can say we got a very good deal and an affordable design. 3 to 6 months to recover a company’s investment is negligible. Anything less than 3 months means we are dealing with a professional design agency that knows their work, and we should let them do more because the return is assured.

If the ROI exceeds 180 days, we can already say that the price was a bit expensive.

(Note: We’re talking about standard online examples here, of course. There are mega sites that never recovered their investment and some are still waiting to reach that point. Also, B2B is very different in its investment and measuring, so this time frame doesn’t apply).

Cheap Design or Affordable Design? What's the difference? 1
A great example of a expensive logo being just… expensive. It lasted 4 days and supposedly costed $100,000,000 (counting damages)

And what about free design?

We all love free meals. Granted.

Now is there a possible scenario where we can get a pretty decent quality design for free?

The answer is: we don’t know.

Contrary to what you might think, it’s more possible to find a free design that works well than a cheap design that even works decently. Much easier.

Of course, we’ll be missing many aspects of a good design, but hey, it’s a free design, we shouldn’t expect miracles either.

How do you get a design for free?

There are several ways. For example, there are design students who are looking for commissions for their portfolio.

There are design studios that do pro bono work for NGOs or charities (in our case, we’ve done some, and from time to time we do it when the cause is important to us).

And then there’s the DIY (do-it-yourself) approach, where the client can create their own design using their knowledge, or using online tools with pre-generated designs.

We can say, “But these preset designs make the design look just like many, many others”.

And it’s true.

I didn’t say that free design is good. Just that you’re more likely to find free designs that do the job than you are to find cheap designs that do.

For one simple reason: the person who makes a cheap design is the one who doesn’t have enough knowledge, therefore cannot value their work. Added to the nominal price of their work is the cost of the designer’s learning: the designer learns at your expense, and the “invisible price” you don’t see is that cost of learning.

In contrast, a free design can be achieved in a number of ways and still work the same.

Want a concrete example?

In 1998, a certain Larry Page created his company logo using free design software GIMP. Mr. Page created one of the ugliest logos you’ve ever seen. Maybe you recognize it from somewhere:

free design: example of a free logo that worked
Hey, what about a free logo?

I repeat: It’s easier to find examples of free designs that do their job than it is to find examples of cheap logos that do their job.

Conclusion: A design must be affordable

This is the rule. A design must be affordable. Always. With no exceptions.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a logo design, or a website design, or a user experience design. What matters is that the value the design provides is within our budget, but multiplies it at the same time.

And when we talk about affordable design, the price tag could be really high in absolute terms. And still be affordable.

Remember, the idea of a business is to thrive and multiply profits. And the design of a brand’s identity is an intangible value that we often can’t see at first glance, but that consolidates over time through exposure and repetition.

If our design is indistinguishable from another, no one will remember it. If it’s distinctive, it will be remembered. That means our brand will stay in the consumer’s mind.

Bottom line: design (especially UX design, as it includes all other forms of design) is a high return investment.

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