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

Last Modified: Jul 10th, 2024 - Category: Branding, Marketing, UX, Web Design
1859 words, 10 minutes estimated read time.
affordable design vs cheap design and free design

Design—whether it’s brand, web, user experience, packaging, or any other type—is a crucial asset for any business. Yet, the way we evaluate its price often leads to confusion. Terms like cheap, affordable, expensive, and even free are commonly used, but they don’t accurately reflect the true value of design.

Price is Not Value

Many new business owners make the mistake of equating price with value. This often leads to disappointment when their business doesn’t perform as expected.

In this article, we will clarify the differences in the pricing of brand design and other design types, and why understanding these distinctions is important for your business success.

Cheap Design vs. Affordable Design

The terms “cheap” and “affordable” are often used interchangeably, but they mean different things.

  • Cheap Design: This refers to design services that are low in cost. While this might seem budget-friendly, it often lacks quality and effectiveness.
  • Affordable Design: This refers to design services that offer good value for the money. They may not be the cheapest, but they balance cost with quality and effectiveness.

Understanding this distinction is crucial. Just because a design is cheap doesn’t mean it’s a good investment. Affordable design, on the other hand, provides a better balance between cost and value.

Let’s delve deeper into these concepts.

Definition of cheap design

cheap design example
Cheap design is… cheap

When we refer to a design as “cheap”, we mean that the absolute price of the service is very low. For instance, if a logo design costs $100, it’s considered a cheap design. However, with cheap design, you often get what you pay for.

Paying $100 (or less) for a logo increases the likelihood of encountering numerous problems, potentially jeopardizing your business.

To illustrate this, let’s review the characteristics of a great logo. A good logo should be:

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

Is it possible to get a high-quality logo that meets all these criteria at a low price? Technically, yes, but it’s extremely rare.

Even if our cheap logo meets these conditions, there are often additional issues. Do we have the materials needed to print it? Do we have the design guidelines? Do we have a brand book that ensures brand coherence? Most likely not.

In many cases, you’ll only receive a PNG file, leaving you to figure out how to use it correctly. This scenario represents the best-case scenario: a cheap logo that somehow meets high-quality standards. However, this is an exception rather than the rule.

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

Opting for cheap design usually means compromising on quality. Even if you can choose only two options, it likely won’t work well. Cheap designs are often of poor quality, possibly plagiarized, and indistinguishable from countless other logos.

While we’re using logos as an example, this issue applies to any type of design.

And if the design is affordable?

As mentioned, cheap design and affordable design are not the same. Affordable design takes your budget into account and offers value relative to that budget. The absolute price might be high or low, but the design’s intrinsic value justifies the cost.

Let’s revisit the logo example. Suppose the logo design costs $1000. This is a medium to low price for an average brand design agency.

For a single person starting a business, $1000 might seem steep. However, for a small business, it’s economical, and for a medium-sized business, it’s nearly negligible.

Affordable design provides a balance between cost and quality, ensuring that the investment benefits your business in the long run.

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

The most important aspect is the concept of value. If a design meets my quality standards and aligns with my business goals, and I can afford it without negatively impacting other areas, then it is an affordable design—even if it costs significantly more than a cheap logo.

The key difference between a cheap logo and an affordable logo lies in the ratio relative to quality. While complex formulas exist to calculate this ratio, they are beyond the scope of this article. For those interested in a theoretical progression of design investment costs, refer to 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. Share on X

Measuring the cost/value ratio of a brand identity can be complex, so let’s consider a different example: the design of an e-commerce website.

The cost of an e-commerce website can range from $1,000 to $10,000,000, depending on various factors. A common approach is using WordPress and WooCommerce, either with a pre-made theme or custom development, which represents a low to medium investment. Alternatively, platforms like Shopify and Vtek require higher investments. There are also custom-developed solutions that do not use any framework.

Each option has different costs, but the crucial factor is that the cost-to-time/return on investment (ROI) ratio is positive. The investment cost is justified if it delivers the desired results within the needed timeframe.

Consider Amazon as an example. Designing and implementing such a platform has required a substantial investment, likely exceeding $100,000,000 over the years. Let’s say the total investment is $200 million; how long does it take for Amazon to recoup this investment? The answer is less than a day—actually, a little less than half a day.

Of course, we’re discussing a large-scale implementation, and not everyone is Amazon.

Want a design example?

For a more relatable example, let’s look at Zara, the Spanish fashion retail brand. Zara commissioned renowned designer Julien Baron to rebrand their identity after more than 20 years. Baron created a highly controversial logo that impressed professional designers with its construction and rebranding strategy.

Reportedly, Zara paid $1,200,000 for this redesign. While this seems like a hefty sum, Zara’s revenue is approximately 55 million euros (about $66 million) per day. This means the investment was recouped in just under half an hour.

Moreover, the controversial logo went viral almost immediately, gaining billions of dollars’ worth of media coverage worldwide. This kind of strategy, known as growth hacking, demonstrates the significant impact and value a well-designed brand can have.

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

After Zara’s rebranding, sales increased by nearly 20% that month. The new logo became so iconic that within 15 days of its launch, the previous logo was largely forgotten.

In summary, for the cost of less than half an hour of their daily revenue, Zara gained a memorable and iconic logo, massive reach, increased sales, and immeasurable free advertising. This highlights the crucial distinction between value and price. Julien Baron’s “high” price tag provided value worth exponentially more and is now a case study in many universities and marketing forums.

So … expensive is better?

You might think that expensive design is inherently better based on the previous example. However, the real answer is “not necessarily”.

As mentioned earlier, expensive and cheap are variables of price, not value. Paying a high price makes sense only if the value is equally high.

Revisiting the E-commerce Example

Consider an e-commerce website. Hiring a developer for $1,000 might seem too cheap, raising doubts about the quality. On the other hand, if a web development agency charges $10,000 for the same site with identical features, the higher investment sets expectations for a reasonable return on investment (ROI).

If the ROI is achieved within 90 to 180 days, this would be considered a good deal and an affordable design. Recovering the investment in 3 to 6 months is negligible. Achieving ROI in less than 3 months indicates that the agency is highly professional and reliable, warranting further business.

If the ROI takes more than 180 days, the price may be considered expensive relative to the return.

(Note: These examples refer to standard online projects. Mega sites may never recover their investment, and some are still striving to do so. B2B projects have different investment and measurement criteria, so this timeframe might not 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?

Everyone loves a free meal, but what about free design? Can we get a decent quality design for free? The answer isn’t straightforward.

Surprisingly, it’s often easier to find a free design that works well than to find a cheap design that performs decently. While free designs might lack many aspects of good design, they can still serve their purpose without costing anything.

How do you get a design for free?

There are several ways to obtain a free design:

  1. Student Work: Design students often seek projects to build their portfolios. They may offer their services for free in exchange for experience and exposure.
  2. Pro Bono Work: Some design studios undertake pro bono work for NGOs or charities. For example, our studio has occasionally provided free services for causes we support.
  3. DIY (Do-It-Yourself): Clients can create their own designs using their knowledge or online tools with pre-generated designs. Although these preset designs may look similar to many others, they are free and functional.

The Reality of Free Design

While free designs might not be exceptional, they can be more reliable than cheap designs. This is because those who offer cheap designs often lack the necessary expertise and undervalue their work. The hidden cost of cheap designs includes the designer’s learning curve, which can affect the quality of the final product.

In contrast, free designs can be achieved through various means and may still meet your needs.

A Concrete Example

In 1998, Larry Page created his company’s logo using free design software, GIMP. The result was one of the ugliest logos you’ve ever seen, but you might recognize it from somewhere.

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

Despite its initial appearance, this free design served its purpose and contributed to the brand’s early identity. This example illustrates that even free designs can have a significant impact, depending on how they are used and perceived.

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

A design must always be affordable, with no exceptions. Whether it’s a logo, website, or user experience design, what matters is that the value the design provides fits within our budget while also multiplying it.

Affordable design can have a high price tag in absolute terms and still be affordable. The goal of any business is to thrive and multiply profits. The design of a brand’s identity is an intangible asset that may not be immediately visible but consolidates over time through exposure and repetition.

If our design is indistinguishable from others, it won’t be remembered. A distinctive design ensures that our brand stays in the consumer’s mind. Therefore, design—especially UX design, as it encompasses all other forms of design—is a high return investment.

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