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Basic Guidelines for Figuring Out Your Web Design Salary

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 // shutterstock.com

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 // shutterstock.com

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 // shutterstock.com

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