Why Does Web Design Cost So Much?

Understanding the value behind the price tag

As part of an ongoing series of posts geared towards small business web design, I’m addressing a series of common questions, concerns, and misconceptions. Today we’re taking a look at what drives the cost of having a website professionally designed. This is the logical follow up to my article on How to Build Your Own Website…and Why You Really Shouldn’t. In particular we’ll discuss the benefit of getting it right and why doing it quickly and cheaply only undermines your brand. 

I rarely have the opportunity to address this question directly. But the small business owner needs to be cost aware, so even if it isn’t brought up, it’s often in the subtext of the discussion and proposal phase.


Expensive vs. Valuable

“Expensive” is a relative term; relative to what you’re getting in exchange. A go kart has an engine, 4 wheels, and a steering wheel but there’s a reason it costs less than a Porsche. One is a precision machine, strategically engineered by professionals to achieve certain milestones. The other is…well it’s a go kart. There’s nothing wrong with it, but you wouldn’t be caught dead driving to work in it if you wanted to be taken seriously as a professional. If the costs associated with designing a website seem absorbent, it’s likely due to a lack of understanding for the process, components, and finished product. A car doesn’t have to be a Porsche but one thing is certain: you’ll look pretty silly meeting clients in a go kart.


When evaluating why web design costs what it does, it’s important to understand the value associated with that cost. If you don’t appreciate your ROI, you’ll likely just gravitate towards the fastest and cheapest option. And there are a lot of deceptively appealing alternatives available. It’s such a tired saying, but you really do get what you pay for, one way or another.


The Dollar’s in the Details

To appreciate the value of good web design we have to understand what’s involved in the process. To do that I would like to compare it to blimp construction, mostly because that sounds like a fun metaphor. Blimps are fun. But nobody really knows much about that so I’ll compare it to home remodeling instead.


In order to be done properly both (blimp construction home remodeling & web design) require planning, a consideration of needs and desires, and technical specifications tailored to meet those needs. Both involve different skills and areas of specialization, as well as structural, functional, and cosmetic design. Failing to plan properly can result in an unsatisfactory product and after the fact revisions can potentially be costly.


Let’s say you want to remodel your kitchen for instance. A builder doesn’t just show up with lumber and tools to start making a productive racket. After all you haven’t even discussed what he needs to be building, removing, adding, and why. Requirements are key. Knowing both what you need as well as the reason you need it is the difference between investing in something and just spending money on it.


Are you getting new appliances (why)? Stainless steel (why)? Did you want the refrigerator with the ice maker in the door (why)? Do you need an ice maker in the door, yes…no (why)? Is your electrical up to snuff? All the outlets where they need to be? What’s the plumbing situation? And we haven’t even considered the decor or that slushi machine you absolutely have to have, but you get the idea.


It may not seem like there’s as many up front considerations with a website but things like defining your target audience, doing keyword research, choosing the right domain name, and a host with the right capabilities are just a few of the things that need to be accounted for. Your site goals also matter, as well as your content and marketing strategy, social media, the state of your brand, copy, and images…and on and on. A successful website is no more an accident than a well designed kitchen.


It may be possible to do it relatively quickly and cheaply, but it’s not something you want to have to do again for a while. Like most things, spending a little more time and money to do it right the first time provides long term benefits that far outweigh the initial investment. On the other hand doing it on the cheap or trying to do it yourself can be a gamble if you’re not sure what you’re doing. Using the most inexpensive contractor and materials, and glossing over the specification process is tempting but risky.


To appreciate this, consider what you do for a living. Think about the wealth of knowledge and skills you’ve accrued over the years and the case you’d make for their applied value vs. the same job performed by an amateur.


Designed with Purpose

In my article concerning the pros and cons of DIY web design I mentioned that there’s a difference between functionality and effectiveness. A good website begins with goals and is designed to meet them. Each page is created with purpose in mind. It’s content and features are tailored to serve that purpose.


Creating pages and populating them with data will technically produce a website but it may or may not meet the specific goals you’ve set out to accomplish. Objectives like selling more of a particular product, or accumulating email subscribers require unique strategies and thoughtful approaches to design and content. Remember we’re talking about where cost is coming from. A thorough consideration of needs, and design that considers them is an articulate process. The marketing and creative acumen involved are valuable skills.


Let’s break the process into the primary phases of Planning and Design and explore some of what’s involved in each.




Discovery, Scope & Specification

Good web design begins with a needs assessment to determine what the site has to achieve in order to be considered a success. Your website is a tool for your brand and it needs to pull its own weight. Site requirements should reflect your business goals, which are affected by the needs of your audience. Personal preferences (like that slushi machine we discussed) come second, and only if they align with your overall strategy.


More brand exposure, competitive search engine ranking, enhanced customer service, or the ability to sell products online are examples of common requirements. Site goals emerge based on what you need (followed by what you want) to accomplish and are critical to gauging the scale of the project.


Goals directly influence what features and functionality will be needed to achieve them, as well as determining whether the proposed budget is capable of supporting them. If not the site requirements will need to be revisited and scaled back accordingly.


A content audit will also take place during this phase, holding current copy and media up against site goals to reveal content gaps and determine what will need to be written or created to meet those goals. The type of content, frequency of updates, and extent to which you (the end user) want to be able to add and change elements on the site will also effect the scope of the design.


Based on the goals set forth in the initial discovery process, feature and design elements are specified. Technical considerations are made and costs estimated accordingly. A sitemap and page wireframes detailing content and feature placement are also created and approved.


The scoping and specification process often takes place across several in person meetings, email exchanges, phone calls, and creative briefs, as the goals and requirements of your site are thoroughly examined.


The process can be handled efficiently and it is possible to abbreviate it to a certain extent, but an in-depth discovery phase will ultimately give you the most value. Leaving more up to chance may save you some time and money initially but the more vague the site goals are the less the site can be tailored to meet them.




Weeks of Work, Years of Experience

This is where the goals set forth in the planning stage are given form. Guided by the site specifications, the design phase encompasses their visual and technical implementation. An impressive series of disciplines are employed as design, branding, marketing and content strategy, back and front-end development are successfully incorporated.


Building even a basic site from scratch requires knowledge and proficiency in a range of professional software such as Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and Dreamweaver, and a minimum of 3-4 different coding languages including html, css, javascript and php among others. More complex sites require back-end development chops and knowledge of programming languages like Ruby, Python, and Java as well as knowledge of servers and database systems such as MySQL.


Even customizing an existing theme, or using some type of site-builder still requires good creative judgement and at least some knowledge of html and css in order to ensure cohesion and solid SEO, and to allow fine tuning.


Additionally a designer needs to be familiar with web conventions, and best practices, as well as understanding the basics of good user experience and conversion centered design. Additional disciplines include strong SEO, content strategy, and the considerations of mobile design. The ability to test across multiple devices and browsers is also vital.


And those are only the technical requirements. A designer also has to produce visually compelling work and do so while balancing the functional considerations. We’ll call this practical pizazz. Steve Fisher discusses the utilitarian purpose of design in an interesting article on Creative Bloq. I would only add that attractive visuals contribute brand appeal, and retention, as well as enhancing usability, which helps accomplish various site goals. So, while form follows function, it is itself also one.


At the end of the day one of the primary factors driving the cost of professional web design is the same as any skilled profession; the expertise involved. Whether a design takes 5 months or 5 minutes, the result is the culmination of years. A designer’s work is the sum of the artist’s entire professional experience, training, natural talent, and intuition informing every decision and culminating into a finished product.

What About Do-It-Yourself Website Builders…?

I covered this in detail in my previous article but let’s briefly touch on it in closing. Having elaborated on the complexities and necessary considerations of building an effective website, the relevant question is whether or not they’re all accounted for when using a site-builder to do it yourself. The short answer is no. The medium answer is, not unless you’re also a designer, and the long answer is:


The goal of site-builders is to streamline the web design process to make it appealing and accessible to the average Joe (palatable to the masses). But simplifying a sophisticated set of objectives, procedures, and skill-sets means reducing them to their lowest functioning equivalents, and making a lot of assumptions about user intent in the process.


Site-builders automate the coding process, offer professionally designed themes, and a set of applications designed to meet the most common needs of the average site. The technicality of building a site is accounted for but as we’ve already established, there’s a difference between something being technically functional and truly effective.


Tech is only part of the equation. The web design process is as much about the marketing knowledge and creative intuition as much as anything else. A site-builder can equip you with the tools, but not the years of experience and knowledge that enables you to wield them as effectively as a professional web designer. The best site-builders employ constraint strategically in order to “encourage” good design and best practices, but unless you know what you’re doing making good choices is still a guessing game.



There are always cheaper ways to do anything but making decisions based solely on cost will only ever limit what you can achieve in the long term. As a valuable part of your company and marketing strategy your website needs specific things in order to be effective. Frugality is good, but if savings come at the expense of necessary features then you’re only selling yourself short.


Cost varies considerably based on the needs of a site and can be scaled with impressive flexibility. I’ve personally created packages that can accommodate just about any budget. But when it comes down to creating a branded, purpose driven site that fulfills your business goals, trying to be too economical only hinders the quality of the finished product.


When you pay for a service, the cost is reflective of the complexity of the process, the skills required, and knowledge on how to effectively employ them. Anyone who takes pride in their own work can appreciate that. Every skilled profession has a cost associated with it. While there are always cost cutting alternatives, they’re rarely a valid substitute for the real thing.


If you don’t think so give me a call next time you’re remodeling your home. I’m a web designer not a builder, but that shouldn’t matter right? I have a saw and I’ve plugged stuff in before. How hard could it be.


Hopefully this has given you a better understanding of and appreciation for the value of good web design. Still have questions? Give me a shout.


by David Lange

David Lange is a freelance web designer and brand consultant living in Shelbyville Ky. A multi-disciplinary designer, illustrator, and artist, he has a myriad of experience and insights into the world of web and branding. He's currently focused on helping small businesses understand and harness the web.