Should you really charge a client when they ask for working files?
There are a few classic debates in the design industry. I'm sure you know them: Mac vs Windows, hourly billing vs value-based pricing, cold calling vs inbound marketing, pants on vs pants off for zoom meetings.
One that comes up from time to time is "should I charge for working files and as with most good debates, there is no clear winner 100% of the time (apart from pants off while on zoom calls).
With this topic, let's take as much an objective look at the topic as we can. Even tho the chances are you already have an opinion about whether you should or shouldn't charge for working files.
OK, but let's break this down and look at how and why this happens and work out if you really should charge and if so, how much?
Before we get started, we want to consider 4 things.
1) Why would you charge for working files?
2) What do we mean by working files?
3) What did the client buy from us?
4) How much of this project are tangible deliverables?
Now at first glance, these might sound simple but if we use a couple of examples we'll see how complicated this gets.
Different types of projects:
Let's take 3 types of projects…
A simple project:
What we mean here is a project that is nearly all production, something like a business card.
A multi-stage project:
What we mean here is a project that happens over phases with multiple moving parts and often different deliverables for each stage. Let's take a website with discovery, scope, design, development and delivery.
A strategic project:
What we mean here is a project where the final deliverable is a small part of the project and the larger part of the project is your knowledge. Something like a branding or identity project, where your time is spent identifying the market, understanding things like positioning, tone of voice, messaging and then developing the ideas that relate to this.
Got that? Keep these in the back of your mind and let's keep going.
Why would you charge for working files?
I'm going to call this out right now. The main reason is FEAR, yup, it stems from the worry of a loss of future income that could be missed when someone has the files to do the work themselves. Pretty obvious stuff.
But why is this an issue? If the client paid us for the work, shouldn't they own it? What harm is there in giving it to them?
I'm sure you've seen some analogies around this, a classic one is "when you eat at a restaurant, you're not given the recipe"
Now, you could argue that a recipe is the instructions, but working files are simply the ingredients. Giving someone your working files does not mean they know how to do what you do. And this is very true. But it begs the question "what are we really selling"?
What did the client buy from us?
You already know this one right? When a client buys something from us, they are buying the deliverables, right?
Well technically, as service providers, what we actually sell is end result caused by a solution we offer to solve a problem. But let's not overcomplicate this now. Let's stick to working files.
Our simple project:
With our business card, our deliverable is either going to be a print-ready file or printed cards delivered to the client. If the client was paying for a file they can easily update, what do we call that? A template. A business card and a business card template are not the same product.
Our multi-stage project:
When we create a website, the amount of work it takes to get to the end deliverable (a working website) is far greater than the hours spent building the site itself.
Our strategic project:
Similar to the website example above, when a client hires us to create an identity for their brand, the finished deliverable is a small part of the large process that we go through with them.
With both something like a website and a brand, the deliverable is a small part of our process, but then also, the deliverable is small relative to the impact it can make on a business.
This may sound like I am overextending the impact of the work that we do. But again what we can see here is that what we might call working files, really are removed from what the client actually comes to us for.
But what about templates?
If we sell something that is designed for a client to open, edit, save, rinse and repeat, this might be seen as a working file, but really this is a template.
Chances are, when we design a template the way we approach this is very different to our own working files, we may not even use the same software.
When a client requests a template, what they are buying is NOT the file, it's the ability to create work for themselves, quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively.
When we are hired specifically to create a template, most people will charge differently than they would if they were producing something that wasn't designed for the client to use and edit.
That's fair right?
What do we mean by working files?
So we can presume that working files are the files we use to create our end product. Let's look at our project examples to take this to some extremes.
Our simple project:
With our business card example, our working file is going to be something like an InDesign file. That really is as complicated as it gets. Great.
Our multi-stage project:
With our website project, the end deliverable is a website. When someone wants the working files we can presume this means the files on the server. But does this also include any files that allowed us to create the project (such as our design files)? What about or working files for things like wireframes, site maps, discovery documents… These are the working files that helped the project come to life right? Does the client own them? What use will they serve (probably a lot if they want to start their own agency).
Our strategic project:
When we create an identity, it's common, if not standard for ideas to be explored that are never used, logos we don't show, logos they reject. These are all a part of the journey. Are they working files? What about initial sketches? Yes, it sounds like I'm being stupid now and maybe I am.
But let's say we just "presume" working files only relate to the finished and approved design files. When a client is given a brand, they're normally given vector files. These can be edited by anyone with design software. How different really is an exported file (such as an EPS) to a "working" file (such as an AI file)? Not much.
Lastly, when we work, how organised are we? Do we work in a way that our files are intended to be opened and used by others? Is cleaning up files, or removing parts of these files fair? Is it truly our working file?
One thing is clear, what we all define as a working file will vary from one another. So when a client asks for a working file, chances are they are wanting a specific tangible deliverable, a specific file.
How much of this project are tangible deliverables?
What do I mean by tangible deliverables? Good question, I'm glad I asked. Well with the examples above, a simple project like a business card, the end product is all a tangible deliverable.
But with something that has multiple stages, or strategy involved, there are deliverables that have no tangible quality to them. You can not hold strategy, you can not hold clarity or direction. You can hold a document that defines them, but that is not really "them".
Again, using the examples above with our simple project, our multi-stage project and our strategic project, it's pretty clear that the simpler the project the larger percentage of the project is the final deliverable. It's almost more likely that this deliverable is something tangible that is attached to a working file.
Great story bro, why did I need to know this?
We need to understand this to give us some context to how much value the "working file" actually offers.
So how much do we charge?
It has been common practice to charge 100% of the costs of the project for working files. This is referenced a lot. But why? Who said?
Someone did once upon a time and we all followed.
But this seems like a throwback to when IP around files and know-how to create them was difficult. When computers were new, this was a big part of the skill of being a designer.
These days, it's less about the tool and more about our knowledge or our results.
If we take our simple project the file for the business card is going to be the bulk of our work, so charing double for this could be considered "fair" (yeah not a great word when it comes to pricing and value I know).
If we take our multi-stage website project, and the client requests the design file, but the design phase was only 20% of a project, is charging 100% of the total project costs appropriate here?
The same question applies to our strategic project.
There are 2 more things we have not looked are here yet:
How much work do we need to spend on preparing a file?
In many instances, our files are not suitable for a client to use, so they need some tidying up to make sense to a client or even another service provider. We need to charge for this time.
What is the value to the client?
You may not be on the value-based pricing train, but if you look at the working file as if the client was wanting a template created. Ask yourself, what would I charge?
What if I'd rather just give the clients their files?
Go for it. There can be many advantages to just giving the client files when they request them.
A small tip for you if this is the path you want to take is to use that fact to your advantage and make it publicly known to the client.
This might mean blogging about it or creating content for your website that explains this in your process.
when you talk to prospects you can use this to place a seed of doubt around other designers who are not clear about this and make you more attractive to a prospect.
So while there is no right or wrong here, it's best to use whatever stance you take to your advantage.