Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Responding to Unsolicited Design Inquiries

Handling unsolicited inquiries can be a delicate process. This minor art form of business has tremendous influence on your well being, because the first sentence of your first e-mail can make or break a new relationship. Every person and inquiry is different, but there are a few consistent guidelines that can help nurture a budding relationship.

One of the more arcane arts of business is the handling of first contact inquiries, the random requests for information that appear in your inbox and voicemail.

These blind dates of business must be handled with care. Sometimes the chemistry works and sometimes expectations are on clearly different levels, but following a few simple guidelines can help nurture a positive first encounter.

Over the years I’ve handled hundreds of inquiries, most through my website. Since referrals are easier to handle (the prospect already having a positive impression of you) I’m going to focus on the delicate negotiations that transpire when client and designer first meet in the vacuum of cyberspace.

Common Problems With Blind Inquiries

Most inquiries have two major problems from the get-go. First, they almost always demand a “quote” or “estimate.” Many people ignorantly treat design as a commodity, and the question “How much for a logo design?” is asked as easily as “How much for a pound of bacon?” Most people simply assume you have a rate card like a landscaping service. Don’t take it personally.

Second, inquiries almost always lack enough information to even ballpark a rough approximation of an estimate. Here’s a par-for-the-course message I received some time ago:

Can you tell me how much you charge for a logo creation? I am looking to build a car wash.

Obviously, it would be impossible to gauge anything from that. So there are two paths to choose: the low road and the high road.

The Low Road

Most good business-owners — especially those running brick-and-mortar shops — quickly assess whether a potential customer is serious or merely window shopping. Inquiries for design are virtually always serious buyers. The guesswork comes in figuring whether they know how much good design costs or whether they think they know how much good design costs.

The low road is designed to help sniff this out. Using the example above, you could write the following back:

Thanks for contacting me. Since you haven’t provided much information yet, I can only give you the range of previous logo design projects that I’ve completed. Depending on the complexity of the logo, the final project fee could sit anywhere between $500 and $2,000. I am interested in pursuing this project, but I’d like to ask you some questions that will help refine my estimate.

The low road should be taken with caution for two reasons. First, you’ve already gambled your chips before the cards are even dealt. First rule of negotiation: those who name their price first almost invariably get the crap end of a deal.

Second, the intention of the low road is to weed out the people who think logos and websites only cost $100, so a message of this coldness and brevity should only be fired off to those you think clearly fall into that category. You might never get a response. Which is the point.

Please don’t confuse the low road with the cold shoulder. You are merely answering their question as shortly as they asked it. Sometimes they respond, and a good dialogue is born. Then you proceed to the high road.

The High Road

In theory, this is the path to be taken the vast majority of the time because you want to give people the benefit of the doubt that they are serious shoppers. The high road enables you and the prospect to talk about the project’s scope and requirements before the subject of money is breached.

In short, the high road is simply asking questions.

Thanks for your interest in my services and for the inquiry! I would be happy to discuss a logo project with you. If I may, I’d like to ask just a few quick questions so I can formulate a more accurate estimate: ... [lots ‘o questions] ...

There should be a mix of broad and narrow questions, and no more than six or seven total. Broad questions are the background-gathering that may or may not be related to the project. Where are you located? What exactly is your core business? These are easy questions. Narrow questions are project-related. Is this a new design or redesign? How will this website/logo/brochure/bobble-head be used? What is your timeline?

What is Your Budget?

This narrow question is tricky. Some will vehemently argue against asking at all, but I find this final query is a good litmus test to gauge the prospect’s level of interest.

The fact is, everyone has a number in their head. If it’s some dude opening a car wash, that number might be completely arbitrary — in other words, what he thinks the design is worth. But more often than not, a serious prospect has a specific budget. It may be $100 or $10,000 or $3,692.50.

From my experience, clients will always answer the other questions, and half the time politely sidestep or outright ignore the budget question. This is fair. But I also think it’s fair to ask it in the first place, because if it is answered, it immediately and clearly dictates whether the financial expectations of both parties are in line.

Offering Your Estimate

All the questions and back-and-forth e-mailing are simply foreplay to you providing an estimate. This is the make-or-break moment of truth. In the end, it’s all the prospect wanted.

I’m not here to dictate what you should charge for a project. There are whole books dedicated to that. I will, however, offer a few suggestions:

  • Don’t exchange too many messages without offering at least a rough ballpark. Ideally, your third message or phone conversation should include a number. Any more and the other party will think you’re playing games.
  • If it’s a rough estimate, say so. Tell them you will need more information to refine. Equally, if you feel it is a very accurate estimate, the potential client should have that peace of mind. Whatever you do, be honest.
  • Don’t negotiate. If they think the price is too high, offer a new price based on a reduced set of requirements. (For instance, less functionality in a website.)
  • Explain how you came up with that number. Is it a fixed project fee? An estimated of number of hours?

If the Conversation Dies

Inevitably, you will have a few inquiries that simply peter out. Maybe they never respond to your questions. Maybe you’ve given them a price you feel is very fair but you get nothing but silence on the other end.

First, don’t get frustrated. Shit happens. People go on vacation, get fired, transfer to another department, whatever. Sometimes they’re waiting on approval from their boss. Sometimes they get a better estimate and choose someone else. Sometimes they just forget about you.

If you feel the conversation has fizzled, you need to send two e-mails. The first one comes a week after the last regular e-mail. Reiterate your discussion, the project, the estimate if you’ve given one, interest in the project and sincere wish to work together.

If you don’t get a response, the second and potentially last e-mail comes two weeks after the friendly reminder. It’s brief and to the point. Quickly remind them of the project and that you’re still interested in working together. Brevity and professionalism are paramount.

If you get nothing but silence after that, stop. 99% of the time, you’ve lost the opportunity and cyber-stalking never helps anyone.

General Tips for Handling Inquiries

  • Always address the e-mails with your prospect’s name. “Dear Bob — thanks for getting back to me.” (Classic sales tactic: learn the person’s name and use it often.)
  • Be formal. Using phrases like “yeah, Internet Explorer sucks ass” and “logos with swooshes are fucking retarded” will not win you any respect.
  • Spell check.
  • Be punctual. If you say the estimate will be there Thursday afternoon, make it happen. If you say you’re going to call Monday morning at 9 AM, do it, and do it on time.
  • Don’t blog about a lost opportunity, even if the guy just wanted a logo for a car wash.


commentary + criticism


wrote the following on Sunday July 30, 2006

“logos with swooshes are fucking retarded”

Damnit! So that’s why I lost my last prospective client!

Jeff Wheeler

wrote the following on Sunday July 30, 2006

Ha, should’ve written this yesterday. Just got a prospect today, and I suppose I took the low-road. I don’t have much time for it, though, so I suppose that’s reasonable.

I shot him a high figure, and if he takes it, then it’ll be worth the time anyways.

If not, I really haven’t lost anything.

Natalie Jost

wrote the following on Monday July 31, 2006

Some really great info, Kevin. Your experience shows. I like your ‘low road’ approach and I wouldn’t have thought of it that way, but you’re right. I’ve done that a few times when I could tell the prospect’s budget was in the $100-300 range. It’s just unreasonable to ask for work to be done at that price. I’ve said before that I could do a comp for their price but that’s it. They can get a photoshop version of what their site would look like but if they want an actual website those cost more. ;) I did actually have one person save up for it though, so it worked out that time.

The budget question is so tough. It’s not like I would have trouble going to the mall and telling the salesperson I have X amount to spend on a dress, what have you got, but this isn’t retail either. People tend to think it is.


wrote the following on Monday July 31, 2006

Sometimes the low road works out. It puts the estimate up front, but leaves the door wide open for further discussion. That’s really the only difference. The low road is price first, questions second; the high road is questions first, price second.

Chris Griffin

wrote the following on Monday July 31, 2006

I took the high road one time and the guy went through all the trouble to take screenshots with notes and a long email. Pretty thorough.

The thing was he gave me way too much direction and it was a clone of another site.

Of course I turned it down politely. I don’t do clones.

Jacob Estes

wrote the following on Monday July 31, 2006

I’m still young, but every time I’ve given an estimate (and they’ve been below the going rate and just at the threshold of worth my time), every single time the person never responded.

Now I realize that if for no other reason than to irritate them with respect and continued interest, I should have emailed them again.


wrote the following on Monday July 31, 2006

“irritate them with respect and continued interest”

That’s probably the funniest thing I’ve read all day.


wrote the following on Tuesday August 1, 2006

Jacob, when your estimates are below the rate, the reason you never get responded may easily be that they are too low. When my logo budget is $1000 and if I know what the logo really costs, then $100 estimate will not turn me on at all.

Jacob Estes

wrote the following on Wednesday August 2, 2006

Now that you mention it, I don’t doubt that some of them were because they were too low. I kinda think now that they thought, “You know, that’s how much we payed last time, and this is what happened.” which of course I took as “I’m sure they paid way too much last time, and this is what happened.”

Brad Van Wick

wrote the following on Wednesday August 30, 2006

Hey, long time reader, first time writer. Your advice helped me make a deal. Thanks Kevin.

Mason Galindo

wrote the following on Thursday August 31, 2006

Great advice Kevin.

Bookmarked !