Measuring the “ROI” of Design

A note from the management: This article is intended as a reference for business owners as they consider how to measure the value of design services (and justify their expense).

Business People ask Business Questions

I recently met with a prospective client to review a new project proposal. They asked fantastic questions (good clients always do). The one that stood out seems simple, but turns out to be deceptively complex.

“If we do this, how do we know it’s money well spent?” In other words, when a business trades an unsmall amount of their hard-earned profits for design services, how do they know it’s worth it?


Have you ever purchased design services from someone who told you you were making an investment? They lied to you. Probably not maliciously, but they lied nonetheless. They misunderstood a fundamental truth about what they were selling. As a result they underserved you, your brand, and your business in the process.

At some point, business owners and managers are going to have to defend the financial benefits of purchasing design services, if only to themselves or their partners. The temptation to use traditional return on investment (ROI) analysis is strong. But it’s the wrong approach. When you attempt to quantify a qualitative service, you reduce the entire relationship to a short term numbers game that designers rarely win.

Keeping the Lights On

Investments (hopefully) appreciate over time. You input resources on one end, and the other end produces a greater monetary or material result. But investments are also entirely optional. Buy some stocks, or don’t. Buy a property, or don’t. No matter what the investment, you’re making a conscious choice to do an optional action in hopes of a specific result.

As a business owner, when I look at my profit and loss statement each month and see rent, utilities, or raw materials I don’t see investments. These are fixed and variable costs, the table stakes of doing business. I write off my office rent as an expense. I’m not making a monthly investment in the local power company. I sink my money, and, in return, I get to keep the lights on so the business can keep moving.

ROI is the wrong approach because design isn’t an investment. Design is a core business function. You know how I know that?

Because you’re already doing it.

OK, So What is Design?

Design is the disciplined process of changing an existing situation to a preferred one. It is a process we go through to solve a specific problem. If you care about growing or sustaining your business, you’re designing every day, with every decision you make and every problem you try to solve.

Design is a teachable, learnable trade, and a liberal art — everyone can participate. That doesn’t mean you’re any good at it, though.

Everyone can contribute to the design process, but not everyone has the same level of talent, skill, or experience. Using unskilled labor is the quickest way to cause more problems than you set out to solve. (If you think good design costs a lot of money, wait until you see how much bad design costs…)

Design is a Business Cost. Pay Professionals to Do It.

You’re a professional business owner who needs to focus on growing your business — that’s your superpower. There are things that only you can do. Every minute you’re not doing that is a missed opportunity.

When you choose not to hire professional designers, and you attempt to do it in-house, it’s like giving yourself a paid vacation to deliver inferior products. You won’t do it well, and you’re not focusing on what you need to be doing. You lose both ways, and your business suffers.

No business is undesigned. You’re going to design no matter what. That means you’re going to pay for design no matter what. Hiring a professional designer doesn’t guarantee success, but it reduces your risk of failure. It minimizes the time you’re not working in your superpower. And, if it’s done well, it will save you more money than it will cost you.

Hire people who are better at it than you, so you can focus on doing the thing that matters most — running your business.