How to Keep Your Design Project Estimates from Being Guesses

Estimating design projects is a time-consuming process. But a good estimate can mean the difference between a profitable design project and a costly project failure.

Creating an accurate estimate can be a lot of work, especially if you’ve never worked for that particular client before.

Photo of a sign for estimates.

Sadly, for many designers project estimates are little more than guesstimates. This is a real shame because it takes a lot of time to create even a bad estimate.

In this post, I’ll share three techniques for creating more accurate project estimates. I’ll also share some tips and resources to make your estimates more effective.

Base Your Estimate on the Right Information

One of the biggest reasons so many design estimates are wrong is because the designer didn’t get a full description of the project. No matter what estimating technique you use, it’s very important to be as thorough as possible when defining a project’s scope.


An incomplete project description will lead to a bad project estimate almost every time. You can’t necessarily depend on the client to tell you everything you need to know either. The client may not understand what information you need to create an accurate estimate. Or they may withhold information to make the project seem easier to avoid discouraging you (or to get a lower price from you).

Don’t be afraid to ask the client as many questions as you need to in order to understand the work requirements. It’s a good idea (and a time saver) to create a standard list of questions that you usually need to have the answers to and customize it for each client. Don’t forget to include the project scope in your signed work agreement with the client.

Once you have a good idea of what the client needs, you are ready to create a project estimate. There are basically three methods you can use to create your estimate:

  1. The Task-based Approach
  2. The Benchmark Approach
  3. The Tools-based Approach

project-estimates2

Most of these methods do have some overlaps. I’ll provide an overview of each technique.

Estimating Technique #1: The Task-based Approach

The task-based approach to estimating works especially well for large projects. You may feel that it’s nearly impossible to create an accurate estimate for a large project.

Don’t let the scope of a large project overwhelm you. Task-based estimating can help. Under this technique you break a large project into smaller, more manageable pieces and estimate each piece.

To create a task-based estimate, perform the following steps:

  1. Break the project into smaller tasks. Take your time and list as many tasks as you can think of. The more tasks you include, the more accurate your estimate will be. For really large projects, you may need to break into into phases and list the tasks under each phase.
  2. Decide how long it will take you to perform each small task. An example of a small task might be performing project research. Be realistic with yourself about how long each task will take. It’s better to allow yourself more than enough time than to fall short on time.
  3. Assign a rate based on your hourly rate to each small task. Although you will want to give the client a price for the entire project, you should have an hourly rate in mind that you want to earn for the project.
  4. Combine the prices for the project parts and consider adding a contingency amount. A contingency amount protects you from unexpected project setbacks.
  5. Present the estimated project cost to the client. Don’t give them the breakdown of how long you think each task will take, but keep the information in your own records for future reference.

If you are careful, this method can create very accurate project estimates. It is also a good process to go through if you think that you will delegate parts of the work to someone else since you will know about how long the delegated work should take.

The drawback to this method of estimating is that it can be time-consuming.

Estimating Technique #2: The Benchmark Approach

Colorful computer illustration indicating different times.
The benchmark approach estimating is a good technique for designers who do similar work over and over again. It may also be useful if you do a lot of work for the same client.

A benchmark is a reference based on your previous work done on similar projects. You can track your using a time-tracking tool like Toggl or Chrometa to gather the information you need to create a benchmark. Over time, you will get a fairly accurate picture of how long it takes you to complete a particular type of work.

The key to using benchmarks to create an accurate project estimate is to make sure that you really are comparing two similar projects. To find out whether two projects are similar, make sure that you get a detailed description of the project scope.

It’s also a good idea to create more than one benchmark for variations on the same type of work. For example, you may create one benchmark for simple web design requests and another for more complex projects.

Don’t forget to consider additional project factors like time spent on revisions and time required for client meetings. You should also consider adding a contingency amount to any project estimate you develop by using benchmarks.

Estimating Technique #3: The Tools-based Approach

Surprisingly, there aren’t many project estimating tools for web designers and developers. However, there are a few.

Two tools that you can use to develop a project estimate include:

  • Austuteo. This low cost tool (a $4 donation is suggested) is geared to web developers, but can be used by designers as well. It’s somewhat based on the task-based estimating approach described earlier in the post, but the tool automates the process by including some common task descriptions. Fortunately, you can customize your estimates by adding your own project tasks to the estimate.
  • Konigi. This is a free estimating template (donations are requested) that is based on Microsoft Excel. It’s also task-based. A major difference is that this tool requires you to enter a low estimate and a high estimate for each task. This allows you to provide a range as your estimate. The tool will also calculate a project completion date.

As with any tools that you use, your results are only as good as the information that you provide. So be sure that the information you input is complete and accurate.

Using an estimating tool can save you time, but remember to customize the tool for each project.

Other Tips to Improve Your Estimates

Would you like to learn more about estimating web design projects? Here are three handy articles that can help:

  • A practical guide on accurately scheduling client projects from Amber Leigh Turner on TheNextWeb. This post deals with the practical aspects of scheduling projects. Her emphasis is on knowing how you spend your time and on accurately tracking your project time.
  • Effective Strategy To Estimate Time For Your Design Projects from Sam Barnes on Smashing Magazine. This helpful post includes some common project phases and tasks. In fact, it makes a very valid point about the importance of consistency in project estimating. It also explains in detail how to break projects down into smaller chunks.
  • 5 Elements of a Persuasive Web Design Estimate from Ruben Gamez here on Vandelay Design Blog. Creating an accurate web design estimate is not enough. Your estimate also needs to persuade clients to purchase your services. This post will teach you how to present your estimates in a way that convinces potential clients that they need to hire you.

Your Turn

How do you create accurate project estimates? Do you use any particular tools to help you with your estimates?

Share your experiences and tips in the comments.

Looking for hosting? WPEngine offers secure managed WordPress hosting. You’ll get expert WordPress support, automatic backups, and caching for fast page loads.

4 Responses

Comments are now closed on this post.

  • Web Design Malaysia, August 24, 2013

    thanks for this! definitely a very useful article for my sales team.

  • Katypeterson, August 26, 2013

    Useful Article!!! Thanks For Sharing

  • Laura Spencer, August 26, 2013

    Web Design Malaysia and Katyppetersono–Thanks for your kind words.

  • Hemanth Malli, August 29, 2013

    Thanks for the useful share it is helpful !!

Close