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Maggie Harlow

Should You Offer Free Design Samples to a Potential New Client?

Studio Dzo (Austin, TX) believes this practice hurts the sign industry.




A LONG-STANDING DEBATE within our industry has been the practice of providing “free design” to clients upfront, prior to customer deposit or commitment to a particular signshop. To clarify, most shops do give away design to regular clients with whom they have partnerships and relationships. What we are focused on here is the practice of offering free design samples to clients with whom a shop has never worked, as a method to win those clients’ business or illustrate what is possible.

For design firms that specialize in signage design only, this is a particularly vexing issue and, also, instructive for us. For design firm Studio Dzo (Austin, TX), the issue is quite clear: Great design work has intrinsic value, giving design away diminishes its value in the client’s eyes, and the practice hurts the sign industry as well. “We wanted to disrupt the signage industry and try to change the practice of giving away design,” said Russell Toynes, founder of Studio Dzo ( Toynes and his co-founder, Elizabeth Toynes, have family roots in the sign business and they love the industry. If you are currently giving away design, Studio Dzo has some tips and ideas about how you might break the habit, and learn to value designing!

  • Be sure you fully engage the client. Active listening, asking good questions and creating connections early in the process of the sale make it easier to understand the client’s needs and build trust to create a relationship. Learn to uncover and overcome objections that clients may have to paying for design. Objections can vary from “I can’t picture it,” to “I’m not sure you can do the work!” Show customers examples of work you’ve done, Google images of products to illustrate the ideas, or even sketch a concept on paper quickly to help overcome a client’s concerns.
  • Value your designer’s time! If you put a “prospect” design in front of a non-paying customer, is that really doing the right thing, considering your paying customers?
  • Respect your colleagues! When clients bring you designs from other sign companies, ask them if they paid for them. Don’t use those designs to then sell your product.

If you still meet resistance, then without being snarky, you can patiently explain that design is an integral part of your business, one involving a skill for which there is a measurable dollar value, and that as a matter of principle, you charge for all services your business provides, including design. If prospects are unable to appreciate that fact, perhaps they aren’t the best potential clients.

Focus on the “why” in business! Communicate to the best prospects why you do what you do, and learn more about why they need the product they need, and the business will follow.

Maggie Harlow is the CEO of Signarama Downtown Louisville (Louisville, KY), one of the largest and most prestigious locations for the global sign franchise. Contact Maggie at



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