Estimating Projects

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Chris Coyier on (Updated on )

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I like the way that we estimate projects1 at Chatman Design2. I think it epitomizes “real world” web design. We do our best to streamline the process and have a methods to the madness. But a lot of the time, estimates come down to educated guesses. Most importantly, we try and make things as clear, understandable, and fair for both the potential customers and us.

The Final Product

The final product of our estimating process is a PDF file that we email back to the potential client. It is on formal letterhead and recaps the major points that have been discussed thus far as well as the different major components of the project and what we will charge. The cost isn’t broken down by every little individual task, but into major groups. For example, if it would make sense to break up development of the site into phases, each phase is described and quoted. We also encourage clients to opt in to monthly maintenance, so we can nurture the site over time. Monthly maintenance is typical optional, and so is quoted separately.

Estimates are sent via Email generally within a few weeks of a formal exploratory meeting. These meetings are typically face to face, but not always (I typically attend via audio/video chat).

Before it all begins…

We don’t send a formal estimate in reply to every single email we get asking about projects. The harsh truth is that a good percentage of email inquiries about work don’t make it past the first email. If the email is poorly worded or otherwise awkward, it probably gets deleted. The client/designer relationship is a long term and important relationship. Communication needs to flow smoothly and words need to be understood clearly so the corresponding actions can be clear. If the first email throws up red flags, imagine the quagmire 100 emails later.

Stick To It

We prefer to quote projects by the job. This is mostly for the clients benefit. They can see a number and know exactly what they are getting in to. If it’s on target, they can agree and we’re on our way. If it’s way off base, that can be discussed before any more unnecessary time is spent on either side. The quoted number will be the final billed number in most cases, although not always (read on).


Even though we tend to quote by the job, we still have an hourly rate in mind when coming up with the numbers. There is a base, but it can vary up and down depending on things like:

  • Have we worked with you before?
  • What is the nature of the work?
  • How many of us will need to be involved?

Some folks would say that hourly rates are bad. One reason mentioned is that it encourages an agency to take longer since that would be more profitable. Definitely not the case with us since 1) the hourly rate mostly just helps estimate and 2) we just don’t dilly dally around to bloat bills, that’s ridiculous.

Depending on the situation, and especially with web-only projects, we may specially present how many hours we are estimating for different parts of the projects. This is for the explicit purpose of defining scope of the project. Web projects have a much higher tendency to have “scope creep”, or end up consuming a lot more time than originally estimated. When the hours are specified, we will likely include language like “If the completed project ends up taking anywhere near the estimated hours, the final bill will be what is estimated. If we find that the project is significantly exceeding those hours, we will be in touch to discuss options.”

After all, we are talking about estimates. How firmly we stick to that number in final billing is another matter. Whether we include hours or not, we do mention that should the final bill exceed this price more than 25%, client approval is needed first.

Fixed Costs

These are easy. Do they need you to buy the domain name? Twenty bucks. Hosting for a year? Hundred bucks. These are just examples (services as well as pricing).

An Educated Guess

Sometimes, as much logic as you try and throw at estimating a project, you end up with the feeling that you just don’t know. You just don’t know how long it’s going to take. You just can’t forsee what kind of roadblocks you are going to come across. You just don’t know how well these new clients are going to communicate with you.

At this point you’ll need to do a little reflection on previous projects and then perhaps, pull a rabbit out of a hat. Uhm, let’s say $8,500, that sounds about right. That might read as unprofessional, but I’ll bet you a dollar the majority of agencies do a little rabbit-pulling in their estimates. It’s not unprofessional at all; In fact, I think it’s the definition of professionalism. Professionals are people educated, trained, and skilled in a field of work. That’s what we are, and a part of those skills are making good estimations at what to charge for our services.


The terms of the final billing should be in the estimate as well. When the client agrees to an estimate, they are then fully aware of how the billing will go down. Projects will be billed within 30 days of the projects completion are are due NET 30 DAYS upon receipt of the bill. Past due invoices are charged a late fee percentage. Payment may be submitted via check, money order, etc.

You may wish to to have a client sign an agreement of the estimate and terms before beginning the project. We generally don’t, but probably would if it was a large project for a brand new client. It’s not rude, it’s business. Personally, I don’t know enough about this to give advice. Since the goal here is a legally binding contract, you should consult a lawyer.


Also known as a “request for proposal,” is an approach I really like that many bigger agencies take. We aren’t a big agency, but we’ve been throwing around the idea of putting something like this together. In essence, instead of having a simple contact form where someone can type in their name, phone number, and message regarding their project (and you’ll get back to them), an RFP is a much more robust form. It asks about budget and timeframe and goals and related websites and all kinds of other stuff. It might feel like a lot of hoops to jump through as a client, but this is how I see it: We’re going to be serious about your project, so we expect you to be serious about it too, and part of that is being able to clearly explain the project, yourself, your goals, your budget, and anything else we think is vital to giving you a fair estimate.

For an example, download the Project Planner from Happy Cog. That’s probably a lot bigger and more detailed than we would need to be. We also take projects with a lower budget than $100,000. Although we don’t really mess around with budgets any lower than a few grand.

1If you are interested in having a project estimated, your best bet is to fill out our simple contact form with as many details about yourself and your project as possible.

2I will actually be leaving my job at Chatman Design in May. I just need a break from the daily grind of the same sites I’ve been working on for 3 years. Chatman Design was the first web job I ever had and played huge role in shaping me into the designer I am today. I think it will be good for the clients too, as they will get a fresh set of eyes looking over their sites which I think is an undervalued thing in this industry. Carpe diem!