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Charging for Design
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Charging for Design

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Charging a fee for design work is one of the foundations of true professionalism across multiple disciplines. That’s why Michael W. Nantz won’t give away his watershape ideas, partly because it’s a solid revenue stream, but also because it builds up a base of pride and self-esteem.

It’s one of the odd facts about the pool and spa industry: many people in this business offer design work for free, and it’s been that way for as long as any of us can remember.

Design traditionally has been used as a sales tool, often times based on templates and standardized features. For a long time, that practice was never reconsidered or challenged, which I believe was to the detriment of our greater industry.Fortunately, at the end of the 20th Century, Genesis 3 introduced the radical concept of charging for design work. Some 20 years later, many watershapers now require fees for their designs, but there are still many who do not.

This discussion is directed at those of you who are still giving away their creative works, in the hope that you might think differently moving forward.


My journey down the path of profiting from my creativity began back in 1988. I found myself sitting at a drawing table, staring blankly at a piece of paper wondering what to do next. I had been hired by a former dairy-industry executive who, for whatever reason, had changed careers and entered the pool construction business. He was in need of a designer/salesman, and based on my education in drawing and graphic design, he thought I was a good fit.

This text is based on an online presentation given by the author on April 29th as part of Watershape University’s Wolfpack Webinar Wednesdays.

Like everyone else in the Dallas market at the time, we worked as a “free-estimate” company, meaning we gave away our drawings as a way to win customers. We never billed for anything other than construction, a practice that lives on to this day across the U.S and elsewhere.

Sitting there in my solitude looking for an idea, I had a nagging feeling that something was off about the way we were approaching design, it just didn’t feel right. Those early misgivings were the first thoughts I had that there might be a different and better approach. But, I was new to the industry and lacked the confidence to act on those feelings.

My approach toward design fees changed in a big way a couple years later when I attended a class at the International Pool & Spa Expo in Dallas. It was a seminar on pool design taught by David Tisherman, a well-known master of design and one of the industry’s great personalities and influencers. (He would later go on to co-found Genesis 3 in 1998). He was, and is, a dynamic educator and I was impressed by everything he had to say. I approached him after the class and introduced myself, we had dinner that evening, and became friends.


There are numerous ways that being comfortable with pens and pencils facilitates the design process, from the most rudimentary sketches, to detail studies to stylized bubble diagrams. You could say these basic tools are the gateway to the design process.

Tisherman had been charging for his designs since he entered the industry back in 1979 and simply refused to do it any other way. At that point, I was still designing for free, but my thinking was rapidly evolving. I began challenging in my own mind the basic assumption that our creative output only served to sign up customers.

Not long after I met Tisherman, I did a design for a potential customer who really put me through the ringer. We went through several revisions and after hours and hours of work and frustration, I finally made him happy. I handed over the final design and he said he’d get back to me in a week or two and let me know if we’d go ahead with the project.

Sometime after I was visiting a construction project of mine when I saw something very familiar on the dashboard of my subcontractors truck. It was my design, but with someone else’s title block on the plan. The client took what I had done and gave it to another builder who came in with a lower price and was building my design, for which I was paid exactly nothing.


Seeing my design under the title block of my competitor was the last straw. That was when I knew for sure that this practice of giving away designs and other creative work for free in hopes of securing the business was ill-advised if not outright foolish. I was furious at myself for letting that happen and from that point forward I said, no more, I’m never working for nothing ever again.

By the time I was contacted by a fresh prospect, I had already scripted what I would say to homeowners as to why I charge design fees. My explanation worked on the very first try and I received a check for $250. It was the first time I had been paid for design and it felt great, even though it was a small amount. Fast forward 30 years and I’ve never looked back. I always charge for design, which now accounts for a significant portion of my annual income.


The traditional overhead renderings are one of the mainstays of design and presentations, even now in the days of the computer rendering, the intuitive and slightly imperfect nature of hand renderings add warmth and technical specificity to the design process.

The first step in writing a new script for yourself is realizing that professionals don’t give their work away. Sure, we might offer advice here and there as a way to develop trust and build relationships, but when it comes to sitting down in front of the blank page or computer screen and generating a design, we should always be paid for that effort.

Think about it, we all gladly pay other professionals – like doctors, lawyers and accountants — for what they know and rarely think twice about it. Even in other related industries, such as architecture landscape architecture or interior design, professionals always get paid for their design work, and we should too.

The key to writing a new script is first defining for yourself the value you place on your work and then making that proposition of value clear to everyone involved. It’s true that might cost you a project here and there, but that’s short-term pain for the long-term gain.

Whether you are providing a rudimentary concept drawing or a full set of plans; a service and skill set the client needs, and that’s why we should be paid for doing so. Frankly, your time alone is justification enough to make the change and just as important there’s the expertise that you bring to the table. If you’ve only been in the industry a couple of years, that’s years more experience than the prospect has and the know-how you’ve gained during your tenure is worth something, even if it’s a nominal fee at first.

Plus there are associated costs in the creative process to be covered above your time. If it’s a computer program you’re using, there’s the cost of the hardware and software and the time it takes to learn how to use it. If you design by hand, there are always administrative and printing costs. And there is the fact that customers will often want revisions and engage in an ongoing and time-consuming process.

This is all part of why I believe your new mantra should be “charge for design.”


So, why are there still so many who don’t? The number-one answer for me and I’d imagine many others, is fear. If you are not charging a design fee, it takes courage to break free of that mode and declare that your work is worth something. The first step is always the hardest and when I started, I simply wasn’t brave enough, or self-assured enough, to charge the client for what I was offering.

You might fear that because your competition doesn’t charge for their plans, you won’t be able to compete with them if you do. Many will say that competition is so stiff and so price-based that they’ll lose business based on this perceived premium. At this stage of the game, I’ve heard all those excuses numerous times and in one way or another it’s the fear of failure, or the fear of not being good enough, that keeps many people married to the old way of doing things.

When it comes to the idea that you can’t go in that direction because the competition does it for free, I look at it this way: a design is only worth what it costs to get it. In very real effect, when we give our designs away, we are devaluing our work and, indeed, the entire industry. It sends a very strong message that our work and our expertise aren’t worth anything. That is a fundamentally unhealthy basis from which to conduct business.

It’s a sad state of affairs when you do work for which you do not feel qualified enough to be paid. Again, it’s a fear factor and the only way to overcome that hurdle is to up your game. If you’re designing and not being paid because you worry that you’re work isn’t up to a professional standard, then you need to do what it takes to become a better designer. That means educating yourself and developing your skill sets.


Consider that even the best designers are constantly learning. It’s like any other creative field, there is always more to learn. When you do increase your knowledge, and there are lots of ways to go about that, you inevitably gain confidence and see yourself in a different way. You lose that trepidation and replace it with the belief that you do deliver value enough to warrant compensation. For my part, I’ve found that the time and resources I’ve made in learning how to design and present those ideas is the best investment I’ve ever made in my business, and myself as a professional.

There are numerous educational resources you can tap into, such as the curriculum at Watershapes University and others in the form of general drawing and design classes at junior colleges, or even at the university level. There are classes at trade shows that can start you down the path to greater design skills and there are experienced designers within the industry you might be able to work with and learn from. There is no college program that leads to degree in watershape design and each and every one of us in this business has found our own path, but you will find your direction once you make a positive decision to go there.

The bottom line is that if you are producing things that you don’t like and don’t inspire confidence, then you have to improve, or find another job. It’s as simple as realizing that no one should spend their days working at something they’re not good at doing. With today’s technology and available training, there’s no excuse. You can improve your skillsets, but you have to make the critical decision to start down that path.


Even if you’re not good at or comfortable with drawing by hand, you can express your creative talent using any one of today’s ever-advancing computer-aided design programs.

Yes, there are people born with aptitudes that might make them better suited for design, but I believe everyone has the ability to improve with the right training and mindset. Watershape design is not the proverbial rocket science and most people I know are gratified and empowered when they begin to see that ability within themselves.

Once you do educate yourself, you might just be surprised to find talent you didn’t realize you have. There’s nothing like a cache of knowledge to unlock those skills, and confidence and when you cash that first check for your design work, you’ll feel very differently. For me, it was like losing a set of shackles that had held me back.


The consequences for staying in the free-design camp should be obvious. First, you’re missing out on revenue, and we’re all in business to make money. Even greater than dollars there’s the price you pay in terms of professional reputation. The very word “professional” directly implies that you have a level of knowledge necessary to command income. Why would anyone deliberately choose to undermine their professional reputation and ability to generate income? It makes no sense.

These days whenever I see an ad for pools that includes the language “free estimates” that tells me the company has not made the investment in learning the elements of design and presentation. If you’re giving someone an estimate at no charge, you have to design a pool to estimate, but then you’re giving it away.

Just as the consequences are damaging, the opposite is true when you embrace a new positive direction. Trust me, you’ll enjoy getting paid for what you know and it will change how you view yourself and how others regard what you do. You’ll be more valued in the eyes of the customer, and other professionals and you’ll wind up doing more exciting projects with clients who value your contribution.

There’s everything to gain from charging for design and I hope those of you who are still on the outside looking in that you will make the wise decision to value yourself and your work and insist on being rightly compensated. You’ll be grateful that you did.

Michael W. Nantz is founder of Elite Concepts, a Texas-based international design firm. A long-time industry educator, he currently serves as Dean of Culture for Watershape University and is an affiliate of the International Watershape Institute.

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