Weeknote 16 — Let’s talk about money

Emma Parnell
5 min readFeb 7, 2022

I’ve had a lot of conversations with people about money this last week, mostly with women. Most of these conversations have not been negotiating fees or asking for payment for my work, they have been conversations about the relationship women have with money.

This is likely partly because Lauren Currie’s UpFront Monday Live last week was about this very topic. The wonderful women who are part of the UpFront community have helped me a lot when it comes to this topic and the dialogue continued to flow through the week.

I reflected on some of these conversations within the community with women I met socially this week. All these women happen to work in the design industry but are also personal friends. I noticed two things happening:

  1. We were reinforcing each others views and rarely challenging each other. So if one of us was talking about not asking for more than X, the others would agree.
  2. We talk in code. I can feel myself doing it. Talking in percentages instead of quoting actual figures.

Now, this isn’t a piece about women’s relationship with money. There are other people in the world who talk much more eloquently about this subject including Lauren herself, Ellie from This Girl Talks Money and Clare from My Frugal Year.

I would however like to point out though that The Salary Survey found that women earn 13.7% less than men in the service design industry.

What I wanted to do with this piece was talk openly about how I’m approaching asking for money now I run my own business. I also want to share openly what I’ve been charging and my aspirations for the future.

I launched Joy around six months ago. During that time I’ve had to shift my mindset away from the idea of being paid a fixed salary every month and always knowing where my next pound is coming from.

The first time I had to negotiate was for a three month contract with a large bank. They made it a bit easier because they had a cap on their rate. I was told by the recruiter that their maximum rate was £625/day for a service designer. This did surprise me a little as it seemed low for a senior/lead in a private sector, cash rich industry. Despite this, I initially asked for £600 day. I felt uncomfortable asking for the maximum despite knowing it was below market rate. It didn’t even cross my mind to challenge the cap.

After 24 hours of berating myself I emailed back and asked for the maximum. If I hadn’t done that I would have lost out on around £1200.

This conversation about rates is the one I have most often. There isn’t usually a cap offered so it’s up to me to set out my rate. This is based on what I see happening in the market and what I believe my services are worth. This is difficult. I question myself every time.

I currently have a sliding scale of £500-£700 day. Things I think about when I’m choosing what rate to ask for are:

  • How big is the organisation?
  • Are they public, private or third sector?
  • How are they funded?
  • How much do I want to do the project?
  • How much do I want to work with the people/organisation?
  • What will I gain from the project beyond money?

What I don’t do currently, but would like to get better at, is asking for answers to these questions if the information I’ve been given doesn’t give me everything I need to know upfront.

Another common scenario I’m finding myself in is asking for a fee to speak. The UpFront community gave me the confidence to do this. They also helped me to remove the apology I invariably attached to the ask. I now simply ask ‘What is the fee?’

I’ve not managed to get as far as declining an invitation if there isn’t a fee. For me, especially with my ‘Let’s talk about sex’ talk, I am happy to bank the practice and have another audience for what I believe is an important message.

The final scenario I face when it comes to money is pitching for fixed fee work. I’ve done this a lot through my work at Snook. I know how to write and cost proposals to a budget. What’s difficult is when you’re not given a budget. The first proposal I ever wrote for Joy I costed at £12k. It took three emails to the prospective client to get a response and the work never happened. Despite being told the reasons had nothing to do with the cost, I still believe I went in too high.

These are some of my personal experiences, but I also wanted to share the facts about what I’m currently charging. Here is a table of all the work that I’ve taken on through Joy to date:

  • Solo client, self funded private sector startup, service design mentoring: £400/day [fixed fee]
  • Large private sector bank, service design: £625/day [charge for days worked]*
  • Solo client, self funded charity start up, brand development: £200/day [fixed fee]
  • Small charity, graphic design and co-design: £200/day [fixed fee]
  • Small charity startup, investor funded, service design: £500/day [charge for days worked]
  • Mid-sized charity, funded by parent organisation, user insight review: £600/day [charge for days worked]
  • Let’s talk about sex talk: £0-£250 for a 20 minute talk plus questions

*The bank was inside IR35 and before I incorporated my business, all other work is outside IR35.

This means I’ve averaged £420/day for my work over the last 6 months. Here is an extract from the Red Sofa salary report for further insight into market rates. I haven’t found any others that cover freelance rates.

Looking to the future I want to raise these rates and increase my confidence when I’m asking for money. I do believe that the market rates for service design are currently inflated and I don’t feel comfortable demanding some of the crazy rates others are asking for — that’s my personal choice.

But I don’t mind saying that I’d like to earn more and work less. That’s my primary driver. I’d like to get to the point where I’m able to work four days a week and take about three months off a year to a travel and pursue my writing.

Hopefully next time I write about money I’ll be at a desk in Italy taking a break from grappling with the narrative of my first book.

Thank you for reading today. If you enjoyed what you read please consider buying me a coffee. The money you donate will go towards funding my development as a writer so that one day I can hopefully get paid to write as well as design. Donate here or click the green tip button below.



Emma Parnell

Freelance specialist in user research, service design and brand development. designforjoy.co.uk Previously @wearesnook, @nhsdigital, @wearewithyou.