2020 Cartographic Freelancer Survey Results

Several weeks ago, Aly Ollivierre and I posted a survey on pay and business practices in the freelance mapping community. Fifty-six of you were kind enough to take the time to answer our questions; our thanks to all of you for helping bring more transparency to freelancing!

If you’d like to see the survey results, including the questions asked, you can download the data here. The results of certain questions have been removed to ensure anonymity. If you have any questions, or find any interesting insights, feel free to contact us.

Below, we discuss the results in the same conversational format that we used to present the findings of the 2018 edition of the survey. This time around, Molly O’Halloran was kind enough to join us and bring her insights, as well. And thanks to Aly for making all the graphics!


Daniel Huffman: Ok, so, let’s start with the big number, which is: what’s the median income for freelancers right now?

Aly Ollivierre: We should first note the average, since that’s what we used last time: $65 for 2018 and $70 for 2020. Since we decided to use medians this time around:

Daniel: Right, we had one outlier rate that was raising the mean a fair bit, which would have been $79 otherwise. Median is less susceptible to outliers, so it might be a good comparison going forward in these surveys.

So, the good news is that it looks like rates are going up, whether you slice it by mean or median. And I like to think the survey in 2018 is a part of that: we asked people if their business practices were influenced by 2018’s survey, and we separately asked if they’d given themselves a raise recently. Of the 11 people who said they’d been influenced by the last survey, 10 (90%) of them also said they’d given themselves a raise. That doesn’t explicitly mean correlation, but it seems anecdotally strong. Of the 13 people who saw the last survey and said they hadn’t changed practices, only 5 (38%) gave themselves raises.

Molly O’Halloran: I was just going to say that. Information sharing, and getting each person to consider their business, is so valuable.

Daniel: Agreed! It was valuable to me personally. I raised my rates after seeing that I was often charging below average.

Aly: I also became more diligent about ensuring that I wasn’t undervaluing myself when I gave clients quotes.

Molly: Yes! Or bringing down the value of our market in general. If some people are charging rock bottom, that hurts everybody.

Daniel: It’s hard to do, I think. I always have a fear that I’ll lose business if I aim too high. You have to hit this hidden magic number. Molly, that also reminds me of what one of the people said in the survey comments:

“A rising tide lifts all ships! Everyone charge more!”

Molly: What do you do to educate the client about the value you’re delivering? Have your communications changed during the negotiating/estimating phase of potential projects?

Aly: Honestly, I’ve just found that I spend an extended period of time re-reading and stressing over the wording of the email with estimated rate/cost and try to remain firm with myself that this is what I should be charging for this work! (It’s hard.) I’ve found that being confident in my prices hasn’t resulted in anyone questioning them … usually questions instead arise from what can be done differently to fit what they’re looking for into their smaller budget.

Molly: Aly, I feel that so much. I’ve been working for years on convincing myself of the value of my work. It’s as much an internal struggle as it is a market problem, I think. This is probably an aside, but I’ve been trying out the advice I learned in a webinar and book by Emily Ruth Cohen, Brutally Honest. I used to hedge and fuss over estimates: this map will cost, say, $380. Her advice is to round up, as it projects confidence and is likely a more accurate number anyway. So that map is now estimated at $500.

Daniel: I don’t know if it’s a bad idea, but I usually hedge a bit in my emails and let them know that it can be negotiated if it’s outside their budget.

Aly: I always hedge in my first draft and then try to edit my email to find that perfect balance of showing them I’m flexible, but that I also know my worth.

Daniel: This subject brings us around to a couple of other survey results that tie in: experience and education.

Aly: I combined 2018 and 2020 results into one graphic, which I think simply demonstrates that a different crew took this survey more than anything specifically related to the market.

Daniel: In 2018, we didn’t see any correlation between someone’s rate and their experience or educational qualifications. I didn’t see any correlation this year between education and rate, either.

But, experience was different. Last time we asked how many years of experience people had, and this time we tried to get people to think more about their general experience level. Because making maps occasionally for 10 years might be equivalent to making them full-time for a year or two. So this time there was a clearer pattern:

Given the low sample sizes, I wouldn’t read too much into the dip for “expert” level, but I think we can basically say, people just starting out charge less, and then rates rise quickly and plateau.

Aly: I think this is a better way of looking at things than we did in 2018, and follows pretty well with my hourly rates throughout my freelance career (starting at $20–30 early up as an undergrad student and recent grad, raising and sticking around $40–50 for awhile, and then moving up into the $60–70 range).

Molly: Are those numbers how much one actually takes in per hour spent mapping, or the hourly rate? Maybe I’m the only one who routinely spends more time than I estimated for each map, but I reckon not.

Daniel: This is what people answered for the question “In 2019, how much money did you typically receive per hour of time spent on freelance mapmaking work?” — so, people were encouraged to think about how much time they actually spent, and what they actually earned.

Aly: I definitely want to chat more about flat rates vs hourly rates, Molly! So instead of just three categories like we did in 2018, we did 5 categories. This gives a little more of a breakdown, but honestly it’s not a big difference between the data we received in 2018 and in 2020.

Daniel: The question was turned into a score of 1–5, with 1 being hourly and 5 being flat, and I just ran a quick average and it’s 2.9, so there’s still not a dominant approach. Looks like most people do some of each. I keep trying to push myself to do more flat rate, though, because if I do a job too efficiently, I get paid less.

Aly: There are pretty strong pros and cons for doing hourly and doing flat-rate. I often find myself with clients who want a lot of back and forth which ends up eating up time and hurts me in the long run if I do flat-rate. I generally prefer hourly because then I know all of my time is paid for, but I have also started warning clients when I do flat-rate that they’re getting to the end of the finances set aside and that we will need to renegotiate the contract if they want a lot more edits.

Molly: I always do flat-rate that includes one or two rounds of revision (negotiated in the estimate phase), then bill hourly for revisions beyond that. Clients should be paying for your expertise as well as your time. It took years for you to be able to make that map so well so quickly. It’s true, though, that I often spend waaayyy more hours than I need to and then, since it’s flat rate, my effective hourly rate goes way down. Aly, your approach sounds smart.

Daniel: As one participant said:

“You’re not paying for the two hours it took me to do the map, you’re paying for the years it took me to learn how to do that in two hours.”

Aly: That point by both of you about expertise = faster mapmaking is definitely why I struggle to force myself to do more flat-rates, I just have such a hard time estimating accurately from step one!

Daniel: I am terrible at estimates. Getting better, but I sometimes bounce them off other people first to see if they make sense. And I usually am secretly thinking hourly, so my flat rate is just “I think it will take X hours at Y per hour,” plus a bit of padding in case it goes wrong.

Aly: That’s how I try to estimate my flat rates as well.

Molly: Same! Though I tend to think in half-days or days rather than hours. How many days would I be working on this?

Daniel: It’s comforting to know that we all use similar methods. It’s one of those little things that you make up and never seems worth asking about, even though you wonder if you’re doing it the best way. But that’s what the survey, and this conversation, is for.

Aly: I feel like this topic rolls well into whether or not people use contracts.

Daniel: Like the hourly vs. flat rate question, we changed this to a 1–5 scale, but in the end saw roughly the same result when compared to 2018, it looks like. The average of everyone’s results was a score of 2.75, with 1 being “never have a contract” and 5 being “always.” So, people are leaning a little toward no contract, but they’re still pretty common.

Molly: Yeah, pretty even split, too.

Aly: I rarely use a contract (usually only when my client provides it), but I feel like I really should and just don’t know where to start with it! Especially since it adds a level of intensity to conversations with clients that I usually don’t have.

Daniel: Almost all my contracts are provided by clients, on big projects. For a lot of my work, it’s some small one-off thing (a typical example is a retired history professor who wants a quick greyscale map for a book they’re writing), and it feels like overkill to write up a contract for it. But in truth, it’s probably a good idea. Some people have boilerplate ones ready to go.

Aly: Exactly, I mostly work with smaller scale clients as well where it feels like overkill. I’d love it if there was a common, simple, contract template that cartographers generally used/built upon as necessary. One respondent noted:

“I recommend flat-rate contracts with X free revisions, subject to per-revision fee of Y after the cap’s met. Add strict payment dates and a deposit of at least 25%.”

Which really seems like something good to keep in mind!

Molly: I don’t think that was me … but it could’ve been. Agree completely with the above.

Daniel: My guess was going to be that people who are more full-time might be more likely to have a contract prepared and use it a lot, while people who map occasionally would let these things slide and be more ad hoc, but it looks like that’s not the case. I grouped people by their answer to the contract question, and averaged what % of their personal income was from freelancing:

  • Score 1 (never a contract): 30% of their income comes from freelancing
  • Score 2: 51%
  • Score 3: 45%
  • Score 4: 29%
  • Score 5 (always a contract): 15%

Molly: Do you ever consider usage in your negotiations? If you were making a map for commercial use for a real estate developer, that is a very different market than a map for an academic book. The price should be different even if the number of hours spent is the same.

Aly: Interesting question! I don’t think it specifically applies to much of the work that I do, but I definitely do think about if the client I’m making the map for will be using it for publication, or if they will be turning it around and selling it.

Daniel: I do a little. It’s mostly a gut calculation of how much money is worth to that client. Some people clearly have tight budgets, and others value money less and would probably be willing to pay more. I guess that’s more about the client than the usage, though.

Molly: Totally. Sometimes larger potential clients want to think of cartography as hourly work, whereas we’re more like illustrators on some projects. Making beautiful, informative works that help them reach their market. I feel like considering usage is one way to place more value on our work.

Daniel: Since I mentioned the percent of income freelancing question above, maybe now would be a good time to look at that.

I’m surprised there aren’t more people who are in the 90%+ bracket. I guess, looking around, I thought there were more freelancers who did this for most of their living.

A question that I’ve seen several people ask is: “Do part-timers charge less than full-timers?”

There’s not really a correlation here to be seen. Last survey there wasn’t one either, I don’t believe. When I see people asking that question, I get the sense that they feel that part-timers are underbidding full-timers, but I don’t think we see any evidence of that in either version of the survey.

Molly: When I freelanced on top of a full-time job, I leaned on so many assets of that full-time job—health insurance, namely, but also software and hardware. (Sorry!) It’s kind of crazy how much overhead is involved. Something to consider carefully when you go out on your own.

Aly: Absolutely, Molly, I assume many of us part-timers don’t have the flexibility to leave our full-time jobs because we so heavily depend on the benefits, primarily health insurance (for us Americans).

Daniel: One interesting thing I found, and for which I can’t figure out an answer: I looked at some differences by gender across some of the questions we’ve been discussing. Women and men were similar in their rate of using contracts, whether they were hourly or flat rate, etc. But, there was a difference in the percent of income question. Men received less of their income (13% mean, 28% median) from freelancing than women (48% mean and median).

Aly: Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if that had to do with inequality in (full-time job) salaries that meant women had to make up for more in their part-time work.

Molly: Interesting, Aly, about full-time salaries. I also suspect that women strike out on their own if they feel like opportunities for advancement aren’t equally open to them at their workplace. I would loooooovvve to hear from women about their interpretation of these numbers.

Daniel: Or even, if a man and a woman earned the same amount from a freelance project, it would represent a higher percentage of the woman’s total income if she were earning less at her day job than the man.

Aly: Exaaaactly.

Daniel: Which brings our attention to the table you have there about the pay gap, which unfortunately persists in the freelance mapping realm, too. And it appears to have gotten a little bigger than 2018, though the samples sizes are small enough that maybe that’s just noise. Definitely not getting smaller, though.

I took heart in one anecdote from the survey, though: of the six women who said they saw the 2018 survey results, five gave themselves raises (and one didn’t answer either way about a raise). The pay gap thrives on secrecy, and hopefully this survey will continue to bring some light.

Also, as a side note: 56% of respondents didn’t see the previous survey. So, audience: share with your freelance friends!

Molly: Data for the win!

Daniel: In 2018, we found, not surprisingly, that people who charge more are also more likely to say they are paid fairly. And at that time, women were generally less likely to feel they are paid fairly than men. Which made sense given that they were also earning less than them. This time, the pay gap persists, but it looks like overall satisfaction is up.

On a scale of 1–5, with 1 being “Never paid fairly for my time” and 5 being “Always,” women on average answered 4.1, and men 3.9. This is much closer than 2018, where women answered 3.1 and men 3.6. So, while the gap in pay hasn’t closed, the gap in satisfaction-from-pay seems to be smaller, to the point where it could just be noise in the data. And this whole batch of respondents for 2020 is happier with their pay.

Aly: Can we correlate any of that data with the people who gave themselves raises?

Daniel: For people who haven’t given themselves a raise in the last year, their average satisfaction score was 3.9. For those that had, it was 4.1. So, close, again. I wonder if people who see the results of the survey will change their opinion on whether they’re being paid fairly?

Aly: Here’s the median hourly rates broken down into different types of mapping:

Molly: Sighing, but not surprised, to see hand-drawn maps at the bottom of the barrel. I don’t know that there’s much to say about it though. I’m trying to re-frame it for potential customers: it’s a boutique service, not a hobby. (I don’t actually say “boutique service” out loud! It’s just something I repeat to myself when talking myself through an estimate.)

Daniel: That was very surprising to me. I feel like hand-drawn maps feel more elegant and bespoke. I was expecting them to command the highest price. I make custom maps digitally, but something hand drawn feels more obviously custom.

Aly: I agree, interactive maps require a separate “advanced” skill set so I wasn’t surprised to see them come in at a higher hourly rate, but I also consider hand-drawn to be a very specialized skill (I couldn’t do it!).

Daniel: Aly, I agree there’s a mindset that interactive mapping is “advanced,” certainly in the minds of clients, too, who are willing to pay more for something with cool animation, interactivity, etc. But I don’t want to sell short static mappers (which, I suppose, the three of us here are). I think we deal with different circumstances than interactive mappers, with different skillsets, but probably on average we spend the same amount of time acquiring those skills and thinking through how to apply them. I don’t have to figure out how to grapple with d3.js, but an interactive mapper doesn’t have to grapple with the challenges of getting something to look right on an offset press.

Aly: Very good point, Daniel!! I wonder how hand-drawn maps would fare against freelance illustrators, maybe that’s more comparable?

Molly: Great question. I do find myself relying more on the advice of illustrators when pricing and negotiating. There’s a lot more info out there re: illustration than cartography. Part of why you all created this survey!

Here are some illustration-oriented resources that I go back to again and again for advice on pricing, negotiating, etc.

  • Graphic Artists Guild — Guild membership gets you access to free webinars that can be helpful in running your business, and more. (This one by Emily Ruth Cohen on Advanced Pricing Strategies was particularly helpful to me.) Their regularly updated Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines includes charts of comparative fees for map design and illustration, as well as lots of information on contracts, negotiation, general practices, etc.
  • Whenever I need a pep talk on pricing, I revisit lettering artist and illustrator Jessica Hische’s The Dark Art of Pricing. It’s written with illustrators in mind but is so smart, borne from experience, and can help cartographers as well!
  • Map illustrator John Roman walks you through the business considerations of a project, from schedule through usage and credit.
  • Illustrator Anita Kunz gives great advice, especially for those newly in business. Her emphasis on keeping overhead low but also accounting for it in pricing makes for a great chat. (6 minutes)

Daniel: The cost of living was a new topic this time around, to get at a common question I’ve seen freelancers ask. If someone lives in an expensive area, I’ve seen them wonder if they could be underbid by someone who lives in an area where the cost of living is lower. So we asked people where they lived and then I looked up a bunch of those cost of living calculators online that people use to compare salaries between cities. I averaged several of them together to get a cost of living index.

There is no particular correlation here that I could see. There’s a slight incline to that trendline, but the R-squared is pretty low. So it looks like the two most common reasons I’ve seen cited for why a colleague might be able to underbid someone (living in a less expensive city, working only part-time) aren’t borne out by the data. Everyone’s rates are all over the place, without much regard to where we live, our education level, or other factors you might think have a role.

Molly: We should survey who is receiving coaching or mentoring. I swear that having a business therapist would really help me—but I can’t afford it!

Aly: There are business therapists?? That sounds amazing.

Daniel: I’ve never heard of those!

Molly: I don’t know but I want one, right?! So much of this is about learning to value one’s work and speak up for oneself.

Daniel: Sounds like many of us could use some help from one. I have been fortunate enough to have some colleagues to bounce ideas off of (like project rates), and who encourage me to charge more.

Aly: Which is the lovely thing about our cartography community, we have people who are always willing to share their expertise (not to mention sending projects your way!). I’m still always impressed how much of my work is word of mouth through the cartography community.

Daniel: A fair bit of mine has been, too! When people ask me about freelancing advice, I don’t have a lot of good specifics to share, but I do tell them to get connected into the community, because they’ll learn stuff to make better maps, and they may also get leads on work.

Molly: Oh! That might be a good question for the next survey: what percentage of your work comes from where? (e.g., word of mouth through friends/past clients/other cartographer; via website; via NACIS list, etc.).

Aly: Definitely! New freelance cartographers always ask me how I get clients and I don’t have good advice outside of getting connected to our community. If I did this full-time I’d have to do a lot more work putting myself out there.

Molly: Did we get an overall result for who has given themselves raises since 2018?

Daniel: Of the 54 people who answered the question, 26 (48%) said they’d given themselves a raise. That’s actually more than I might have expected.

Most people’s answers of how they determined when to raise their rates were either based on external factors (based on what they make at their salaried job, or what their regular client negotiates), or were more ad-hoc, as best summed up by one respondent:

“Whenever I think I can get away with it.”

It’s something I don’t do often enough, but since the 2018 survey, I’ve been thinking about. I raised them after that survey, and am keeping it in mind more in the future.
Thanks, both of you, for taking the time to chat about all this stuff! I feel like it makes it more interesting than just dropping a bunch of numbers and charts on people. Gives some context and interesting side points.

Aly: Absolutely, thanks team! This was great!

Molly: Thank you for the chance to join you! I loved it. Feel free to edit me liberally.

(Note: all of us were edited liberally)