You feel a little used. What you thought was a short, free project turned into an unsavory season of unpaid work.
It’s not your fault. You wanted more experience. It’s neither the company’s fault. The founder told you their budget (zero, ha!) from the beginning.
Almost every designer has done free work at some point in their lives. A logo for a student org, some wireframes for a startup…nothing surprising there.
But it doesn’t change the fact that the gray area of free work often ends up making designers feel bad.
What the design community thinks of free work
There’s no lack of passion on this topic from the design community. Jessica Hirsche made the humorous flowchart Should I Work for Free, which points to mostly to the answer “No”.
Another prominent site, No Spec, educates people to avoid design contests & unpaid pitches.
You’ll notice that the loudest voices against free doing design work are from well established designers who, well, don’t need to worry about doing free work. They already have successful careers.
So why are they so vocal about free work? It’s because free work can devalue the overall market for designers. The more supply of designers there are, that are charging low rates, the harder it for established designers to maintain or increase their rates.
I don’t disagree with this sentiment. But I think the focus on the free vs paid discussion is not the core issue.
Reasons for & against doing free design work
Personally, I think the gravest core issue are designers who provide free designs without intentionally asking for something in exchange.
Remember: no one is making you do design work – that’s illegal. If you’re a designer and providing your services pro-bono, you should still get something out of it in exchange.
Is it connections? Project experience? Or tacos?
Use this chart to help you evaluate if doing free design work makes sense:
|Reasons for doing free design work||Reasons against free design work|
|Portfolio value||Project significantly adds to your portfolio; will be published||You can’t publish your work, you have to sign an NDA|
|Exposure & Experience||Exposes you to new industries & project types. Ability to practice new tools & skills||Doesn’t add diversity to your existing portfolio of projects|
|People||Opportunity to make connections with good people, who may refer you to future work||You don’t like, trust, or respect the people behind the project.|
|Scope||Assignment is well scoped and organized; clear deadlines||Assignment is unclear, can seemingly go on forever|
|Recommendations||Getting someone relevant (e.g. CEO, UX Director) to provide letter of recommendation||Lack of willingness to help with job references, or person providing it is irrelevant|
|Future opportunities||Does the project move you closer to future opportunities?||Does the project distract you from longer term goals?|
Agency owner Matthew Manos, in How to Give Away Half Your Work For Free, uses a pro bono model to attract more clients and earn a sustainable revenue through marketing.
So there’s definitely a place for pro-bono design work. Let’s dive a bit deeper into each side of the free design debate…
Reasons against doing free design work
- Free work devalues your own time and potentially “drags down” the rest of the design industry to race-to-the-bottom rates
- The client is asking for a lot of work, not just a small project.
- Your free work is promised as a murky path to more pay or employment
- It’s highly uncertain your work will be used or published.
- You’re made to sign an NDA, even for free work.
- Other people are getting paid
- The project isn’t something you’d be proud of displaying in your portfolio
- It’s not fun or interesting for you. (You should never feel obligated to do something you don’t want to do, even if it’s for a family or friend.)
For some of you, the bullet points above might have given you a PTDS (post traumatized designer syndrome). Just writing those bullet made me shudder, hearkening back to times that I and fellow designers went through.
But it only takes one counter-example to prove that something can be done right.
I’ve met designers who’ve leveraged free work to rapidly acquire new skills, help them transition to UX, make new connections and gain new freelance clients.
You might be curious how this is done.
There’s no lack of people who want you to do free work. What is difficult – and worthwhile – is finding quality free work that helps you as a designer.
Reasons for doing free design work
One theme came up repeatedly in my conversations with designers: what value is being exchanged between client and designer, even if the work is free?
- A project that becomes a proud portfolio piece (or else what’s the point?) This also means you should be able to show this as a case study publicly – do not sign an NDA for an unpaid project.
- Exposure to a new industry or project type (e.g. VR, Android), which can lead to more future projects
- Practicing a new skill like client management or implementing more designs in code
- The project is well scoped, not seeminly
- Getting a letter of recommendation or reference for future jobs
- The opportunity to work alongside, and make connections with good people – who can lead to referrals and paid projects down the line
- Is it something that’s fun for you, or that you feel good about?
- You actually owe someone a big favor / made a deal with the devil
As long as there’s enough value to be gained – even if not monetary – the designer can take on free work with more confidence.
How to say no nicely
And then, there are times when you just have to say no to people who don’t understand the value of design, and think you can just “whip up something real quick” as if you can just microwave + serve up some design.
Here are a few non-passive aggressive lines that may come in handy…
- “I’m booked with paying projects right now, but check back with me in a couple months.”
- “My usual rate is $X/hr, so I don’t think I fit your budget at this moment.”
- “To do a good job on this project, I think it would require research, organizing the information, and between 10-12 wireframes. Would you like an estimate?”
- “I’ve seen projects like this, and they typically take at least 20 hours of hard work to pull off. Would you like an estimate?”
- “At this point in my business, I’m prioritizing paying clients. Feel free to reach out again if you develop a design budget!”
Here’s one last cheeky example from Web Designer Depot if someone tells you they can’t afford to pay a designer right now:
“Oh, I totally understand. I wish I could do all my client’s work for free, but unfortunately, I have to pay bills too.”
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Have an interesting (horror) story about doing design work for free? Comment below. In a future article I’ll talk about how to strategically leverage free work to expand your professional opportunities.