Should I Do Design Work for Free?

Should I Do Design Work for Free?

If you’ve been keeping up with these blogs I’ve been writing at all, you may recall I said not to work for free. Now watch me backtrack and look like a complete hypocrite. You should be open to working for free sometimes, but only if it’s strategic, and you’ve already overcome the “know your value” part. So wait, should I do design work for free or not?

In the previous post, when I said you shouldn’t work for free, I was referring specifically to friends and family. Here’s that “don’t work for free” blog in a nutshell:

“Mind you, this isn’t a black and white thing either. It’s also one that requires a lot of thinking and budgeting to see what you’re really worth to yourself. The one thing I can say I’ve learned works well: if it’s work for friends/family, you should either:

  1. Not do it, cause it can end poorly and sever a relationship far more valuable than the money or project.
  2. Do it for full price, and treat them like you would anybody else. They’ll expect pro work and fast turnarounds like anyone else, why shouldn’t their expectations reflect their pricing?
  3. Do it for free. I know I know. I’m contradicting myself, but wait. Do it for free, and tell them very plainly that it’s going to be on your terms. It’s in your spare time, at your pace. It’s a gift.”

But what if it’s a client? Well, you still shouldn’t work for free. Unless it’s strategic. This all seems very wishy-washy, I know. So here are a few real life examples for you.

  1. Your uncle starts a landscaping company, and he asks you to make him a logo, some business cards, some vinyl door-magnets for his trucks, and a website. He doesn’t even like the landscaping industry he just does it to pay his bills. Oh, and he wants you to pay the couple hundred to print the project too.
    Don’t do it. Your uncle is taking advantage of your skills and relationship, and you won’t likely benefit from it, unless you really want to work with other landscaping companies with no budget for design. That’s not worth it.
  2. Some software company finds you on LinkedIn and asks you to make some mockups of a piece of software they’re selling to a bank. The software is meant to help increase user-experience both online and in locations, ultimately making the bank a better place.
    Do it! Let them know you’ve only got XYZ amount of hours you can dedicate to the project, since it’s free work for now, but kick butt on it! If you do a good job and your work helps align them with your goals, you’ll get a call back. And now you can add banks and software companies to your CRM. That’s worth it.
  3. Nobody calls you, nobody emails you, you’re just sitting at home with some spare time and a laptop. You see some brand new Nikes that just came out, and while you might want to wait for next season to get them cheaper, some cool idea for a conceptual ad for them pops into your head.
    Do it! This is the best work you’ll ever do. Free work, when self-initiated, might not lead to draining work like the landscaping company or fulfilling work like the software company. In fact, it might not ever lead to any work, but it’ll be super fun! What if you post it on Instagram and Nike sees it? Imagine if Nike just slid into your direct messages. That’s worth it.

When you ask yourself, should I do design work for free or not, this decision matrix is one that you can go through in your head pretty quickly once you develop your skills. Early on, it may be harder to tell which project might be worth investing time in. If that’s the case, ask somebody around you with more experience! A teacher, a mentor, etc. Shoot me an email – it wouldn’t be the first time.

The reason for not taking on the first one isn’t to be a jerk to your uncle. The reason for not taking it is to be fair to yourself! We all want to help people with our skills, that’s the point, after all. However, at some point your helpful nature will be taken advantage of. This usually happens with friends and family, but it’s not because they’re spiteful or wicked, they just don’t know your value. That’s up to you to teach them.

The second one shows promise because you’re helping people that already know you have a value. The software company has to get buy in from their banker client to make sure you’re a good fit.

The third is a no-brainer. It’s fun. It’s yours. Do it.

The shift in mindset between work for free or don’t work for free is one that comes after a few years, though. For new designers, writers, content strategists, photographers, developers, input creative title here, etc. These are the folks that should not be working for free. Once you’ve developed a workflow, you know your value, and you know how to handle discussions about money and timelines, that’s when you can begin considering strategically taking on some “pro-bono” work or “spec” work, as it’s often called. But again, not every email in your inbox is going to be strategic. Knowing which ones to politely decline and which ones to jump on is something that comes with time.

In conclusion, don’t work for free until you’ve had the “I’ll never work for free” mindset for a few years, and you’re able to determine when working for free might ultimately benefit you. Ask yourself, “should I do design work for free?” If you can justify it to a mentor or a teacher, then maybe it’s strategic. Convincing yourself or a peer doesn’t count!

P.S. Don’t tell the client it’s for free, even if it is. The word free implies little or no value. Try another word that doesn’t make you sound so… Free.

Anthony Gorrity
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