Why Designers Shouldn’t Work for Free

Things I wish I knew when I started: Designers shouldn’t work for free. Nobody should.
Or maybe you should? Does this negate the first thing I wished I knew when I started – do all the work?

There are tons of blogs that go back and forth about strategically working for free, spec work, never working for free, pricing yourself based on all sorts of factors, etc. When you’re first starting off, you’ll be tempted to work for free cause you’re new and you don’t really know what your worth, and you just want the experience.

This is a make or break moment, so don’t screw it up! No pressure…

If you work for free, people still expect high-quality work, and they want it just as quick as if they paid for it. If you work for dirt cheap, you’ll mess yourself up down the line because that client will spread the word about you and your good work.

Wait, that’s not a good thing?

It might be, but chances are, they’ll attract more clients that don’t have the money to pay you what you’re worth, and then it becomes a vicious cycle.

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.

This way, they won’t be hounding you, and you get the experience and get to help out someone you love. I learned this the hard way, but I’ve found it’s a great way of handling things. Despite this, designers shouldn’t work for free.




As I continue to contradict myself, the other time it might be wise to work for free is when it’s strategic. It should be for fun and on your terms, and for a person or business that you really want to do work with, like I mentioned in the last post about inventing your clients. If I had a shot to do work for some big client, gain worldwide exposure, and benefit from the clients that came of it, I might consider it. My uncle’s sandwich shop is not going to do this for me, though, and I know that. I think I should write an entirely contradictory post on when it’s a good idea to work for free and elaborate on this a bit. Despite this, designers shouldn’t work for free.

Also, volunteering might be different. If you want to go help out some non-profit or serve on a team at church, I think that’s a bit different. You’re not being paid in dollars, but you’re becoming rich in significance. Helping people out is a good thing, and I promise you, it’ll come back 10 fold. It has for me. But somebody’s hand-knitted sweater shop on Etsy isn’t the same as helping homeless people can get a meal or a kid can meet Jesus. Despite this too, designers shouldn’t work for free, just as a rule of thumb. We all know rules are meant to be broken. Sometimes.

BUT, back to the point at hand, don’t work for free! Maybe you’re not sure what you’re worth. That’s ok – we’ve all been there before. Do your math on what your time is worth. How much does it cost for your computer, your bills, your software, etc. and figure out how much your time is worth. Meanwhile, measure how long it takes to finish XYZ project and then start multiplying. Boom. You’ve got a starting point for pricing. Again, this could be another blog on it’s own. (I’m on a roll today!)

Ultimately working for free will harm you long term. Have the confidence in yourself and your skills to just say no. Every other client you work with will tell you something like “I have lots of friends. This will be great exposure for you.” That’s cool. I’ve never had a single one of these clients yield a client. Not once. They can pay for work and refer you clients, I promise.

You’ll learn some of this with time and with painful experience, but hopefully you can learn from mine. Which brings me to the next thing I wish I knew when I first started: teach yourself!



Anthony Gorrity
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