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Is it Ever Okay for Designers to Work for Free?

14 September 2017
Freelance Survival

Is it Ever Okay for Designers to Work for Free?

There is one thing that unifies designers around the world: they have all been asked to work for free at some point in their career. They’ve probably been asked to work for free several times, in fact!

Whether to accept unpaid work or not is a long-disputed issue. For many, the answer is a straight up no, without exception. But what if the job is for a family member? Or if, by doing this job, you could be introduced and recommended to other high-paying companies?

We’re here to discuss all of the possible reasons people have for asking you to work for free, so that you can understand when it’s time to say ‘definitely not’ - and when it’s time to consider your options.

Speculative Work

I.e. when companies ask a selection of designers for rough copies of work so that they can choose which designer to move forward with for the full design.

These companies think that what they are doing is perfectly reasonable: they need a big project doing well and they want the best designer for the job. Why not scope the options out there first, before being tied into a contract with one particular designer? The simple answer is: that’s what a portfolio is for.

The whole reason designers spend time collating a portfolio is so that potential clients can decide whether they like your style of design or not. As soon as a designer starts creating ideas for a specific job, they are working for that company and should be paid. After a company has seen all the pitches, what’s going to stop them from employing a different, cheaper designer but using your idea? An idea that you spent time on when you could have been making progress on paid projects.

It seems bizarre that designers are expected to do this when no other profession would even think to provide ‘spec work’ before being paid. Zulu Alpha Kilo has a wonderful video to demonstrate just how ridiculous this notion would be found in any other line of work.

On the other hand, some companies ask for spec work because they are planning on building a long-term relationship with a designer because they require a lot of design work. We’re not saying that we agree with asking for spec work but if you are presented with this situation, it might be worth considering the long-term benefits.

Which would you prefer? A client who only needs the one piece of design work every once in a while but will pay immediately? Or a client who needs regular work but just won’t pay you for your first job?

Be careful though: some businesses will say that there are more jobs in the pipeline just to get you interested. Ask for more details on these other jobs to try and figure out if it’s the real deal or not.

Unpaid Internships and Working for Exposure

This kind of work is particularly contentious because opinions often depend on whether you’re an experienced designer or not. If you’re just starting out, unpaid internships and promised exposure, while not desirable, are opportunities to build your portfolio and gain experience. If you’re an established designer, the idea is plain offensive.

Unfortunately, gaining connections is the only benefit that we can see to these ‘opportunities’.

If your portfolio is looking a little thin, there are other ways you can add to it: work on your own branding or create alternative branding for existing companies. Work on new skills just because that’s what you’re interested in developing.

Besides, even if you don’t have much experience working for other businesses, creating a design takes your time. Clients should at least be interested in paying you for your time if not your garnered experience. Not to mention the fact that they are expecting to earn money from your design work, so why not pass on that benefit, at least in part, to you?

Even good exposure isn’t guaranteed. It’s often the case that companies offering to pay you in exposure are not high-profile enough to actually deliver on that promise, and those who are recognisable enough to be of benefit to you really should be able to afford to pay their designers.

Friends, Family and Charities

Pro bono work, or doing work for free because you want to, is a very different situation to the two we’ve already discussed. In these cases, you may feel particularly inspired to help a cause that you believe in. Or, you really want to help kick-start your friend’s business. Either way, you’ll be rewarded for your efforts without necessarily needing a monetary value.

However, working for a good cause comes with its own issues to deal with.

You don’t want to be taken advantage of which, unfortunately, some friends and family members have a tendency to do. They might add more and more onto their request or have impractical expectations of how quickly you are able to finish things. When this happens, it can be very hard to stay firm because they’re not just any client and your relationship could be put at risk.

One tip for dealing with freeloader friends, is to take your time over their project. Prioritise paid work and get around to theirs as and when you can. By making them wait a little, they may come to realise how much you actually have to do in your line of work and be less likely to ask so much of you again.

Another thing to remember when doing pro bono work is that just because you want to do this job, that doesn’t mean you should slack on your professional process. Create a statement of work just like you would normally and lay out exactly what it is that you are going to be designing. If working for someone you know, do not discuss the work at a social event – arrange a formal meeting instead. This should help keep the boundaries clear.

So, in conclusion, working on the promise of ‘exposure’ and speculative work seems like dodgy ways for companies to avoid paying for their artwork, whereas donating your skills for a cause you believe could be okay, as long as you keep your wits about you. If you are struggling for work and find yourself getting tempted by that unpaid internship, take a look at our blog, How to Find More Freelance Design work.


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