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Requests for Free Work: Does it Work?

8 minutes 1 comments
Speider Schneider
Speider Schneider
Web Hosting Geek

Everybody says economic times are tough… unless they say things are improving. The increase in startups show that business via the internet is booming, yet many of these startups fail in one big area: budgeting for the design and branding they need to establish their company “public face.” The answer for these startups is easy: ask a designer to do it all for free.

Naturally, there’s a problem with this practice as asking any professional to work for free is insulting and when someone does do it for free, you are not getting the best solution for what is the first impression prospective customers will have of your business. It’s funny that our consumer habits have us shopping daily for bargains – cheap merchandise that lasts a few months as opposed to something of quality that will last years. Money has clouded judgment when it comes to seeing value — true value. As one comedian once said, “does anyone else get nervous flying on a plane that was built by the lowest bidder?”

The Usual Reasoning

There are many reasons a client uses for demanding free work.

  • “There will be plenty of money LATER!”
  • “We’ll consider you our ‘in-house’ designer once business gets going.”
  • “I have rich friends who’ll see your work and hire you for big bucks!”
  • “This is a great opportunity for you” (they never say why).
  • “You can put this in your portfolio!”


©GL Stock Images

It’s not just businesses that ask for free work. Friends and charities also ask for free work as if it’s not an insult. An easy explanation of why this is wrong, aside from those people never thinking to ask for free plumbing, home remodeling or tonsils removal, it’s called artWORK, not artPLAY. Several designers chimed in with their experiences in this arena. Actually, over two dozen added their voices, most of which told the exact same stories.

In a recent discussion on a design group on LinkedIn, one designer posted the question: “Why does everyone expect you to ‘help’ them out for FREE?”

David M.replied, “I usually don’t mind working for family for free, but I usually try to keep the art direction to a minimum and they definitely pay for any production costs. As for friends, I just ask, ‘would I do anything for them, and would they do anything for me?’ Yes yields a yes, but again with limited ‘art direction.’ When someone busts out the ‘good for your portfolio, or will get you paid work,’ I usually tell them that my portfolio is pretty full of paid-for jobs. If they are so sure that I will get other work, perhaps they can bring in 5 new pay jobs for me and I will give them a commission for one free job of a value equal to the most expensive one they referred.”

Lena S. added, “Just remember, saying ‘no’ (in whatever fashion you choose) doesn’t have to be mean. You can be very nice when you do it. ‘No’ does not equal mean.”

Lena lists some answers she has lined up for the most common requests for free work:

  • “I’m booked for the next two months with client work. Can you ask me again then?”
  • “I’d love to work on your project! Just send me the specs and I’ll get back to you with an estimate.”
  • “No.”
  • Just laugh. If it is really something absurd you can just throw back your head and laugh and act like you thought it was a joke. This normally stops them in their tracks. They know you heard them and now they are embarrassed or confused.
  • When you hear something along the lines of “I can’t afford to pay for this” I say, “Oh, I totally understand. I wish I could do all my client’s work for free, but unfortunately, I have to pay bills too.”
  • “I do donate time to charity, but I’ve used all my allocated hours already this quarter. But, if you’ll put it in writing I can consider you for next quarter.” This is advice I got from one of my business owner friends. She decides ahead of time how many hours she will donate a year and keeps up with it. It allows you to give away some work if you want to, but keep track of it.
  • Probably my biggest pet peeve is being told how I should illustrate their children’s book for free because they are going to be famous one day and it would be really great exposure for me. I have been asked this a dozen times over the years. It’s amazing that people would actually ask this.
  • My second biggest peeve is “I’ll pay you when I’m successful.” I did a few of these early in my career. I never got paid, even once. Big surprise.
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The problem isn’t just from those asking for free work, but more from those who willingly agree. As I tell students, people ask for free work because they want something for free or they just believe what you do is so fun that you don’t care about money. You have certain hard costs to cover when doing free work (i.e. electricity, software purchase and upgrades, paper, printer ink, internet, etc.). When someone asks you to for free work, smile and say you’d be happy to help them out if they cover your hard costs and quote them a price of a couple hundred dollars. When they act shocked, remind them the same costs I’ve outlined. Chances are they will:

  • Tell you, “never mind.”
  • Question the costs as not being that much. Explain to them how much Adobe CS6 costs.
  • Tell you an art student will do it for free (then tell them, “that’s great! Glad you have someone to do that for you because I’m really swamped with work”).
  • Never speak to you again, which means they aren’t really your friends.
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When you believe there’s no way out of doing it for them, ask them to do some free work for you, too. I had “new friend” ask for a huge project for free and I smiled and replied I would be happy to do it. Then I said, “you know, I was going to ask if you could handle some legal matters for me (she was a lawyer). She said she was too busy. I responded that I understood and told her I would have the project done in three or four months. She couldn’t wait that long and dropped the request.

The old triad of design is cheap, good and fast. You may pick just two (cheap and good = takes time. Cheap and fast = crappy.) The problem is, people want all three.

©Colin Harman

As revealed in this article:

Steve Jobs was interviewed about working with Paul Rand and asked Rand if he would come up with a few options, and he said, “no, I will solve your problem for you and you will pay me. You don’t have to use the solution. If you want options go talk to other people.”

Well, Paul Rand can get away with that as a dozen other clients were pulled up in front of his studio with dump trucks filled with money but what can other designers do? The easy answer is to not supply free professional work!

Why Does it Happen to Creatives?

As designers/creative people grow up, they are surrounded by the stigma that they were the “weird kids” who drew pictures in notebooks instead of paying attention in class. Peers look at creative people as “free spirits” and therefore “free” comes into play. When designer break pre-conceived notions by being businesspeople, clients can turn very angry. Another major reason is that people are just greedy. They will shop around for a plumber, car, proctologist and any other service or product until they find the cheapest one they can. Good luck with that back-alley, discount proctologist, folks!

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They also know that in a worst-case scenario, they CAN get an art student to do their work for free. Don’t argue quality with them because they don’t care.

If teachers stopped telling students they need printed pieces or live web sites in their portfolios to get further work, then part of the problem would go away. The truth about having a strong portfolio is not in the number of “professional pieces” (and free work rarely come out as finished pieces you would even WANT to show to a prospective client) but in the thought process behind the design.

The truth is that people who ask for free work are interested in three things: If you have the right software, if you’ll do it for free and how quickly you’ll follow all of their directions. Try this little experiment and then post how it went in the comments section. Printout the WORST logos, web sites and layouts you an find on the web. When someone contacts you about doing a project for free, agree and make an appointment for them to see your portfolio. One of two things will happen:

  • They will tell you it’s not necessary.
  • They will flip quickly through your portfolio and then explain the assignment to you.

You then have two choices:

  • Point and laugh at them and reveal that you printed out pieces from “The Worst of _______ web site.
  • Take the assignment and make it the worst thing you could ever design. Really screw it up!

Being a Good Friend Isn’t Business

A business is not your friend. A FRIEND is a friend and sometimes they need a favor. Some designers have done logos, web sites, complete company branding and business cards for friends because, as they say, “a good friend will help you move; a true friend will help you move the bodies!”

Some good parting advice when it comes to free work:

  • Say “no” when it comes to doing work for a business.
  • Tell your friends, no problem” but you need time to fit it around your business schedule.
  • Cover your hard costs or the free job ends up costing YOU time AND money.

If you teach or speak to groups of students, tell them to read this article and STOP DOING FREE WORK! They’re just chipping away at the industry that they will rely upon for their future living. Free now will equal free later. Most of all, if you want to be treated as a professional, then charge like a professional!

Top image ©GL Stock Images



1 Comment

  • Avatar Wendy Sue says:

    Quite a while back, I learned about “helping start-up companies.” It NEVER pays off. However, my biggest problem is friends and family. All of them love my work and all want a logo, business card, and website. For many reasons, I can’t say no, but it’s killing me…

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