Should freelancers work for free?

Another post from a new blogger this week…this one is from Blake Poutra on the question of whether (and when) it is appropriate, even beneficial sometimes, for freelancers to work for free. What do you think?

One of the most widely accepted tenets of the work world is that the person working should be paid for their service. This is certainly no exception in the world of design. Design work is time consuming, labor intensive, and requires creativity and originality, all of which definitely deserve fair compensation. Nevertheless, this article will show readers why working for free as a freelance designer isn’t always as bad of an idea as it might seem.

I’m sure all of our inboxes are flooded with requests to do free design work in exchange for publicity or exposure….and in most cases it’s coming from someone who can’t provide either. This is the opposite of what I am referring to when I say work for free. The only thing free about that situation is the freeloaders who are trying to steal your work or devalue it. With that disclaimer aside, let’s dig into what I am talking about.

Great for Exposure
There are actually several possible reasons why a designer might choose to work for free. One of the most common reasons is that it can be a great way to boost exposure and name recognition. This is especially true if you are a new designer just starting out in the field. Naturally, new designers deserve fair payment for their time and labor just like anyone else; however, design work can often be expensive and potential employers may feel reluctant to shell out significant sums of money to newbies. In this case you can kill two birds with one stone by gaining experience as well as a new client. Consider this concept a loss leader of sorts.

One of the best ways to get this valuable exposure is to offer to work on a small project for a potential company or client for free. It’s an offer which is very difficult to turn down by the prospective client since they have nothing to lose and it shows your commitment and willingness for hard work. It’s also an ideal way for the potential client to see what you’re capable of. Even though the client doesn’t owe you anything, if you demonstrate quality work and a professional attitude there’s a good chance they’ll call you on the next paying gig.

Great for Validation
Another good reason for a beginning designer to work for free on a project is for the validation and confidence. It’s normal for anyone in any profession who is just starting out to wonder if they have what it takes to make it. However, since the design world can be a pretty competitive place these natural fears can be amplified to debilitating levels if they aren’t dealt with. Logically one of the best ways to deal with such fears is for the designer to seek honest feedback about their work.

Often that’s where an additional difficulty may come into play. As a freelancer, you may not have the luxury of designer co-workers sitting next to you that can provide you with instant feedback. Asking friends or family won’t exactly cut it. Typically they are very biased and are probably not in-tune with the current design trends.

So how can a freelance designer get honest, thorough validation of their work? There are a couple of ways. One being by creating artwork for pleasure and posting it on the social channels on the web where you can interact with design peers. Another option is to participate in the various design contests on the Internet where your peers can give you feedback (this options also has the possibility of winning the contest and its prizes/accolades). Another ancillary benefit to this approach is making friends within the design community just by interacting with them. They can become very valuable assets down the road in your design career.

Great for Portfolio Building
Most of the unpaid work mentioned above can also be utilized in your design portfolio on your personal website or one of your social profiles. As anyone in the design world can attest – having a full, diverse, impressive portfolio can be one of the best means of getting new jobs. Your design portfolio should be a living, breathing work in progress. It should illustrate your skills and act as your salesperson.

When you’ve finished one of the projects above you can get more mileage out the work by adding it to your design portfolio. If there are any contest accolades or rewards to go with it, include those as well. You can use your design portfolio as a reference for your experience even though the work may be unpaid. That detail can be forgiven by a potential employer if your work is good enough.

Great for Practice
However, while these other reasons are certainly compelling there is another simple reason why a designer should work for free. That reason? Practice! Time and time again we’ve heard the old adage that practice makes perfect. You’ve probably also heard countless studies and statistics about how the only thing that separates masters in a field from the novices is often the amount of time they spend practicing. Well that is most definitely true in the field of design.

You know when one of the premier designers on the Internet releases a new style that gets everyone in a frenzy? There’s a good chance that design style will become a trend that will be requested by clients in the future. Practice early and often to master that style so that you can have it in your toolbox when needed.

Open Source for Design
If you are familiar with the term “open source,” it is a concept that is very popular in the web development world. It is the very epitome of working for free where many developers work together on one project for its improvement while allowing others to utilize it for free. Open source is not a concept that is widely adopted in the design community although that may be changing. The League of Moveable Type is one group that is at the forefront by creating an open source font foundry. Many of the free, open source fonts featured are actually created by designers that also sell other fonts commercially.

Giving back to the design community is just plain old good karma. Sometimes releasing a very complex and intricate design for free can teach others how you arrived at the final result by allowing them to tinker with it. You’ll be gaining friends and fans with moves like that and as I mentioned before, both can be great assets in advancing your design career.

The word “free” doesn’t always have to be a curse word for a freelancer. Just make sure the situation is one that you feel comfortable with and one that is mutually beneficial to you and the client.

Blake Poutra is an operations guy at You Design It. He works with creatives on a daily basis and admires the hustle and passion of freelancers. You can follow his blog here.

BTW: If you’re trying to get your freelancing off the ground, here are two resources to help:

5 thoughts on “Should freelancers work for free?

  1. Ann Foley

    I don’t think beginning freelancers should work for free. For cheap, maybe, but not for free.

    Designers/developers need to teach people that their time and services are valuable. An effective way to do that is to charge them something and to work within the constraints of a contract.

    A couple of times when I was starting out, I offered to do jobs for free, or very cheap. In both cases, I ended up doing very nice comps, but the clients didn’t move forward. Turns out, the clients weren’t really serious about updating their websites or developing their brochures. And they didn’t have to be, because they weren’t out any money.

    It’s true that exposure and practice are essential to getting your career off the ground. But I think offering a discounted price, or to work for an in-kind payment of some kind, is a better idea than working for free.

  2. Blake Poutra

    @Luis – I appreciate you reading and sharing your opinion. I hope I illustrated some cases where there are “win/win” situation even without money exchanging hands. A good analogy would be popular singing contests where artists sing for free in exchange for exposure and ultimately payment should they win the contest. Even if they don’t win, the exposure could be just the springboard they needed to jumpstart their career. I used the examples above early on and had to learn to be very selective to find the right opportunities.

    @Ann – Thank you for the examples of real-world experience. It can be a slippery slope in the beginning and hopefully newbies can balance the positives with the negatives. As long as someone doesn’t accept defeat in the beginning…they will continue to grow.

  3. Stephen Bossom

    This has to be the dumbest concept I have ever heard of and it insults and infuriates me! Never, and I mean never, should a designer work for free! Getting exposure, portfolio building, etc. are not valid reasons for accepting work for no pay. All you are doing is making a name for yourself as someone who is so desperate for work, you’re willing to do anything to get it. Working for free or even working cheap not only gives you the designer a bad reputation, but it tarnishes the reputation of our entire industry.

    New designers can’t expect to garner top rates for their work, but their time and skill has value and designers are devaluing themselves by working for free. Small businesses, start-ups, etc. might be more inclined to use a newbie because their budgets are small, but don’t be so quick to give away your services for next to nothing. Spend time polishing your portfolio and marketing yourself. Improve your sales and negotiating skills. Those skills will speak volumes when you make your pitch to get work. Remember, you must believe that your time and skill is valuable…have the confidence to assert that fact!

  4. Richard Fleming

    Great article. However, in my experience, one of the hardest things for creatives to get a grip on is charging what they’re worth. I think learning the value of charging something for your work is essential to progressing as a professional artist, even if it’s below rate. I share a lot of the same concerns expressed earlier; namely, what free work does to the industry as a whole, much like price warring.

    You gave a lot of good points about exposure, and there are some projects that are inherently good and worth doing for no pay, but these things are very rare – and typically not in the for-profit sectors. Not only does it give for-profit, potential clients the idea that your work isn’t worth paying (or that the only real cost is your expendable labour), but I actually find that non-paying clients are actually more demanding and less reasonable about schedules. When it’s on their dime, they are usually more conservative. The majority of non-paying clients also just move on to other non-charging artists, rather than offer full market rate for upcoming work. Kinda depends on the situation, but why would they pay for what they know they can get for nothing? To your point, newbies and experienced artists need to be very selective and discerning when considering free work. I’d advise that one still draw up a Scope of Work contract, and limit the potential for any “slippery slopes,” including rates they are not paying and excluding any revisions (or charging full rate for actual revisions). 😀

    @Stephen, you’re right about small businesses and start-ups looking for new blood. There’s a market tier for every skill and experience level. There’s no real reason to ever work for free. Personally, I’ve found that even non-profits have money somewhere, though they claim they opposite. (They have to.) As they are familiar with donated goods and services, nonprofits often just ask outright if it’s free. However, many have some budget and, when they’re ready to move forward, they know I’ll be there to help.

    Open Source is in the financial best interest of all contributing parties, including the donor. It immediately improves their work and efficiency, which translates to dollars. Adding better source code for no pay is a very specific, niche market, and usually has luxuries that don’t apply to the creative industries. It’s a different industry and the analogy doesn’t cross over as easily.

    Finally, I’d say that saying “No” often leads to far more work than saying “Yes.” Among other things, it gives clients a sense that there is value in your services. Artists should learn to say “No” more often.