What Does Free Really Mean?

This article on free design tools appears in the newly redesigned Spring 2015 issue of HOW, where you’ll also find a robust page count filled with design inspiration galore. And don’t forget to check out Pannafino’s list of “free-ish” applications and resources to use during various stages of the interactive design process.

We all like a deal. Or, even better, something that’s all together free. Although, in most cases, we know that something that may be free on the surface, isn’t really in the end. Long before the advent of the internet and open digital distribution, the term “gift economy” was used to explain when items were gifted or given out for free without any exchange of monetary funds. Because new interactive technologies have emerged, designers have been forced to rely on resources outside of their normal tool sets to get the job done.

With fierce competition between major companies and start-ups, a plethora of “free” design tools and resources have been introduced in the design field. These free design tools come in many different shapes and sizes, and it’s important to understand the various approaches and functions before we dive in and use them. What follows is a guide to the typical expectations that arise when you decide to take advantage of something that is free, well, free-ish.


Art by Bratislav Milenković

Open Source and Creative Commons

An open source product is not only free, but gives universal access to other developers that allows them to add to, remix or improve upon the application. Open source products tend to have nonprofit communities associated with them, which promotes peer collaboration for the advancement of product features.

While open source is often associated with software development, there are many other types of free creative products that come with various guidelines. The creative commons is a set of several copyright licenses that are free for creative individuals to communicate how others can use their work. The licenses can be mixed and matched to give the creator options on how to describe their work, and there’s also an image-based symbol system to clearly show the types of attribution.

Free with Limitations (Beta, Trial, etc.)

Introducing a product or resource with limitations is no new concept. When you get a new shaving razor for free, it usually comes with a single blade—creating a situation in which you’ll need to purchase more. There lies the limitation. If a user likes the “free” version, he will be more likely to buy the full version—or the full pack of razors—in the future.

Different forms of freemiums with limitations include beta as well. This is an early form of a product that’s considered free to use, typically for a select group, in the early stage of the product iteration. The user has access to trying out a product without paying for it and the developers benefit from the instant user feedback—which aids in the overall development. Once the full version of the product is released, the beta users may still want the paid version based on the beta experience.

Trial use of software or products is another way that users can play before they pay, and it’s often mediated by a limited timeframe, like 30 days. Other types of product limitations may be in the number of users, export options or feature controls. Keep in mind that when a product touts “free to download,” it may be free only for a limited time before it automatically converts to the monetized full version (with a charge to your credit card).

MDS_HowInteractiveDesignConference-JamesPannafinoInteractive design addresses how people deal with words, read images, explore physical space, think about time and motion, and how actions and responses affect human behavior. If you’re new to designing for the web, or looking to brush up on the proper language for talking about web design, don’t miss this workshop based on James Pannafino’s book Interdisciplinary Interaction Design.



Uncovering Hidden Service Exchange

Many smaller companies and individual creative professionals use social media and online portfolio websites, like Behance, to share their products without the exchange of money. In some cases, creators share working files, such as PSDs, with their audience in exchange for a tweet on Twitter or a like on Facebook. This is often a win-win scenario as the creator gets more exposure and the user gets a working file without paying any money.

A hidden service exchange falls along the same lines of paying without using monetary funds. A company allows the user free access to a service when they’re indirectly doing work for it, such as gaining users’ analytic data, supplying comments or ratings to a community or creating information while engaging with the free service.

Donations As Fuel for Free

This may come as a surprise, but many of the free services designers use are only possible because of generous donations. Sometimes optional forms of donation can be executed directly through an online pay service. Paid donations can be seen in crowd-funding platforms, like Kickstarter, that support projects, or Patreon, which supports recurring creative work. While donation is a form of voluntary monetary exchange, it’s a highly effective way to help small ventures stay alive and thrive—which may not have happened otherwise.

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