As part of the design community, the question of working for free often comes up. I think in most genres of the creative industry, there’s almost an expectation that we should be expected to take on projects for free, or under the guise of ‘exposure’, with varying opinions.
For designers who are right at the start of their careers, or who have a limited portfolio to show to prospects, it can be a difficult hurdle to overcome – after all, how can you get people to hire you if they can’t see what you’re capable of?
I feel there are 2 parts to this discussion – the first in being asked by prospects to ‘work for free’ (sometimes cleverly disguised as ‘exposure work’), the second is creating your own projects in order to showcase your work. The second one can be beneficial, the first one almost never is, so we’ll talk about this one first.
Asking for work
It’s likely that even if you’ve been in the game a while, there will be times as a designer when you have a need to prospect for new projects. It’s these ‘cold contacts’ that are most likely to be the businesses who; a) have little knowledge about how outsourcing works, and b) think that by asking for ‘freebies’ as a way of gauging your talent is the proper way to do things.
An inexperienced designer might be tempted to oblige. After all, it might lead to more paid work and it adds valuable content to your portfolio, right?
But hang on – let’s put this in perspective.
Let’s pretend for a minute that you’ve had 2 prospect responses. They both want to hire you, but one of them asks for a quote, while the other one asks if you can do the first element of the project for free ‘to see how it goes’.
Here’s where the ‘what if’ scenarios start to come into your mind. What if the guy who asked for the quote thinks you’re too expensive and decides not to hire you? What if the ‘free’ project is the one that will ultimately lead to the most lucrative work?
I can reassure you here that the first scenario is always the least dangerous. Because if your quote gets returned with concerns over the budget, there are always things you can do – like offer to complete elements of the work in order to meet their budget or payment instalment plans for example.
But the ‘freebie’ guy? Sure, he might hire you down the line for your usual rate – but I’m willing to bet that he’ll haggle and argue at every turn. And if you take on that project for free, which might take you several hours, then you are making yourself unavailable for proper, paid work.
How to respond if you’re asked to work for free
This can be tricky, particularly if you’re desperate for work. That temptation to grab every opportunity for fear of missing out can be strong. But in order to avoid devaluing your abilities, it’s important that you learn to stand your ground – and I’m saying that from a place of experience. By accepting free work, you’re not only doing a disservice to yourself, but you’re also giving the message that design as a profession holds no value.
So what can you say when a prospect utters those words, ‘can you do the first project for free/for exposure/as a test-run?’
There are a few ways you could choose to handle it – as long as you remember that the answer should always be ‘No.'
The first thing you should do is to take a step back. Don’t rush in with your response from a place of emotion. The prospect isn’t doing this out of spite or malice – they are simply unaware of how the design process works. It’s your job to educate them.
Perhaps this is a prospect that you really DO want to work with. It could be that you’ve followed them for a while, and they’re just the kind of business you want to design for. If that’s the case, then consider responding with a polite note, advising them that although you are not in a position to offer free work, you can point them in the direction of other work you’ve done for similar industries. If you don’t have any examples, then perhaps you can seek out other projects you can do (for pay, of course!) so that you can approach them again in a few months’ time.
Or you can politely decline. Again, let them know that as a creative professional, you are not able to complete the project for free, but perhaps they can consider you again when they are in a position to hire you for your usual fee.
When it’s ok to work for free
What I am a great advocate for is self-initiated projects. I believe these types of projects can be a brilliant way of creating your own portfolio pieces, on your own terms. Whether you are an experienced designer or not, periodically taking time to work on your own projects allows you to explore different techniques and design methods which you might not get the opportunity for with client work.
The benefits are two-fold; you get that extra bit of creative freedom, and you get to escape that rut of always taking on the same type of client project. It gives you the chance to push the boundaries a little bit and inspires you to take different avenues.
I’ve done this myself a few times – with my self-published book ‘Ten Yrs Later’, and for some localised projects such as the creative festival I began working on during 2020. Both of these have worked for me in both a professional and personal scope because it gives me something else to showcase what I can do, and lets me ‘play’ and explore outside of my usual workload.
If you are at the start of your career or feel the need to change your niche, taking a bit of time out to create different pieces for your portfolio is the best way to do it. It can be as simple as choosing an existing or imaginary brand and redesigning it using your own style and techniques.
I hope this article gives you the confidence to realise your own value in what you do. Design, in whatever form it takes, is a valuable asset to your clients and should be treated as such.