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Should designers ever work for free?

Written 21 November, 2018, 7 minutes to read

If you asked someone outside the creative industry to work for free, their response would likely come bluntly without a moment’s hesitation. But for some reason, it’s a question that the design community still graces with a dignified response.

The expectation for free design work is not new; in fact, it’s been a common practice for decades now. It’s inspired creatives to produce flow charts, videos, campaigns and email templates to help each other defend against exploitative practice. And bizarrely, designers still respond to it with an absurd level of civility – check any design forum or blog and you’ll find designers patiently and politely articulating their basic right to fair compensation.

So how did we get here, exactly? Why has free design work become an industry norm? Why do designers still need to justify the value of their work? Why do some people still feel creative work isn’t worth the same as other services they pay for? And is there ever good reason to expect designers to work for free?

Types of free design work

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According to an Approve.io survey, in 2016 alone 85% of UK freelance graphic designers were asked to work for free. But the expectation isn't just limited to freelancers – established consultants and in-house designers are also routinely asked to do it. Here are the main shapes free design work can take:

Spec work and free pitching

Spec work is any project where a designer is expected to present finished work in the absence of defined compensation. It usually involves producing trial creative concepts to win new business. Spec work is client-driven, with companies requesting submissions instead of hiring designers based on their existing work record. If they like your designs, they may pay for them and hire you. But in most cases, your work won’t be compensated and you won’t be able to use your designs anywhere else.

Design contests and crowdsourcing

Companies sometimes invite designers to produce work – anything from logos and website designs to book covers and packaging designs – to win a prize (sometimes money or a job contract, but often just intangible “glory”). While there is some chance of getting paid for the work you put in, the odds of winning are extremely low and remuneration is disproportionate to effort put in. Many contests also require the winning design to become the property of the host company.

“No budget” projects

Freelance designers just starting out are a common target of this. Companies approach you for work on a project, pique your interest and then claim they don’t have a budget for it. In lieu, they may offer “alternative compensation” which is largely intangible. Few of these promises are concretely explained or agreed upon before work starts – or delivered.

Unpaid internships

A classic form of free work common to many other industries. Some unpaid internships can offer a tangible payment in kind, where you are able to work with senior designers, learn how to use new tools and gain transferrable experience of commercial design processes. Just watch out for contracts which hand over the rights of any design work you produce to your host company.

Requests for proposals (RFPs)

Similar to spec work, RFPs form a staple of traditional agency pitching. They are sent to agencies from businesses with a specific project in mind, inviting them to develop original creative solutions to prove their suitability for the job. While established large firms may have the money to sustain RFPs, they can still seem resource-intensive, wildly unproductive and fundamentally demeaning.

How designers are encouraged to work for free

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In the absence of actual compensation, many businesses offer designers “alternative” forms of payment in exchange for their work. While these can seem convincing, the value usually falls far short of just being paid fairly for your work. Let’s deconstruct a few of the most popular reasons for doing free design work:

“Working with us will help give you more exposure”

This might be true if the company does indeed enjoy wide commercial success and appeal – but then, why can’t they just pay you for your work? When we allow powerhouse brands to think association with their name is payment in itself, we only add to their entitlement.

At the other end of the scale, small organizations and start-ups promising exposure are unlikely to have the following or social presence to actually deliver.

“You’ll gain useful design experience”

Unpaid internships or opportunities to work in-house alongside other designers can offer useful design experience: learning new tools, developing skills alongside mentors and accessing new industries can certainly add to your design experience. But in a lot of cases, free work doesn’t diversify your skillset or offer you anything new.

Working for free in itself is not good experience if you’re planning on becoming a freelance designer: you need to know how to discuss fees, invoice, manage client expectations and understand the value of your time.

“You’ll produce quality work to build your portfolio”

See the point above – your free work is unlikely to be the ground-breaking, conceptually interesting stuff that sets you apart from other designers. What’s worse, you may be obliged to hand over rights to the finished design without it ever actually being published.

If you’re taking on free work to build your portfolio, it needs to actually give you something new and valuable – and you should never sign an NDA giving up that intellectual property if the purpose is to publicise it. You don't have to offer free work to build a quality portfolio.

“There will be more work down the line”

This one’s cute, but it almost never delivers. Free work usually just leads to more free work – or the unscoped project you're working morphs into a larger beast that stumbles on for weeks.

Understand, once a business realises you are willing to produce work for free, they will likely be reluctant to start paying for it. And given the toxic assumption that you need to do free design work to secure clients, businesses know they have a ready pool of people willing to do it for free.

“You’ll make valuable relationships and get recommendations for new work”

If someone is asking you to work for free, they don’t place a great deal of value on your work to begin with. So, will you likely want to build a strong relationship with them? Can you trust that they will actually follow through and recommend you to other companies for paid work?

In the absence of respect, lasting worthwhile connection doesn’t happen. If you can get someone relevant to provide you with a letter of recommendation, great. But if the person providing the referral is irrelevant or unwilling to help you from the outset, you’re not likely to get any value from that relationship.

Can free design work ever be justified?

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Many designers willingly do work for free, and so long as that actually rewards them in some way, that’s absolutely fine. Money is by no means the only form of reward – returning a favour for a friend, developing a personal project, or supporting a cause that means a lot to you are all great reasons to offer work for free. It’s a different form of value exchange, but crucially the value is there.

But in the majority of cases, free design work doesn’t confer true value for the individual designer. As explored above, designers can pour a ton of time and effort into a free project without any tangible return to help advance their career. They may even lose rights to their own intellectual property in the process.

They also massively undersell the quality of their work in the process. The designs you quickly pull together for pitches, competitions and one-off projects are often created in isolation without the full context of the problem you're solving. They don’t represent what you’re fully capable of and, with little to no client back-and-forth, there’s no space to develop them.

And ultimately the whole design industry suffers as a result. By accepting to work for free, we are upholding the idea that creative work is inherently less valuable than other forms of work; that our track record isn’t enough, that our skills can’t be trusted, that it’s acceptable to “test drive” us.

Free design work is not good for clients either. Ethical problems of free labour aside, businesses who ask designers for free work have no claims to their time or attention. They can’t be sure designers won’t drop the project as soon as a paid opportunity arises or even know what quality they can expect. The practice also limits business' access to future talent, by making the freelance market an unprofitable option for designers.

The more we can say “no” to free design work, the more we all seek to benefit. While the material change needs to come from businesses themselves, designers have agency with every new piece of work they take on. If a company truly values what you do, they will pay for it. Know your own value: you do not work for love; your career is not a hobby.

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