Should You Design for Free?

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Individuals or businesses may have come to you and asked for free work. Or maybe you have offered free work to someone. Either way, there’s probably a similar scenario you’ve experienced or will experience at some point in your career. This is a hot topic of discussion in the freelancing community. There are some people who are completely against doing work for free. There are also people on the other side of the fence who are very generous with the amount of free work they offer. I believe there is a time and place for doing free work, and it should be determined on a case-by-case basis. Here are some things to think about when you’re deciding whether or not to offer up your services for free.

Is it on your own terms?

A big factor in deciding whether to do free work or not is: was this your decision, or did someone come to you? Sometimes friends or family will come to you asking for free work. You might want to ask yourself, “Are they really my friends if they are asking me to do work for free?” If they are your friends, they won’t mind or get offended when you explain that you can’t provide that service for free. On the other hand, if you offer to design a wedding invitation for a friend because you enjoy designing invitations and you’d like to do something nice for them, that’s a different story. It’s on your own terms, and you are fully aware that you won’t be getting paid for that project.

How big is the project?

It’s important to consider how extensive the project you are considering is. If it’s a small project that will take a minimal amount of time, it might be worth just doing someone a favor. If it’s a decent sized project and would take a good bit of your time to complete, I would consider asking for some form of payment. No matter the size, it’s always important to weigh the benefits and risks.

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What are the benefits and risks?

For potential pro bono projects you should weigh the benefits and risks to see if it will be worth your while. The obvious risk is that you are not getting paid, and you could be devaluing designers’ worth. So it’s important that the benefits outweigh these risks in order for this project to be worth it.

Getting in some much needed practice in the areas of design and working with clients could be a potential benefit as well as gaining some work for your portfolio. However, many companies will consider exposure and projects for your portfolio as a form of payment. To avoid getting taken advantage of, if the only benefit is “getting exposure” or “getting projects to put in your portfolio”, you might want to consider building up your portfolio with personal projects and posting them on Instagram or Dribbble instead.

Another possible benefit is creative freedom. Since you are offering your services up for free, the client might be more willing to let you take the reins and go with whatever design you come up with. It’s not common, although, for a company to relinquish that kind of control, and you could end up with the opposite issue. You may, instead, end up with a client that request an endless amount of revisions because it isn’t costing them anything to have these changes made. To help avoid this issue, I suggest you provide the client with a scope of work agreement outlining the amount of revisions allowed. This will not only help define the project, but it will also make sure you and your client are on the same page.

One more benefit to think about is if the company you’d be doing the free work for is a non-profit or is close to your heart in some way. Having the opportunity to work with a company or that you’re really interested in or emotionally invested in could be really exciting and worth doing for free.

Something to consider

There is an alternate form of payment to consider to avoid doing work completely free. This isn’t the case in all instances, but some companies or individuals are willing to trade their services or products in exchange for your design services. This works out for both companies as long as it is a service or product you like and would use.

So…should you design for free? Ultimately, it’s up to you, but I wouldn’t suggest completely ruling it out. Just make sure you’ve taken the time to consider if it is worth it to you or not, and keep in mind that your answer can change depending on the particular situation, project, or client.