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.
BTW: If you're trying to get your freelancing off the ground, here are two resources to help:
- Creative Freelancer Marketing Bootcamp OnDemand DesignCast Series
- Creative Freelancer Conference 2012, June 21-22 in Boston. Early bird deadline extended to April 30. Register here.