It’s frustrating to be asked to work for free when you have bills to pay. There were times early in my career when people would ask me to contribute my skills to “a great opportunity”…but for no money. It took time to learn to navigate these situations, and I’ll share some ways to handle these requests.
Know what you’re worth (and let them know it too)
When I was started in design, it seems that everyone wanted a logo. Sometimes I got paid for designing them.
We’ve all been there, it seems. Doing work for “exposure” is a rough equivalent to believing that if you see something online, it must be free. Accepting jobs without pay has an impact on us and our industry. When people ask you to work for free, it’s worthwhile to remember how you got to where you are, and the time you spent preparing yourself to share your gifts with others – for money. This is important because the way you represent yourself has an impact on what clients expect from other designers as well. Everyone wants to get paid what they’re worth.
Change the conversation to paid work
In his wonderful book, Design is a Job, Mike Monteiro advises designers not to take free work because not only does it show disrespect for the designer and the work to be done, but it’s also not fair to both parties. Instead, he suggests offering work at a discounted rate that clearly indicates your value to your client, but only if the work seems worthwhile.
When someone asks you to work without offering to pay, acknowledge the value of that work. Be curious and see if you can understand the problem they wish to solve. Then, if the work still sounds interesting after that, you have more potential to turn the offer into paid work.
Turn down work politely
Whether you’re dealing with large or small businesses, the way you handle the relationship determines how a potential client considers your bid for work. Sometimes clients can’t be negotiated into paying for work. In those cases, the answer is easy: respond promptly, be polite, and move on to the next project.
Navigate friends and family with compassion
It can be unsettling when friends or family expect you to do design work for free, because what you say could change your relationship with them. Before responding impulsively, reflect on your relationship with them and how much work they are requesting. You don’t have to be rude, but you should be realistic with them about your capacity and how well the collaboration might go. Whether you take the work is a personal choice, but getting your own expectations and needs clear in the first place will help tremendously with making that decision.
Requests for free work seem counter to our success-oriented, individualist culture here in the United States. Consider though, that the world is changing and cultures outside the U.S. value the input of community.
In Japan, there is a phrase for when this is taken to the extreme – arigata-meiwaku – the polite acknowledgement of thanks for unwanted help. I mention this because we need to remember that our relationships are relative to the people we know. If you want to feel more connected about the right way to approach design clients, seek the community of other designers. Hang out with folks from Revision Path on Slack or visit Design is Political or A List Apart. There are places where we can improve the conditions for design by tapping into the global design community.
When you can, shift conversations from work-for-free into a dialogue about the work being requested and it’s value. Be polite and clear about this value to strengthen your career and improve conditions so all designers can get paid what they are worth.