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Ivan's picture

Say no to free work!

Recently I was asked to do a logo job for a new commercial website. I gladly accepted the job, because it is something I like doing. I asked for the details and started on the job. I've sent the client the first two drafts which he liked, but informed me that he found somebody else, who does the job pro bono for him, so I should back off. I only spent 3-4 hours on his project so far, so I wasn't pissed, but I didn't like such unprofessional treatment and asked to be payed a standard hourly fee for the time I spent on the project so far. I was denied it and was told that others do it for free, so I'm not eligible for anything.

This is just one story, but demonstrates a trend that most of us have contributed to at some time in our careers. Namely, doing free work. I used to do free jobs for friends, because I felt ashamed to ask for money for stuff that only takes my time. However I never felt it right to ask my friends to repair my car for free when taking it to their workshop or serve me for free when I visited their restaurant.

Just because we only use our brains, pencils and computers to get our job done and it does not involve any tangible physical objects, like big machinery or tons of grocery we still spend our time with the project. And, we should value our time more than anything else. Objects are easy to buy. Time is something you can't replace. Time is an asset that has a strict expiry date. Today is only here for today, and if you spend it on something that was not worth doing, you wasted your today.

Our skills as designers were shaped by many years of mostly hard work. It didn't come for free. Being able to transform ideas, feelings and messages into visual designs is not something we should take as granted. You should never forget that the skills you possess are of great value to others. The way you think, the way you see, the way you draw is something that only a trained and talented human can do. At least at this point in time. You should make sure there is always a value associated with every hour you spend on work.

I know it is hard to ask for money from a friend, but think of it as an service to your fellow designers. If we don't do free work, we maintain a high level of appreciation of our skills in general. We will be better off as an industry.

By charging for your work, you're not only doing a favor to the industry and your fellow designers. You're also doing a favor to yourself. When doing free work you tend not to put your 100% as client has to accept whatever you present, since he's not paying for it. If client starts complaining you will feel pissed as you didn't account for so much trouble for no compensation. The whole experience can become frustrating for you and your client, which may even affect your non-professional relationship. And, in the worst case it may even reflect negatively on your professional reputation.

While we are at it. Do not participate in un-payed pitches or competitions either. Clients organizing such events are also looking for free work. They just do it on mass scale to many designers at once.

The only exception I would make is when you're a student trying to build up your portfolio and trying to gain experience. In such a case please do as much free work as you can. But even in this case, as you get better, try to get some kind of compensation. Ask for a donut, ask for a free mouse, ask for a free computer in return for your hard work. Start building up value against your work.

And, a message to my client above. Pro bono doesn't mean free work. Pro bono is short for pro bono publico, which means doing free work for the public good. In other words work that benefits the society. So, please don't use incorrect fancy wording when fishing for free work.

Pro bono is a different beast. Everyone should do it as much as time allows. We as communication specialists have a big responsibility and opportunity to change the world to the better.

Commenting on this Blog entry is closed.

Mario JADE's picture
1 pencil

It is enough!! All "huges" are building their owns on our back, as we say it in the lebanese way. So, we all have to stop these shits and we have to take all our rights and we have to be paied as we should be. Many came from another education saing that they are "graphic designer", but unfortunatly they aren't and they are taking our places.. please refuse the FREE jobs!

KingRoLo's picture
8 pencils

I don't start any work until i let the client know how much its going to roughly cost them.

minxlj's picture
11 pencils

Another example of why an agreement and a contract should be set before you start the work. It's crappy, but some clients will always try to mess you about like that. I wouldn't be surprised if you find that the client has taken your designs, and this 'free' designer ends up producing them...

• 'Others do it for free, so should you'.
Absolute and utter rubbish. If a mechanic fixed your car for free, you'd think something was up. If a dentist did work for free, you'd be wondering what the catch was. It's disgusting that people assume your skills are worth nothing, and these are exactly the type of client we should all avoid. A note to that client: by assuming that talented and educated people 'should' work for free, you are belittling and insulting them and don't deserve to have any good design work done for you.

I choose to do volunteer work for charity i.e. PROPER pro bono work. I am happy to donate my time and skills as a designer to help these charities, and believe me, they appreciate it more than regular clients! I would rather that a talented designer did their work, rather than them having to use some monkey with a computer and the 'I'll just steal a logo from the internet and that'll do' attitude. And that is a massive part of the problem - too many people think 'the computer does it all' and don't understand what is involved in the proper creative process. Because anyone can have a computer these days, they steal a copy of Photoshop from the internet, and they think they're a designer because they've typed out Comic Sans and 'made' a 'logo'!

I have several times had to explain to someone why I will not design their website for £50, just because 'one of their mates' said they would. And 9 times out of 10, those clients come to me, and pay the real cost in doing the work, because they get a superb result that WORKS, from someone who is passionate and absolutely enjoys what they do. Sometimes I tell them I will not do the work, because I'm not interested in working for a client who doesn't understand good work and won't pay for quality. Good design is NOT just about how things look, and that's what most people don't understand.

I always think of the old saying here - 'buy shit, buy twice'. It's true for everything - if you settle for cheap crap, be it in a meal, a car, your dentist or a designer, you will end up with a crap result. But, if someone is willing to work for crappy clients and crappy money, they'll keep on paying that person crap!

plugz's picture
1245 pencils

I have one cheap client left and that will soon be ending.
I took cheap jobs to get the work and the contacts back after being out of the freelance loop for a while and for that it has done some good, but that was a two month exercise and it fulfilled it's purpose.

It's not fun and it is frustrating, but it's a by-product of the Photoshop era where everyone's a designer... A bit like how everybody is a DJ these days...

Just because people can do it doesn't mean the do it well and that, like most other things, is a mistake people have to make in order to learn from.
Once they've hired a "designer" for a few quid and got something cheap and crappy for it no doubt they'll be a bit disillusioned with designers as they didn't get the results they wanted, however had they paid the premium they'd have achieved the design they expected.
It's a catch 22.

At the end of the day, if you pay peanuts, you'll get monkeys...

em22's picture
3 pencils

A great post and one I've been meaning to write about on my blog for a while - this will prompt me to write it!

Pitching seems to be a industry norm that is totally unacceptible and I now don't pitch. My take on it is that you just end up having to make up the cost with paying clients which is again unfair and unacceptible.

I often compare it to ordering a meal at a restaurant, you just wouldn't go to three seperate restaurants, order a meal and then once you've eaten them, decide which one you're going to pay for - it's the same thing.

A credentials pitch is the only fair pitch - here you can show your work and then quote for the project. It's quite clear from your portfolio whether you are suitable for the job.

harrison's picture
173 pencils

Ivan, as much as I agree with you that it wasn't a very professional way for the client to handle the situation, I think you are also at fault for not making it clear that you would be charging them for the work, and get them to sign a contract for it.

I only do free work for one organisation - a youth movement I was involved in for about 10 years. They are non-profit, so paying for a designer is definitely not a priority. I started doing their work about 6 or 7 years ago when I got interested in doing design work more professionally [I was still in High School at the time, but was already considering a design discipline as a profession.]

I've done design work for them since then, almost every year for most of their events. It's allowed me to hone my craft. There is very rarely a brief when I work for them, which means I get to try out new techniques and ideas without being too restricted.

andrew harrison

Ivan's picture

You're right. I should've had a contract signed or get him pay 50% upfront as I always do.

pokie's picture
1217 pencils

If only we could get everyone to do this. I don't think it's possible though. I also *hate* that people who've stolen Photoshop think they can "design" anything and "touch up" photos. Just because you stole the program doesn't mean you know how to use it. Not to mention, I spent what? Around a grand for the Creative Suite?

Unfortunately, I sometimes wonder if our profession will survive these desktop publishers...

Meanwhile, I work for corporate. We rarely charge them design fees. We are a bit of a "perk" for our customer, I've heard others say. Whatever.

Kilik's picture
80 pencils

I had a brief time when I was in college where I was on the fence about doing free work. My career services lady told me she wouldn't let me do work for free so that's what really made me get on the right track. Now, when friends of the family or people the family has referred to me to do a job my family has already pre-warned them that it's going to cost and I don't work for free! I've built this tough-guy business man persona, if you will :)

Thanks for the article!

jaytillery's picture
1 pencil

Great article. People shouldn't ask for free stuff either, because you get what you pay for. I can remember some of my designer friends doing pro bono stuff. They would send it over to me and say "What do you think of this logo?". I'd give them my thoughts and the reply was always "It's for free anyways". So if you are someone who likes to receive pro bono work, remember, you are getting "thats good enough" quality work. Paying is best in both situations.

spigot's picture
190 pencils

Quite a while back there was a funny animated gif about this very topic. The link is broken now, but it was at

If anybody caught it, it was too funny. It started out with something like, "How about you make me a website for free since we are friends." It ended with something like "How about since your a car salesman, you give me a car for free. Since we're friends"

Wish that link still worked.

arvana's picture
111 pencils

There's an organization and website devoted to this very topic:

Ivan's picture

Great link!

natobasso's picture
3951 pencils

Love that website! And don't do 'work for hire' either because you give up the rights to the work you do. For example, as a general rule, graphic design employees of a company do their work on a for hire basis -- the company owns the work.

Ivan, sorry you lost money on the deal, but definitely get a contract signed before starting any work for anyone, even if it's donated work. Then the value of the work is still maintained and explicitly stated.

Powerpoint is not a design application.

onegirlcreative's picture
1090 pencils

and I'll NEVER do it again.

When I was still a design student, I was naive—my friend's mother, who owns a kitchen design business in Boulder, CO approached me because she wanted her image and logo redesigned. Since I was still a student, I just figured this was awesome! Lucky me. Uh, no lucky me!

I was still new to Illustrator and basically wasn't familiar with the program—this was Illustrator 8, I believe. Anyway, I spent hours and hours working on this logo for her. Obviously, it took me a lot longer to work on it because I didn't have that familiarity with Illustrator, so I was just planning on charging her a set fee. However, we never discussed this (mistake #1).

Once I showed her my design samples, of course she oohed & ahhed, but didn't pay me a dime, nor did I ever hear from her again. As far as I know, she still never used it. Irregardless, after that, I will NEVER allow anybody to screw me over again.

I have researched and compiled many different design contracts to fit what my freelance business was about. I put together a pretty good, air-tight contract that clearly states a kill fee, as well as a minimum of 50% up front. Or I won't start the job.

Last year, I designed a brochure for a friend of mine and the funny thing is, even though we discussed my hourly fee, I approached her with my contract. She just about shit her pants! But guess what? Not only did she sign it, she paid me in full, which I wasn't planning on. It also covers their ass, as well as mine—I stated on the contract the finish date, so she would know when to expect it, etc.

Ever since, it's been working like a charm.

I have been to that NOSPEC! website before, and I have bookmarked their website for future reference. It's wonderful!!! Now if only we could forward this website and this post to ALL corporate schmucks out there who are the a-holes that refuse to pay us for our work. I bet architects don't deal with this crap. Or a lawyer.

"Gee, you lost my case, so does that mean I don't have to pay you?" Right.

suzanne maestri-walters :: graphic designer ::

"I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy as long as I can paint." ~ Frida Kahlo

Scabby's picture
127 pencils

'Irregardless' is not a goddamn word! I'm sorry, it's a pet peeve of mine. I agree with everyone: doing free work for friends makes you hate them.

onegirlcreative's picture
1090 pencils

You could say it a little nicer than that, Scabby!!! My goodness.

"I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy as long as I can paint." ~ Frida Kahlo

Scabby's picture
127 pencils

I'm just joshing. It's just hard with text to make it evident without the use of smilies.

archmedia's picture
587 pencils

"doing free work for friends makes you hate them."

imagine family..

I'll I'm going to say about it is... ONCE, and NEVER again!

Architectural Technician - Multimedia Designer

escorial's picture
4 pencils

I've been working on design for more than 15 years, and I've seen this same problem happening over and over, to other friends and myself. It seems to be the nature of the beast.

We all have been taken advantage of in some way or another, and probably some of us have taken advantage of some clients sometimes in our carriers (maybe we overcharged them one time...:P).

There are ways to try to avoid these kind of situations, the one I always use is not to start a project until I have 50% of the money in my bank account. There is always the client that needs something rush and you start working on good faith before receiving the bucks, and usually these clients are the ones that will end up not paying you.

In any case, I always end up thinking that the client will have what they pay for,... usually shit if they paid nothing. It is just karma.

Keep your chins up, you are not alone.

DoghouseMedia's picture
27 pencils

How do you go about writing a contract without scaring off the good customers?
Does anyone have an example of a project agreement?

Ivan's picture

For me writing an agreement is too much hassle. Ask for 50% upfront and you get assurance. Spend that time doing an agreement on more brainstorming rather. Both of you will be more happy with it at the end.

natobasso's picture
3951 pencils

(head in hands) No no no Ivan! The agreement is part of the creative process, believe me. It gets both you and the client thinking about the journey and the destination, the A to B if you will, of the job.

Contracts are not evil, nor detrimental to creativity. :)

Powerpoint is not a design application.

gcoghill's picture
22 pencils

Although I have purchased the both the Graphic Designer & Illustrator legal forms books (and they are handy), I usually just do the agreement via email, specifically stating what I will provide and when, and let people know up front that there is a 50% deposit with the balance due before the final work is provided. All progress files (JPGs, PDFs, etc.) are watermarked. It works great 99% of the time.

If people like you and your work, usually they just want to know what they get, when they'll receive it and what it costs. No need to worry about scaring anybody off. The best clients know that one gets what one pays for.

Cartoon Illustration

PaperQueen's picture
2 pencils

I am soooooo kicking myself over this now, having just “offered up” more than a dozen solid logo options for a national board I sit on.

Unbeknowst to the rest of us, another board member (aka: control freak) has been flying under the radar, working with a so-called “designer” that came up with a most amateurish excuse for a logo on earth—heavy handed block text in a 60% gray scale with fine, fine line script text overlapping all of it in black. Oh yeah....did I mention the group prints ALL their collateral on copy machines? This so-called logo is going to turn to a block of mud on paper.

In a fit of frustration, I kicked out no fewer than a dozen really solid, really fitting logos, any one of which would be perfect. Several other board members agreed these were great...

...but Ms. Control Freak has decided to retain control over this project, since she wants the logo to come from her “designer.” I am absolutely convinced this “designer” is her, playing with a new copy of Illustrator. It’s THAT BAD.

Had I offered to do the work for pay, I’ll bet this would play out differently. Because I put a series of logos on the table for free, no one’s digging in their heels—partly to avoid crossing paths with Ms. CF, partly because there’s no money coming out of their pockets.

Free work means easy walk-away. Bottom line, if you don’t assign a price tag to your own work, no one else will either.

You’d think I’d learn after 25+ years of design work. Sheesh.

zippidi's picture
2 pencils

Hi, I am new to this forum and was refreshed by the 'emotion' you displayed in your comments. I was beginning to think that all forum members were automatoms that followed rules and regs like an OS computer DLL.

As I am currently studying design and image manipulation, would it be possible to see the logo work you mention.

Take care


natobasso's picture
3951 pencils

A good contract not only states the client's obligations and expectations but the designer's as well. Any good client will appreciate this sort of full disclosure. Don't take a client who won't sign a contract, period.

Powerpoint is not a design application.

onegirlcreative's picture
1090 pencils

And I received all sorts of ideas and links. I basically took the top 3 contracts that were all pertinent to my work/business, and compiled them into one good contract that works for me/One Girl Creative.

Then, because luckily a good friend of ours just happens to be an estate lawyer, I asked his opinion and had him read over it. He said it was perfect! Not only that, it wasn't this long, lengthy contract with a bunch of legal mumbo-jumbo. It's succinct and all on one-page. It covers everything I need it to cover.

I'm a small, one-person freelance business, so obviously I didn't need anything too legal or lengthy, so it works for me. Give Google a try. You'll be surprised with what you come up with.

Don't be intimidated with the word "contract." It will cover your ass in the long run. Hopefully. =P

suzanne maestri-walters :: graphic designer ::

"I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy as long as I can paint." ~ Frida Kahlo

zippidi's picture
2 pencils

I have read through the comments here and whilst I agree with most of what has been said the important point has been missed.

'At the end of the day the only thing that anyone pays anyone for is their TIME'... Everything else in the equation is incidental (qualifications, experience, skills etc). So whether it be friend, foe or business if one is asked to produce work in a semi or full professional capacity make it clear (fee or free)if fee, what amount for what time.

Don't be afraid that you will scare a client off by discussing what amount one needs for one's time and what you need to feed your family. If a realistic and fair fee scares them off, they weren't professional and they weren't worth working for.

In my experience doing stuff for free doesn't lead people to think that you are generous, it leads them into thinking you are cheap and your work worthless. Put boundaries down and you will be respected... eventually.

This is said from the hard reality of personal experience.


geoffb's picture
7 pencils

So, I totally agree with everything on here, and while I really haven't got that much experience with Freelance, I have definitely been taken advantage of by many many people. One of the biggest stories was that I did this job, that I got from cgtalk for a logo for this church in Germany, and I sent them a quote for $275 for the logo, it was pretty straight forward, and I was still a student at the time, so I didn't think it would be that big of a deal to ask so little, and they came back and told me that they were really thinking no more than $45. So I ran away from them. Then my senior year in school I had another designer friend come up to me and ask me to do a brochure and magazine spread for the Engineering Department of our college, and I asked for more info and it was really straight forward, and then told them the bill-able rate I was going to charge to do it, which was like $50 an hour and they told me that they were thinking more along the lines of paying $50 total! I laughed out loud at them, and told them that they needed to look for another designer. But most recently, I did some 3D Design work for the head of the Art Department, here a few months ago, and made the mistake of not asking about money, and after putting about 15-20 hours into it, and a lot more in rendering time, which is another thing that i think all 3D designers should bill for, because typically, unless you have a state-of-the-art machine, you cannot use your computer while its rendering, but anyways, I didn't ask and he didn't pay.

I definitely love the idea of a contract. And I don't think that there should be anything wrong with sending that to them and having them sign it. Its better for both parties, and we should definitely get at the very least 50% up front! It makes the company or person commit to working with you to get the best possible outcome.

I have a close friend that has his own web development company and he did 3 web sites for this company without getting anything up front and 5 months later they owed him around $45,000 and had not paid him, and he ended up having to shut down the sites and their FTP access until they did, because they would not respond to his calls or emails. Its stories like his, and the ones in this post that have made me realize how important it is to protect yourself and your lively-hood from those you are doing business with. Because I know there are good people out there, and I know that I always look for the best in people, but it also never hurt anyone to make sure that your company is protected...its not personal its business, but if they take advantage of you it'll become very personal very quickly!

Anyways, I decided after reading the posts here to start a comic, not the best I know, but I think it has potential, anyways, the link is here:

Hope you all enjoy...and let me know if anyone wants to doing some drawings or writing or whatever...

geoff burns: graphic designer

Ivan's picture

a comic is a great idea! :)

centurypixel's picture
3 pencils

1) Do not start the work without having them sign and fax you a copy of the agreement and the original work specs.
2) Do not start the work without minimum 30% down.
3) Set due dates and make sure your invoice says Net 30 with 10% late fee.
4) Have your client sign a "work completed" document so they do not come back to you for some changes.
5) Include your hourly rate in the agreement, anything on top of the original scope will be charged at an hour rate of ...
6) Do not be tricked with "I just want you to come up with a design to see if we want to work with you." statement. Tell them to look at your portfolio and that is it. PERIOD.

Some web designers make the mistake of 50% now and 50% on completion. Uhmm completion..a month, a year, 2 years? I have had one client who was able to get me the content a YEAR later. Now, I have a due date where I receive the content or not, I still get paid. Just put some place holder images and lorem ipsums in there.

7) Most importantly stick to these and be strict about it!

Ivan's picture

Very useful. Do you have a standard agreement document I can build on?

Waleed's picture
540 pencils

Reminds me of the swindle we encountered in October 2003 at one of the ad agencies you used to work with.. It was the 2004 calendar project for one of the major companies, and they used 2 of my photos in that calendar, then decided to rip me off..

pokie's picture
1217 pencils

Thanks, Ivan. I read this when it was originally posted.

I'll spare you the long, drawn-out story. But, I applied this today. A friend expected me to do something for their friend (whom I'd never even met). I re-read this post and decided not to do it. Then, friend asked me about it again and I decided to at least email the person.

So, I emailed them a quote (very reasonable). My time is valuable-- and damnit, recognize it. The potential client responded back that they already had it done elsewhere (whether or not this is true, I couldn't care less).

I'm proud of myself for finally not being such a doormat and I encourage young designers to follow suit.

SugarJones's picture
1 pencil

I finally got tired of people asking for my work for free because of our friendship. I now ask for either my fee or stuff... I belong to a networking group that wanted me to take free photos of every event and then hounded me the moment I got home to see if the images were ready yet. I finally had a heart-to-heart with the group leader who saw it my way. I now have an awesome little light kit.

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