Advice #55: Should You Ever Work For Free?

Advice: Should You Ever Work For Free?

Hello,

I’m a graphic design student, currently working in-house (but for way below an average in-house rate) and I have a few freelance clients. Only one is paying me and the others want work for free. I don’t know how much more free work I can do. I’m worried that if I say no, I could miss out on some legitimate work for my portfolio. But I also have bills, rent and student loans to pay back. What do you think?


First off, when it comes to both personal and professional relationships, we teach people how to treat us. And let’s be real — while gaining projects for your portfolio can be incredibly valuable, working for free won’t keep your bills paid.

It’s a slippery slope because you need real life design experience but don’t ever sell yourself short in the process — you’re training to be a professional in your field and that’s a serious investment! There’s a bigger issue: if you’re taking on so much free work that you’re unable to pay your bills, it just pushes you further from your dream because at some point, you’ll have to pick up another job to make up for the slack. Wouldn’t it just be easier to charge your clients a fair rate and focus on what you actually love doing as a job?

By agreeing to do design work for free, you’re setting a precedent with your clients that it’s perfectly okay to expect the relationship to continue as it always has. And really, who can blame them? They’re getting access to a dedicated, talented freelance designer with no strings attached. To be completely honest, it’s going to be hard to flip the tables and start charging them — I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them throw a tantrum. After all, who doesn’t love free work? But, you need to stand your ground. Once you start valuing your time and work, they’ll respect you much more.

I know what it’s like to break into the design industry and to need work for your portfolio. I landed my first design internship at a studio in 2007 (when the economy was in much better shape) and it was paid for the entire time. Even though I had a paid internship, I still sought out freelance work to round out my portfolio. I wasn’t super confident with my work yet because I was still in school and learning my craft so I charged what I felt comfortable with. My first ever logo jobs were for a flat rate of $200.00. It was a win-win situation: my clients got a fantastic deal and I gained valuable work for my portfolio. After doing a handful of those $200.00 logos, I felt more confident and eventually raised my rates to $500.00. And then to $1,000.00 post graduation. And then to $1,500.00 and continually on up until I was earning a decent living. It was a slow and steady increase over a few years as demand grew. There weren’t any sudden jolts — I eased into my rates. The point is, I never, ever worked for free, unless it was to help out a close friend.

I should clarify that your paid in-house position and the work you’re doing for your personal clients are two very different things. As a student, it’s important to take on internships (paid or unpaid) to gain real world experience. They’re often for school credit and the industry connections you gain are more than worth the low compensation. But when it comes to offering your clients free work, what are you really gaining? The energy you spend working on their projects could be used to build your personal brand, to create self-initiated projects and to network.

Graphic design is just like any other profession. You would never expect a plumber come to your house to fix a leaky pipe for free. A cobbler would never fix your shoes just because. Graphic design requires a specialized skill set and you’ve put in serious time and money to gain those skills. Demand more of yourself and you’ll get more. Lead by example and stand your ground when it comes to your rates and never compromise on doing free work unless it’s absolutely, completely, totally worth it.

What do you think? Are there any circumstances where you think it’s okay to work for free?

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