Site icon Creatopy Blog

Designers opinion about working for free

15 minutes read

There are a few things a designer shouldn’t do. Things like: don’t use comic sans, don’t design a draft before you have the copy, etcetera etcetera. There is something, though, that designers should avoid at any cost; Spec work.

There comes a time in the career of any designer, when a client wants a sample of their work so they can decide if they want to hire him or not. We don’t believe in this kind of work.

There is also another guy who doesn’t believe it this either. His name is Steve Jobs.

“Producing products for every price point, Jobs believed, was a road to product mediocrity and that was to be avoided at all cost” – Business Secrets of Steve Jobs by Joseph J. Kim“

Mediocrity should be avoided by any designer and perfection comes with a price.

We asked a few well known designers to answer this question: “Why designers shouldn’t work for free?”.


Joseph Kalinowski

designers shouldn't work for free Bannersnack Joseph K

There are a few reasons that I believe that creatives shouldn’t work for free. After multiple conversations with friends and industry peers over the years, I have settled on a few that I believe are some of the most important.

First, it devalues your work and all of your peers work as well. Why would someone pay you when they could go to another designer who’s willing to design it for free? Second, designing for free to gain “industry exposure” is usually a bad idea. One piece of advice that I always pass along to younger designers is whenever someone asks you to design something for free to gain exposure, I remind them that exposure does not pay the electric bill…

Your creative skills have value and should never be taken for granted. Finally, one final reason is when you design something for free, it really breaks down the budget of time you have allotted for the project. Clients tend to make better decisions and get directly to the point when they are paying for a project.

[Tweet “Your creative skills have value and should never be taken for granted”]

Joseph Kalinowski is the Creative Director for Chief Content Officer Magazine, Content Marketing World and Content Marketing Institute

Lehel Mor Mako

Nobody should work for free. Although we all do it.

Experienced designers are well-trained professionals and deserve to be paid, respected for their work. The client is not paying only for their expertise, skills or knowledge they are paying for their experience too, for their years spent in this field.

From time to time I do “pro bono” jobs… for friends or who really deserves it. I mean, we all started from the bottom and there was a time when we needed help. Sometimes we got help, sometimes we didn’t. But we should not judge others by this criteria… “I did not got help when I needed, why should I help?” Belive me, karma works! Everytime I helped a friend with a necessity in branding it came back with a new (paid this time) projects and new clients.

This doesn’t mean that you should do only pro bono jobs, no, and as an advice, I suggest to charge for  everything you do, accordingly.

If you still wonder when to work for free or not, I suggest check out Jessica Hische’s chart (you can buy it as a print too).  I think it answers to a lot of questions and it’s funny too.

[Tweet “Experienced designers are well-trained professionals and deserve to be paid”]

Lehel Mor Mako is a graphic and brand designer. 

Norbert Kucsera

1. Sometimes there might be a bigger project waiting around the corner, but you won’t be able to take it if you’re spending your time on pro-bono projects.

2. You might think that it’s a small project and it won’t take very long to do it, but sometimes you can get stuck or lose interest.

3. You are wasting your free time on unpaid work. There are a lot of cooler things to do in your free time. Like, I don’t know.. windsurfing.

4. Designers have bills too and they need money in order to survive. Artists are still humans, they need to eat.

[Tweet “You are wasting your free time on unpaid work. There are a lot of cooler things to do in your free time. “]

Norbert Kucsera is a designer at Creatopy. 

Bogdan Albulescu

For the same reason why you cannot pay for your bills, food and drinks with likes and tweets. From time to time, big ideas require a huge NO as an answer when it comes to spec work.

[Tweet “You cannot pay your bills, food and drinks with likes and tweets.”]

Bogdan Albulescu is the founder and Art Director of The 4Th Floor branding & webdesign studio.

Ştefan Asafti

Because design it’s a job. Because, you do this for a living and pay the bills like any other human being. At the end of the day, time is more valuable than anything. Time has become the modern currency. Personally I could work for free if this adds value and makes sense to me. I invest my time in things that I truly believe in. Some work, some don’t, but it never hurts trying new stuff and when it does, no worry…lesson learned and moving on. One thing that all should avoid is the well discussed “speculative work” topic.

Don’t “prostitute” your skills, principles and beliefs over vain promises, that in the end will consume your precious time. Be smart about it. Your time is as valuable as mine.

[Tweet “Time is more valuable than anything “]

Stefan is a photographer and a self-taught designer with professional experience in web design for more than 8 years.

Ram Castillo

Firstly, yes, no one should work for free because everyone has value. However, it’s important to define the parameters of the word ‘free’. Free implies a one way transaction. In the context of this topic, working for free can easily be perceived as not getting paid monetarily by designing for someone else.

Although I believe that designers should get paid monetarily, there are other currencies which can be equally or even more appealing, depending on the objective of the individual. Other currencies include hands-on experience, knowledge, mentoring and one of the most important of all… networking.

These non-monetary currencies need to be considered in particular for emerging designers with no experience yet, at least for the first year. Again, although society may perceive this as working for ‘free’, it’s definitely not. The company is also investing their time to train and expose a designer to processes, projects and briefs which is at their expense too.

If you are not receiving these ‘other currencies’, and you’ll know within a few days if there’s a cultural fit there, then leave. But I would advise you to be open to seeing other factors which can accommodate your development if you aren’t being compensated monetarily.

When you are however at a level of design experience which has genuine and proven credibility, then absolutely, money is a factor that has to be at an amount you are happy with. The thing is, if you are getting underpaid, you’re not going to give 100% to the role and that affects everyone.

Ultimately, you know your worth but you need to back it up with experience. How do you get experience? The clues I’ve covered above.

[Tweet “The thing is, if you are getting underpaid, you’re not going to give 100% to the role and that affects everyone.”]

Ram Castillo – Design Director, International Author, Blogger, Top-ranking Podcaster and Speaker

Marius Ciuchete Păun

What we do, as designers, brings a lot of value to any business we connect with. The beauty about design (especially digital design), is it’s very measurable. That could be selling more product or driving more downloads to an app.

Due to the measurability and value creation, it’s important that designers charge for their services. When a client is willing to pay a good rate, it sends a signal to the designer about the level of seriousness the client has about the project. The client is putting their money where their mouth is. This helps the designer feel valued and motivates the designer to work as hard as possible. Incentives are now aligned.

Of course, there are certain non-profit projects where I encourage designers to donate few hours of design or work for less than market rate in order to further the cause.

[Tweet “As designers, we bring a lot of value to any business we connect with. The beauty about design is that it’s very mesurable.”]

Marius Ciuchete Păun is a Webby Award-winning designer working out of Vancouver and San Francisco. He is the Interaction Designer and Founder of DEUX – a design studio based in Vancouver, with expertise in UI and UX.

Debbie Millman

I have a very strong stance on Speculative or Free Work. This is why we shouldn’t work for free (unless it is PRO-BONO, which is a different thing entirely):

True story: a very prominent and (what most would consider very cool) entertainment company called us at Sterling and asked us to pitch a project. While initially we were thrilled, as soon as we heard the pitch details our excitement quickly waned. Apparently, this very prominent and cool company wanted the various firms they were asking to pitch the project to do speculative work for said pitch. For those that may not be totally familiar with the concept of speculative work, it is when a prospective client asks several agencies to do “free” work, ostensibly so that they can get a sense of how they would approach the project and get a little “look-see” as to the type of creative they could expect.

Now, I understand that the way most advertising agencies get their business is by doing speculative work, as they are investing in winning business that is likely to be worth tens of millions of dollars. This investment is considered “part of the agreement.” But design firms…well that is another situation entirely. I do not believe in doing speculative work. Not only do the fees not warrant that type of investment, I believe that if a company is interested in working with you they should be able to assess your work and your philosophies and strategies towards design by your portfolio, by your intellect and by your proposal. Anything more than that is giving it away for free, which in my opinion is unfair. It is also demoralizing. It is also wrong.

You might ask, ‘why’? Why is it wrong? Well. We are professional practitioners who make a living by designing things. Many of us are educated, with degrees in design or business or both. Would anyone ever ask a doctor to do work “on spec”? How about a plumber? Or how about borrowing a pair of shoes from a department store “on spec”? If you like the way they feel after wearing them once or twice, (and get the requisite number of compliments) cool, if not, bring them back and you won’t have to pay for them. Hmmm. I think not. Requesting a designer to participate in a scenario wherein they deliver actual work requires an actual fee. Anything less denigrates the profession of design and all designers everywhere.

In any case, we turned the cool company down. As much as it smarted to tell the prominent entertainment conglomerate “thanks, but no thanks” I also felt proud that we stood up for our values and ideals, and at the end of the day, could hold our heads high.

But let me be totally honest about my history with spec work. In the late ’80s I started a company with a partner and we were hungry for work. Desperate is probably a more accurate word. We were asked to do some spec work for the same company I was referring to earlier in this post. We were told who the other agencies were that were pitching the account as well. We were a small fish in a big pond, several other much more prominent agencies were asked as well. We did it, just to get our foot in the door. A “you never know” type situation. Plus, it was a cool job and we thought our creative team would be pumped to work on this type of project. All the other agencies except one (Frankfurt Balkind) agreed to do the work as well. So we stayed up for days on end and killed ourselves to do great work. We didn’t get the project. About a year later, I found out that Frankfurt Balkind got the work. The client didn’t like any of the pitch/spec work from ANY of the agencies, and hired the one firm that had said, “No, we won’t work for free.”

I learned my lesson that day.

So bear with me when I repeat: Speculative work denigrates both the agencies and the designers that participate. If we give away our work for free, if we give away our talent and our expertise, we give away more than the work. We give away our hearts for free, and we give away our souls.

[Tweet “Speculative work denigrates both the agencies and the designers that participate. Would anyone ever ask a doctor to do work “on spec”?”]

Debbie Millman is a designer, artist, author, educator, CMO of Sterling Brands + host of Design Matters, the world’s first + longest running podcast on design.

Thomas Burden

I don’t think there are really any scenarios in which creatives should work for free. Basically, if someone commissions you to work for free and they’re using your work to make money for themselves, then they should pay.

The same goes for pitching. A decent client should be able to discern whether or not a particular person or agency is right for them before hand, and if they can’t quite make up their mind, then they should pay a pitch fee. There is always that grey area though, with sites like talent house and 5iver. People love to hate on them, and say that they’re undermining the industry. The truth is though, that you get what you pay for and everyone has to start somewhere. I equate those with getting your hair cut at the hair dressing college. No one there is going to do that great a job, but you get it really cheap, if not for free and the creatives get much needed real-world practice.

However, my main beef with sites like that is when big brands get involved and run ‘competitions’ to maybe get paid to do work for them, because, in their haze of self-delusion, they (a few people in in-house marketing teams) actually see that as a ‘brand-engagement exercise, rather than the basic exchange of funds for services that it actually is. It is those such people that I encourage all creatives, of any ability or training to tell them to go fuck themselves…. in the most creative way possible of course.

[Tweet “A decent client should be able to discern whether or not a particular person or agency is right for them before hand “]

Thomas Burden describes his own work as referencing “anything from indigenous art and folk costumes, to alpine souvenirs and all the toys I was never allowed as a child.”

Daniel Andor

Designers shouldn’t work for free because they have to invest a lot of time in creating a good design. And it’s not just about the time you spend designing the current project. It`s also about the time you spend learning, and the time you spent on projects in the past so you can be the designer who you are today.

And don`t forget, even the coffee you drink while you design costs money, and you have to earn it somehow.

[Tweet “Even the coffee you drink while you design costs money, and you have to earn it somehow. “]

Daniel Andor is the UI & Interaction Designer @FlipSnack

Mister Phil

If you start working for free then you are giving the message to clients that it’s OK and they will ask again.

Not only will they ask you but they will ask other designers/illustartors too, which puts these creatives in a difficult position, especially if the client says “Well, Mr X did it for free…”
You’re setting a precedent that is difficult to reverse and giving the message that creatives will work for free. Value your work or you allow others to devalue it.

Some people won’t have worked with designers or creatives before and might not know the ropes, instead asking for something for free. It’s part of our job to let them know how much things cost. It is hard when you are starting out and you want to get work, but don’t be cajoled by the “It’ll be great for your portfolio” line as you’ll probably end up continuously creating free or underpaid work because you will enter this mindset.
If you want something great for you portfolio, make it up, commission yourself!

75% of my work is unpaid but I do it for myself, allowing potential clients to see what I can do and allowing me to continue to develop and grow without lining someone else’s pockets!

[Tweet “Value your work or you allow others to devalue it.”]

Phill Weyman a.k.a. Mister Phill is an artist, designer, picture maker and tea lover.

Jacob Cass

There are pros and cons for speculative work (working for free) and it all comes down to the context in which this work is being done. If you’re designing for a contest against hundreds of other designers, this really is not a good use of your energy and time. Instead you should focus on other parts of your business, especially your identity, positioning, sales and marketing. Ultimately your goal is to get real, high paying clients that you can collaborate together with. If you need some projects under your belt before getting to this stage you could work for free for a charity or even a local business. Or maybe you could negotiate a trade deal.

[Tweet “Ultimately your goal is to get real, high paying clients that you can collaborate with”]

Jacob Cass is the  founder of ‘JUST™ Creative’. He works as a freelance graphic designer & blogger while traveling the world. On his website you will find his personal graphic design portfolio, as well as a blog on the main subject of graphic design and more. 

Jean-Marc Denis

I think designers have actually good reasons to work for free if the outcome is bigger than the effort.

[Tweet “I think designers have actually good reasons to work for free if the outcome is bigger than the effort.”]

Jean-Marc Denis is the VR at Google.

Jessica Walsh

Designers shouldn’t work for free when they don’t want to work for free.

However if you’re a designer just starting out, and you need to build your portfolio to help get the jobs you want to get in the future, theres nothing wrong with taking jobs that are pro-bono if the work is for a good cause, a project you believe in, or for a friend. If that work or the exposure from your work helps you get jobs in the future, there is clearly a pay off to that. In the beginning of my career I did many of those jobs.

[Tweet “There’s nothing wrong with taking jobs that are pro-bono if the work is for a good cause”]

Jessica Walsh is an American graphic designer, art director and illustrator, and a partner at creative agency Sagmeister & Walsh.

Jacob Gube

Designers shouldn’t work for free, the same way any other profession doesn’t work for free.

Carpenters, doctors, babysitters, and lawyers offer valuable services that people pay for. Why should it be different for designers, who also offer valuable services and deliverables?

I really think that, as a community, we should stop discussing this topic because it implies to newcomers that not being paid is a normal situation, when it isn’t. Not being paid for your work is an unusual situation. It is as unusual as going to my doctor and asking him to perform surgery on me for free.

My first graphic design project, at 19, and with no formal training, was a paid project. Even someone inexperienced like I was offered value to someone.

Designers not being paid for their work simply does not happen in the professional level.

[Tweet “Designers not being paid for their work simply does not happen on a professional level.”]

Jacob Gube is the Founder/Chief Editor of Six Revisions, a popular web development and design site and the Deputy Editor of Design Instruct, a web magazine for designers. He has over seven years of experience as a professional web developer and has written a book on JavaScript

Sean McCabe 

When you lower your price arbitrarily to meet a client with a lower budget, you are devaluing your work. Also you can listen his podcast about this topic, Check it out here: e164 Full Price or Free
[Tweet “When you lower your price arbitrarily to meet a client with a lower budget, you are devaluing your work.”]

Sean McCabe — a hand lettering artist/type designer/illustrator — grew an interest in drawing typographic illustrations at an early age.

Miruna Sfia

The question is rather, why should you work for free? People who need a new design and get in contact with you usually want to pay you in order to get value from you. Some are willing to pay good money for that, because they know that good work costs money. And they also know that free work can create more trouble for their business, because they have nothing to hold you accountable to.
If your car breaks down, would you go to your mechanic and say “I have no money, but hey, here’s an opportunity for you! You can fix my car and then add it to your resume!”? Would you expect your dentist to work for free? And moreover, would you be willing to take that chance? If not, then why would you be expected to do free work?
Just because you’re privileged to have a job where you get to do what you love, it doesn’t mean you should do it for free. You are providing a service and your time and expertise are valuable. Clients know that. And those who don’t, in my experience, are often the ones who won’t respect your time and effort, who won’t deliver feedback promptly and who will waste your time, because their cost is zero and they can afford it.
Please note, I am not saying you shouldn’t work for free ever; we are talking here about clients who approach you and expect not to pay you for your work. The cases where are doing a job for friends or family or whomever and it’s your choice to do it pro bono are a few exceptions.
[Tweet “Just because you’re privileged to have a job where you get to do what you love, it doesn’t mean you should do it for free”]
Miruna Sfia is the creator of . Graphic designer passionate about mobile apps, illustration and concept art.  
John Newman

This video reflect a lot my opinion about working for free:


Jon Newman is specialized in typographic awesomeness.

Here is a helpful infographic with these answers! Feel free to share it with your community.

Click on the image below to see a larger view:

Embed this Infographic on your blog/site (copy code below):

<div style="clear:both">
 <a href="">
 <img src="" title="Designers opinion about working for free " alt="Designers opinion about working for free " border="0" />
<div>Courtesy of: <a href="">Creatopy</a></div>
Exit mobile version