When is it okay to work for free?

As graphic design software becomes more accessible, it’s more common that clients and potential clients expect designers to work for cheaper or free.

Like others, I always say that you should never work for free. It’s called spec work: work defined as producing a piece for a potential client with no guarantee that your work will be chosen and/​or paid for.

(Definition from nospec.com)

This statement primarily targets design contests that promise a monetary prize at the end if you’re chosen. Hidden away in the small text, there’s usually a phrase that suggests your work is theirs to keep regardless if its chosen or not. In the future, if they decide to use your work, you’re out of luck getting paid. I’ve seen instances where asking for free work happens during job interviews too — which has been a new thing as of late. No matter what, it should be expected that if you’re doing any work that could be used financially benefit a company, you should be getting compensated for it.

Like any rule though, there’s always exceptions. Even in the case of working for free.

Here’s my my three exceptions.

It’s okay to work for free if you’re in charge

Have a friend who needs a small, personal design favor? Want to donate your time to a cause you believe in? Working for free can be a possibility.

Aligning yourself with a cause you believe in can be a great way to add to your portfolio and support an underserved or deserving community. This leads quickly into number 2:

It’s okay to donate your time

You can’t write it off to Uncle Sam, but there’s nothing wrong with donating your time. Like before, make sure you’re laying the groundwork and keeping control. I know some designers still provide an invoice that’s been zeroed out at the end of the project to show what the exact value of their work was. This is a great idea to show all involved that your work had value (and works great if anyone hires you outside of the project).

If you want to be a little more involved, there may be the possibility of getting a creative role within the organization. In this case, you not only can help with design, but oversee an entire brand or campaign strategy. I’ve seen this work well for some folks.

It’s worth repeating that you have to bring up the idea of working for free first. Some organizations ask for free work even though they may have a budget otherwise. Just remember that nonprofit” doesn’t always mean no budget.”

Don’t charge your mother

I joke a bit about this, but I’m a bit serious too. If you have a parent or sibling that needs help, its worth considering. I’m assuming that you have a good relationship with them prior to starting and you’re familiar with not mixing family with business in most cases. But if you’re nice, they’ll likely appreciate it. A fun quote I’ve always kept in mind, is that your mother put you into this world; the least you can do is a free garage sale brochure. She’ll appreciate it.

No matter what though, you should be compensated fairly for your work in most cases. We have to remember we’re professionals. We know what we’re doing. In many cases, we’ve been through extensive training or schooling to get here and establish ourselves as experts. You shouldn’t be afraid to charge for your work when it’s necessary. And you shouldn’t be afraid to charge what you’re worth. In any instance if you’re going to work for free, make sure it’s on your terms and that you’re in control at all times.

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