There's an old Yorkshire saying: 'If tha ever does owt for nowt, do it for thi sen'. For those who don't speak fluent Tyke, it translates like this: 'If you ever do something for nothing, do it for yourself.' These are words that all creatives should have tattooed on their drawing arm.
Nothing you do as a designer is free. When you do free work, the person who pays for the work is you. You pay with your time, your experience, the money you spent on training, the bills you pay to keep your office running, your software subscriptions, your hardware... It goes on and on. But, still, no matter how strong your design portfolio (opens in new tab), there are clients out there who will try to get you to work for free.
What they don't know is how easy they are to predict. They follow patterns, these cheapskate clients. Because of that, you can find ways to make any offer pay, whatever's on the table. Here, we outline six strategies for turning free work into paid work (because that's the only work worth having).
01. Payment poker
Some clients – generally those who are unused to working with creatives –
genuinely do not value what you do. Others may be simply trying to get the best price they can, without really knowing where the bottom of the market is. Both those clients will try to play 'payment poker' with you.
In this case, they'll likely use one of three bluffing tactics – but don't worry, in each of these cases, your potential client has an empty hand. We'll look at each of these in turn now.
'The work will look good in your portfolio'
We deal with portfolio work in tip #5, but the gist of it is this; if you're doing work for your portfolio, you're always the best judge of what will and will not look good in there. Let that be your guide.
'There will be more work for you down the line'
If this is true, why can't they pay you now? If the answer is that they want to see how you work together first, then there are strategies for dealing with that in steps #2, #3 and #4.
In most cases, the harsh truth is that free work usually only leads to more free work. If you're able to deliver professional quality work to a client for free, then why would they ever want to pay you for it? Exactly. It's a vicious cycle – don't get caught in it.
'There's no budget'
Finally, if they tell you that they simply don't have any money to pay you... well, that's their problem, not yours.
02. Present your ideas
In the world of design, free pitching is almost as controversial as doing work for free. A good compromise is for sole traders and small agencies to offer a credentials pitch.
If you're asked to take on a project that sets off alarms ('We have no budget' for example), offering a credentials pitch is a way to set out your stall. You can use it to:
- Establish your professionalism and track record
- Explore what they need from you
- Discuss what you would be able to do for them
- Outline your rates
The last element is important, because you can use it as an opportunity to emphasise that you don't work for free and why that is the case. Your potential client has a choice to make. They can either find the budget to pay you for your work or continue trying to find someone who will do the job for nothing. Either way, you've lost nothing.
03. Go small
If you're offered very little, offer very little in return. It's a sure-fire way to uncover how much budget there actually is for a job.
For example, you can come back to a request for free work with an offer to help with early development – or do a deal to test colour schemes with their branding. Choose a part of the job close to the beginning and break down for them exactly what you'll do as part of that process. Then tell them how much it will cost at your normal rate.
This enables you to restate your value and negates all those arguments about their being more work down the line once you've 'proved' yourself. Again, they may magically find the budget to pay you and you'll have gained a client on fair terms. If they pass, you've dodged a bullet.
04. Learn to say no
When you're starting out as a freelancer, it's tempting to see every client who approaches you as potential work – but no one can afford to work for free for very long. It's important for you to have a clear sense of what your bottom line is when it comes to payment.
Here's a good way to think about that: Calculate the least you can afford to work for as an hourly rate. This is your 'break even' point. Promise yourself that you won't go below it. Unless working for free offers you other benefits – which is rare – it will always be below your break even point.
So, when someone asks you to work for free and you want to say no, say no. As you walk away, remember that you haven't lost anything by turning down the work, you've avoided the overhead costs that would have been involved, and you're now free to take on more paid work. In short, turning down free work actually makes you money.
05. Portfolio work
One compelling argument often used to cajole newer designers into doing free work is that you can use it to build your portfolio: You can use it to learn on the job and get a foot in the door.
There are problems with this point of view though. Firstly – and most contentiously – if you're learning significant skills on the job, then you're probably not ready to do the job.
Some people will say it's good to learn the ropes working for real clients, even if it is for free. Remember though; all your formative work will live on even after you've grown beyond it. Or worse, you'll find yourself forever ploughing the same furrow, unable to break away from your freebie loving patrons.
Secondly, you will rarely be offered the kind of free work that helps a designer build an impressive portfolio. It's more likely that you'll be asked to do grunt jobs. Ecommerce websites, logos for local businesses and promotional flyers.
If you're an ambitious designer then your portfolio should be aspirational. It should be full of the work you dream of doing. And you should choose to do that work for yourself, in your own time. That way, when the kind of work you want to do comes along, you'll be ready to make it pay.
06. Taster work
One way to create portfolio work you're happy with is to specifically target clients that you want to work with and offer them a sample of what you do. Why is this different to accepting free work on a real project? Crucially, you're in control.
You can communicate, loudly and clear, that this is a one-off deal. You can allocate some of your own marketing budget to the enterprise and write off the tangible overheads against tax. You can do exactly the kind of work you want to be known for. At the end of the process, you'll have a piece of portfolio work that you actually wanted for you portfolio.
What if they say no? That hasn't stopped designers who re-skin popular websites or do over famous corporate logos. The kudos of attracting a big client (even a free one) is great, but a great piece of work for your portfolio is still a great piece of work. And, of course you could get lucky, impress them and win a big client.