When entering the field of graphic design, it can be tempting to take any kind of work that comes your way – even if you don’t get paid for it. That’s understandable.
You’re young, excited, passionate, and just want to get your work out there. You want to unlock your potential and wow potential clients with your awesome design techniques you worked so tirelessly to learn when getting your graphic design degree.
However, working for free might seem like fun at first, but as you work with clients you’ll notice you’re doing a lot of work for no pay – which could demotivate you.
So, should graphic designers work for free? The actual answer depends on a few factors as not all free work is done for the same goal. In this article, we’ll try to break down the types of free design work, why some people work for free, and at the end help you decide whether you should work for free or not.
Types of Free Design Work
Due to the creative nature of graphic designing there are a number of ways clients could demand free work.
Spec work involves designing for clients without any assurance of compensation. Simply, this means you do work without the expectation of getting paid for it. Spec works include sending samples or “tests” of your concept designs to be considered for potential clients. This usually involves a middle man who is dealing with you (the designer) and a business. They might pass on your design to the business, if they reject it you don’t get paid and if they accept it you might get paid, hired or… nothing.
Unpaid internships are a common way of businesses to get free labor. Granted this is sometimes beneficial for some industries. For example, a marketing intern who has experience working for Pepsi might be considered of high value to potential businesses in the industry.
Should designers consider unpaid internships? It depends.
Working as an unpaid intern does have some benefits. You get to learn from senior designers, get some actual design experience and build up your skills. However, I would advise you to carefully look through the contract you sign as you don’t want to hand in the rights of your design work.
Freelance websites like 99designs and Designhill are popular for hosting design contests. Design contests include a client giving a brief to individual freelance designers. These designers then design a few concepts for them for further consideration. The client chooses the design he likes the most and works with the designer to add some final details. Finally, the client gets the rights to the design, the designer gets paid.
You know who didn’t get paid?
All those other designers who spent their time designing a concept that was rejected by the client. Interestingly, it’s also possible that nobody gets paid rather they win a “prize” for having the best design. This could be a job contract or even just a “badge of honor”.
Why Do Graphic Designers Work for Free?
If you asked an accountant to create a company’s financial statements for free, they won’t hesitate to give you a blunt no. So why don’t graphic designers do the same?
In 2016, 85% of UK freelance graphic designers were asked to work for free. There are several reasons graphic designers (especially beginners) may work for free.
Clients sometimes provide these designers with alternative compensations such as exposure or other benefits. This may seem like a good deal at first but it doesn’t really do any good for your career.
One promise that many companies tend to make is that by working with them you would get a lot of exposure. These clients are usually ambitious startups that can’t guarantee you anything, meaning they won’t get you a lot of exposure.
Sure, if you’re working with design agencies like Pentagram or designing an ad for Coca Cola you’ll definitely get a lot of exposure and prospective clients. But big companies usually have a large budget and won’t hesitate to pay you what you’re worth.
Many beginner graphic designers are stuck in the struggle of the vicious experience loop.
To get a job you need experience, and to get experience you need a job.
Because of this frustration, graphic designers might choose to do projects for free or avail unpaid internships.
Keep in mind – when it comes to experience it is better to choose quality over quantity. Adding “10+ years” on your resume might seem nice but you won’t last long when the client finds out you don’t even know what a PDF is.
If you want experience, I would suggest you go for paid internships or an unpaid internship at a company with a strong profile.
Build up Their Portfolio
Without clients, passionate designers could be stuck trying to figure out how to fill up their portfolio. Some might resort to doing spec work just to show some design work in their portfolio.
This isn’t a great tactic as most of the designs you create might not be “portfolio worthy” to get you a good job. And many times spec work involves you transferring the rights of your design to the clients which gives them every right to disallow you from showcasing their brand.
There are many other ways designers can build up their portfolio even if they don’t have any clients. Things such as imaginary briefs, charity designs and personal projects can come in handy when you have nothing to show in your portfolio.
Should Graphic Designers Ever Work for Free?
Working for free causes you to undervalue your skill which harms the industry and your future. It doesn’t guarantee you any compensation for your work whether that is money or a contract.
Businesses that are getting work done for free also might be hesitant to start paying you in the future as they are used to getting it for free.
This harms the graphic design industry as a whole as many skilled designers aren’t able to get paid work because businesses have free alternatives.
Despite all these issues there are sometimes where it is acceptable to work for free.
If you are designing something for a family member, a charity event or a friend as a favor it is totally fine to do that for free.
An example from my life is when I designed flyers, posters and social media posts for an event at my school. I felt honored to have been able to show my work in front of the whole school.
I wasn’t even asked to do it. I myself volunteered and convinced my teacher to “update” the branding of the event. He agreed to let me work on the design of the presentations and the event. It was a great experience and I would never forget it.
To conclude, you shouldn’t offer your graphic design work for free as it undervalues your skill and your self-worth. However, it’s totally fine to create designs for friends and family or to support a cause. At the end of the day, you should try listening to your gut and if you feel you could be getting paid for the quality of work you provide you shouldn’t be selling yourself cheap.
Ibrahim Ahmed is the founder and CEO of Mediacaterer – an Art & Design blog covering the latest news, tips, guides, and product reviews for beginners, intermediates, and professionals. He’s a self-taught graphic designer and writer hoping to help aspiring artists and designers make it big in the industry