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Working for Free…The Right Way.

Working For Free The Right way

As a web designer (or graphic designer), you are going to get a fair amount of requests for free work. Sometimes it will be disguised to sound like something else, but in the end it boils down to you doing work for free. Some like to refer to it as ‘Spec Work’ (Speculative Work) and others refer to it as ‘Hippy Jobs’ (because you are doing it out of ‘love’, not for ‘money’). At the end of the day, we designers need to make money to put food on the table, so it’s important to learn where to draw the line.

Free Mock Ups (Spec Work)

It is fairly common for a potential client to ask you to do one or more design mock ups for them before they decide whether they will hire you or not. From the client’s perspective they are scared to spend money and get something they don’t like – they may have already been through that. From your perspective, there is no guarantee whether the client will like one of the mock-ups – after all design is fairly subjective – and for all you know, the client has approached 10 other web designers with the same deal, thus lowering chances of success.

If you are really struggling for work and have a lot of time on your hands, it’s your prerogative to decide if you want to go for it or not. The more responsible thing to do, however, is to educate the client on how to choose a web designer that is right for their needs. That will save you time, and the client money:

  • First and foremost, the client needs to decide whether he is happy with the quality of your own website, and with your portfolio. If the client doesn’t like what he sees, he needs to move on to another company until he does. This saves time and money all round.
  • Secondly, the client should do a Google search on your company to see if there is any negative feedback from clients or partners. If a company is untrustworthy, they will usually be complained about on the web at some point. If you do have negative feedback which you feel is unfounded, respond to it and get your side of the story out there too.
  • If the client is particularly picky, he should be able to tell you what he does and doesn’t want to see in a design. He needs to understand that a website designer, no matter how good, is not telepathic. If the client wants the layout mostly pink, then he needs to say so before you start designing. If pink is going to hurt the company image, you may wish to try and talk the client out of it, but rather have that discussion first before you spend hours on a design that the client isn’t going to like. Keep in mind, not all picky clients are forthcoming. You may need to ask the client a variety of questions to determine what it is that they want – many clients find it difficult to articulate their needs, so spend a few minutes squeezing it out of them now, and save yourself hours of work later.

Bids / Tenders

The government and other large organisations routinely post tenders whereby they request mock-ups of designs. This is particularly immoral because if anyone can afford to pay for a design, it’s the government and large organisations. Don’t be used by them!

On that note – also don’t use them – remember if you are quoting the government several figures more than you would quote anybody else, you are guilty of misusing tax payers money – money that could go towards charities, the elderly, education, etc. Don’t be part of the problem.

If you have been personally invited to bid on something that requires working for free, don’t be rude by ignoring it – explain why you won’t be taking part. You can even point them to this page if you like.

For ‘Exposure’

I often smirk at this one because the deal is usually presented by a barely established company with an overinflated opinion of itself. “Do my website for free and you can put your company logo on the Partners page and gain exposure”, or something along those lines. <sarcasm>Gee thanks, how generous!</sarcasm>

Companies who make offers like that are just trying their luck, but occasionally a larger company jumps on the ‘exposure’ bandwagon too. A couple of years ago, Highveld Stereo (94.7) ran a ‘competition’ in which web designers were to send concepts for redesigning the radio station’s website and the ‘winner’ got to build it for free in turn for some exposure. Personally I think 94.7 were cheapskates in this regard, because they could have offered a cash prize of between R50k and R100k along with the ‘exposure’ – which is likely the region it would have cost them to get it built professionally. They also would have had a higher quality calibre of entries if they were prepared to make the competition worthwhile, because generally ‘exposure’ is only appealing to struggling designers…and exhibitionists of course 😉

So the bottom line here is if you already have a steady flow of customers, you don’t need publicity…you need money. If you don’t have enough work to keep you out of trouble, and the organisation is big enough that you might pick up some new work because of having your name associated with the project; then consider it.


You may be approached with a business proposition whereby the client has a great idea/product, but can’t afford the type of website they want. They may suggest that you build the website for free in return for shares, and thus a percentage of the profits if it takes off. This is a tricky one because it may or may not be worth your while. You will have to use your discretion. Most of the time, the idea will be a thinly disguised copy of Facebook, or something else that already exists – in which case, it is unlikely to make anyone rich. If the product or idea does sound like it might be successful, just be sure to draw up a clear contract. According to Bregmans Attorneys, exchange of emails may constitute a binding contract, but if you can afford it, get the contract done professionally.

Charity / Pro Bono

The best reason for doing free work is when it’s for a non profit organisation with a cause you support – for example an animal shelter, or your local church. If you’re in a position to do free work for good organisations, then do so. If an NGO which has a cause that you don’t understand fully or particularly care for approaches you for free work, you may wish to simply offer them a 10% discount if they can supply proof that they are an NGO. On the other hand if it is for a cause you are passionate about, go ahead and do the site for free. You may want to stipulate that if they want it done sooner, they pay, but if they want it free, it will be done in your own free time so as not to affect your regular job – most charities are more than happy to wait a bit longer than usual if you can provide what they need for free.

‘Favours’ for Family and Friends

There will always be friends and family (and even vague acquaintances) who need design work done for a variety of reasons and want it free. You need to be able to distinguish the difference between doing someone a favour, and them just plain taking advantage. Here are a couple of questions you can ask yourself to help clarify whether you need to charge for your services or do it for free.

  1. Do you like them?
    If you don’t like them to start with, then doing work for them for free is just going to make you resent them further…and resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die – it only hurts you. If you don’t like them, say ‘no’. You don’t have to be ugly about it – you are a creative person and you can come up with a creative excuse.
  2. Do you owe them?
    If you already owe them a favour, then this is a good chance for pay back. If it’s your parent or someone else who fed you and put up with your crap when you were a child, then you definitely owe them. Do it for free and do it with a smile.
  3. Is it commercial or personal?
    If the question is “I’m having a birthday party, will you do the invites?”, then consider doing it for free. No one is making money off of it – it is a genuine favour. On the other hand if the question is “I’ve started a business, hook me up with some business cards?”, then you are only obliged to do this for free if you owe them. If not, they are taking advantage of you because it is a commercial venture. Give them a quote – you can discount it if you like.

Creating a Portfolio

If you are just starting out in your web design career, you may find that you struggle to get work because you don’t have a portfolio to show potential clients. In this event, you may want to do some free work, just to build up a repertoire. This, of course, is the perfect opportunity to do free work for family, friends and non profit organisations. Don’t wait around to be asked, go out and find a needy relative or charity that you want to support, find out what they need, and offer to do it for free.

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