Should designers work for free?

This is a topic that’s been covered by so many creatives. But after recent experiences, I think I’m ready to have a say.

First of all, would you ask a doctor for free advice? Would you even trust a doctor who gives free consultations? It’s nothing against doctors or anyone who is a medical practitioner. I could make the same point by asking if you would trust a financial consultant who charges no fee with your life savings. The fact that this topic is being discussed is a justification to just how undervalued creative work still is. As such, what do you think will happen if people continue to work for free?

The last thing a creative person should do is to give out the impression that it is okay for clients to ask for free work. It’s one thing if the service is offered pro bono by the designer for a specific reason, but quite another when one thinks what a creative person does does not equate to any monetary value.

I came across a few free work request recently. While it’s easy to reject these proposals from complete strangers, it’s a little trickier when the person asking is a friend or family member. For the first few times, I felt offended and frustrated. After a while though, I became immune and learned to joke it off.

Trading anger for reason, I came to realise how little non-creatives know about what creatives do. Graphic designers, web designers, product designers, interior designer… aren’t we all the same? (I knew someone who thought that, I kid you not) What about copywriters, art directors, creative directors, producers and account mangers? What is it exactly that they do?

“As a graphic designer, do you like… draw?” is by far the most common expression I get.

So really, the reason why most people assume designers could work for free is likely because there is insufficient understanding of what we do.

Recently, I find myself explaining (or attempting to explain) about the concept of branding over brunches, lunches, and dinners. At this point, my usual frustration (admittedly I am quite short tempered) had died down. I decided the only way people are going to understand the nature of my work, and why I deserve to get paid, is to first educate them about what I really do.

Clients sometimes do not know what they need. They may want a logo mark but only need a type treatment, or request for a wordpress website when magento is really more suitable. As designers, this is the first question we should be answering. We have an opinion and it should be one that matters. By demonstrating that a logo does not happen within one napkin sketch* (unless, of course, you’re Paula Scher), and creating work with meaning, we give value to our work. It’s also important to diminish the mindset that just because one knows how to use photoshop or illustrator, one is a good designer.

In any case, there is no “yes” or “no” answer to the question of whether or not one should work for free. My personal rule of thumb: If the person asking for creative services operates a business of any form of activity that generates revenue, they should be capable of paying for it. How you want to define payment is up to you. It can be in the form of dinners, favours, shares, and even commission. Be creative with it. ;)

And no, interns should most definitely not work for free. There is more than one way to gain industry experiences as the folks at Mind Design explains.

Lastly, I leave you with this oh-so-handy flowchart of whether or not you should work for free by the amazing Jessica Hische.


*Paula Scher first introduced the initial sketch of the Citi logo on a napkin. When asked how a multi-billion dollar organization can base their identity off of a second, Paula’s answer was: ‘it’s a second done in 34 years’. She shares insight of the logo on this must-see TED Talk about Solemn vs Serious Design.