Why You Should Work For Free, According to 8 Successful Creatives
When you’re hustling to pay the bills, working for free can feel like a trap. Why, oh why, would you do it? It’s a question worth asking, and one industry vet and Pentagram partner Paula Scher spoke with AIGA’s Eye on Design about. Inspired by the new perspective—and close questioning of the common misconceptions probably holding you back (no, you’re not a sucker if you work for free), we decided to expand the conversation. Can working for free really, as Scher claims, be a power move? Below, we tapped our network of collaborators about their free work experiences.
Noun Project, Senior Engineer
I stopped taking freelance projects for a while after moving across the country for my full-time job. Since I had that job, I wasn't really able to put the resources into finding worthwhile freelance gigs. So, instead of spending my extra time on paying gigs, I focused on personal projects and collaborations.
One of my favorite collabs was with a musician I met briefly at a conference, Jonathan Mann (@songadaymann). At the time he had written over 6 years of consecutive songs–we joked that he had written a song for everything. After a couple phone calls, we designed a simple site to show off his accomplishments and allow people to search through his thousands of songs. His wife, a talented web developer, coded it up and we put it out into the world with lots of great feedback. He wasn't in the market for a custom website, nor did he have the budget, but because we thought it would be fun, songaday.org now exists, and really showcases the body of work he has created.
Verynice.co, Founder & Managing Director
verynice has been able to maintain a commitment to give at least half of our work away for free for nearly a decade. As a result, we've completed 1,000+ pro-bono projects for 450+ organizations across the globe. We open-source our business model in 2012 through a book called How to Give Half of Your Work Away for Free, and now thousands of practitioners leverage our best practices for pro-bono service. Pro-bono, and other models for sustained generosity that we've developed over the years at verynice have had a series of surprising benefits for us. For one, pro-bono work has allowed us to learn new skills and build our portfolio over a diverse range of industries and offerings. Additionally, pro-bono work has allowed us to meet all kinds of incredible people who have, in turn, introduced us to many of our paid clientele.
I've been involved in over 1,000 pro-bono projects since starting my career as a designer in 2005. I remember specifically a pro-bono project from the older days. We built a website for a non-profit organization, and the organization's Executive Director was so moved by our work, and our generosity, that she had actually come to tears on the phone! This level of appreciation is something that you can't help but get addicted to.
For many other pro-bono projects, such as our collaboration with Google on the Billion Acts initiative, we gain so much in terms of exposure and experience that many paid initiatives often do not allow. Pro-bono work is hands-down the best way to get started in developing a design practice. You get to work on things you love, but you also get to meet all kinds of people that really impact your business in many ways in the future.
Copywriter & Creative Strategist
I am totally a victim of the common (flawed) thinking that working for free means you’re getting taken advantage of. I think that this paranoia comes from the feeling that as an early career writer I’m kind of always being underpaid for my time and work. It’s been a real goal of mine to unlearn my reflex of thinking this way.
Something that has given me greater ability to do this in an effective manner was my move from being an editorial contributor for magazines and websites to working on branded copywriting. Copywriting pays a little bit better, which means I have some more time and energy to accept writing jobs that maybe don’t pay very well (or at all), but instead speak to some of my creative goals.
I have found it pays to work for free when you are jazzed about a project and/or are absolutely confident in the eventual final product—when you feel like you simply have to be involved, paycheck be damned. Often times, the projects with the most beautiful, honest visions are the ones that have zero money to their name. In other words, take the paying jobs that will allow you to take on non-paying jobs you’re excited about and inspired by.
This is especially helpful during transitional periods of your career (for example, you’ve got tons of writing clips to your name, but none of them are for people or publications you feel represent your personal vision or aesthetic). Being associated with these types of beautiful projects may not pay your rent, sure, but it will likely lead to other (hopefully paid) opportunities that live in this same world. And, you’ll be proud to show them off and share with the world, which is kind of priceless.
Creative Director & Developer
“Working for free” is just a higher risk bet, which can have a higher pay-off. By having conversations with potential clients / working partners / collaborators, we can gauge a sense of who they are and what their plan is and if we are compelled to act on it, based on benefits from business / financial angles or social angles, or ‘cool’-factor. By evaluating the opportunities, as well as the industries they are connected to, we can determine if it is a bet worth taking.
As a musician, every time I practice guitar or bass or compose, etc. This is working for free but there is immediate personal value in maintaining my skills. It can be the same with anything.
I once made two fake free restaurant websites, much to the protest of my partner, as part of a ‘portfolio’ of work for a potential client that led to 3 years of advising and delivering websites for about 25 websites through an agency. But my thinking was that an agency would understand the thinking behind the sites and that the work would demonstrate being more in line with the agency’s thinking and strategy in its sales cycle with clients than the other .
“Working For Free” is only ever the description if you lack the creativity to reframe the exchange of work and value.
Graphic Designer & Creative
A friend of mine started a small catering and food program for young children in Hudson Valley, NY. Her goal was to incorporate hidden nutrients into kid’s lunches and teach them clean eating from a young age. The company is run out of a small daycare and is very new so I took on the rebranding for free. They make it a habit to use seasonal foods from local farms, vendors and business and their mission is to not only teach the kids healthy eating habits, but also to educate them on what they are consuming and why.
It’s so important to instill healthy and conscious eating habits in young children and it was really refreshing to see a creative approach to incorporating healthy food into everyday lunches. Typically when I take on work for free, the draw is that I get to have more creative control, which was the case in this situation- they were fully willing to hand over branding to me and trusted my vision.
Because I believed in the program and their mission from the beginning, the project never felt like a burden or a favor—in fact, because there was no budget tied to it I felt less pressured and enjoyed the entire process much more than I typically do with a paying job.
Imprint Projects, Designer
Working for free can have its benefits. Right out of school, I visited a new coffee shop in my neighborhood. The space, the service, and the coffee were incredible, but the design language and packaging were a few steps behind. I outright asked if I could share a few logo concepts with them for the fun of it. After seeing the value of a more considered approach, a logo turned into business cards, a menu, packaging, and everything else a shiny new small business needs prove itself. I didn't have much experience but they didn't have much money.
Three years later, we still meet weekly, and the projects are much more substantial. We kind of grew up together—a lot of what I learned about being a designer out in the real world came from that experience.
To be quite honest, I have not taken a lot of free jobs in the past five years, though they were invaluable in the beginning stages of my career. One in particular was to help a friend create promotional, illustrated material for an independent movie she was making. I wasn't paid in money, but I was paid in exposure and contacts. The filmmaker agreed to introduce me to her friend who is a well known, animation creator in exchange for the art. That kind of connection is worth more than any small fee!
Bottega Louie, Creative Director
Free work is tricky, but it can be incredibly meaningful in specific circumstances. In my experience, it’s safe to work for free if the work is for:
1. Your mom, immediate family member, or significant other. Sorry, step-uncles not allowed unless you are really close;
2. A non-profit whose mission you simply want to help;
3. Enhancing your own portfolio or notoriety in an industry. It’s important that this is always project specific rather than some type of open-ended engagement that could turn into 7 months of out-of-scope free work. And finally,
4. Yourself or a passion project, always.
Word of caution: Any time work is done for free beyond work for yourself, make sure the scope of work is outlined very clearly so no one gets burned.
To read more about the misconceptions regarding working for free—and why you might want to consider doing it more often—head to Eye on Design.