Graphic Design Portfolio

We all know freelancing “for free” is bad, right? But are there also good kinds of “free work”?

A few of my classmates were discussing the advantages and disadvantages of doing freelance work “for free.” So, I want to also jump in on the “free work” discussion. As far as “free work” goes, I think there are a few distinctions that should be made, as there are many avenues through which working for free may happen. The AIGA, the professional association for design, has posted on their webpage that they “believe that professional designers should be compensated fairly for the value of their work and should negotiate the ownership or use rights of their intellectual and creative property through an engagement with clients.” (AIGA.org). That being said, the AIGA describes five kinds of “free work.”

  1. Speculative or “spec” work is work done for free, in hopes of getting paid for it.
  2. Competitions are work done in the hopes of winning a prize – in whatever form that might take.
  3. Volunteer work is work done as a favor or for the experience, without the expectation of being paid.
  4. Internships are a form of volunteer work that involves educational gain.
  5. Pro-bono work is volunteer work done “for the public good.” (AIGA.org)

To this list, I’d like to add a few more terms that I’ve come into contact with:

  1. Crowdsourcing is a form of competition. A business publicly presents a design brief and then only pays one winner for the work.
  2. Pitching is when design companies are invited by prospective clients to take part in a competition to win their business.
  3. “Asking for a handout” is when someone claims that they have no money to pay for design work.

The major difference I can see between all of these distinctions of “free work” is where the control of these design relationships lie. For spec work, competitions, crowdsourcing, and pitching, the client is in complete control of the situation. The majority of designers end up putting much time and energy into their designs, only to have it rejected by the contest holder. Losing a design competition like this can make a designer feel more than just unappreciated, it can (and probably should) feel like a complete waste of time. After all, they lost not only the contract, but also the time they could have spent doing paid work.

Many may argue for the benefits of these design contests, but there are far better ways to improve your skills and get your name out there, not the least of which are personal projects posted to a blog. Even “handouts” are better than spec work. At least a designer can maintain some kind of control over those, and receive some form of benefit. Handouts aren’t forced on anyone. The designer is the one who chooses to do the work or not. There is no, “do the work first, and if we like it, we’ll pay for it later.” I personally don’t like handouts, as they can lead businesses to take advantage of designers, and not “compensate them fairly for the value of their work.” (AIGA.org). But, there are benefits beyond money that can be gained from free work of a designer’s choosing.

Australian entrepreneur Brendon Sinclair offers some great advice to make even free work pay much more than nothing.

  1. Ask for homepage acknowledgment of your help.
  2. Ask for a signed letter of thanks to frame, hang on your wall, scan to your website.
  3. Ask for a recommendation to quote.
  4. Ask to put the site in your portfolio.
  5. Ask for a link from their site to your homepage.
  6. Ask them to recommend you to others.
  7. Ask for the next press release to mention your work for them.

(Sinclair, 2007, p 123).

So, “free work” isn’t necessarily always a bad thing, and can have some marvelous benefits, including skill building, and networking. But, the difference between good free work and bad free work is choice and control. I think it’s important to always choose what you work on, and not let your work choose you.

AIGA.org. (2010). AIGA position on spec work. Retrieved May 30, 2010 from http://www.aiga.org/content.cfm/position-spec-work
Sinclair, Brendon. (2007).The Web Design Business Kit. Australia: SitePoint Pty. Ltd.

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