Should designers work for free?

should designers work for free graphic design blender

Freemium.

If you’ve never heard of it, it’s a business model (term coined by Chris Anderson in The Long Tail) where you offer part of your services for free and encourage your customers to upgrade to a premium (paid) version.

If you use Hulu, Pandora, LinkedIn, or even Dribbble, then you’re familiar with the model.

And it may be tempting to consider a freemium model for your design business.

After all, you could design a logo or layout a web page for a potential client in hopes that they love it so much they’ll have you finish all their design work and they’ll become a full-time client.

It sounds nice, right?

But should designers work for free?

That’s the big question.

Of course, there will be thousands of designers who read this post, get to this point (if I’m lucky) and close their browser window in anger mumbling something about spec work under their breath.

I get it.

And even though we’ve talked about why designers should consider tolerating spec work on this blog, I mostly agree with you.

Working for free is (almost) never a good idea.

Here are a few reasons you should find a different marketing tool and/or business model than offering free services:

1. Freemium works best in the masses. The freemium model only works if there are a lot of people using your services. Only 4% of Hulu users sign up for Hulu plus (the paid version of the tv show-streaming service), but they’ve got a huge number of users. In fact, their user base is so large that the seemingly small subsection of customers that pay for the premium content lands at over 3 million people. At $8 USD/month, that’s a nice chunk of money.

But unless you can get millions of people using your free services, with the hope that a small fraction (remember, 4%) will upgrade to your paid services, the freemium model is hard to sustain. Especially when you’re trading hours (service) for money.

2. Freemium works best when you’ve got a mass service. The next reason the freemium model is hard for designers to utilize is because we, as an industry, tend to trade our time for money. Whether or not you think that’s a good way to run a business, it’s (without a doubt) the most common way designers charge their clients.

So unless you can dedicate 96% of your work hours to free services in hopes that the remaining 4% of clients who upgrade to your paid services can also be happy with only getting 4% of your time, you’re pretty much sunk before you try.

3. Freemium conditions your customers. Imagine offering a free page layout to one of your future clients. They love it so they hire you to redesign their whole web site. Awesome, right?

Well, sort of.

But what happens the next time they want to embark on a project? If they’re a good client, they’ll just hire you because you’ve proven yourself. If they’re a regular client, they will ask you do draft something up that they can look at again. And guess how much they’ll want to pay you for that mock up…

Yeah. Nothin’.

I mean, you did it for free last time, why would you charge them for your work this time.

Is there a place for free design work?

So is there a place for free design work?

I mean, in the rest of the world, the freemium model seems so lucrative.

I think there is a place for it.

But you’ve got to flip the sequence.

If you want to offer free services to your clients, follow the free basement rule.

The free basement rule

There’s a new neighborhood of houses going in near my neighborhood and there’s a giant sign up that says “Free finished basement with purchase.”

Now, do you think that company is really just eating the cost of building and finishing the basement?

Of course not.

They’re figuring it into the cost of the entire project (the new house).

And so it should work with your design clients.

Offer them something for “free” after they commit to your services. And then work it into your budgeting and financial planning to make sure the free item won’t sink your business.

It could be something like: “Free coffee mugs when I design your logo” or “Free twitter and facebook design when I redesign your web site.”

See what I mean?

To free or not to free?

What do you think?

Did I get it right?

Should designers avoid a freemium model? How should designers use “free” as a way to build business? Or should they avoid it altogether? Leave a comment and let’s talk about it.

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Comments

  1. Danny says

    Hi Preston,

    A new comer to your site, but in the biz far longer than I care to admit! Always a problem somewhere, but no complaints. That IS what we are…problem solvers. And all things considered, the biz has been good to me! :)

    I MIGHT consider something along the “free basement rule” model to generate new business. However, I, like others, tend to be reasonably generous (billing time) with my better clients…and time is just to valuable to “spec” with.

    I like to offer regular pro bono services to select and worthy local non-profit opportunities such as a local outreach effort, a favorite elementary school, or the Sheriff’s annual charity fund-raising rodeo (Hey, I’m no dummy!). In part as a way of giving back to the community…and with a wee bit of self-promotion to boot! This type of work has provided some wonderful contacts and several long-term “educated” clients.

    It can be a successful and symbiotic win-win approach to generating new business… as well as pure design self-gratification. Just be careful, moderation is the key. There’s still only 24 hours in the day!

    Great information on the site, keep it up…I’ll be visiting regularly.

    Danny

  2. says

    Freemium is a nice way to attract business and build a portfolio when one is just getting started. If you show off your work and let people see your talent you’ll be able to charge for basically everything soon enough!

    • says

      I think personal work is way more effective in ways of building a portfolio than doing work for free.

      My experience with spec projects (other than pro bono) are that they always end up crap because you bypass your professional consultant status by putting yourself in a total yes-man attitude with the client, because you fear that you’ll never get paid if you don’t do his bidding. You end up doing more and more (free) work, more (free) adjustments, all coming from a client-turned AD.

  3. Earl says

    All that a designer has to sell is time. By discounting his or her time or giving it away free the message to the client is, “That is what my time is worth — nothing.”

  4. Justin Miller says

    Designers should not work for free. My design school was not, my mechanic doesn’t work for free, or my doctor or other professionals whose services I use. I have never udner stid why design is expected not to be paid for.

    Try not paying to see a movie, or pay for those six dollar lattes at the coffee house where you meet your clients and see how far that gets you.

  5. says

    You’d have to be really desperate, have little confidence, or little professional integrity to work for free… I don’t know of any self respecting business PROFESSIONALS who work for free… my lawyer certainly doesn’t work for free, my accountant doesn’t work for free… I personally charge premium rate, to premium customers and get a 50% up-front every deposit time before I do ANY work… design is business, if your not very good marketing your skills… if your not very good at what you do… if you want to ruin your business and be poor, then go ahead and work for free.

  6. says

    Hey Preston,
    This post is great timing. Did you hear about Mark Cuban offering to use a design concept of anyone who posts on his blog but will not pay for it? I found this really interesting considering he was a billionaire and can obviously afford to pay a designer but instead is letting publicity be the reward. There are some really heated comments on his blog post and I was wondering what your thoughts were? I personally see both sides of the argument but for a freelancer like me, I can’t help but think this is a great opportunity, am I crazy or turning my back on fellow designers if I enter the contest?

    http://blogmaverick.com/2013/05/13/help-the-mavs-design-our-next-uniform/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+blogmaverick%2FtyiP+%28blog+maverick%29

  7. says

    I do a “freemium” model when doing promotions or when doing packaged deals. I’ll offer something like a business card or facebook cover design when they purchase something like a logo or website. It’s not really “Free” since I’ve factored in the costs already to the main design service, but it’s great letting people think they’re getting something for nothing. It also helps their business by having everything be cohesive. I do offer a “free” set of social media icons, if someone signs up for my newsletter. It’s a win, win situation. A small percentage of people that sign up do actually purchase services, while the others, enjoy the freebies lol.

  8. says

    As a brand new graphic designer, I joined the local Chamber of Commerce. At the time, they offered to insert a flyer in their monthly newsletter, at no cost, to new members. I decided to go to ribbon cuttings and offer to design the flyer for free. The gesture built up some exposure and good will, and occasionally led to a new [paying] client. I don’t do it any more, but it was a nice business-builder for my new business.

  9. says

    I occasionally do small, pro bono projects for nonprofit groups. These include flyers, postcards, and posters that are considered as volunteer or donor contributions. However, I have limits on these projects and the organizations. I will not design a website or a 50-page catalog for free.

    The only exception to this is my mother’s painting website. After all she’s done for me, this is the least I can do for her. She pays for the domain name and host and always adds a little more when she gives me the check. Other relatives are not as nice; some are aggressive show offs who would take unfair advantage of my services if I offered them.

    Yvonne

  10. says

    Definitely a frustrating part of the business! I’ve been on a continuous job hunt since graduating, working freelance in the meantime. I’ve had my parents’ help with getting on my feet financially, but I’m trying not to let my entry-level status justify doing too much work for free in the community. That’s where it gets tricky for me, but I suppose it depends on the project, and I can problem solve from there. (as Danny mentioned–good point!)

  11. says

    I think the most important point you make is that freemium works best in the masses: One product/service for several people: Hulu does not create a new site for each new new member. Being in Canada, I haven’t had the chance to test Hulu, but I’m pretty sure there are ads over there that helps get revenue from another mean.

    It’s important to differentiate freemium from spec, so that one doesn’t fall into the trap of offering the latter as the former.

    Here are the main difference between the two:
    — Freemium is generally something of lower quality or in a status with limitations, and you pay to get the same thing, but in a better quality or with limitations removed. A good example is the book “Free: The Future of a Radical Price”. its audiobook version is free, but you have to pay for the printed version (faster to read, easier to browse and go back to specific parts, etc)

    — Spec work, on the other hand, asks to to do precise, custom-made, one-use work for free, in hope it gets picked up. If the client passes, you can’t offer it to someone else, unless you luckily find a new client with very similar needs. It may happen, but the moment you begin to do this, though, you are betraying your trade as a graphic designer, as our job is to develop specific solutions for specific clients.

    So, how could we translate a freemium model to the design business? Something along the line of premade templates with obvious advertisement or branding of the designer on it (pay to remove it)? a reusable logo template using a generic symbol on which the designer keeps all rights (This would be free or cheap, period. I don’t see how this can be converted to a paying option, other than hiring the designer to create a real logo)?

  12. says

    I could not agree more! I consult for a medical office with different departments using my design services. There is only one person who I helped along the way because she could not decide on content, graphics or get her ideas in order. I did a lot of work for her spending countless hours beyond the original proposal.
    Finally I had to set some boundaries and started listing prices before beginning all the additional requests she wanted to squeeze in.

    Thank you for the basement rule part of your post. That just might work and of course over padding the next proposal.

  13. Tori says

    Free basement, when the whole project is calculated for sounds like a scam to me.

    I don’t believe in Freebee clients who pay a decent rate after they got earlier work for free.
    If I got something for free once, like Hulu, I usually balk when I have to pay for it next time around. The reason behind the cause usually gets lost. People remember that TV was free, logos were (almost) free, anything else was free and they are good in lowering their standards just to keep getting things for free.
    I have seen a group of entrepreneurs going after a ‘real cheap designers’, without even knowing about their work. Just to get something ‘almost’ free.

    What I usually do for free is that I take a lot of time to answer my existing client’s questions, for example on file transfer or document quality. I don’t charge for that. It makes sense if you work together. What irks me recently is that they call me for free advice during my work hours on how to handle a competitor’s files, or worse let me walk them through, how to log on to a competitior’s server or other help with their DIY project after they rejected my estimate as too costly.

  14. says

    If you’re going to be doing work for free, do it to build your portfolio or help out a good cause. I’m not a fan of simply offering free services to cheap asses looking for handouts. What really gets me is the people I run into who have no problem forking over $120 a month for their iPhone, but tell me they want me to design them a logo free of charge because they’re broke. Well if you’re too broke to invest in one of the most important elements of your business, you may want to reconsider starting that new business or maybe downgrade that cell phone?!

    Spec Work…please don’t get me started on that. And we wonder why there is this expectation that designers should work for pennies. Just my two cents :)

  15. Stan Couzens says

    I’ve retired from a life of design work, which evolved into founding of a printing company. I’d used my design skills for at least 35 years to snare companies into more work. I always kept records showing that my logo designs were provided without charge, and I retained all copyrights on them. On a few occasions, a customer would decide to start using somebody else and request an original of the logo art. I offered it to sell it to them at a fair market price, or continue doing their work and provide all of the logos required. Of course, owning the printing company gave me even more ‘job’ security, as the negatives and plates are always considered the property of the printing company unless other arrangements have been made.

  16. Pete says

    If you don’t put a value on your work, no one else will!

    But, If you do something for free, as part of a project, then make sure you include it on the invoice as, ” what ever etc. NO Charge”

    Always make certain that they know they are getting something for nothing.

  17. says

    Great insight in this article. I like the idea behind the basement rule. I’ve done my fair share of pro bono work unfortunately but i’m definitely out of spec work. No way. My pricing is fairly reasonable for my clients anyways but no one should design for free unless it’s for a worthy and genuine cause. Being a designer is a skillset and that’s exactly why you get paying customers. =)

  18. says

    Of course designers should work for free.
    I never have to pay my plumber, dentist etc etc. …
    What kind of dumb question is that! People who work for free are the same people that are destroying this business.

  19. Don says

    The key point you make is in regards to “masses”. The more commoditized your product and the more competitive your market the greater lengths you need to go to to snag clients. If I’m a web designer and offer nice looking design of a website I’m competing with not just other people like me, but DIY apps and know-it-all youngsters with a Mac in their bedroom.

    If I offer something specialized and do it in a unique way or create something new to the world, that’s is not a value story, that’s a worth story. “I develop products”, “I define a brand’s meaning”, “I guarantee an increase in your sales”, etc is way more compelling than giving away a mug.

    Are you like Nordstrom or like Target? Are you BMW or Toyota?

    Figure out your worth, not just your value.

  20. says

    Defiantly!
    I think doing work for free can open so many doors!

    Like see a website that needs a new header design? Why not do the work for free in exchange for a link back to your website?

    Or another example is to create a leaflet design for a local event where businesses will see your work?

    I have done both and has been very successful!

  21. Sikelela Christian says

    Free, free freemium is not feasible unless accompanied by the invisible small copy staing to yourself that you must recober the normal cost of the freemium (the unfreemium) from client some other way – otherwise you’re pricing services at $0 per minute.

  22. says

    After forcing myself to read this article, I have this to say:

    To build your portfolio and generate a network, do some design work for charities. Not businesses.

    No matter what way you put it, unpaid work is slavery.

  23. says

    Free biz card design with logo may be ok, but I agree with others, free and cheap are putting me out of biz, thnx VistaPrint! Who wants to pay for their new biz cards when they’ve been getting them for free online? I have to do a lot of trades doing restaurant work, but I like to eat out so it’s ok…getting them to pay isn’t easy either. I’ve had to reduce prices to get work the last few years while gas and groceries go up. Thnx 99designs.com! Looking into a new career also.

    • says

      Your experience is a common one and in keeping with my comment. In the case of 99designs.com., I point the finger at graphic designers. It’s a bad for all of us to do work in hopes of getting hired. If designers said “no I don’t work that way”, then no more 99designs.com. In the case of Vistaprint, that’s the bottom of the barrel. If money is the only deciding factor for your client then they deserve Vistaprint. I’ve always felt that part of my job as a freelance graphic designer is to education my amateur clients about what they get for their money. It’s certainly not easy in this economy to convince someone to spend more money, but again, in the long run, it’s the only way we as freelance designers can hope to make a living and keep the field of graphic design a viable one.

  24. Erin says

    I would never give a NEW client anything free. It sets a bad precedent. However, I do occasionally give my best regular clients a surprise freebie once in a while–like when they ask me to do something really quick and easy like re-size an existing ad to a very similar size. They expect me to charge them for it, and usually I do, but once in a while I just do it and then say “no charge,” just to let them know I appreciate their repeat business.

  25. says

    As a marketing scheme, suggesting that part of a job is free can be a legitimate tactic as long as paying work is part of that mix. Sadly, now that supply has completely outstripped demand, the urge to start doing free work to build a portfolio or to encourage subsequent paying work is ubiquitous. I understand the allure. Unfortunately that is a spiral down to
    meager wages or a career change. The more we designers work for free or discounted pricing, the more our clients and prospective clients will want design work for prices that are unsustainable (can you really make a living designing logos for $50?). It’s not easy to think of the big picture when we desperately want a design job but in the long run it will strengthen our businesses and the graphic design field itself.

  26. says

    Hey Preston,

    Thanks for the great article.
    What are your thoughts on designing / freelancing for friends or family, there is always the unspoken awkwardness of them expecting something for free. Yet such work can take hours of ones time. Perhaps you can write something on this topic and how to avoid doing free work and how to deal with this awkward situation. I guess sometimes one can give friends or family a special deal, but one has to overcome the fear of disrupting the family / friend relationship through being open and honest or being forward / straight with them. After all, if they really are true friends and family – they’d do what are in your best interests and they will support you.

    It would be great to read an article about this topic.

  27. says

    Working completely for free is very degrading. I would only work for free if I was getting something out of it. Time is valuable.

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