broken piggy bank

Would anyone ask their plumber to work for free? The same goes for your mechanic. Your accountant. Lawyer. Heck, even the kid that cuts your lawn on a Saturday morning for ten bucks. When it comes to design, it seems lots of people aren’t similarly predisposed, and requests for free work, spec work and discounted work are the rule rather than the exception.

I’m not sure why that is.

Maybe because most end-of-project tasks are carried out on a computer there’s a notion that any design task only takes a few minutes and there’s some magical “design this” button. Or perhaps it’s because design isn’t what most designers do, but what they are, that leads to a perception that because (in theory) we enjoy what we do, we shouldn’t expect to get paid for the time we spend doing it.

Do this for free and I’ve got lots of work coming your way

In any case, requests for free and spec work come quite often in the design profession. The trouble is, working for free isn’t doing yourself any favours, even if carried out with the purest intentions. Or in response to the “just do this, and I’ve got lots of future work coming your way” request.

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard the “future work” pitch — you know, the “just do this and I’ll have a ton of future work coming your way” — well, I’d have an awful lot of nickels. Generally, I don’t take these potential clients up on their ever-so-generous offer. Not because I’m some arty-farty prima donna. Not at all. My usual response of “the promise of future work has no bearing on how we deal with this project” is given for one simple reason: When people promise a ton of work if you complete one task for free, they’re seldom genuine.

Working a limited time for free doesn’t lead to additional paid work sometime in the future. It’s so consistent that it’s pretty well a rule.

Even with active clients and active projects, performing free work can be problematic, and may very well have the opposite result to the one you intend. I’m gonna tell you about a recent incident at the shop, where “throwing in” some work for free not only didn’t help, but eventually cost me a decent client. I’ll not use real names, but regardless, the occurrence illustrates, in very real terms, the practical downside of working for free.

The designer and the tech guy

The gig was for, let’s say, Bob’s Money Mart. It was a fairly straightforward web design project. Bob was a wonderful client, a little pushy on the delivery times perhaps, but a client that was good to work for. He prepared his web content on time (a stumbling block on many web projects), he listened to suggestions, and he mostly knew what he wanted.

The build went without a hitch. As did creating the Flash animation that would make up a lot of the site interface. Because Bob was so reasonable, I didn’t mind putting in some overtime to get his site launched within a very tight deadline. I supplied revisions within hours of the pitch. I gave my personal cell phone so he could call me at night (sometimes a risky proposition — I have an office and an assistant for a reason). I even brought in a paid colleague to help speed things up.

All things considered, the project went smoother than a typical web design gig. I didn’t even have to install the files on Bob’s server. He had some “costs me a fortune” tech guy to handle that, and at project close I simply ZIPPED the files and sent them into the ether. The client was a happy camper and loved his new site. In terms of business, the project had ended up being marginally profitable. Win, win.

The danger of freebies

Once the site was launched, Bob wanted some contact forms put in place. His “costs a fortune” tech guy supposedly didn’t know how to set one up (in retrospect, I think he knew all too well), so I offered to help. I had some PHP script that a web developer created for me a few years back. I didn’t want Bob to get bombarded with spam, so I gave him a custom CAPTCHA script that I had paid someone to create for an earlier site.

According to our original agreement, since this additional work was being done after finalization of the project, and after the site was “live,” I should have charged Bob above-and-beyond the original budget.

But I didn’t.

My thinking went something like this:

1) Bob’s been a great client
2) I already had the finished scripts
3) The project went down fairly easily, with a few hours left on the budget
4) If I made Bob happy by helping him out it would lead to future work

Yeah. That old chestnut.

I sent the scripts to Bob’s tech guy and he uploaded the files. Trouble was, he couldn’t make them work (once again, I think he could have) and was now telling Bob that the script dysfunction wasn’t his fault. Had to be the stupid designer’s wonky script.

Now Bob starts to use the cell phone number I gave him earlier. He’s not terribly happy because his tech guy charges him a fortune and fixing the form/CAPTCHA system was going to be “horribly expensive.” Once again, I offered to help. I knew the scripts worked just fine on my servers. Probably needed some tweaking to make them work on his.

And I did get it to work.

Here’s the rub: A “favour,” using scripts that I had paid for, had now eaten up five more hours on a Saturday morning with the back-and-forth, checking this, checking that, uploading files, etc, etc. Now the project had gone over the budgeted time. Not a big deal, but by doing a free favour, I had managed to turn a profitable project into one that’s not so profitable.

Ah well, at the end of the day, I had shown Bob that I was a decent guy and I had built up some client goodwill. All I had to do was wait for the additional work to roll in.

Not quite.

About a month later, I received an e-mail from Bob. Someone at his office had come up with a wonderful idea — some movie thing that they wanted to use on the site. They needed to add the page and add it to the menu system. Not much, but it was going to take some time to retool the layout.

I looked at what was wanted and figured it would take three or four hours. I told Bob that I’d only charge him for two. Well, even that wasn’t on. Bob questioned the fact that I’d bill him anything. After all, I had “added that form thing after the web site was launched,” so why was this request any different?

Have you ever tried to explain to a client how one portion of a project was done as a favor while you expect to get paid for another? It’s not an easy discussion.

Bob demanded that I make the change, without billing him. He reminded me that he had “tons of work” coming our way and if we only performed this one change, it would all be ours.

I put my foot down.

If Bob wanted me to make the changes, he’d have to pay me to perform them. The inevitable “send the Photoshop files to our tech guy” e-mail came hours later. I suspect that Bob’s “costs me a fortune” tech guy performed the changes. And billed handsomely for it. I don’t expect to hear from Bob again.

How to earn respect for your time? Bill for it.

See, here’s the thing. When it came to the tech guy, Bob knew that he “cost a fortune.” Bob never wasted the tech guy’s time because he knew he’d have to pay for it. I screwed it up by performing free work as a favour. Bob respected the tech guy’s time even though it still pained him to pay for it. I had given Bob reason not to respect mine.

When it came to installing Bob’s contact form, the important factor was that I was solving a problem. A very big problem. Bob would have been glad to pay for having that problem solved. Yet I thought I needed to go the extra step and solve his problem for free. At that point I had changed the business relationship forever. Bob now knew that I’d perform “no-charge” revisions. All he had to do was figure out to “motivate” me. Which turned into a glorified game of “chicken.” And as anyone knows, when playing “chicken” you have to be prepared to go all the way.

In this instance, going all the way lost me a decent, well-paying client.

So the next time a client requests that you perform work for free, keep this little tale in mind. And think long and hard before offering to perform design work without billing for it. In the long term, it won’t accomplish what you think it will, and may end up turning a good designer/client relationship into a bad one.

Read more of Steve’s design thoughts on his blog, The Logo Factor.

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September 20, 2010


Such a familiar story! I find it really difficult to charge a client for every little thing I do extra. It’s even harder for me when I also know the client personally and spent time/beers with him/her. I just think, “hey, I’ve done that in a few minutes, let me help you out right now for free”. And then the little things keep coming…

“Have you ever tried to explain to a client how one portion of a project was done as a favor while you expect to get paid for another? It’s not an easy discussion”

So true.

I have this issue with two of my clients.

With one I finally put my foot down after various minor “favors”. The other one is getting to that point and I’m going to have to let him know future “small” things will be billed.

You do small favors for clients for free after a web design job is paid for in order to be nice, but it completely backfires.

It’s similar to the rule of not lending friends money. Lending to a friend is the quickest way to lose a friendship. (After they don’t pay you and the relationship goes sour).

Great read and very familiar. Personally, I think free/favor work can be helpful, IF you are clear with the client that you would usually charge them, but instead you are doing them a favor.

If I do any favor work, I tell the client exactly how much I’d normally charge for what I’m doing. I’m a nice guy, but hopefully, I haven’t changed their expectations.

I hate to say that this isn’t just a problem limited to graphic design / web design / logo design.

I’m a design civil engineer, designing roads and the like, and these same problems are all too common in the engineering realm as well, unfortuantely. In fact I’m tempted to send your story on to my bosses, as they fall in to this trap all the time doing freebies in turn for future work that never evenuates. Even worse they offer to do it for free to “demostrate our capabilities”, ergh.

Brilliant tale, really so true.
Had to learn this the hard way too, but free of charge no more!
Best thing is you’ll get more consistence in clients requests once they know what to expect…

Thanks for sharing your story Steve. What stands out for me is this line;
“I had shown Bob that I was a decent guy and I had built up some client goodwill.”

The work you do like the work many freelancers and consultants do is not just about a commercial transaction. As a designer I’m sure you go the extra mile all the time. You want to turn out the best possible design and give the client a great identity or website, something you are proud to have in your portfolio and put your name to.

Because you are a “decent guy”, you will always want to do this. I don’t think that means you’re a mug. What this experience shows is that Bob wasn’t a great customer in the first place, certainly not one worth hanging on to. I think even if you had charged and he had come back with more work your relationship would have ended eventually on similar terms.

Perhaps we need to flip our thinking a little and not just rigidly measure our time which would squeeze all of the joy we get out of going the extra mile.

Maybe we should only work with the best customers who understand and appreciate the language of goodwill.

I think you can usually spot them a mile off!

It can be a difficult situation; not wanting to spoil a client relationship but aware of all the unpaid work you’re being asked to do. In fairness, I think some of my clients don’t realise how much time is involved when they request ‘one last thing’, but it certainly adds to the stress.

You’re final mistake was just sending the Photoshop files for the site – those should have cost him a small fortune. If it leads to the client being able to ‘do it themselves’, charge every penny of income you’ll lose from parting with it.

This has been a really interesting read.

People seem to think that just because we are designers we can be used for our skills. If they realised how much time and effort it takes in to designing something e.g. a logo, they would maybe see that it’s not fair to demand our services for free.

As said in the post, it is our job after all and we haven’t educated ourselves for years to be used.

I do love designing but please respect that it is my job and I like to be paid for my services just like a plumber would.

If a client would ask me for free work in exchange for more work coming, I would simply say “Do you really want someone that is not good enough at what he/she is doing, that he/she cant even get paid for their skills – to work for you?”

So the common train of thought is that people don’t realise how much work is actually involved in what you do as designers. Because of that they don’t always value or appreciate what you do.
How can the design community change that?

I agree with everything said above. Its a constant battle getting the favour/work balance right.

I think a lot of this problem has been generated by things like stock logo websites/ webtemplate sites etc etc and the fact that the barriers to entry are so low that ‘design that works’ is secondary to ‘design thats cheap’.

Design that works GENERALLY takes longer and costs more. Clients need to be educated to this. Spend big on one good project rather than 3 small ones.

Always trying to get the most for your money as a client is a bad long term strategy. Both sides need to feel like its a good deal to keep a relationship functional.

This is sooooo true! Any time you do a favor, or a freebie, that is the only type of work you will ever do for that client. I have several hanger-ons from years ago when I made this mistake constantly, they’re nice people, but I always loose money helping them. We need to charge. Even if it’s family, there needs to be some established understanding of the time it takes to do what is being requested. I sometimes give a “Friends and Family discount” which can be upwards of 50 – 60% off, but I always list the full price on the Invoice or Estimate before applying the discount.

You would have burned the bridge with bob earlier had you attempted to charge for the forms.

You need to think more along the lines of “people are stupid”.

You would never have won with the client.

Great idea, Chris: “I sometimes give a “Friends and Family discount” which can be upwards of 50 – 60% off, but I always list the full price on the Invoice or Estimate before applying the discount.”

I am SOOOOOO going to do that going forward!!

Well, that’s lesson number one of being an entrepreneur. Always charge. If the client wants more than you agreed, send another bill. Simple.

Wow thanks for sharing! I can completely relate.

As you said, for whatever reason, people just don’t understand the time that goes in behind the scenes. They see the pretty website and figure it took no time to create, yet they don’t understand how time consuming it is creating custom graphics, tweaking scripts and code to function as they want it to or even (and this happens way to often) adding filler content they don’t provide.

I’m bad for doing those “little freebies” also, and in the end it’s just not worth it.

Great idea Chris, I’ll be using it in the future.

It’s a common occurrence for customers to try and get a freebie – wherever possible I go the extra mile, it’s what helps make you stand out.

I think you have to use your initiative as to when, where and to who you’ll do any favours. Communication is the key, after all, that’s the industry we’re in – tell the client upfront that you’re doing them a favour/charging less/giving this to them for free so that they know. If you do it for free without telling them it’s your own fault they don’t appreciate it.

I tend to find that if you list what you’ve done for free on your invoice, marked FOC, clients tend to recognise and appreciate the extra things a bit more.

I agree with pinball up there. I’ve had this problem way too often when fixing computers. When it’s friends it isn’t much of a problem, a very different story when family comes in the picture.

Always bill for everything. No exceptions. If you want to give a client some work, that’s cool, but they have to see just how much it would have cost them. Free equals no value in the client’s mind. You have to tell them exactly what the value is.

It’s unfortunate that you went the “extra mile” only to realize it wasn’t valued. That’s what this all really comes to as you so aptly describe. Value. From the customer/client POV.

I’m not in design, I do consulting and training and I’m often asked for free consultations or someone will take me to lunch in hopes that I’ll consider that a friendship and I’ll work for free.

I’ve done some pro bono work (for non profits only) and deeply discounted for others. Here’s what I’ve learned. The non profit organizations were very grateful, but one went out and hired someone else to “officially” do what I’d been doing for free. After paying a handsome sum, they sheepishly came back and admitted they didn’t think they were getting my “best” for free but learned differently after paying someone else.

When I’ve discounted, the folks on the receiving end of the “great deal” didn’t value my work either. More than once, they subsequently hired someone else and payed much more to confirm what I’d been advising or teaching all along.

So, I don’t do it anymore. I have a few price options and stick to them.

Lastly, – even when doing some free work (for non profits or an organization I volunteer with) I always invoice – and often get an in kind receipt. Good for tax purposes, but also let’s those in charge know the fees they’d need to pay if I wasn’t donating.

This story hits on several of the reasons why I eventually became a “tech guy” after years as a designer. Eventually, I actually started an app development company and it’s been a blast. Like the author, I was tired of having my good intentions taken advantage of, being underpaid / underappreciated, having little control of the final web product, and seeing my work implemented in a slipshod fashion. You don’t have to give up your day job, but trying something new isn’t always a bad thing. I love to see designers learning (and loving) WordPress. The power to say “no” and bill handsomely can be yours. If you’re naturally curious enough. Great post!

I’m a bit late in reading this but it’s a great post and something every freelancer should consider. “Respect for your time” is the best way to put it. I’ve decided recently that all work is paid work fullstop. No trades, no “more work later”, no “Put something together for us” etc.

People interested in this topic should also watch this talk “F*ck you,pay me” about how you approach payment in freelance work.

Great website! Keep it up.

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