Why Giving Away Design is Bad Practice

This may sound like common sense, but fight for your worth!

This is a line that every designer will hear at some point in their career– "We can't actually pay you… but this will look great in your portfolio/provide you with meaningful experience!" I mean, you wouldn’t ask for free dental work from your dentist, right? So why is free work expected so frequently from designers? What can we, whether we are the designer or the client, do to ensure that designers are fairly compensated for the work that they do?

Say No to Spec Work

AIGA defines spec work, or speculative work, as any kind of work that is done for free with the hopes of getting paid to complete the project. Often it can be a proposal, a pitch, or a “test” task to complete given by the prospective client in anticipation of being hired to complete the project.

As a close friend of mine recently discovered, spec work is often used as a means of taking advantage of young designers for free labor. In many situations, designers spend a great deal of time and effort only to not get the job and still see their ideas/design used by the client that did the work for. AIGA officially suggests that designers avoid spec work, and even offers a sample letter that you can send to your client should they approach you about doing spec work.

The Pitfalls of Crowdsourced Design

Design crowdsourcing sites such as 99Designs and CrowdSpring have grown significantly in popularity over the last few years, using timed competitions to provide clients with a selection of low-budget design. While many businesses see this as efficiency at its finest, it poses some serious problems for the design profession. It is basically spec work under a new name; dozens of designers will submit ideas for a project, with only one design selected and underpaid for. While it may not directly take jobs from professional designers, it impacts our client’s perception of what our work is worth. If they can get a—rapidly produced and less than attractive—logo designed for $150, why should they pay you what your work is actually worth? It devalues the work produced by designers and flattens the process, perpetuating the notion that anyone could do it and that it isn’t worth it to invest in good design. As I’ve said before, good design is more than just a mark that looks pretty; good design is consistent and cohesive storytelling, and all of that brand story is lost when logos are obtained through crowdsourcing. 

Also, clients have a lot more to worry about besides ending up with bad design. As Wired points out, tight deadlines and low pay often tempt or pressure designers to plagiarize as a means of cutting corners and churning out submissions. While this can happen with any designer, accountability usually rests squarely on the client's shoulders when using crowdsourced work. The money you invest in hiring a professional designer to work with will always be cheaper than risking an intellectual properties lawsuit and having to go back to square one. 

Freebies ≠ Good Self Promotion

This is an area of free work where old dating idioms apply most appropriately. “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” By putting up expanded systems and templates for free with the goal of the user eventually purchasing the priced work, you are setting yourself up for what is essentially a spec work trap. There is no guarantee that you will get more clients from providing free templates and samples, and you are showing that your work is not worthy of being paid for.

At the end of the day, if you are a designer, you need to be able to fight for your worth and avoid situations that take advantage of your time and talent. There are instances where working for free can be a mutually beneficial arrangement—such as, doing work for a non-profit you support (see Jessica Hische’s Should I work for free? Chart to help you reach that conclusion). But more often than not, you deserve to get paid for the work you do. If you are looking for a designer to work with, Thomas Watson Jr., former IBM CEO said it best: "We are convinced that good design can materially help make a good product reach its full potential.” Invest in your company by investing in a designer that knows their worth.