Your Free Design Work Will End Up In The Trash

I lost $100,000, and that’s just a rough estimate.

If only I hadn’t worked for free for so many years, who knows, maybe I could have owned my own apartment by now. I thought it would be good for my career, bring opportunities, help my friends, my family, that it would help me make a political change. Almost everyone who came to me with their story managed to convince me to help them for free. And I agreed. After all, I’m the nice guy who doesn’t like to disappoint people.

Want to know what sucks the most about this story?
It isn’t the money part.
How many of these works still adorn walls, how many are printed on paper or are live on the web?

And do you know why?
Because people don’t appreciate the things they get for free.

I just finished reading “Design Is A Job” by Mike Monteiro (you should read it), and found an interesting story:

A non-profit organization had donated farm equipment to poor villages in Africa for years, only to come back a year later and find the equipment lying outside, unused or dismantled for parts to sell. A second organization arrived, but it didn’t give the equipment for free. Farmers were told how much money they could make for themselves using those tools and then it was offered to them for sale. Farmers worked hard, saved money, worked together and bought their own equipment.

Guess what happened after a year in this village?

Yep. Farmers used equipment frantically, began making money, told their friends, who in turn also saved and struggled to buy the tool which could change their lives.

They say there is no such thing as a free meal, but what isn’t said is that if there were such meals, we would throw them away and go to McDonald’s.

Your clients do not appreciate you

If someone asks you to work for free it means they don’t appreciate what you are doing.
Maybe your client really doesn’t have any money, but what does that have to do with you? Do you see your client going to a restaurant with no money?

I’ve already heard all the promises and suggestions: there will be a lot of work later, it will open doors for you, it’s great for experience and of course: we have no money but can give you equity.

Working for equity is a little tricky, since in the world of startups equity compensation is a pretty standard way to gain the employee’s commitment for the long haul. But be careful – equity are in addition to a salary, it’s not a replacement. The only ones working solely for a equity are the partners who founded the company, so: is your client offering you to be an equal partner in the management of the company?

Probably not.

Regardless of these promises, which are never fulfilled, there is another problem: I believe that it’s impossible to do good design work without serious commitment and the full partnership of the client during the process. The only way to make the client understand the importance of design, and get them invested and committed to the process is by having them pay for the project. And the more they pay, the more seriously they will treat the project.

When someone writes a check for $50,000, they won’t take the risk that this project might fail. They will do whatever it takes to make it happen.
When someone writes a check for $1,000, then at worst, if the job will not be to their liking, they will go to someone else.


Over the years I’ve done a lot of work on a voluntary basis, usually about topics related to politics and such.
It’s nice to work on a voluntary basis – first of all, you’re working on a project you believe in which you think has a chance to bring a positive change to the world. Second, when you volunteer, you believe that if you don’t get paid then at least you will have creative freedom.

The truth is that both points should be taken with a grain of salt.

My personal experience was that when volunteering your time is spent something like this: 90% -wasting time, 10% – working.
Most people who volunteer also want to enjoy their time, no one wants to volunteer just to suffer, and so much of my time during volunteer work was invested in having nice conversations with people and often drinking a beer and eating pizza.

Guess why this happens?
That’s right. When no one is paying for your time, nobody cares if your time is properly used.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against volunteering. I still do it occasionally, mainly because I like to meet new people, drink beer and eat pizza, but I realized a long time ago that the you don’t change the world on weekend Hackathons or after work volunteering.

You change the world while at work and you usually get paid to do it.

Family and Friends

I’ve already written here about my feelings regarding working with family and friends, for example I wrote that it’s better to work for free just to avoid unpleasantness with them.

There is no contradiction between my opinion about unappreciated free work and the fact that I choose to work for free with family and friends (when I can’t avoid it). The fact is that your family and friends will never appreciate your job the same as a paying customer. That’s the truth.

They will say to you: “Thank you Ran! Great job! We really appreciate it.” But don’t believe them. After all, you told them you really appreciate it when they got you that lame wedding gift, and you didn’t really mean it, right?

We are superficial creatures: we only care about what costs us a lot of money. You want your clients to care about you and the work you are doing, so start charging a lot of money for it.

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