When, how, and why
Paula Scher, design guru, spoke at the AIGA conference in Las Vegas in October and offered advice on when, how, and why you should work for free.
“The point of working for free is not so much to give things away as to take things back. And giving something away sometimes gives you so much back. And I don’t just mean fame and reputation, but the way you feel about doing it. And it’s your choice—you control that, not the client.” said Scher in her presentation
What’s in it for you?
What exactly are you taking back? Creative control.
Scher isn’t advocating for altruism or indentured creative servitude, but for exchanging your usual fee for power.
“If there’s a not-for-profit client that comes along and wants you to work for very little fee, you’re better off working for free.”
As she explains, any fee is a lot of money to a small or non-profit company, and they will want as much creative say and ask for as many revisions as a client that pays much more. If you agree to do it for free, you can control the work without that dynamic. This lets you have more of a partnership with the client as well.
“No pay, no say”
This is a good strategy for both new creatives looking to give their portfolios a kick start and established professionals who want to expand their work into a new area or specialization.
Matt George, a Texas designer, calls this “No pay, no say” and both speakers pointed out that free work can lead to commission work as well.
Without knowing what it was called, I took this approach when starting out in freelance and technical writing. I’d sometimes offer a free sample of work to show my mettle which lead to several contracts.
How it’s worked for me
When I want to tailor my portfolio in a direction that interests me, I volunteer to write for smaller blogs on the topic, with the understanding that I can choose projects that interested me and be a little more free form to really show what I could do.
This has allowed me to quickly assemble a strong portfolio in a new direction, instead of making a small bit of money and paying dues by writing on topics that don’t interest me.
Like with any friends-with-benefits arrangement, I think the key to a good free work exchange is clear communication of expectations and boundaries.