Design Domination Podcast Episode #26: What to Consider Before Doing Free Design Work

Some types of free work are good, while some hurt you and the design industry. You don’t have to pimp yourself out doing free work to build a portfolio. Find out what to consider before doing any free design work.

You may have heard the phrase, “People value what they pay for.” It’s definitely true. Paying for something puts their skin in the game and they appreciate it more. On the contrary, doing work for free can come across as your work, your time and your expertise being of low value or that there isn’t much involved in the work to begin with.

So should you ever consider doing free work, especially when you’re starting out and trying to build a portfolio?

Let’s start out by identifying types of unpaid work:

  • “Spec” work
  • Contests
  • Crowdsourcing
  • A test for a job
  • Volunteer or pro bono work
  • Internship
  • Barters

Spec Work, Contests and Crowdsourcing

These three really burn me up. “Spec” work is short for “speculative” work. It is done for free, usually in hopes of winning—and with a slim chance nonetheless—in order to get paid. It is similar to a competition—no, more like a lottery!—in that only the winner gets the reward. You have no idea what your odds of winning even are—hundreds, thousands—so why should you play?

Spec work is usually initiated by clients who have little or no experience in or knowledge about branding or marketing. They think a really effective way to get done what they think they need is to place a broadcast request asking hoards of designers to design something for them and to get tons of design options to choose from. And then designers—so-called or professional—go swarming to this dangling carrot with their tongues wagging.

They usually provide little to no insight about their company or their needs or what they want to accomplish. They probably don’t even have the answers themselves. There is no collaboration, no interaction with the designers. They just push a button, sit back and then see what these designers come back with.

After they get the assortment of unqualified designs to choose from, which may or may not have been plagiarized, they will choose something they think “looks good,” with their unqualified opinion, based on their lack of experience or knowledge about their own audience and needs.

They also miss out on any insight from the designer about their brand strategy or anything at all. Heck. They might have even just opened themselves up to copyright infringement because that designer ripped a logo off another company or used a stock icon or typeface they didn’t have a license to use.

I’ll share a couple examples of requests for spec work from my own experience.

Once a prospect called to discuss a book she needed done. This conversation, by the way, was filled with red flags. After she stopped rambling about herself and her immense educational background and other accolades, she went on to explain that she had worked with several designers already (gasp!) and that she had had to tell them what typeface to use and to do this or that. She then said that she wanted to see designs of how the inside would look.

I said, of course, she would see all of that as part of the process, getting proofs to review. I would start on that after getting a signed agreement and 50% up front. Well, that angered her. I mean crazy angry! She berated me for not having empathized with her “plight” and wanting to help her out by bestowing some free work onto her because of all that she had been through by these so-called “awful” designers that she had to instruct. Not only that but she screamed at me for having wasted her time! I mean, wow! I literally had to hang up on her because the screaming was so bad.

Another time, a medical practice—a well established one with several locations, should be able to afford design work, right?—called me up and wanted some design work done. It was a normal, pleasant conversation. At the end of the call, the prospect said that he wanted to be fair and let me know they’d be contacting other designers. Um, OK. I figured as much and said so. But then he said something strange: “After we see all of your work, we will then decide whom we want to work with.” Um, no.

I was incensed, and here was my chance to nip this in the bud, so I asked how would he feel if I went into his medical practice and asked to be seen free and then if I didn’t like the diagnosis, I just wouldn’t pay. Silence. He didn’t have a response. I then explained there is a process involved and a lot of time, and what he was asking was not how professional designers worked. Buh-bye!

They are the types of clients who view design as an expense, not an investment. There’s a big difference. They see you as an order taker, not an expert. (By the way, if you missed my episodes about that topic, run, don’t walk, to episode #24: 7 Mistakes When Presenting Design Work and Asking for Critique and episode #4: Stop Trying to Compete With Fiverr.)

Participating in spec work by either party perpetuates the very issues we want to rid the design industry of.

So it sucks for you because:

  • You are likely to get no return for your time and effort.
  • The client doesn’t value your work.
  • You can’t do a proper job because the client hasn’t given enough information and won’t be providing any input.
  • Your design will be chosen on a whim, based on someone’s personal preferences, not because of any genuine strategy you might have done.
  • It positions you poorly and you get little to no respect.
  • You pigeon hole yourself as providing free or cheap work.
  • It’s not on your terms, so you get taken advantage of.
  • Your design or a portion of it could end up being used without you knowing or getting any recognition or payment.

And it sucks for the client because:

  • They see design as decoration, not strategy, so no matter how good your work is, they won’t be able to recognize that.
  • They value quantity of designs over quality.
  • They really aren’t invested in their business (and, frankly, why should you be?).
  • They see you as an order taker, not a strategic thinker who can help them get results.
  • They don’t have or give enough information for you to produce a result that would actually help them.

The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) has a position on spec work. They also have a sample letter you can download from that page to send to anyone who dares to ask for this type of work. It’s a bit more polite than I have been.

Now, a contest or crowdsourcing could be paid or unpaid, but they usually have many of the same disadvantages as spec work.

A Test for a Job

A company may ask you to design or lay out something as part of their application process. I was once asked to do this as part of applying for a design job in my early days. I had to come in and interview and then sit down and recreate a printed brochure. After I left (I found this out after I was hired), a designer there then analyzed my layout file to see how I had set it up and if I used best practices.

Now, this can be a great way for a company to see your creative approach and to assess how well you know the software, and to affirm that you are able to do what your portfolio has shown that you can do.

But, on the other hand, shouldn’t you be paid for this work? Probably, but especially if it’s creative work, where you’re coming up with ideas. I mean, you don’t know if they will take that work and actually use it for something.

Take caution: Although some companies may pay for this type of work, you would have to decide if the potential job opportunity is worth doing a test like this free of charge.

OK, now let’s talk about some ways you can provide design work free of charge but the right way, which will benefit you and the receiving party. Better yet, you get to keep your self-respect.

Volunteer and Pro Bono Work

Volunteer and pro bono work are very different from spec work. You are choosing to offer your work at no charge because you are invested in a certain organization or cause and want to help. It puts you in control and in a positive light.

I have done a lot of pro bono work, and I only do it for animal rescues. I’ve designed new logos and websites. I’ve helped them with print newsletters and other direct mail pieces. I’m happy to do this because I’ve always been very passionate about saving animals, and I know from volunteering with rescues how much back-breaking work they do and how they rely 100% on donations. There are never enough funds or volunteers to help them save animals.

You can’t afford to do this all of the time, so you can reach out and offer it to a charity, or accept it if one contacts you, on a limited basis.

Now, if you decide to do this type of work, make no mistake: You should still follow your usual process, because, let me tell you, things can derail if you don’t.

It’s important that you value the work—take it seriously. In other words, don’t slack off just because you’re working for free, and don’t think you can design whatever you want. The design should still align with the branding and needs of the organization.

It’s also important for the client to value the work. They need to understand this isn’t an all-you-can eat buffet. So when doing this type of work, you should still treat it like any paid work, meaning:

Set parameters on what you’re offering.

List the scope of work: how many designs and rounds of revisions, and so on.

Require that they sign your contract that states your usual and any unique terms.

I mean, could you imagine doing work for free and then something happening that holds you legally responsible because you didn’t use, or it wasn’t addressed in, a contract? I shudder to think of the potential risks.

On another note, though, you could put in the agreement that, in exchange for the work, you request (or require—up to you) a credit line on the work. So, if it’s a website, that would be a “Design by” with your name at the bottom. If it’s a brochure, maybe they will agree to including something similar there.

Alternatively, you could ask that they post a pic of the work and give you a shout out on social media, so you get some exposure. I actually requested that from an organization for which I redesigned their logo and website.

Set expectations of timing.

Maybe you do the work as you are able to fit it in with other work that may come up, or maybe you set a schedule. Make it clear. If paying work comes along, you don’t want to drop the ball on the pro bono work.

Follow your usual design process.

Don’t cut corners. After all, you want to do a good job for them, so it helps them get results. Plus, it could be a nice portfolio piece.

Send an invoice at the end of the job.

Why in the world would you do that? Well, the invoice would reflect a zero balance but it would show—and act as a reminder—about the value of the work, like, “Hey, this logo I just designed for you, I normally charge $5,000 for that. You’re welcome.”

Ask for a testimonial.

When the project is done, hopefully, you will get a glowing testimonial from them about your work, your work ethic, your process, and so forth.

Ask for feedback.

If you’re new to the game, this is a good opportunity to ask for feedback—What did I do well? What could I improve upon?—so that you can improve your work and your process going forward.

Follow up.

Check in with them after a couple months to see how your work has helped them. It could make for a great portfolio piece with a meaningful case study. Some of the best results I’ve gotten for clients were actually the result of pro bono work.

Some other ideas to consider—and I don’t know how much of a difference, if any, this first one makes… But you could have the organization pay in full and then you donate the money back to them. That way, they would have that as an expense and you could write off the charitable donation.

If you are getting paid for the work but discounting it, they could pay in full, then you donate half of it back, instead of charging half the fees to begin with, because you usually can’t write off a discount—money that you never got—at tax time. This is not tax advice, so be sure to check with an accountant.

Internship or Barter

When you do a free internship or offer your work as barter—in exchange for other work, trading services—then you are getting some kind of non-monetary benefit.

In the case of an internship, you might be learning new skills or how to refine your work. This will add value to your work now and over time. Just make sure you have written permission to show the work.

With a barter, you are getting a service you would otherwise need to pay for. Both parties should determine and state the value of what they will offer each other. For example, you could barter with a colleague who could use your help and who has skills that can help you: you design their logo, and they build a small website for you.

Now, there is a caveat with bartering in the United States. The IRS may find your barter to be as taxable as cash. So it’s not exactly a free lunch. This same thing might apply in other countries, so find out from your accountant.


So these last four types of unpaid work I discussed—volunteer, pro bono, internship and barter—are an excellent way to help you build your portfolio while maintaining your respect. It will be work you actually feel good about doing instead of feeling like you have to shower afterward.


  • Really helpful I’m thinking of doing some voluntary design work as I find myself without a full time position right now. The tips I’ve learned from you will help me approach it the right way. Keep up the good work.

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