Why ‘Free’ Isn’t: the case against speculative or free graphic design

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These definitions seem never to be resolved. The debate pops up in a cycle: why is it not a good idea for a client to request speculative, pro bono, or free work? Why not compare different ideas from different creative resources and only pay for the one that gets used? This practice is especially seductive in this difficult economy where designers are hungry for work and clients are more inclined to do it themselves.

Today I was disturbed to find a graphic designer offering free work for any nonprofit in Second Life. Setting aside my feelings as a communication professional that such an offer makes us all look bad, I have to believe, though well-intentioned, this designer is simply clueless. I have to believe she can’t perceive the message that she conveys: designers don’t need to be paid for creative work.

So serious is this misperception of the design process, the biggest issue is that the client is ill-served. The organization that commissions the work, hopefully through naivete, may pat themselves on the back for finding services for free. The self-congratulations don’t even last until the end of the process, however, because this approach to design doesn’t work.

In this blog, I address how such practices are bad for designers who succumb to the temptation as well as the the profession at large through three assertions. In my Sebastian Study post, I address how this is damaging for the client.

“Spec design” is to volunteer creative concepts for a client’s challenge while competing with other creative contributors without compensation. The assumption is that you will get paid if your design is chosen. If not, oh well, you tried. This is a bad practice for designers because:

tools of the trade by Liane Sebastian1. You can’t contribute your best work. If you make a living as a graphic designer (versus practicing it like a hobby), you are too busy working on paying projects. It is impractical to be able to devote as much time or creative sweat on a project you aren’t getting paid for than on one you are. If you don’t have enough work to pay your bills, giving away your work actually makes you slide backwards because the time you spend doing the free work should be spent prospecting for work that pays. You can’t do this often if you want to make a living.

tools of the trade by Liane Sebastian2. Speculation never works. The sweat equity that you contribute to get the assignment, assuming that you do, is never completed the way you designed it. Changes have to be made. More time must be spent getting the project tweaked where all the decision-makers are happy. By the time this process commences, if you had been paid from the beginning, efforts would have been saved in setting up better parameters to begin with. Most speculative projects aren’t set up as thoroughly as ones where the service is paid for. In the end, it is a case of where the client is penny wise but ends up being pound foolish.

tools of the trade by Liane Sebastian3. You will suffer disrespect. Clients never value what they get for free the way they do what they pay for. If you volunteer, you are vulnerable to the client’s poor planning, lack of collaboration, or  low priority. If they pay for your time, they are less likely to waste it.

tools of the trade by Liane Sebastian4. Freebies express a lack of confidence. By giving away your work, you are saying it isn’t worth what other professionals get paid to do. And if it is worth it, why are you willing to give it away? Rather than portray you as generous, it portrays you as desperate–needing the work because you don’t have any or needing it because you have to build your portfolio trough learning on their project.

tools of the trade by Liane Sebastian5. It isn’t creative. There are better ways to promote your services than to make an offer to give your work away. If clients hire you for creativity, you should demonstrate your creativity to attract the kind of client you want to work for.

tools of the trade by Liane Sebastian6. It is reactive rather than proactive. A designer can realsitically handle about three to five clients at a time (depending on size). If those clients are not good matches, there will be a high turnover. If they are great and sustaining relationships, those clients will be demanding and keep you busy. It is better to choose the clients you want to work for when prospecting than to give away your services to anyone who wants you. Such a reactive approach will end up with disloyal clients because they will drop you for the next free deal they can find. Unless you can afford to still not charge.

tools of the trade by Liane Sebastian7. When you get busy, you neglect the commitment. If you undertake spec or free work when you are slow, it will cost you dearly later. If faced with meeting deadlines for a client who pays versus for one who doesn’t, which makes better business sense to do first? Not only are you a low priority on the freebie client’s project list, they have to become a low priority on yours or you don’t sustain a business.


What really bothered me about this designer (that I’m picking on) offering her services for free is that she made this offeer to all nonprofits in Second Life. The desperation in this act is only surpassed by the ignorant client who would take advantage of this offer. In design, like anything that really matters, you get what you pay for! This is a no-win approach for the designer. It:

tools of the trade by Liane Sebastian1. Shows you are indiscriminate. If you volunteer for an organization that you believe in, contribute pro bono, or participate in an event, your gift is meaningful and rewarding. But to throw the offer out to everyone says that you aren’t fussy and probably won’t be as passionate or dedicated either.

tools of the trade by Liane Sebastian2. Makes you appear vulnerable to whatever is offered. Only those new in business believe that they can serve any client. Like dating and marriage, the match between the client and the designer has to have chemistry. I would be unhappy, for example, working with micro-manager clients. If I need to be online with them all the time instead of doing the work, production and efficiency suffer. For me, design requires focus-time where I unplug from media and go into my thinktank process. Utimately, this is what yields strong ideas and is what clients pay for.

tools of the trade by Liane Sebastian3. Begins a project with a weak foundation that rarely turns into paying project later. If you aren’t getting paid, you are going to skimp. So this means that you can’t do your best work. If the goal is to fill out your portfolio, be very targeted to whom you offer this service, or you won’t end up with a portfolio piece. Just as most dates don’t lead to marriage, working out a relationship through a first-project is always a shake-out.

tools of the trade by Liane Sebastian4. Anyone who does take you up on your offer won’t be a good client later. You can’t convert them into a profitable relationship because you’ve set up a weak premise. Also if you  haven’t been able to give your best efforts to the design so far, you won’t be able to base more work upon it efficiently.

tools of the trade by Liane Sebastian5. It makes you feel resentful. This is human nature. Generosity in the beginning gets tested through the politics, changes, and indecisions of decision-makers. Every project has its twists and turns. But when getting paid, you feel it is part of the job. When you are giving away your work, the twists and turns feel intrusive. Plus, in the unlikely event that the project is successful, you resent that the client makes money or gets attention from the design and you don’t.

tools of the trade by Liane Sebastian6. Your colleagues resent you. Like me. I believe so strongly in my design work that I offer the best to my clients. Yes, I deserve to be paid, and paid well, because they will grow their businesses from my creativity. Not arrogant enough to think that my work is solely responsible for my clients’ successful visual communications, I see the results in how design impacts audiences. I see directly how design is a piece of the marketing pie. The timing, environment, and convenience all affect the performance of my work—aspects out of my control. When it is my design that attracts, that is collected, and that is praised, those are the rewards that I work for, more than the money—but I have to pay my expenses to provide the business.

tools of the trade by Liane Sebastian7. You can’t afford to do it very often. You can go out of business doing freebies. I could easily devote all my time and talents to organizations that pull my heart strings! But for me, design has a performance responsibility. Money is a validation and measures acceptance. If there is no renumeration for the practice of design, clients suffer the most in the end through being denied ideas that could transform their marketing efforts. It is the responsibility of a professional designer to be dedicated enough to practice full-time, and uphold the profession.

tools of the trade by Liane Sebastian8. Misleads the client. I just crossed paths with a major national association whose marketing director believes that she doesn’t have to pay for photography: just take it from the internet! Apparently the designers who preceded me buried stock photo costs, absorbed subscriptions or usage fees, so that the client perceived there was no payment involved. When I couldn’t deliver the same “advantage,” i.e. maybe I am the only one open about it, the client treated me as if I didn’t know what I was doing. Doing a reality-check with stock agencies and professional photographer friends, I made sure to be on solid footing before accusing this major group of being deluded. The biggest problem, then, is their misperception is carried into future relationships and they have a no knowledge of the legalities of what represents them.


Don’t get me wrong: I do believe in contributing talents and time to organizations. 10% of my work is pro bono—but that doesn’t mean it is free. I have found that people don’t value what they get for free in the same way they do what they pay for. I require the pro bono client to pay out-of-pocket expenses, purchase needed technology, help to create initial parameters, and to provide backgrounds. Pro bono projects can offer more creative freedom than paying work, a more casual work environment, and collaboration towards a greater cause. The benefits of doing pro bono are the benefits that you hoped to get by doing speculative or free work. But outlay is covered and something received inkind:

tools of the trade by Liane Sebastian1. Ask for exchange. Work on promoting the design with a press release, build media contacts, or exhibit in an opening celebration. I always find something that will benefit me in trade—a membership, conference attendance, publication, or enough samples of a printed piece to use for my promotion. Rather than undervalue my work by giving it away for free, I get some great rewards by asking for them! I believe that ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get.’

tools of the trade by Liane Sebastian2. Work on a cause that you passionately support. The results are extra fulfilling because they have impact on changes you wish to make, remedies you believe necessary, or participation in helping those who are in need. You make friends with people who share your values.

tools of the trade by Liane Sebastian3. Sometimes you make connections that lead to more business. It can happen, though it is unfortunately rare, that you turn the pro bono client into one that pays. Although this may be a goal that motivates you to get involved, realistically, it only happens about 1/4 of the time.

How do I know all this? I have been burned in competitions where the end result has no participant that wins! Or else the competitor wins that had really won before the judging. Never submitting to purely speculative work, I have always at least recieved a presentation fee or I have not participated in such ‘opportunities.’ Its been hard sometimes to not get seduced by the potential, but even my last dance with a pro bono logo design resulted in discovering a politically divided and frozen committee. The most professional, polished, savvy, and successful clients I have ever known are always ones who are willing to pay for work. They are demanding, tough to please, and put the necessary management time into marketing initiatives. They respect the time of other professionals, are organized, and responsive. Smart and successful, they know how to use design as a tool.

Perhaps I should be happy that this designer offered her services for free. Maybe like a magnet, she will attract all the shards of business that are unprofitable, unfulfilling, and ultimately ineffectual. It leaves the better work for those of us who are committed enough to dedicate our livelihoods to the service of visual progress.

Liane Sebastian, illustrator, designer, writer, and publishing pioneer


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One Response to “Why ‘Free’ Isn’t: the case against speculative or free graphic design”

  1. Free Isn’t Free: the case against give-away graphic design | Sebastian Study: Design Review Says:

    […] thus learning on your project • needs work, is hungry, and doesn’t know any better (see my blog about why this is such a bad idea for designers to undertake) • is willling to donate services […]

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