This week I read a great article at dellcreativestudio.com on the subject of working for free. This question has come up for myself many times in the past, especially when I was just starting out in web design.
Feeling stuck in the middle of the endless circle of “I can’t find work without experience and a portfolio but I can’t build experience and portfolio until I find work”, doing some free work can seem a lot less painful.
Honestly, I don’t think all free work is bad. I’ve given some pretty generous discounts or not counted hours to help a friend or for a project with a low budget that I really enjoyed and believed in. Helping out a good friend, a family member or even a local charity is completely reasonable to me. Gain experience + add to portfolio + donate a few hours to help someone or something you care about can be a win. ( and possibly some good karma!)
The issue I have is when it’s an obvious situation of a business or organization using someone for free labor instead of hiring a qualified applicant and paying them a decent salary.
I see this mainly on job boards which seem to be getting worse with requests for “interns” with 3 – 5 years of experience and all kinds of development knowledge. And there’s always my personal favorite tag line – “current college student preferred – or someone looking to build their portfolio.”
Interpretation: must have skill, knowledge and be willing to work for free.
I’m not sure why people have the misconception that anyone working in the field of web design and development would even have the ability to work for free. I don’t live for free; my groceries are not free, my rent is not free and gas for my car is not free.
With the economy still struggling and jobs remaining few and far between, this just seems like employers taking advantage of an already bad situation for people looking for real work.
Another big factor is – free usually isn’t valued.
There are plenty of posts from other designers recounting clients that are willing to pay the least or that want things for free usually being the most difficult and demanding.
Free can also lead people to think – flawed or low quality.
Recently, I read an article in Sitepoint.com’s awesome newsletter called “So Cheep, I Must Be Bad” about how a developer actually lost a prospect because the quote they provided for the project was so low, it caused the client to wonder if the work and service would be high quality for such a low cost.
So what’s a web designer/developer to do?
The chance to work with experienced professionals in your field can be a great opportunity for learning, even if the pay is not as high as you’d like it to be. I think it just has to be a case where you will truly benefit from the job and experience. And a nice, written reference once the project or job is over will be another big help in you landing a bigger and better gig.
With my own freelance work, I try to create a comfortable middle ground, offering certain services for a lower price or being willing to work with someone’s budget (within reason) on small projects.
For me, the bottom line is: Know the value of your time and talents.
And believe in your pricing and stand behind it.
Helping someone out or lowering costs for a friend or worthwhile project will come up, just make sure it feels right to you. Most of the time, not valuing your time or trusting your gut only leads to a miserable work environment and projects you not only don’t enjoy but may even regret.