I’m sick of working for free

I do volunteer design work and they treat me like a dog. I'm through giving it away!

Topics: Since You Asked, graphic design, Labor, small business,

I'm sick of working for free (Credit: Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Reader,

I’m loving these letters about creative problems. Keep ‘em comin’!

Dear Cary,

I’m an art director/graphic designer and have more than quite a few years experience behind me, as well as a BFA. I am capable and qualified to do what I do. I have active memberships in national professional organizations, and work on staying current in my constantly changing-by-the-minute field.

Over these many years I have always donated my time and talents when asked by various nonprofits, schools, communities and churches. I enjoy seeing something succeed because of my efforts and having that going to the greater good (posters, fliers, logos, ad campaigns, banners, T-shirts, teaching, promotional efforts of all kinds, you name it and they’ve asked for it).

As of January I decided to put a moratorium on my professional services for anything that does not involve pay.

Let me say this: The people who sincerely appreciate what I can contribute through these volunteer efforts are the only reason that I have continued to this point. On the other hand, the bevy of comments that I have heard of late is flabbergasting. They are irrelevant, off-base and sometimes just mean.

While this can happen with paid work, it is just that: paid work. I’m open to constructive criticism and direction, but I also need to do work to keep the lights on. I can’t spend thousands of hours anymore on something for free and take abuse like this. Lately I want to yell at them only two words — no, not those two words, but it’s tempting — these two words: “IT’S FREE.” (OK, and this too: “It’s better than anything you all could have produced in your Microsoft Word v.2004 times a thousand.”)

I’m also noticing a level of greed and hubris that I find appalling. When I see copyright violation of what I produced for an event (for example, using the artwork on other collateral that was prohibited in my pro-bono written agreement with them). If they wanted to use it in other pieces they should have stated that. I’m saddened, to say the least. It’s not worth going after them because what would come of it? It’s already out there and they’re broke or they wouldn’t need the donation.



They keep coming back for more (and sending their friends). In an effort to deal with this issue, I have scaled back over the past two years. But now, as I mentioned above, I am quitting entirely.

While this as a whole is not a new struggle, is it now part of the warped Facebook era we live in (“dislike!”)? Is everyone a “professional writer” because they have a computer? Is everyone a “professional photographer” because of Instagram? Is everyone a “typographer” because they think they know what the word “font” means? Are we all now qualified to abuse another’s area of creative experience?

What are your thoughts, Cary? Does volunteering my creativity, skills and expertise make my efforts worth less?

Grumpy Cat (harrumpf)

p.s. On a positive note, my compliments to the illustrator who did your caricature gracing the column. The line work is sublime and I’ve always especially loved the eyebrows. (Note from Cary: Zach Trenholm did the eyebrows with X’s because at the time the column was running in Salon’s “sex” department.-ct)

p.p.s. A relevant article on a larger scale

Dear Grumpy Cat,

Harrumpf indeed. You raise many interesting points. At the risk of oversimplifying, since I am on deadline, I’ll just take one issue and go crazy. I am glad you have imposed a moratorium on your pro-bono work. This is for the rest of the workers out there who are being taken advantage of:

Designers of the world, stop working for free! You determine the value of your work by what you charge for it. It’s that simple. So stop working for free.

Why do people use your work for free and not thank you for it? Because they can. Why do people think graphic designers will work for free? Because they will. As long as graphic designers work for free, people will expect it.

So stop working for free! Graphic designers of the world: Make your clients pay! Always invoice. Invoice everyone. Invoice for what you need. Sending an invoice memorializes the value of your labor. Plus, if you always invoice then people will expect it. Plus, your accounting will improve. Plus, you will know where your hours went. So always invoice!

Keep track of the hours you spend. Record them to the quarter-hour or to the minute. Write down when you start working on a project and when you stop. Write it right on the project you are working on, if possible. When you bill someone for your time, give a detailed account of how you spent that time.

Here’s a good rule: Make your rate high enough so that you are grateful when someone pays you. Have a rate that is high enough that it motivates you to do the work and do it well. Have a rate high enough that you are happy to do the work at that rate.

Don’t work for free. Don’t even work for friends for free. Don’t even work on joint projects for free. If it is a cooperative venture, then each party should bill the other so the bills cancel each other out. That way, each party will know the value of the work the other party did.

Even if you are independently wealthy and can afford to work for free, don’t work for free. Just give money. Working for free distorts the labor market. Other people need the paying work.

Have a sliding scale if it makes you feel better. But what is a “sliding scale,” really, but a form of discount pricing? Make sure your lowest rate is still high enough. A good sliding scale will result in your being paid what you need to be paid. If you lose money then raise the bottom price.

Basically, my rant is this: Always charge for your work. Stop working for free. If people think they can design complex projects themselves, let them try. Let them live with the results.

Besides, not every notice and bulletin and flier needs to be designed. Not every school announcement of every play and every picnic needs to be designed. Not every lost-pet sign and notice needs to be designed. Some things can be just hand lettered. Some things can be just typed.

Not everything needs to be designed. Sometimes it’s just information. Sometimes plain text is just fine.

OK, so I know some of this sounds a little crazy, and I may have overstated some things, but this is a rant. If you’re a volunteer in an organization and it’s working fine, that’s fine. You don’t have to quit. In fact, you don’t have to do anything I say. I’m not your boss. I’m not your mother. I’m just ranting. This is for those people out there who are getting ripped off and feel like it’s not OK to say no. Its OK to say no. Its OK to charge what you’re worth. In fact, it’s better for everybody if you do. OK?

‘Nuff said.

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