I freelance for free and it makes me feel like a bad designer.

Spend any amount of time around a designer and chances are you’ve heard us making fun of the whole “it’s good exposure” comment. If you’re unfamiliar with this, basically it’s extremely frowned upon if you expect a designer to do your project for free. Counter points are “I went to school for this. It took me 15 minutes to do but it took 4 years of studying how to do it” or “Tell a dentist to do a filling for free because it’s ‘good exposure.’” Seems perfectly logical and perfectly makes sense and we should all be behind designers for this. Right? Right. My problem…

I can’t stop designing this shit for free.

Like, I get it. If you’re good at something don’t do it for free. I work full-time at NewCity, but tackle freelance projects outside of work every so often. Sometimes I expect to be paid, sometimes I’ll get so excited about the idea of the project I’ll do it for a burrito. And then it feels like I’m damaging the value of what I do, but part of me wonders… “would I still get the opportunity to work on cool shit if I charged everyone my hourly rate?”

How us designers usually feel about new projects.

I work primarily in higher education. I honestly have grown to love working in that space, and I think it provides enough creativity and constraints where I’m happy. However, it can get tiresome every now and then. Sometimes similar clients can start to feel too same-y, especially when you start hearing the same stuff over and over like “Student Faculty Ratio of 8:1” or “We even have a quidditch team!” If I’m in a rut from a lot of the same clients, freelance work is a great way for me to get out of that. Some clients have money, some don’t but you might find yourself making something really fucking cool. The best way I’ve been able to stretch my wings in design is by taking on freelance projects…for nothing. Going back to burritos (mmm…) – graphic design legend Aaron Draplin swears by this idea as a way to find yourself doing cool, new things.

Speaking of cool, new things…I can learn a lot by tackling work for cheap. I learn better when I feel like I have a goal in mind other than “Hey I should learn CSS.” As long as I can communicate it at the beginning, some clients are very understanding of the fact that I don’t dabble in InDesign too often anymore. Or that I have a limited knowledge of HTML and CSS. Doing work for free lets me learn new things as a way of keeping things fresh and growing my skills. But like I said…doesn’t work for every client.

Of course there are issues. Sometimes you get a client that you would NEVER EVER want to work for even if they paid you, let alone for free. I try to get a good idea of the personality type first before I tackle a project. Seems obvious but I thought I’d mention it in case you all thought I was crazy for dealing with these crazy folks for free. I’ve been burned many times before for taking on more than I can chew because it sounded interesting at the time. There’s also just the idea of “YOU’RE the problem! Wtf, why are you using your free time to make stuff for cheap?!” Oh I don’t know, I just enjoy it? It really does feel weird, because I totally get the sentiment. I can always use extra cash (gotta get beer money somehow). But like I said, I don’t just blindly go in giving everyone free work. But every so often I’ll get someone who has a REALLY cool idea or project I like, but not a lot of money to do so. I bend the rules a bit for them because I can see the benefit it’ll give me in my otherwise higher ed-only experience.

So that’s my mini rant…I feel like I get a lot of weird looks when I tell people this. To be honest it’s a plus of having a full time design job then being able to be selective on the side. If you’re currently doing freelance as your only means of work, please charge people! But maybe if someone awesome comes to you with a unique idea, be open a bit. You might find yourself doing something different and that’s okay.

Check out this TED Talk from Aaron Draplin! ❤️ MY MAN!

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