I ran across this great little video and had to share. Mainly because it’s crazy how often people working in creative fields – web designers, graphic designers, photographers, writers, etc. – get asked to do things for free, or cheap, by people who tell us what a “great opportunity” their particular project would be to “help build our portfolios.”

This, in and of itself, is rather laughable, since I have spent over 25 years in my industry. I think my portfolio is pretty fleshed out at this point. Plus, I can pick and choose what paying projects I want to include in my own portfolio, thank you very much.

It’s a little bizarre, because what other professions get asked to work for free or cheap? Or to complete work before the client is willing to part with their own hard-earned dollars?

I absolutely love this video made by Zulu Alpha Kilo, an advertising agency based out of Canada, showing (rather accurately, I must say) how other industries would react if they were asked to to spec (i.e. free) work for their clients and customers.

You see, architects don’t give away their blueprints or do them on “spec.” Diners and coffee shops don’t give out free meals and drinks if you promise to pay “if you like the end product.” Personal trainers don’t sign over their intellectual property. Yet, web designers, graphic designers, writers, photographers, and other creative professionals get asked to do these things on a regular basis.

Listen, many of us have spent decades in our particular fields, cultivating the skills and talent that allows us to provide excellent end results for our clients. And, for those that are just getting started in their industries, is it really fair to degrade the work they have been trained to do, by asking them to work for free?

Certainly, they may not make the same amount of money as their counterparts with more experience. But, that tends to be true in most professions. However, they have bills to pay too, and the promise of “exposure” doesn’t pay someone’s electric bill or keep their water on.

If you don’t have a large budget for a project, I get that, but actually hire them for what they are worth. Keep in mind a “newbie” in any field is not going to offer the same value as an experienced professional does, but, I get that they need to get their foot in the door. However, let’s not take advantage of them while they are doing so.

One of the biggest culprits of “spec” work is clients who run “design contests” as a form of hiring a designer. In many of these such “calls for entries” the target is the young and naive designer, who hasn’t yet gained business savvy.

Not all those who run such contests are actively seeking to take advantage of the new designers, they just don’t know any better and have seen others doing so. However, other businesses are very much aware of what they are doing, and are doing it to get work done cheaply or for free. According to an article on the Graphic Artist Guild:

Recently, on a design-related Yahoo Group, a firm posted a letterhead “design contest.” This company, which sold document templates, was offering small cash prizes for the top three designs. No additional residuals were to be offered to the selected designs that would eventually be sold for use by others. In fact, the fine print of the competition noted that all submissions to the “contest” became the property of the company and could be used as they saw fit – meaning the firm could use and sell the designs of non-winners without any form of compensation.

So, they run a contest with a small prize for the top three designs and they are free to sell them to others and continue to make money off the designs, with no residual payments to the designers? Wow… That is seriously messed up, and those designers just gave away their intellectual property for someone else to make money off of!

New designers need to take it upon themselves to be educated in how these things work. Every minute spent doing work on “spec” is a minute spent away from using your time to cultivate new, and actual paying, clients.

And, clients need to remember that creative professionals generally aren’t doing their jobs as a hobby, or to make some side-money while they work their “real” job. Most are in business, and function as a business. They pay taxes, employees, rent and all the other bills that any other company does. Even if they don’t have a retail location, they still have work related expenses that occur when running a legitimate business. They deserve to be treated the same way you would treat any other company you deal with on a day-to-day basis.

If you aren’t walking into your local coffee shopping and asking to try coffee on spec, or asking  your architect to draw you up some plans for a new building, and if you like them you will pay for them, don’t ask the same of your website designer (or any other creative professional).

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Nora Kramer
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Nora Kramer

Lead Web Designer & Developer at Nora Kramer Designs
Nora Kramer is a website professional and online marketing consultant with over two decades of experience in graphic design, website development and company branding. She also has a passion for photography and writing. Nora received the Charlie Award (1st Place) in 2002 for "Best Magazine Feature Article of the Year" from the Florida Magazine Association.
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