Pro bono or not pro?
April 14, 2005 9:55 PM   Subscribe

Why do graphic designers work for free so often?

Inspired by this question. I can't think of any other profession that is expected to (and does) give away their work with the same frequency. Many designers seem to feel that their pro-bono clients take advantage of them, yet they still continue to work for free. Why is that?
posted by letitrain to Work & Money (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
because they're a dime a dozen.
posted by puke & cry at 10:07 PM on April 14, 2005

also, they aren't well established enough to charge for their services. Same reason lawyers do pro bono work, usually. BTW, that's why i'm switching from web design to estate law. Too many competitors.
posted by puke & cry at 10:14 PM on April 14, 2005

Tangentially answering your question, lawyers are theoretically obligated to give away a certain percentage of their time to pro bono work. My firm even has a dedicated pro bono partner to hook associates and partners up with pro bono projects (not sure how common this is).

To answer your question more directly, designers benefit from work even if they're not getting paid because they get to keep honing their skills. It's relatively easier to "lose the edge" in design than in, say, law. It's like writing: if you stop writing for a while, you lose the ease of throwing words on paper... if you keep writing and writing, then writing for a purpose becomes much easier.

I worked for an ad agency for a while (not as a designer) and I'm also going into law, puke & cry (which is my reaction to a lot of the BS in the legal world, as a matter of fact, heh..)
posted by socratic at 10:29 PM on April 14, 2005

Yes, puke&cry--the crappy untalented ones are a dime a dozen. The good ones are substantially more, and if they work for free it's because they can afford to.
posted by fandango_matt at 10:42 PM on April 14, 2005

Also, any work that is seen may be noticed.

Any other profession? How about programmers that contribute to open source projects? Not only giving away their work, but doing so in a highly organized way.
posted by Goofyy at 10:45 PM on April 14, 2005

sure, matt. keep telling yourself that.
posted by puke & cry at 10:59 PM on April 14, 2005

because they're a dime a dozen

Ouch! (No, I'm not a graphic designer. But as a copywriter, I've been surrounded by them for the last 10 years.)

I work with some of the best graphic designers in the world. Or at least the best known graphic designers in the world. And there's lots of pro bono work -- both through work and individual freelance.

Why do these people, people that are very good, people that get paid mad phat insane money to design identity and packages and everything else for the largest companies in the world, give their work away?

Satisfaction and/or portfolio development.

The problem with being a graphic designer, especially a well-known one, is you work for big, boring, safe clients. And they pick the most boring option. So, even if you're amazing, you get frustrated because your brilliant ideas are too scary for your clients and even your mediocre ideas get watered down and blanded by the client.

When you work pro bono, you call a lot more of the shots -- still not all of them, but you can leverage a lot of your expertise to push them into amazing work. And then it gets produced. And you're proud. And you win awards. And then you get exposure. And then you get more rich clients who want something just like the pro bono guys got. Except safer. And more bland.

(Sure, there are hack graphic designers. There are also hack writers, hack artists and people who think they can cut your hair without a beautician's license. Don't fall into the perceived value trap and mentally punish the good guys for doing free work.)
posted by Gucky at 11:03 PM on April 14, 2005

i think gucky's answer is better than mine. I fold.
posted by puke & cry at 11:14 PM on April 14, 2005

Gucky and Fandango Matt are right...

I do pro bono, so I can be seen.
More exposure, more work that pays.

Designers also reach their peaks later in life. Excellent designers have worked until their 90's. You can't say that of most other professions.

We just have a bit more time to give away...
posted by lorbus at 11:22 PM on April 14, 2005

Gucky's right. Also the fact that many groups *need* graphic or web design (esp today when everyone has a website), and many people's extent of design is making a Microsoft Word flyer with bold Comic Sans font. *shudder*
posted by gramcracker at 11:24 PM on April 14, 2005

One of the drawbacks of being a designer (I've been one for just under 15 years) is that your product is somewhat intangible, being mostly based off of the execution of "concepts" and "ideas", versus someone who produces, builds or fixes something physical. Once people find out you're a designer, everyone from friends to family begin to crawl out of the woodwork and expects you to help them out with everything from church fliers to a logo for their sister-in-law's new flower shop.

Most people just don't put a lot of value in design, or at least they may not consider it "real" work. If your friend's new boyfriend was a painter, would you ask him to paint your house for free? Of course not. Yet people continually ask designers to provide their services for free or for well below market value.

It becomes a stickier issue when companies and organizations (some charitable and others not) hold "contests" for logo (etc.) design. They invite designers to submit speculative concepts for their needs, a "winner" is picked and is sometimes awarded a nominal fee, sometimes just a credit. Most professional designers feel that supporting the concepts of "spec" work for these contests is damaging to the industry as a whole, and I tend to agree.

These problematic situations are compounded by what began with the "desktop publishing revolution" brought on by the original Macintosh, and continue to this day with CD-ROMs full of clip art and fonts that make virtually anyone with a color monitor and a mouse a "designer".

The other answer to your question--regarding legitimately selected pro bono clients--has been addressed. The most common reason designers will accept pro bono work is the perceived opportunity to do something truly creative outside the bounds of what their normal paying clients (who have final say) might be comfortable with. Although I've found pro-bono clients to sometimes be the most opinionated and difficult to deal with for some reason. Some are truly grateful for the service and accept your recommendations, others sometimes assert a strange sense of entitlement and are no different than the worst regular clients.

Other designers accept pro-bono work to fill out their portfolio with clients outside of their niche client-base (a designer who works a day job with primarily technology-oriented clients might want to balance their portfolio with some work from a healthcare organization or consumer or entertainment group.) A more diverse portfolio helps to exhibit a designer's range and ability to produce solid work for many industries, ostensibly giving them wider opportunities to more easily pick up future paying work.

There are also a number of "celebrity" designers (or very senior designers or principals within successful design studios) who frankly have become so successful that they elect to take on pro-bono work for almost purely altruistic reasons, but as others have noted any exposure is good exposure, and even top-tier designers can benefit from positive association.

Finally, sometimes pro-bono work is accepted as part of a service trade. It's common for some designers to work "for free" for another organization for mutual benefit. For example, many print shops and paper manufacturers get high-end designers to create promotional materials in trade for printing or supplying paper for the designer's own collateral.

It may seem like "so many" designers work for free because design, in general, is also ubiquitous -- everyone, every business, can use it and recognizes a need for it -- they just might not be aware of the value behind it.
posted by robbie01 at 11:50 PM on April 14, 2005

For me (web design/development) it's a variety of reasons. For one thing, it does help increase visibility. For another, there are sometimes benefits besides direct payment (for example, I'm doing a bit of work for a political campaign; some of it is tax-deductible). And sometimes you just see a project that strikes your fancy; I've happily contributed time and effort to a couple of non-profit organizations working for (in my opinion) worthy causes, for example.
posted by ubernostrum at 12:00 AM on April 15, 2005

Gucky summed it up very well. I think there are two big reasons:

First, some designers do free work just to build their portfolio and/or gain exposure. It's a crowded field, which makes it even more common... A lot of people will do work free when they're starting out just so they can get a job. They can put it in their portfolio, and it may lead to paying work, so they're still benefitting from it. A good portfolio is important... Few people are going to hire a designer without seeing their work first. That work has to come from somewhere, and work for a real company looks a lot better than just personal projects or something for a fictional company.

Second, paid design work can get pretty disheartening at times. Working free or cheaply generally means more freedom to do want you want, to explore, to do really good work. If you can do as you please, it's not really work, you're just creating something cool. It's like drawing a comic versus drawing a detailed technical diagram... There's a big difference.

I think the reason people complain about pro-bono clients taking advantage of them is because they're looking for (and expecting) the latter. They're working for free because they want to enjoy it, they want to create something they're actually proud of, not something designed by committee. The reason they keep doing free work is because often that is what they get to do. (You're just less likely to hear about those jobs!)
posted by robotspacer at 12:11 AM on April 15, 2005

Some of you have noted that successful designers often take on pro bono work. But depending on where a designer is in their career there may be different reasons.

Young designers who are just starting out are looking for ways to build their portfolio and gain business connections. Doing work for free is a way to make this happen. Speaking personally, I did several large pro bono projects when I was starting out for exactly these reasons. Unfortunately, young designers also lack the business acumen to protect themselves and their work.

because they're a dime a dozen.

While this is intentionally snarky it is not altogether untrue. Part of it has to do with the fact there is a perception among some clients that the tools make the designer, i.e., I have Photoshop so I am a designer. But this leads to a discussion of accrediting the profession so don't get me started . . .

Anyway, it could also be that the people you see giving away design are not designers but rather hobbyists.
posted by quadog at 12:14 AM on April 15, 2005

Part of it has to do with the fact there is a perception among some clients that the tools make the designer, i.e., I have Photoshop so I am a designer.

Oh how awesome it is to at least have PhotoShop. I am very, very jealous that designers/art directors have scary programs.

*Everyone* thinks they're a writer. Someone once suggested I create a very complicated program called WordShop that intimidates everyone so that people will stop trying to prove to me that they can do my job as well as I can.

No one even wants pro bono work from a copywriter. "I can write a funny ad myself. I've got Word."
posted by Gucky at 12:27 AM on April 15, 2005

Most artists are terrible at business. Many graphic designers are artists seeking a regular paycheck. Therefore, many graphic designers are terrible at business because they don't know how to get as much money for their work as possible. However, they are on the right track and probably make a better wage than most "pure" artists.

On the plus side, if you have decent project management skills and moderately good taste, you can save a ton of money by working with a cheap graphic designer. Expensive graphic designers aren't necessarily any better at graphic design, they are just better at business (or work for a big studio with a sales staff).
posted by b1tr0t at 12:34 AM on April 15, 2005

puke&cry : You appear to have some issues regarding graphic designers; are you a failed one yourself?

Anyway, a lot of designers do things for friends partly for a favour, but also out of just loving design.
posted by derbs at 2:53 AM on April 15, 2005

posted by puke & cry: sure, matt. keep telling yourself that.

Thanks, I will. I'll put it on my new iPod and listen to it all the way to the bank.
posted by fandango_matt at 8:53 AM on April 15, 2005

I'm not a dime a dozen! I'm a penny each.

I'm an established graphic designer. I'm so established that I've been trying for a couple of years now to stop working so I can concentrate on going back to school.

I do work for free for two reasons:

1. To help projects that feel good to me. I love to support artists and small, mom-owned businesses. Their budgets are tight. They can't afford me if I charge them, but what they're doing is worthwhile to me.

2. I do a lot of corporate this and that, which, frankly, is boring. Sometimes, I want to do something that's pretty or frivolous or involves the wacky fun of hand-assembly. And sometimes, if a project like that has not come my way in the form of a contract, I'll seek one out and do it for free or near-free. It makes me enjoy my work again.
posted by houseofdanie at 9:51 AM on April 15, 2005

Sometimes we horse trade too. I designed the logo and GUI elements for the very popular Default Folder in exchange for a license and my name in the about box. I got:

•To support Mac OS X shareware, a scene near and dear to me
•HUGE exposure
•Ego boost of seeing my own design elements grafted in to OS X a million times a day

Plus, the developer is a really nice guy
posted by Scoo at 1:35 PM on April 15, 2005

Some times being creative trumps being paid. Sometimes.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 6:41 PM on April 15, 2005

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