an online conversation
about design management

Giving it away for free

Recently a range of articles hit my inbox, all with one common message: don’t undervalue your work.

First I read a post from an old uni friend – an Archibald-finalist illustrator — who was recently asked to contribute a full colour illustration to be used on the front cover of a magazine. The fee? $50.

That was followed by media reports about Crikey’s arts website called The Daily Review. It’s a website with no contributor budget – a business plan based on contributors writing for free.

Finally, this article in The New York Times Sunday Review Opinion Pages popped up. It’s about exactly the same issue: a writer lamenting that exposure is not more valuable than money.

The author is Tim Krieder. The article is worth reading in full but here’s some of this thoughts:

I now contribute to some of the most prestigious online publications in the English-speaking world, for which I am paid the same amount as, if not less than, I was paid by my local alternative weekly when I sold my first piece of writing for print in 1989. …. I’ve been trying to understand the mentality that leads people who wouldn’t ask a stranger to give them a keychain or a Twizzler to ask me to write them a thousand words for nothing.

I will freely admit that writing beats baling hay or going door-to-door for a living, but it’s still shockingly unenjoyable work. I spent 20 years and wrote thousands of pages learning the trivial craft of putting sentences together. My parents blew tens of thousands of 1980s dollars on tuition at a prestigious institution to train me for this job. They also put my sister the pulmonologist through medical school, and as far as I know nobody ever asks her to perform a quick lobectomy — doesn’t have to be anything fancy, maybe just in her spare time, whatever she can do would be great — because it’ll help get her name out there.

Tim offered, for public use, his own template that he uses to respond to people who offer to let him write something for them for nothing:

Thanks very much for your compliments on my [writing/illustration/whatever thing you do].

I’m flattered by your invitation to [do whatever it is they want you to do for nothing]. But [thing you do] is work, it takes time, it’s how I make my living, and in this economy I can’t afford to do it for free. I’m sorry to decline, but thanks again, sincerely, for your kind words about my work.

The take away point

It’s not just the design field. Asking for a ‘freebie’ is everywhere across the creative fields so we need to be able to decline the offer with grace, without burning bridges and without harbouring grudges and accept it for what it is because it’s not going away.

The growth of sites such as 99 designs and Freelancer are eating away at the basic work that many studios relied on to meet overheads. 99 designs has recently changed its business model so that design buyers will be directed to designers in their country. They recognised that there were problems with designers having English as a second language and have changed their operation to correct the problem. The indication is that they will then extend this to local area marketing to put designers and clients in easy reach of one another. This will see more work going to freelancers and away from those studios that want to grow and employ designers.

The solution?

Design studios need to move away from relying on the basic ‘craft’ level design work. They need to develop an understanding of design’s role in business strategy and then build a business model that supplies design as part of strategy.

If you would like to know more about how to do this take a look at the Design Business Council workshops and e-courses.