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When a professional designer works for free
Per favore, ruota il dispositivo

When a professional designer works for free

In 14 years of work as a designer (it seems like an eternity to me), I’ve often wondered what being a professional designer means: respecting deadlines? Not making formal mistakes? Taking responsibility for your work?

But above all, I was amazed how often professionalism fades completely in the case of pro bono collaborations and in cases of “speculative work”, in short, in collaborations with zero budget or that provide for reimbursement of expenses.

In other words, are there situations in which it is legitimate, permitted or simply reasonable to adapt one’s professionalism to the context?

Creative work “for free”

In the world of design and communication we often talk about spec work (or free pitching), a subject that often arouses criticism and indignation. The main criticism of this type of collaboration is mainly of an ethical nature: spec work does not protect the professional designer either by defining a contract or by paying him a fee for the work done. In short, it is an assignment of unprotected creative work, carried out free of charge or in exchange for a reimbursement of expenses, often required to test the designer’s skills or to participate in competitions and contests.

However, there are cases where working for free may be a choice:

  • Volunteer or pro bono projects
  • Projects for coveted clients
  • Projects to try your hand at a new market
  • Projects of family or friends
  • Projects to build your portfolio

Even in this case, however, collaboration risks being pervaded by a growing sense of dissatisfaction, felt by both the client and the person in charge, linked to the unfulfilled expectations of the one and the frustration of not getting a fair recognition of the other’s efforts.

As they say: good fences make good neighbors. And sometimes, precisely because the pacts are not so clear or because a belated afterthought emerges, collaboration risks foundering, leaving everyone dissatisfied.

professional free work

Photo by Freddie Collins on Unsplash

My experience

In various stages of my experience as a designer and entrepreneur, I have taken part in collaborations free of charge too, which included symbolic or non-economic remuneration. And I believe that these are the best opportunities to test the reliability of a professional.

As an entrepreneur, in fact, I have learned to circumscribe expectations and to be wary of those who partially commit themselves with the alibi of reduced remuneration.

As a designer, I approached each of these collaborations with the same passion, seriousness and care that I dedicate to those “standards”. Certainly not because the economic aspect is irrelevant, on the contrary (it is the sacrosanct recognition of the value contributed through work). But rather because I do not think we can behave otherwise. I believe that professionalism must emerge regardless of context, client and salary. Not so much because it is a strategic, advantageous or right choice but because, like morality, it is a part of us that we should not be able to “deactivate”.

As I see it, either we do something right, and to the end, or we might as well not do it at all. And this applies to professional assignments, personal projects or Christmas tree decorations.

creative branding industry

Photo by Li Yang on Unsplash

How to get out alive

So, if you have a spec work or pro bono project on your hands in which you want to participate, you might as well find a way to deal with it in the best way possible, so as not to risk damaging your reputation or investing more energy than you should.

When I found myself in such situations, I tried to limit the damage in this way:

1. Reduce the formalities

In agreement with the client, I chose to lighten the work of those formalities that dot a classic project, sometimes roughing up the processes and some elements of form but certainly not the substance of the work.

2. Make the deliverables ironclad

Establishing very clearly how many and what the objects of the design will be helped me to keep expectations on both sides firm and avoid unexpected demands in progress.

3. Arrange the degree of creative freedom

How far can I go with my creativity? Which stakes should be taken into account in the design? Also on this point, a preventive comparison with the client allows you to work in the right direction and avoids loss of energy.

4. Limit the number of revisions

In collaborations such as these, agreeing on the maximum number of revisions of papers can help to optimize efforts, focusing the attention of both parties on what is produced.

5. Banning “I don’t like”

Absolutely valid also in “standard” orders, reviewing the works using the point of view of the target audience and not that of the client, helps to avoid unnecessary deadlocks and to create a truly effective project.

Regardless of the compensation and motivations that push us to face a project, we might as well put all our efforts into it. Because every collaboration is an opportunity to learn something new, put yourself to the test and improve your reputation.

And because, once concluded and made public, no one will comment on it like this:

What a mediocre project, surely the professional has been underpaid.


Matteo Sublimio Founder & Creative Director

Matteo Modica
Founder & Creative Director

A tireless purveyor of quality, Matteo manages every branding and communication project down to the details, leading creative teams to always express their best.


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