I had an experience this week that I wish were rare in my industry, but sadly it just isn’t. I was asked, by a stranger, to work for them for nothing. This person wanted me to do what I do every day for a very good living, but for them, and for free. They’re not a charity or a non-profit — just a person with an event and a big-name brand sponsor. Here’s the message they sent me through my online portfolio:

Hi, if you have possible interest in a promotional barter, we have interest from
[big-name brand] for an annual [event].

We need to tweak our .com art. Please advise if you may have interest.

Sounds interesting enough, but pretty vague as to what exactly the scope of that “tweak” would be and just what they’d be offering in trade. I think there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing design work, or any work, in trade for something that isn’t money. In fact, I wish more of our economy worked on the barter system. I have a side project going right now that’s being paid in trade, and I’m really excited about what I’m getting in return for my time, effort, and expertise. It’s a great arrangement if you’re not trying to make a living as a freelancer. The catch, however, is that the client does still need to offer up something of meaningful value in trade for work done, even if it’s not cash.  So this was my reply:

I’d definitely be interested in knowing more about your needs. My first question is just what you mean by a “promotional barter” – that is, what are you offering in return for some graphics work?

I really do like to give people the benefit of the doubt, but this isn’t my first rodeo. Design, as a professional discipline, is chronically undervalued by people who don’t have regular experience working with professional designers or creative services agencies. I don’t think it’s malicious, but part of being a thick-skinned creative is learning not to flinch when people think what you do is either very easy or completely worthless. Their response:

In addition to the project being a useful promotion to enhance your portfolio, we can list you at [their website] ‘Credits’.

You’ve gotta love the classics. I’d bet every designer has heard this line at least once in their career. Honestly, it’s pretty hard not to be insulted by this kind of presumptive devaluation of what we do every day. Imagine going to your auto mechanic and saying “In return for fixing my car, I’ll let you take a picture of my car for your lobby and I’ll put a sticker on my engine that says ‘this car was fixed by Jim.’ Deal?” Sounds ridiculous, right? Yet designers get this all the time. I really don’t mean to be flippant, and I’m certain that the individual who contacted me meant no harm. I just don’t understand why people think that designers should be so willing to work for little or nothing.

Sure, it would be nice to have [big-name brand]’s logo on my resume, but I’m not exactly hurting for big-name logos — in fact I helped redesign a couple that are already on there. Maybe that’s why this bugs me so much. I’ve been doing this professionally (that is, for a living) for the better part of a decade now. The only time — the only time — it’s even remotely acceptable to suggest that a designer work for you purely for the benefit of his or her portfolio is if it’s your niece and she’s still in design school. But even then, it’s pretty unfair. She can and should get paid for any work she does for a real world client — period. She shouldn’t be charging a whole lot, but her time and her expertise, limited as it may yet be, are still valuable — still worth something.

Thing is, when someone offers me “portfolio work” they’re not actually doing me a favor, even if I were still in school. I can create essentially “fake” ads and designs for Nike or Apple or any other big-name brand and put them in my portfolio whenever I want. They don’t have to be actual projects to have a place in my book. Designers and copywriters use the term “spec work” to describe portfolio pieces that were either unused or unsolicited by a brand — and most creatives’ books have such work in them. Mine has several samples in it that never saw the light of day, but they’re good ideas and a great demonstration of how I think. CMYK Magazine is full of this kind of work — brilliant student ad concepts, designs, and photography done for household name brands with neither their input nor their permission. But each showcasing the skill and creativity of the designer or writer. That’s what a portfolio is ultimately about — demonstrating my professional creativity on my terms — not as a default repository for any project I happen to work on. Sure, showcasing actual projects is a great way to build credibility, but a wise veteran copywriter once told me, “Your portfolio is the only place in your entire career where you get do exactly the kind of work you want to do. No budget constraints, and no fearful client feedback to compromise your ideas. What would you do if you could do anything? That’s what your portfolio should be about.” I’m still trying to live up to that in my own portfolio, but I’m also really fortunate. I’ve got a lot of good, actual work to show for my time in the industry. But if I were looking to do work just for my book’s sake, it sure wouldn’t be for people who assume my work is worthless from the start. Nathaniel Salzman

I’m not alone. Here are more examples from Clients from Hell:

Is $300 a fair price for your time? Or if you want, I can pay you in X-Men comics as I have a few grand worth gathering dust!

Well, I was hoping you wouldn’t just be interested in making money. I wanted you to understand how much you could learn from me, and how valuable that would be. That’s why I think $12/hr is a fair rate for you to produce the website. If you can’t work for this rate than you miss out.

We will pay you when the site is making profit.

So, you’re saying that it will take 2 days to complete this illustration. If we give you the project today, can we have it tomorrow afternoon at half the price?

We don’t have a lot of budget for this project but feel it would make a great portfolio piece and would really be worth the experience.

… and by the way, I can’t afford to pay you for this job, but you will be paid in karma — which is so much better and more permanent anyway.

We’re not happy with the concept you sent over, as a result we don’t feel we should have to pay for it. Can you please send over the design so far as a word document so we can change it ourselves.

I don’t want to pay for something that might not be what I want – can you make up a few working samples of my site and send me all the stuff for it? Then I can try them out and choose the one I like best.

Prospective client: $400 for a logo?! Why are you so expensive? My nephew has Photoshop—I can just get him to do it.
Me: Does your nephew have Microsoft Word?
Prospective client: Yes.
Me: Then have him write you a novel while he’s at it.