Digital design and other shiny toys

What, you want me to pay for this?

Posted on by Paul

Some jobs just don’t work out…

Designers often find themselves dealing with clients who want something for free. It won’t be put that way, though. Instead they’ll say something like “we can’t pay you right now, but when things take off there will be lots more work for you”.

I’ve done pro-bono jobs and worked on projects with friends. Sometimes it’s to kick-start a new venture, sometimes because I just want to help out. However, when a commercial client says they can’t pay they probably mean “we don’t think your time is worth anything”. I often do preliminary work when approached by a new client and don’t expect payment for this, thinking of it as personal research to make sure I’m suitable for the job. This is especially true of web or application development jobs where I need to verify what’s being asked is possible and that I can do it. The up-front work minimises the risk for me and the client, increases my chances of getting the contract and, of course, paid. That said, if a client’s opening pitch includes that fact that they can’t pay for the first job it may be best to turn them down. Which, I’ll admit I’m not good at. Like most freelancers I hate to turn down work, worrying that I’ll regret it later. However, I’ll regret working for nothing even more.

Another alarming sign is when the client won’t provide a project specification, preferring to keep the job vague so they can repeatedly add ‘one last thing’. (Sometimes my job actually involves work on the project spec but that implies prior agreement.) Getting shifty when I mention a contract is another danger sign.

This also touches on the subject of ‘spec work’; being asked to provide free work with the promise of payment if the client likes it. High profile designers such as David Airey have been writing about this for years, so check out his site for more information.

I wish I had a rock-solid rule like “never do work up-front” but there’s often negotiation and shuffling around before a contract is agreed. I accept this and usually avoid problems. Unfortunately things sometimes fall apart because the client planned to rip you off from the start. Of course, this isn’t limited to designers. I’m sure other professions have the same problem too.

I hope this doesn’t sound like a rant, because it isn’t meant to be. If I’m lucky another designer who’s just had a rotten job will find this and realise they’re not alone.

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