Designers are problem solvers. Because they like to eat, most of what they do, they do for pay. However, when designers have the time, ability, and interest, they are (sometimes) very happy to help on pro bono projects. To make your life (and theirs) easier, here are some tips for working on projects with them.
Be honest. Don’t mislead someone into thinking you’re interested in hiring them, when in reality you’re trying to solicit free work. Time is money. Don’t waste both for them. Tip: Don’t use words or phrases like “karma” or “heavenly currency” to strong-arm work. That’s a misuse of your convictions or beliefs, not to mention tacky.
Be professional. If you’re asking for professional-level help…for free, be prepared to not take it personally if they can’t help you. If they’re telling you “no,” consider how many people consistently ask for their help on a regular basis, on top of their regular job. It’s not personal. They simply have to cut it off at some point because eating, sleeping, and looking familiar to their family members are all important things. Also note that requesting sub-par work (as if that’s some sort of compromise) is insulting to their craft in an insult-upon-injury sort of way (see point 3 on this post). You’d never tell a surgeon or construction foreman, “Ignore your commitment to good work and your reputation—just something cheap and shoddy to match my price-point, please.”
Be prepared. Mentally walk through what you really want before you ask for help. Then, stick with that as closely as you can. Have all text finalized and proofed ahead of time. Have all photos and artwork ready. Ask questions in advance to anticipate file compatibility. Know your deadline. Know your production budget. Know the size and number of things you want created. The better prepared you are, the better they’ll be able to help you.
Be punctual. Their process is different than using clipart or prefabbed templates. They need time (i.e. think months not days). Whatever time you think they need, assume they already have a laundry list of other projects going on and double, triple, or quadruple the amount of time you had in mind. If you think it’s too soon to start, it’s probably not. Talk with them early on to factor in time for the whole process—even seemingly mundane things like manufacturing, production time, and delivery.
Be considerate. Please don’t volunteer their free help to your cousin’s in-laws’ uncle’s boss’s great-aunt. You wouldn’t expect your dental hygienist friend to freelance a complementary tooth-cleaning at your request, so extend a respectable, professional courtesy to your designer friends as well.
Be understanding. Their help is not a perpetual guarantee. They may have been able to help you with a project a year ago, but that doesn’t mean they can always offer that same help even if they wish they could.
Be law-abiding. Don’t even ask them to copy someone else’s work. They won’t do it. Your project idea, no matter how ‘little,’ would be copyright infringement. It’s okay to like a color (e.g. blue) or a concept (e.g. conveying speed), but to deliberately copy is wrong. Also, it would put your favorite graphic designer’s neck on the line, not yours.
Be real. If your designer friend has willfully chosen to go pro bono to help you, accept it. Don’t randomly offer to pay them at “some point” unless you’re serious. They’ll remember; you’ll forget. It cheapens a considerate gesture all for sake of you feeling less awkward about it for 5 minutes. If, however, you are serious about doing something for them, just do it. Don’t simply talk about it or use it as a bargaining chip.
Be appreciative. Your designer friend probably isn’t expecting some grand gesture of your gratitude because that’s not why they’re offering to help you at no cost, but you’d be surprised how often they pour hours and hours into a project and never actually hear any form of the words “thank you.” (If, however, the two of you are bartering services—say, they design your letterhead, and you install their sink—then by all means, step it up from the vocal appreciation and remember to return the help.)
Be respectful. Even if you and your favorite designer have known each other for years, there are still certain jobs that they won’t do (and shouldn’t be bullied into doing) without a signed contract that lays out “what’s what” for both parties. It’s not personal; it’s professional. Contracts aren’t scary, bad things; they protect both parties. (Additionally, if they have a strict, personal policy against doing work for friends/family, respect their wishes as their interests are simply to keep business and personal separate.)
Be rational. The reason your designer friend can’t gift you 1,000 free letterpress business cards, for example, is because production has cost, and they have living expenses…much the same as you do. Don’t expect them to arm wrestle their vendors for a deal either. Their professional relationships aren’t something they’ll undermine for your benefit.
Be flexible. While your designer friend may not be able to directly help you with projects, they may perhaps have time to advise you on how to do them yourself. If you’re not sure why your RGB image prints awkwardly (or what RGB is!), or why buying navy card stock with the intent to print white letters using your standard inkjet printer is a bad idea, or why pixel count really does matter—those are things they might have time to walk you through.
Finally, the most important of all of these tips:
Be a non-profit or charity organization. When for-profit, non-charitable businesses expect free or cheap work from artists, designers, and the like, it creates a culture that expects quality work at no charge. That isn’t as harmless as it might seem. It’s not that you can’t ask for some freebie projects from your friends from time to time if they’re willing, but cultivating a culture of cheap or free work is a great ‘deal’ for everyone except the ones employed doing those sorts of jobs. It says that the asker deserves a paycheck and the askee does not.
If you’re a for-profit business, consider for a moment just how devaluing that sounds to ask another person to essentially donate their hourly, daily, or weekly pay as a favor to your business so that business can arguably make a profit at that person’s expense. Professional trades require big-time investment by their owners. If you’re patting yourself on the back for the office coffee pot being brewed exclusively with fair trade beans in the break room but feel that a fair wage isn’t owed to the freelancer designing your office letterhead…you’ve missed the point.
Your web designer, musician, hairstylist, florist, programmer, marketing professional, landscaper, artist, builder, chef, graphic designer, writer, photographer, and other hard-working friends might have additional ways in which they can be the most help to you on projects intended for charity, a non-profit organization, or maybe even a favor. By keeping your “asks” efficient, you help designers out a lot so that delays aren’t causing them to sacrifice additional time they’d otherwise spend working on a paid project—or even time spent with their family. When designers take on a pro bono project, they know they’re taking on tasks and deadlines that fill space that would otherwise put food on their table in any other scenario. Don’t lose sight of that. People love to help out a good cause or even a good friend, so do what you can to enable them to help you! You might be surprised by all the helpful things you can learn when you ask, but keep a few of these things in mind when you do, regardless whether the help was due to your ask or their offer.
“When you refuse to pay someone, you take away their chance to be generous.”— Jon Acuff