A Blog Not Limited

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You Get What You Pay For

Feb 18, 2009

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The other day, an acquaintance asked me to take a look at a not–for–profit site and offer some CSS feedback. I'm always willing to offer input and suggestions, but upon taking a look at the site it was entirely unclear to me what input I could offer other than the site needed a major design overhaul.

As it turns out, a design overhaul is exactly what this acquaintance meant by "CSS feedback." He asked if I could create a mock up, taking into account usability, accessibility, readability, etc. … pro bono.

I responded that this was a major request, and not only did I not have time to take on the project, but that I don't do that sort of work for free. But I pointed him in the direction of several design resources he could utilize himself (he has some development experience) and also sent out a request to local web designers who might be willing to do the pro bono work.

Apparently (and unfortunately) he didn't seem to grok the concept that I don't work for free, extending it to mean that I don't support open source or volunteerism.

And while I'm certain he had the best of intentions and wasn't trying to make any personal judgements against me, his sentiment that his "volunteer quest isn't everyone's" got me pretty pissed off.

I'm Not A Charity

I don't work for free. Period.

I agree wholeheartedly with Paul Boag, who recently explained why folks should never work for free.

I'm a professional. I've spent years honing my craft. Spent thousands of dollars on education and conferences to learn more. And I consider my skills and knowledge to be above-average.

That has real value. To ask me to ply my trade for free negates that value.

And it still negates that value if you call it "pro bono," which sounds much nicer and gives people the warm–and–fuzzies. But it is just a euphemism for free work. Yes, usually free work for a charity or non-profit. But free work nonetheless.

Not working for free is a personal choice, based on years of doing free work and paying the personal price for it. But while it is a personal choice, I also discourage other web professionals from doing free work.

I've Learned the Hard Way

When I was starting out as a web designer, I often agreed to do free projects for friends and family, rationalizing that I needed the experience and fodder for my portfolio.

What I ended up getting was frustrated and annoyed at my friends and family. Even though the work was free, they still acted like regular clients: last minute changes, constant design tweaks, unrealistic expectations.

Eventually, I would reach a point of complete apathy about the project. This meant that it no longer reflected the best of what I could do and, as such, wasn't something I even wanted on my portfolio.

And it also meant that I was left resentful towards my friends and family.

Spec Is for Suckers

I've also made the huge mistake of doing work on spec.

Again, as a fledgling web designer, I was ignorant. Wasn't even aware of the negative issues of spec work.

I had just been laid off and was desperate for employment. I got an interview with a company who required that all applicants design a "mini-site" for one of their projects.

So I spent a few days working on this mini-site and presented it to the potential employer. I didn't get the job, but I discovered a few weeks later that they ended up using my design.

And I had no recourse whatsoever.

What's the Big Deal?

My encounter the other day with this acquaintance isn't the first time I've been asked to do work for free. It happens all the time.

There remains a perception outside the web industry that a web site is intangible and, as such, not really a "product." This same ignorance leads many laypeople to also assume that it is easy to "throw a site together."

These perceptions are wrong. Web work should be treated the same as any other professional service or product.

I wouldn't ask a mechanic to fix my car for free, or an accountant to do my taxes for free, or any other professional to offer their services for free. And I don't suspect many other people would.

But the problem goes far beyond these ignorant perceptions.

The True Cost of "Free"

Doing free or pro bono work sounds noble. But it has a huge cost to the web professional and the web industry as a whole.

Personally, my past decisions to do free work skewed my own perception of my professional value. Having given away my skills for free, I subsequently had difficulty assigning a fair monetary value to my services.

This led to me charging ridiculously low rates for paying clients, only to feel that same frustration and eventual apathy I felt when I was doing the work for free. And, frankly, the final product suffered which, in turn, led me to devalue and question my own work and skills.

But beyond the personal cost, free work and unrealistically low rates set an expectation with my clients. They then believed that is what web work is worth. And not only did that mean it was impossible to charge fairer rates in the future for my own work, but it meant that these clients expected similar fees from other web professionals.

Even worse, delivering a product I felt was sub-standard also set my clients' expectations for what a web site should be. And one only needs to peruse the web to see the overwhelming prevalence of crap sites for which clients paid, ignorant that they could have something much better.

Giving Back

But just because I don't do free or pro bono work doesn't mean I don't "give back." And to suggest otherwise, as the aforementioned acquaintance did, offends me to my core.

This industry has been good to me, and I feel a deep responsibility to help this industry — and its professionals — be the best it can.

To that end, I have mentored new professionals, hoping to guide them to reach their fullest potential and deliver their best work. And, on a much smaller scale, I always make myself available to answer questions, offer feedback and do user testing whenever asked.

I also co-manage Webuquerque, a local Adobe User Group, which sponsors free workshops every month.

I participate in Upgrade NM, a "code sprint" project where local web developers and designers volunteer to build web sites for New Mexico non-profits.

And I do my very best to share knowledge freely. I presented at BarCamp Albuquerque 3, and I maintain this blog.

From my perspective, all of those activities are a form of volunteerism.

I can even admit that some of this work, particularly Upgrade NM, could be considered free or pro bono by the strictest definition. But I ultimately disagree on that point.

Doing It for Me

I believe humans are naturally self-interested. In fact, I believe we are biologically required to be self-interested. And I'm not embarrassed to admit that every bit of volunteering I do is driven by my own self interests.

For my work with Upgrade NM, for example, I did get "paid." I got a chance to work collaboratively with other extremely talented web professionals. Telecommuting from my home office can be lonely and uninspiring. Working with others on a project was my payment.

And a bonus motivation was showcasing the web talent available in NM, in hopes of improving the local job market. This, too, was self-interested: If I lost my current job, I would likely be unable to stay in Albuquerque because there just aren't enough good jobs for web professionals. And I love it here.

The "do-gooders" out there may be appalled by this notion of self interest, but I seriously couldn't give a fuck. In fact, I think anyone who likes to tout their good deeds are, in fact, touting themselves. And more power to them. I see nothing wrong with helping other people or communities when the motivation is oneself. Everyone wins in that situation.

Decide for Yourself

While this rant is little more than a justification of my own decisions, I do think that the underlying point about free work is one that should be seriously considered.

Whether you agree with my perspective or not makes little difference to me. Make your own decision based on whatever your own motivation is, but at least be aware of the potential repercussions of offering your skills for free.

And if you are looking for a web professional but don't want to (or, perhaps, can't) pay, consider this: a web professional who is willing to work for free likely doesn't know what they are doing (myself being an example).

A good, in-demand web professional charges for their work because the skills involved are challenging and valuable.

If you want free, remember that you get what you pay for.

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Luke Dorny's Gravatar

Luke Dorny opines:


Awesome article. Bookmarked for sharing with others and personal reference.

Great links on the topic, too. Thanks.

Ian Pitts's Gravatar

Ian Pitts opines:


I agree wholeheartedly and have gotten myself into those issues in the past as well.

Deciding on a solid pricing structure (something I’m still <strike>fucking up</strike> working on) is key to getting the kind of business you want now as well as ensuring you can grow properly in the future.

Christopher Rivard's Gravatar

Christopher Rivard opines:


Good post. I have found this issue to be particularly thorny in our current state of domicile where the clientele might not always have an understanding of what is involved in designing and building a site or web app.

When I got here, it was one of the first things I noticed and set out on this education crusade. Web Managers Round Table for example. Pricing services is a very difficult thing to do. Sometimes related to the market, sometimes related to reputation. If you can set your price based on reputation, you’re golden.

One thing that I have found that is *always* true though. The client who will nickel and dime will *always* be the most demanding and try to monopolize your time. It’s the law of inverse… something. I’ve learned to pick these clients out and steer clear.

If a client balks at a high price, they most likely do not understand what they are asking for - pass or determine if it is worth educating. I’m not so much into the education anymore.

Anyway, I could rant ad nauseum on this topic, but I’ll stop here.

Dean Clark's Gravatar

Dean Clark opines:


Your post just covers a ton of different experiences and thoughts I’ve had go through my head in the past few years. Some of them in the past few weeks (family asking).

This whole post just reminds me of something I got told a few years ago after being asked to do a free site and told someone about it.

A used car salesman comes up to you and asks you to make him a website. He says “think about all the free advertising and attention you’ll get from people seeing that site”. To which you reply “you should give me a free new car, think about all the free advertising you’ll get from the sticker on the back”.

Either way, good post. I nominate it for the first draft of the “I Don’t Work for Free” framework lol

Ryan Corradini's Gravatar

Ryan Corradini opines:


Well said, Emily. I’m always impressed with your ability to clearly articulate your point in a way that can influence decision-makers to actually take our chosen profession seriously.

That said, a comment/question (which I’m sure has probably already occurred to you): would your friend’s site be a good candidate for the next Upgrade NM?

Emily's Gravatar

Emily responds:


@Ryan - Unfortunately the site my acquaintance needs the pro bono work for is not a local, New Mexican organization. As such, doesn’t qualify for Upgrade NM.

Tom's Gravatar

Tom opines:


Well said Emily.

This all stems from the fact that web design is still a massively undervalued skill.

Luke dorny's Gravatar

Luke dorny opines:


Wow, not sure why my gravatar didn’t come through. I’ll work on my new red nose a bit for the next comment. lol.

Emily's Gravatar

Emily responds:


@Luke - It seems gravatar is case-sensitive on email addresses and your first comment had uppercase “LU” ... I’ve fixed it. Don’t want you to suffer with a baboon face if you don’t have to :)

Steven Nez's Gravatar

Steven Nez opines:


Great post. I have worked for free before and totally agree that it has the potential to devalue the great work that we do.

On the other hand, I really like the idea of Upgrade NM.

Trevor Gryffyn's Gravatar

Trevor Gryffyn opines:


Excellent!  I can’t agree with you more.  One of these days I’ll figure out my own value and start living by the same ideals.  I get sucked into too many situations where I end up donating my time, unwillingly.

Atlas Shrugged, indeed..

Christopher Rivard's Gravatar

Christopher Rivard opines:


I’m having a hard time understanding what the difference is between free work and work for Upgrade NM.

I’ve done work for nonprofits in NM and they have always paid. There was another group that worked through nmipa.org called jumpstart NM.

Through the association (NMIPA), they provided free web design/development services for small businesses in Northern New Mexico. They being members of the association, and I assume, whoever volunteered to do free work.

What’s the difference?

Emily's Gravatar

Emily responds:


@Chris - From the strictest definition, Upgrade NM is pro bono work. All volunteers donate their time and energy to a non-profit.

The (perhaps slight) distinction is that the work is restricted to a 24-hour “code sprint” … whatever work that can be done in that period is done for free. But nothing more is done beyond that 24-hour timeframe.

As you can imagine, this typically doesn’t amount to a complete web site or solution. Instead, the work delivered is meant as a “jumping off” point for the non-profit to see what has been recommended and what options they have. Take a look at the 1st Mile site we did for the lastest Upgrade NM. Not even close to a complete site; just suggestions of best practices and what is possible.

If the non-profit then decides that they want to move towards the suggested direction, Upgrade NM then provides a list of qualified, local web designers and developers to whom the non-profit can bid the ultimate work.

Alexander Roessner's Gravatar

Alexander Roessner opines:


I’m in the boat right now of selling myself short to a lot of clients for all the side jobs I get at work after doing a lot of free work for people over the years.

As for the rest of the article, you hit the nail on the head.  I think I fell in love with you a bit reading it. ;-)

Matijs's Gravatar

Matijs opines:


Great article! Wholeheartedly agree. I think one thing to consider though the difference between being asked to do something for free and actually offering to do something for free on your own accord.

Right now I’m doing a bit of design work for a small charity I heard of recently. It’s something I can do in between other stuff and there’s no rush. Also it looks good on my portfolio and it was a chance to do some work for an internationl “client”. So for me that’s a form of payment.

Sean's Gravatar

Sean opines:


I just got into web development and I have been approached to do free stuff, but I didn’t. I’ve also done two sites for friends, both of whom offered to pay me for my time - they both got deals.

Thanks for this article, makes me feel better about my choice to not do the free work.

Martin McEvoy's Gravatar

Martin McEvoy opines:


Nice article Emily, bookmarked and sent to a college of mine who keeps on enticing me to “take a look at this site” maybe he will get it now eh?

Aaron Wallentine's Gravatar

Aaron Wallentine opines:


Thanks Emily.

Your thoughts on this subject were very valuable and a worthwhile read.

Kray's Gravatar

Kray opines:


While I agree with you, there are many clients who pay decent fees for what COULD be great websites, but their own ignorance and failure to listen to the professionals they hire leaves them with a heaping pile of crap.

I have done numerous projects that will never make my portfolio because clients think their design ideas are the best and they have no need to listen to the professional designer they hired.

Chris Rivard's Gravatar

Chris Rivard opines:


I just received an email update that @Kray replied to this post. My reaction is as follows:

HOLY CRAP DUDE! Where have you been since 02/18/2009? Did you know that Obama won the 2008 presidential election and we just got Osama bin Laden a few months ago.

Yeah - a lot has changed since this thread began…but I’m glad you’re still on top of it.

Expect my proper reply on or around September 2013.

@emily: crossing my fingers your site is still up in 2 years. I’ll be back…

Kray's Gravatar

Kray opines:



I just found the article today via a friends post on Facebook. Date of posting doesn’t make it any less true.

Who is this Obama you speak of?

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I'm a freelance web designer of the standardista variety, which means I get excited about things like valid POSH, microformats and accessibility. I ply my trade from my one-person design studio in Albuquerque, New Mexico 87106 USA.

A Blog Not Limited is my personal blog where I pontificate about web design, web standards, semantics and whatever else strikes my fancy. Head on over to Emily Lewis Design if you'd like to see my work or, even better, hire me.


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