Wait, you mean freelance isn’t free?

Sometimes people hear the word “free” in “freelance” and think it means the freelancer does work without getting paid for it. While that certainly happens, it’s not what freelance means.

But it is FREE-lance!

The “free” embedded in “freelance” doesn’t mean the work is done for free. It simply means the work is done apart from an agency or primary employer. To fully grasp this, let’s dig into the origin of the term freelance.

Definition and history of the word “freelance”

You might think of a knight as a trained warrior in service to a feudal lord or king. And you’re right. Except feudal lords often hired armies of free lances: “medieval mercenar[ies] who would fight for whichever nation or person paid them the most.” The “free” part indicates that their sword or lance has no sworn allegiance.

In this day and age, you might call a freelancer a “hired gun” or even a corporate mercenary. So that’s not far off from the original meaning. Today, a freelancer is someone who isn’t tied to a specific corporation or company. Like freelancers of old, freelancers today work on specific projects for the highest bidder.

So what’s the difference between freelance and bro bono? What if I don’t have any money? Can I pay someone with exposure?

What if I want to pay someone with exposure?

That’s called speculative, or “spec” work. There’s no guarantee of payment. The website No!Spec explains it clearly, along with the reasons why it isn’t ethical:

Spec work is any kind of creative work, either partial or completed, submitted by designers to prospective clients before designers secure both their work and equitable fees. Under these conditions, designers will often be asked to submit work in the guise of a contest or an entry exam on existing jobs as a “test” of their skill. In addition, designers normally lose all rights to their creative work because they failed to protect themselves with a contract or agreement. The clients often use this freely-gained work as they see fit without fear of legal repercussion.

Years ago I interned at an ad agency. I remember working on big pitches for clients that might or might not hire us. That is definitely speculative, since it uses up valuable creative time in hopes of winning a new, paying client. At the time it was definitely the norm in the ad industry. I don’t know if that is still how ad agencies work these days. I haven’t worked at an agency in nearly 20 years.

So-called “contests” fall into the category of speculative work. Something I’ve seen a bit of lately is local entities such as bars or restaurants trying to get free mural work from artists in exchange for “exposure.” Thankfully the local creative community is quick to call people out for this sort of thing, since it usually doesn’t help the artist at all, and it greatly devalues the artist’s work.

Jacob Cass of I’m Just Creative has an excellent, in-depth article that explains why spec work is such a bad thing for designers and clients alike: The “Pros” and Cons of Spec Work.

Work done for free is “Pro Bono”

Sometimes freelancers (or agencies) will do work for free — pro bono — for certain non-profits or causes that mean something to them. This is when it makes sense for a designer to work for free.

Pro bono means “for the public good” in Latin. It refers to unpaid work done in some kind of professional services capacity to benefit a cause or a non-profit. It’s not unheard of for a firm or agency to dedicate a certain number of hours to pro bono work each year. (For example, I think the American Bar Association recommends attorneys donate 50 hours a year.) From a tax perspective, pro bono work must be donated to a charitable organization or a cause. This separate from volunteer time, which I’m not going to get into here.

Here are some examples of unpaid work I’ve done

A few years ago, I created a new logo for Bridges for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, free of charge. But I was on the board at the time, unpaid, and it was part of my responsibilities there. Bridges is a nonprofit organization. An earlier version of the organization gave me a college scholarship. I also love what they are doing in the community, advocating for Deaf people. Since I am Deaf, their work means a lot to me.

Also, I recently created a logo for the local chapter of Special Olympics for their Fall Games. Apparently this department has no marketing support, and I know someone there personally. She reached out to me. Since I had several big projects in the pipeline that hadn’t started yet, I was happy to donate a couple of afternoons of my time to create something for them.

When should designers work for free?

That’s a tough question to answer. Sometimes, when you’re starting out, you work for free or for very little in order to get experience. New designers need to learn how the process works and get pieces in their portfolio. Contests have the potential to teach high school and college students how to do the work. The county next to mine ran a contest among high school students to design this year’s “I Voted” sticker that would commemorate 100 years of women’s suffrage. I think this is an acceptable contest. It was open only to students in grades 7 through 12 in Metropolitan Nashville-Davidson County. The educational value was immense, since they needed to learn about the 19th Amendment as well how to design something.

Trying to make a living designing for contests leads to burnout. I have friend who used to design t-shirts for contests, and he did well at it for a while. He figured out how to game the system by mashing up popular trends in order to make winning designs. But it’s not a long-term solution. He quit design/illustration and went to med school.

Freelance isn’t free

So that’s the difference between freelance and pro bono. Freelance isn’t free. Pro bono is free, for a good cause. When you work with a freelancer, you are hiring their time, expertise, and experience to create something valuable for you or your company. If it works well, you can continue working with them on additional projects. Hopefully, it will blossom into a wonderful long-term relationship.

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