The Pros and Cons of Giving Away Your Graphic Design

Tons of businesses and organizations are suffering in this economy, whether it’s graphic designers being laid off or nonprofits struggling to get funding. A number of my acquaintances who found themselves with extra time on their hands have turned to volunteering – some of them walk dogs at the local animal shelter while others clean up the shoreline. But lately, I’ve also heard recommendations for unemployed people to use their skills to give back to the community, and in turn it’s an excellent opportunity to get their name out and possibly find some business for themselves. Of course, giving away for free the talent you’ve built up for years does court some controversy.


Marketing. Graphic designers often get requests from nonprofits for free or discounted services. Rather than just delete those requests, think about the new business potential: business marketing. In exchange for your work, will your company name or logo be included on a website or promotional materials? That could offer you search engine rankings as well as just put your name out there for potential new clients.

Inspiration. Sometimes you just need to break away from the day-in/day-out grind. Slaving away at a desk can induce creative block. Doing design work for an entirely different cause than what you’re used to has the potential to kick-start inspiration, whether it’s using new shapes and colors or just interacting with other folks in a different field.

Vacation. Wanna get away? Some volunteering can take you to places you’ve never been. A recent trend called “voluntourism” allows do-gooders to travel in order to help others. Sure, you’ll likely pay most of your expenses, but sometimes room and board is thrown in, and if anything, you can feel less guilty about taking a trip if it means you were volunteering.

Networking. Volunteering your time gives you the opportunity to mingle with people – people who may need a graphic designer in the future. Sure, you’re offering up free services to the nonprofit itself, but you get to network with people who know other people who might need a designer in the future. See where this is going? If you impress the client with your work, they’ll likely remember you later on.

Confidence. Many designers are hard on themselves and their work, which can hamper creativity with paying clients where they know the work will be judged, leading to sub-par work. It can even lead to someone developing great design skills and never showing anyone any of it in fear of being found out as a fraud. If you need an activity for boosting confidence without too much pressure, giving a design away is a great way.


Too much time. So what if you aren’t one of the many unemployed graphic designers out there? What if you have a lot of work and have to accept it all to pay the bills? Taking on even more jobs – especially ones that don’t pay – could diminish the quality of the projects that do earn you cash. In turn, your paying clients might seek other designers in the future if your work for them suffers.

Devalues your work. FreelanceSwitch made a post the other day about giving back to one’s community. It discussed volunteering time locally to organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and Big Brothers/Big Sisters. A commenter said that while she does volunteer, she doesn’t do so as a designer or a photographer because “I’ve learned the hard way that offering my paid-for services for free only devalues them.” Martha Retallick went on to add, “Yes, I’ve heard that pro bono work can be a good way to get referrals to paying work, but wouldn’t it be easier to just go straight to the people who can pay you in the first place?”

Burnout. Retallick makes a good point – sometimes people need a break from graphic design in order to recharge their creative batteries. Rather than volunteer design skills, why not follow FreelanceSwitch’s advice and go bang a hammer on a home with Habitat for Humanity or donate some blood? Step away from the desk and do some physical work – you can benefit society and let out aggression at the same time!

Already working for a nonprofit. When I posed the question, “Do you give away your graphic design services for free to nonprofits?” on Twitter, Traci Pitman replied, “Nope – because I’m the in-house designer for a nonprofit.” Indeed, Pitman, who works for a regional arts council in Texas, found a way to offer her skills to her community while earning a paycheck at the same time – the best of both worlds!

Jennifer Moline is a writer for PsPrint and the PsPrint Design Blog. PsPrint is an online commercial printing company.


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