One time when I used to design movie posters, a film producer asked me to edit a family photo of his. He wanted to remove his wife who recently left him. I was surprised. I wasn’t expecting a client to come to me with such a specific request, and that too personal. I was definitely helping them launch the publicity campaign of the film, but this was a very very personal matter not covered by my contract. I was struck a bit, I did not have a clear yes or a clear “no”. I know he wanted me to do this favor, and I knew I didn’t want to do him this favor, but as a designer, you’re almost always in a tough position when somebody asks you for a favor.
I am sure every designer has once been in that position where they’ve been asked to do something for free, or something they know is going to be for a favor, an FOC if you will, or they know this client category will definitely not pay the invoice— yet we end up taking that project for reasons. Sometimes, it’s the sheer inability to say no, and sometimes, you’re just tricked into accepting it. I’ve been tricked several times, and I know you’ve been too, and it’s part of the process of maturing as a designer.
FOC is an unhealthy practice. It should stop.
There is a word in Nepali, “Fokat”, which sounds very similar to FOC, abbreviating to “free of cost.” I am particularly intrigued by this word — and how deeply it’s rooted in our culture. How easily we gather guts to ask somebody for a favor.
Why do people expect you do to a favor?
Because they don’t understand or appreciate the fact that you’re doing your job. When you visit a physician, everybody knows to pay the visitation fees, or walking out of the supermarket, they know to pay at the counter. It should be the same for all kinds of works, including design that they know they gotta pay. If they know this and still think they’re entitled to get it for free, then they’re straight-up bullying you and disrespecting your work. Fuck them. You don’t deserve to be surrounded by that kind of toxicity.
But from my experience, it mostly lack of awareness. Design looks too easy (does it?) So they think it shouldn’t cost. Design is just another way of “playing with the computer.” This (कम्प्युटर खेलाउने) is a real phrase people use. They think it’s a game.
Educate them. Tell them this is a serious profession that needs years of learning and practice. Heard about flight hours for pilots? Yes, designers too need similar design hours. Tell them. Make them believe. Surgeons, pilots and others are respected because they’ve established the importance so everyone treats them with respect. Designers too are doing similar work, very very specialized and technical work — they too need to make themselves felt important. Nobody else is going to do it for you, you’ll have to do it yourself.
I learned this by putting myself into a very uneasy position
Once I helped a friend of mine to design and develop her personal art portfolio. Back then, she was completing her art major and needed to apply for a job and need to prove her digital presence. It was certainly a favor. I understood that even before I started worked on it. I decided to set up a simple WordPress site where she could throw in her designs and put up something up quickly and easily. Literally, it took me half a Sunday to do it. She took the website and did her application whatever.
Several years later, we were setting up our office and were looking for some artworks to be hanged on the walls. When I reached out to her hoping she would remember to return the favor. Instead, she sent me a hefty quotation, in US dollars. I was startled, was slightly angry for a moment but immediately understood what she did there— she was doing her job. It made so much sense from her perspective where you draw the line. This was a big big learning for me, and there onwards, I always remembered to make sure I quote what it’s worth.
But once in a while, it’s okay to get paid in Karma
During the 2015 Nepal Earthquake, we launched a fundraiser website called “Gift a Relief”. Several high profile people I knew were involved in this initiative. We had international payment gateways partnering with us, several US-based 501(c)’s and local Nepali celebrities had all put in their efforts into this campaign. Here, they quickly needed a website to start accepting donations and I was recommended to build the website. They needed to launch like yesterday. Things were moving very fast and everyone was working in a state of emergency so there was no question of wanting to get paid. Nobody was getting paid there — as a designer, it’s okay to do good things for free. You earn your karma.
There is a future prospect. Should I do it for free now?
No. You’re not a restaurant in the mall selling bacon rolls. It doesn’t work that way. No matter how small/big the present undertaking is, you must not give it out for free hoping, and hoping, that they will come back to you with more work in the future. Never put your bet in something that doesn’t yet exist. Nobody knows what’s going to happen, so buckle up and feel determined to charge for the work you’ve done today. You’re worth the work you’ve done today (not tomorrow), so make it count.
I’m bored. I need something to peck on. Should I work for free?
Yes. Now that is a straight up “yes” from me. I do it all the time. Often, friends and family ask me to design something, and I quickly jump in to help. As a designer, I often feel this hunger and urge to eat something, devour on whatever I can lay my hands on. To practice, to experiment, to try out something I cannot afford to do in a real paying project. I want to test out this crazy new idea, where do I do it? Well, if your friends and family are supportive, then just do it. I have often done it. There was a time I was trying to learn ReactJS (just for fun). I found a project that was big enough to make them happy and small enough for me to do some weekend skills building — it was a perfect match. I did it. I had fun. I learned one or two new things about React. I think these are perfect type of projects you can use to gather a new skill or experiment. Just do it. No cash transactions needed.
I once tried to help a friend. It backfired.
This is a funny story. I once, just for the sake of it, wanted to do a favor a friend who had a rather garbage-looking app. I spent an afternoon designing some screens on Figma and sent it over. He saw and got excited. Loved the idea, met over coffee a number of times. The problem here was that the quality of the design did not meet the product he was building. I thought he deserved better.
So I wanted to help him. It started off fine, but the deeper we got into the design discussion, I realized he was pretty rigid with his idea of the app and was extremely resistant to change. He became opinionated and started defending his reasoning of how the app should look and behave. I quickly realized I should not be taking this too far. I had no benefit for helping. I just wanted to make sure he got what he deserved. But when people are resistant to change, there is no point helping. They recently launched a new version, I was quietly disappointed. Not everybody needs you help. Some are better off without you trying to be helpful.
You cannot write it on stone that you’re never going to work for free. Several times in your career, you will be required to work for free because of reasons. Learn to accept it. Total abstinence doesn’t exist. However, you need to assess the value it add or the pleasure it gives you.
I am in this profession for almost 12 years now, yet I often end up making decision from the heart. That’s one good quality to have. But it also puts you through things you could have entirely avoided. Just saying “no” to the cousin who needs a sign for her salon would have saved the trouble, but come on, you don’t wanna be an asshole right? This decision could be entirely yours, but remember, free work does more harm than good. Try to stay away as much as you can, but once in a while, it’s inevitable.
Do the necessary evil.