Creative Business

when working for free makes cents

observant nomad | when working for free makes cents

As an experienced professional, you might hesitate to give away your valuable time and work, since you know that can lead to a slippery slope. The most common reason people give free (or almost free) work is when they’re first starting out. But I’ve been in the industry for a little while now, and I’m fortunate enough to have moved beyond those days. At this point, there are only three times I feel comfortable gifting clients with free work.

1) When a close friend or family member needs something, and it makes me feel good to help them out. 2) When I know it is a small ask, and will nurture a larger or long-term relationship with a client. 3) When I know the work will mend a relationship with a current client… especially if things have fallen apart on a recent project.

Now I don’t mean I royally screw up (that has yet to happen and I hope never will), instead it’s when outside factors cause huge headaches. You might already be familiar with the less-than-glamorous situation when things take a turn for the worse. A challenging project falls apart right at the end, or you tried something new that didn’t 100% pan out. It doesn’t matter but the fact remains that we’re all people, and people sometimes make mistakes. What determines your professional character is how you bounce back from them.

observant nomad | when working for free makes cents

Let me give you an example. Not too long ago I was helping a client re-design and develop her website. It was back when I was first starting taking on freelance work, and I was learning a lot about where my strengths lie within my business. About two years before, I had moved away from being a WordPress & front-end developer to a full-time digital art director. I still knew enough to be dangerous, and was often helping people out with basic stuff and front-end coding.

Fast forward to the end of that project, and we encountered some database problems that were residual from her first site. These little bugs started to cause some major issues with the final site. The site would go down for some time or one page wouldn’t work and caused discrepancies. Don’t get me started on automatic file replacing… ugh.

observant nomad | when working for free makes cents

After exhausting all my professional experience I called in the big guns. I talked to the hosting provider for a long time, several times, trying to get to the bottom of it. Then I finally hired another developer with more experience to consult on what the issues were. A combination of both paid off, and in the wee-hours several weeks later we finally cracked the problem and fixed the site. I learned a ton about back-end database development. But wow – I definitely didn’t want to do that again.

These days I’ve shifted my speciality to focus on clarifying my clients’ brands and their design. That way I can focus 100% on what I’m great at, and leave the other parts to people who have much more experience than me in those areas. I still develop websites from time to time, including my own site and basic template updates. But I’ve learned where my limits are.

That’s all great for me, but what about my original client? Well, I felt terrible that her site was causing such a headache for her, and I didn’t want her to feel that her business wasn’t important to me. So I knew I had to make it up to her. Instead of running away with my tail between my legs, I decided I wanted to make it better. It didn’t matter if she ended up never working with me again, I wanted her to know I took the situation seriously.

So I offered her some free work. I sent her a short email apologizing for the way the project unfolded, and how I wanted to make it up to her. With a free business card design project.

observant nomad | when working for free makes cents

It was a small gesture that would help benefit her business by unifying the new design both online and off. She was so grateful and said yes right away. So we set up the project like any other. Outlining deliverables, drafting up a contract, and setting limits on the amount of work covered. She was on board and we busted out some fun business cards that she ended up loving.

I’m so happy and proud to say that to this day we are still working together. Currently we’ve started social media work and even a 20+ page wedding service booklet. Recently she’s even started to ask about a possible rebrand! Not only did the work repay her for her patience, but it also deepened our working relationship.

Offering free work might not always turn out like this. But sometimes you have to ask yourself if you’re 100% satisfied not only with the final product but also how you got there. I find that small gestures like this, can make a world of difference with clients, and lead to making cents ($$$). With so many options out there, not only what you make is important, but so is how you make it happen.

What do you think?

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Thanks for the great advice! I really appreciate your honesty and for sharing a real life example.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts about offering your services for free. You’re absolutely right about making the process as wonderful for the client as their final product. I’ll definitely be more thoughtful about that as I move forward as a designer.


Definitely not an easy topic to talk about, but I think there are certain exceptions like this one. It’s not something I would offer out willy nilly, but it can be a helpful tool if needed.

This is great! Thanks for sharing. I’m staring freelancing the side while working a full-time job. Difficult at first as I’m trying to read and research the process, legal matters, and setting up shop. I have one potential client but no further discussion yet so I don’t know if that will be anything. If it doesn’t, I’ll just create concept work and hope it is well received.


Hi Amy, thanks for reading! If you’re starting out I think it makes sense to test the waters a bit, and still get paid if you have experience. I remember when I was an unpaid intern toiling into the wee-hours of design land, it can be rough. If you keep at it, everything will work out.


Great advice to hear! I like that your reasons for offering to perform work for free help the client, while nourishing yourself and the client/designer relationship! There’s been more than a few times where I’ve felt that the work I’m doing is draining me, but this reframed that thought so I can think about it differently!

Thank you for sharing and for brilliant advice! It’s always tricky to know when to offer free work but you really made it clear in this post :)