creatively daring - illustration of a broke guy

The Pro-Bono Client

Design school taught me the basics on how to use the right software, how to mock projects up, and the best practices of being a designer. They teach you to forget your style and try to be a blank canvas, as clean as possible to fit in with the corporate world, but they failed to mention what working as a freelancer would be like. The following are true client stories about how I learned through trial and error the best and worst practices of being a freelancer.


creatively daring - illustration of a broke guy

I was three quarters of the way done with my degree in design school when I got my first real client. He wasn’t a family member or a friend needing a “quick flyer” for their real estate listing or their band’s show. He was real, and he was paying… or so I thought.

The first question that always threw me was “what’s your rate?”. I had no idea how to charge, and most designers don’t when they first start out.

The hard part about your first few design gigs is that you are most likely the one seeking out the work, in which case a budget is usually already set. There’s no room for negotiation, thus if you apply, you’re agreeing to whatever price they throw you. In my case I found the job on our school job board. It was a start-up apparel company with a really cliché and corny name. I met with the founder, who really only had an idea at that point and he told me he needed a logo and website, and possibly some apparel designs. Oh yeah, and he needed it free.

When he said he didn’t have any money to pay me, the little fuzzy joy in my stomach fizzled out and died, but instead of listening to my gut instinct, I figured the first one would have to be pro bono anyway, because I was still in school. I figured, because I’m still learning, I can’t really justify charging.

After the first meeting, everything went to email communication from there. I started a brief, researching brands he said he wanted to “be like” and started noticing the style. Or at least I thought I did.

I sent him a first round of sketches, which really only had maybe 20 on the page. I didn’t think to vectorize them or clean them up at all because we never had to in class. Sketches are sketches. He didn’t respond for quite a while and when he did finally, he wasn’t impressed. We had another volleying of emails back and forth where I tried to understand what it is he wanted. He threw out meaningless and often contradictory words and phrases that were supposed to represent the company.

He started making crude drawings in paint bucket of what he wanted. Most of them looked like bad ideas or exact copies of something already out there. In the end, he gave me two fonts from a “free font site” that he wanted “put together”. I did the work in five minutes, sent it to him and never spoke to him again.

I was so frustrated, I didn’t even care anymore. I knew I had asked all the right questions, and after talking it over with a fellow freelancer teacher, she informed me that it probably wasn’t my fault. The guy didn’t know what he wanted to begin with.

Sometimes just the idea isn’t enough.

Lessons learned:

  • Have a quote/hourly rate before you apply for any freelance gig. Do your research and ask fellow designers/teachers about their rates. Make sure yours is appropriate for your level. Other great resources for figuring out rates are: the AIGA Sallary Survey , the graphic artists guild handbook pricing & ethical guidelines, or freelance switch .
  • Everyone wants it cheap (or free), quick, and good quality. As gracefully as you can, explain to them that “something’s gotta give”. Here’s some help on how to handle that.
  • If the words “I can’t pay you now, but there will be more paid work later” come out of their mouths, run away. They don’t appreciate the value of design, and thus will only be a nightmare to work with.

When doing work pro bono is ok:

It’s really your call when you’ll be willing to do something for free. If it’s for a cause you really agree with, or if you think the piece will look really amazing in your portfolio, or maybe the client relinquishes all control and you have a lot of time to work on it. Whatever the reason, make sure you’re in love with something about the project and set some guidelines before you agree to anything. Just because it’s free doesn’t mean they get everything free.

In my case, I made an exception for  my best friend in college. He was graduating from our school in the film program and needed a logo. I had known him for about a year at this point so coming up with ideas wasn’t too hard. Because he knew me, he trusted my abilities, which made for an amazing partnership. We stayed away from the cliché film strips and chose something more versatile, something that showed his methodical mind and how he fits in on a set as the “problem solver”.

Another year went by and we started dating. Since then I’ve re-designed his website and logo, and created a stellar self promotion kit, which he took with him to a conference in Vegas. He’s the best client I will probably ever have because he is verbal with what he wants and trusts my judgement on how to get there.

 And so concludes this story on my quest of being a better freelancer.

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