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How to decline requests for free work with style

By Speider Schneider Posted Aug. 22, 2014 Reading time: 9 minutes

It’s aggravating and demeaning when a business asks for free work. You feel belittled and often foster an urge to prove that you offer a professional service that has actual monetary worth.

Unfortunately, there are designers who continue to do free work on the vague promise of “exposure,” “paying work later on,” and the client’s “rich friends” who will see your designs and “pay big fees” for your work.

The truth is, when you do free work, you have set your value and that client and his/her rich friends will also ask for free design work because you “did it for so-and-so.”

We all have some business stalker that pops up every now and then, treating us like they are a long lost relative who is owed the family rate of $0; hoping that we’re just stupid enough to fall for their pitch. Perhaps, in the days of online schools and for-profit art “institutes,” the number of graduates being cranked out has increased the ratio of those who accept freebies as a way of gaining professional experience when there are only so many paying jobs around.

 

Enter our hero…

My respect, however, goes to a designer we probably all know. Not because he’s a famous like Rand, Vignelli or Müller-Brockmann, but because he dumped it back on people who had the nerve to ask for free work, don’t pay and, most probably, just deserve to have their arses kicked on general principle.

David Thorne’s name probably won’t ring a bell with you, but perhaps the famous thread of emails in which Mr. Thorne delightfully tortures a man demanding free work with written slaps in the face will. Maybe you know him for the missing cat poster story; trying to trade a drawing of a spider to pay a bill; or how he made the daily life of a coworker hell, was written up by this coworker and still kept his job. His site, 27b/6, is the home of a brilliant, twisted mind!

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David was gracious enough to answer a few questions about his design experiences and the exchange with the now infamous client.

Speider Schneider: You’re a hero to so many creatives for how you handled that weird client, but no one really knows who you are. Mind if we “out” you and ask for a little biographical information?

David Thorne: Okay… I’m forty-ish but I feel double that after spending twenty-odd years in front of a computer moving pixels around. Mentally and socially, I’m probably closer to twelve. I was born and raised in Australia but while nobody was looking I escaped and currently reside in a beautiful region of the United States called Virginia. It has lots of trees, squirrels, and Jeeps with really big wheels. My friend Luke has one and the suspension cost more than the trailer he and his girlfriend and their eleven children live in. 

Title-wise, as I am the only Australian living in the area, I am generally referred to as ‘that tall guy that talks funny’ but my business card has Creative Director written on it even though I tend to do more copy-writing than designing — when I can’t avoid doing either. I recently discovered Sporting Clays so haven’t been seen in the office for a month or so. If they stop paying me I might regret purchasing a Browning Superposed but there are several poultry-processing plants in the area that regularly have ‘help wanted’ signs displayed so I should be alright. Slicing fat from carcasses and packaging them to look appealing on supermarket shelves isn’t really that different from what I do now.

SS: Well, that was some exchange between you and Mr. Edhouse. I think it went majorly worldwide viral three or four times since it was posted. We all identify with it because every freelancer is asked to do the same ridiculous things for free. Your answers, which I understand are verbatim, as are Mr. Edhouse’s replies, are well-thought out, devious torture schemes. If you had to name a percentage, what percentage of people calling you for work ask for it free or at a major discount?

DT: Naming a percentage is difficult, as designers can’t do math, but every designer deals with disparaging or nonexistent project budgets.  Design is often seen as ‘something you are pretty good at’ rather than a ‘real job’.

When people ask, “How much will you charge me to do a flyer/website/logo for my business?”, the answer is commonly met with, “Are you serious? I might just get my daughter to do it in Word then. She’s pretty good at that stuff.” Those same people, upon receiving a quote for an extension on their home, would be unlikely to declare, “Really? I thought you could just whip up something quick for me. I might just get my nephew Jimmy to do it then, he’s pretty good at that stuff and has his own tool bag.”  This is understandable though, building supplies are tangible and builders are qualified and experienced, whereas designers have magic computers that fart out logos at a rate of twenty per minute while they are out shopping for scarves and hair products.

When I was in my teens, all I wanted to be was a graphic designer. I lived and breathed typography and identity, idolized the likes of Neville Brody and Designers Republic, and devoted four years to gaining my bachelor of visual communication. The excitement of a .x update to Freehand, Photoshop or MacOS would almost give me an aneurysm and if anyone mentioned they, “need something for something,” I was the first to raise my hand. Money didn’t come into it. I once designed an eight page brochure in exchange for dog grooming clippers and thought it was a pretty good deal. I didn’t even own a dog. Twenty years later, I won’t even design a missing cat poster for free without carrying on. Somewhere along the line I progressed from “let me show you how talented I am,” to, “I am fully aware of the degree of my skills, based on my many years in the industry, and know how much my time is worth.” That’s not to say I don’t still do free work on occasion, I enjoy designing and fully realize I am not defusing bombs or curing cancer, but, like most people, I have bills to pay.

SS: Ever actually kill a client just to watch him die?

DT: I have never actually killed a client but there are a few that I wouldn’t bother performing the Heimlich maneuver on if they were choking. I did have a client punch me once though. After providing his own photos for a landscaping brochure — to save on the cost of hiring a professional photographer — I questioned how an extremely obese and unattractive woman asleep in a deckchair was in any way aspirational and it turned out to be his wife. He later sent me a fruit basket with an apology and asked me not to press charges as he was on parole.

SS: How long did it take for you to concept and design the logo and pie charts you sent Mr. Edhouse? Obviously you had written this guy off long before hearing from him again. After you posted the wondrous evil plot to make him burst a vein, did he threaten any legal action for slander or defamation of character, or telling a heinously embarrassing truth?

DT: The logo and pie charts only took an hour or so but the entire correspondence spanned a couple of days. As Edhouse was born with a carrot in his bottom and the inability to comprehend that not everyone considers him to be an entrepreneurial mastermind, the exchange escalated pretty much as I thought it would.

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Prior to posting the exchange, I twice provided design work for Edhouse. On the first occasion, he stated, “I’ll give you something for this,” which he did. It was a dusty coffee maker with a spider inside that he had found in his shed. I cleaned it well but when I plugged it in, the fuses in my apartment blew. On the second occasion, we agreed on a non-appliance based transaction but after providing him the artwork, I didn’t hear from him for several months. In his defence, he was arranging a Chinese wife during this period which most likely involved a lot of time consuming paperwork. He probably also had to clean his house before she arrived.

Edhouse’s response to my posting the correspondence consisted mainly of, “I didn’t give you permission to post that, remove it within 48 hours or else,” followed by, “Right, I will see you in court.” Publicly, Edhouse simply declared, “I didn’t write that, it’s all fake.” Which is understandable. As with a few other exchanges I have posted, if he’d requested I change his name from Simon Edhouse to Ed Simonhouse or something, I would have. The website exists for entertainment, not revenge, purposes. I doubt he expected the audience numbers it received, I certainly didn’t. Every so often the article goes viral again, for whatever reason, and he sends me another email equivalent of shaking his fist and yelling, “I’m going to get you.” You’d think he would be too busy to bother, what with inventing the next Twitter and learning how to say “ironing board” and “washing machine” in Mandarin, but I guess even entrepreneurial masterminds need to take a break every now and then to let off steam.

SS: That’s how I met my wife!

SS: Do you think this has become a prevalent practice in the design industry to ask for free work, free pitches, and free ideas? Has design become a commodity and so many people make the same exact offers, almost word for word because they are able to get so much free work? What advice would you give a designer just starting out about these fabulous offers that will come their way because Edhouse is probably running out of designers to dupe?

DT: I’m sure the practice, which not only denies a person income but hurts the profession overall, is prevalent in many industries. I know a photographer whose ratio of paid to free work is 50/50. In the field of design it has become the norm and that won’t change unless every designer stands up at the same time and says “no more.” Which won’t happen as designers are terrible at organizing anything. 

There is no point giving designers who are “just starting out” any advice on the matter though as, being the greatest thing ever to happen to design, they already know everything. Regardless, at this stage in their career they are not in a position to charge large amounts for their services. These are the designers the Simon Edhouses of the world should be targeting as it benefits both parties: the Edhouses get a result that reflects perfectly the amount they value the service and experience of the designer, while the designer builds a portfolio and gains experience dealing with idiots.

SS: Your first book, The Internet is a Playground: Irreverent Correspondences of an Evil Online Genius did very well in sales and reviews (four and one-half stars on Amazon). Now you have a second book, I’ll Go Home Then; It’s Warm and Has Chairs. The Unpublished Emails that looks like it’s off to a great start (four out of five stars on Amazon… so it sucks, I guess). With these successes in a non-design field, and people like Edhouse out there, do you ever consider switching careers?

DT: I have considered switching careers many times but it certainly wouldn’t be to writing full time as there is no money in it. Unless you are Meyer or Ludlum. I bet they are doing alright. When my first book made the New York Times bestseller list, I thought I would soon be relaxing on jewel encrusted gold deck chairs by a newly installed pool but after receiving my first royalty check, I spent the money on a shovel and dug a pond instead. The ground was very rocky and hard to dig so it is more of a puddle than a pond but it does have a couple of fish living in it somewhere beneath the algae, leaves and dead possum. 

The book sold well, but I should have probably read the contract before signing it. The four cents per copy I receive is offset by something called ‘withholdings’ in which the publisher bets against you on returns. It sucks a lot more than I am making it out to be but basically, if you make $100k in sales, they ask themselves, “What if in the future, the book stores return $102k of books they can’t sell?” Then they pay you minus $2k. Gosh I laughed. Then I sat by my pond and cried for a bit.

 

Conclusion

Freelancing is a tough business but it is a business. Many creatives, especially those just starting out, live in fear of upsetting a potential client with such outrageous demands such as a contract, payment and fair treatment.

Designers like David, who stand up for themselves are rare, which is why I’m able to write so many articles trying to correct professional practices. While David has his own humorous methods of dealing with the frustration of working in an unregulated industry, some people collapse under the pressure or spend their career feeling used and depressed. The only way to survive is to stand up for yourself as a professional, and send that inappropriate logo to your own “special” client!

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