Paula Scher on Why and When it’s Worth it to Work for Free. “It’s a power thing. It’s not a victim thing.”
By Perrin Drumm
Don’t think, just answer: should you get paid for your work? The obvious response is “yes,” but the right answer is “not always.” At least, not in the way you’ve come to think about what it means to get paid. And while the case against working for free may seem like a no-brainer, a powerful group of people is taking a mighty hard line in the opposing direction, led by one of the strongest voices in the design community, Pentagram partner Paula Scher.
You might find this surprising, enviable, or obvious depending on what side of this divisive issue you fall. “Why would a designer of Scher’s stature need to (or stoop to) work for free,” you might ask? Or, “how nice Scher works for free, she can afford to.” Or, “of course Scher works for free, how else can you have total creative control over a project?”
This last sentiment is the one Scher herself shares. It’s what she advocated for at the 2016 AIGA Design Conference (she doesn’t quite get to that part of her talk in this teaser, but if you’re an AIGA member you can see the whole thing). When she walked off stage after her talk she was mobbed by devotees and critics alike, but to her surprise the most skeptical of the bunch weren’t young designers struggling to pay the bills, and they weren’t the designers who staunchly chant the “f*ck you, pay me” mantra like it’s a call to arms; it was the stable, mid-career designers who approached her with befuddled expressions on their faces.
“What alarmed me,” says Scher, “is that it seems that the design community is so worried about their position in relationship to getting paid for work that they don’t use the opportunity to grow their work where they have control, which will ultimately lead them to do better as designers later. Agencies understand this, and they do a huge amount of pro bono work. I find myself competing with them for theaters or public organizations because they want the piece so they can show it to get other work. They set it up to get control of the work just like I do.” That’s right, doing work for free is a total power move.
Which leads us to the first of many common misconceptions about free work we asked Scher to help us debunk.
Misconception #1: working for free means I’m a sucker
Working for free does not imply you don’t get anything in exchange. In fact, if foregoing a paycheck means you take total creative control, it’s just the opposite. “That’s why pro bono work is great,” says Scher. “You choose to do it, and if you’re choosing to do it to grow your own work, your deal is essentially that you’re not going to collaborate. You’re going to do the job the way you think the job is gonna be done—and they’re gonna use it. That’s a power thing. That’s not a victim thing.”
Just like with any job, a lot of it comes down to your relationship with the client. Once you’ve determined the client is not a pile of garbage, you start by setting the expectations, which can vary widely. If the client expects a lot of back and forth and revisions—for free, for a paltry fee, or otherwise—you set the rules, and can allow for as much or as little of this as you like.
Typically, when we hear a designer tell us about a job gone wrong, regardless of whether it’s pro bono or for a fat fee, it’s because they’ve agreed to terms they’re not comfortable with. Maybe that’s because they don’t know any better, or because they’re afraid they’ll lose the job if they push too hard—that’s an entirely separate article. You don’t have to be a dick about it, but there are two sides to any negotiation.
When Scher’s confronted with a good-looking opportunity with some not-so-great-looking strings attached, she just says no. “I say, ‘I don’t want the fee. I want to do what I want.’ You have a choice.” Ditto for how involved you want to stay after the work is completed. “Sometimes I do a whole system for free and I hand it over, and I may even maintain involvement in it,” Scher says.
Misconception #2: working for free = spec work
Spec, or speculative work, is work done for free in the hopes of getting paid for it. Don’t do this. Ever. Creating a pitch (often as a deck) or writing an RFP (request for proposal) is not spec. If you’re not sure whether something is spec or not, see AIGA’s stance on spec work. If you’re unsure how to respond to a request for spec work, try modifying AIGA’s sample letter on how to say no to spec work; designer Jessica Hische also has a handy infographic that can help you determine whether free work is worth it, as well an email helper to help you craft an appropriate response.
Misconception #3: working for free sends a signal that I don’t put a value on my time
Oh really? So you’re telling me that personal project you did or that piece you designed for a class in school isn’t worth anything because someone didn’t come over and put money in your hand when you finished? As a writer, I can tell you that if I only wrote when someone paid me for it, I’d never grow or learn anything new. The same is true of any creative person.
The fact that it’s mostly stable, mid-career designers who worry over the time = money equation isn’t actually all that surprising. Any fresh grad or young designer will tell you it’s the assignments you give yourself (whether for fun, exploration, discipline, or outright self-promotion) that not only attract paid work down the road, but paid work from clients who already like the stuff you love doing.
When Scher was first starting out, gaming Instagram wasn’t an option, so the client was essential to getting her work seen by an audience larger her immediate circle of friends. The trade there is visibility. “The point is you have to be in the situation of control with it,” says Scher. It’s easier for me to be in that situation now simply because I’m more famous. I guess that’s real, but I’ve been doing this for years.”
For early examples, Scher cites a 1984 parody issue for Print magazine she designed with Steve Heller. “We wrote and designed the whole thing for free. I got [AIGA Medalist] Tibor Kalman, who nobody knew then, to do his own articles for free. We all did it for self-promotion. The thing is still around. People collect it. But I did it the way I wanted it. I wrote it the way I wanted it. I put stuff in there the way I wanted it because I controlled it—and it was fun.”
And those map paintings she’s so well known for now? “I wouldn’t be painting maps if I hadn’t done an AIGA poster in 1988. There wasn’t any budget for it and I was trying to figure out how to save money, so I did it all by hand. Sometimes you do things you wouldn’t normally do in those situations because you have the opportunity to do it.
“When you’re in a typical client-designer situation, you’re operating as a consultant. When you’re on your own you’re operating more as an innovator and a creator.”
Scher’s even held AIGA to its word in the past. “When Michael Bierut and I were chairing the 1991 AIGA Design Conference in Chicago, we had a million people making posters for it. There was a fight that I had with [former AIGA executive director] Caroline Hightower over a poster that she didn’t like and wanted to change. I got furious and said, ‘You can’t change the work. It’s pro bono.’
“I believe in that ethic, that if you make an agreement with a designer that they’re gonna do what they think is right and are delivering the job for free, then you can’t change it. That’s not the way the game works.”
Of course, Scher doesn’t always get her way. When Print magazine wanted to change a cover she onced designed for free and she refused, they scrapped the whole thing. Is that all part of the game, too, or did that piss her off? “Yeah, I think ‘piss me off’ is probably the operative term.”
But what actually gets Scher mad is how the words “free work” are so immediately incendiary that designers get riled up before they even have a chance to understand the nuances. “What makes me upset is the lack of understanding that this is about power. It’s not about giving away things for free—it’s about trading. It’s about putting yourself in a position where you can create something that’s going to be good for the client—which is often much better than they would get in a fee-paid situation.”
The very thought of working for free puts designers on the defensive, when it really ought to open up a space where they have the potential to create breakthrough work. “You might get to define a territory or create something that may be expressive of you,” says Scher. “You have the opportunity to really do something without the constraints that are often there in the collaborative relationship. That’s not to say that these are the only good times to do work; it just puts you in a more experimental mode to make something that can make a breakthrough. When I look at the things that I’ve done for free over the years, they’re very significant parts of my own body of work.”
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Illustration by Karol Banach