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Working for Free as an Interior Designer: Are There Pros?

Creative professionals are often asked to work for free when they are first starting out, usually by clients who are unsure of the quality of a designer’s work because they don’t yet have a portfolio of completed projects. For designers, it’s a tough decision to make: On the one hand, as you build your brand, it’s so valuable to get those first few projects completed to show to prospective clients that it might be worth getting paid nothing for the work. On the other hand, it’s important to know and value the monetary worth of your time for your financial present. On balance, it makes sense to strategically accept unpaid opportunities when you’re just starting out, but you have to understand the tradeoffs and the right way to do it.

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The Pros of Working for Free:

  • Build Your Portfolio: Taking a project when you are early in your career gives you an opportunity to prove your credentials, and to start building your portfolio. It can be difficult to find those first few clients who are willing to take a chance on an interior designer who lacks experience executing a real project. 
  • Diversity Your Client Base: Some opportunities that don’t offer financial compensation may introduce you to a new type of client base or group of colleagues with whom you want to build a relationship
  • Gain Exposure: One time that is especially worth the cost of working for free – and even investing your own money – is if you present in a show house. These are invaluable opportunities to network, be seen by potential high-end clients, and to get media exposure – all of which will help you build your brand and your business.

The Cons of Working for Free:

  • Lowering Your Value: Customers will only value you as much as you value yourself. If you offer your services for no compensation, your clients are less likely to take you seriously as a professional. 
  • Financial Implications: You’re a business, and a business needs income to survive. You’re also a person, and people also need income. You may not be able to afford to work for free if the time you spend on pro bono projects doesn’t leave you enough time to do work that actually pays.
  • Diluting Your Brand: Without a strategy, working for free will dilute your brand. When a working relationship is not clearly defined with expectations and boundaries on both sides, your work can easily be compromised, and your brand can be impacted.

How to Effectively Work for Free:

  • Know What You Can Afford: Determine if you can afford to work for free and for how many hours a month. Don’t accept any opportunities that will put you into a shaky financial position. If you can’t afford to work for free but can’t find a client to hire because you don’t yet have a robust portfolio, find another designer to collaborate with on projects or to assist in their projects and negotiate the ability to feature those finished projects on your website (with credit to them). 
  • Be Selective: Choose projects where you will be able to shine. Don’t work for a client that challenges your vision or is difficult to deal with. You need this experience to be as quick and painless as possible so you can move on to paying projects with a showpiece for your portfolio and a good client who will refer you in the future. 
  • Calculate the Benefit: Consider the portfolio value, or the media exposure and brand-building potential of a pro bono project and attach a concrete financial value to that. If participating in a show house will result in high-profile media coverage, estimate what it would cost to otherwise pay for that kind of PR. If it gives you access to a new client base, estimate how many projects and at what scope and price-per-hour you might get over the next year as a result. 
  • Guarantee Access: Ensure you have the opportunity to professionally photograph the project, and to share that photography on your website and social media channels. Then, document as much as the process as your client will allow.
  • Put it All in Writing: Draft a contract for all of your projects, even if you are working for free. Include the scope of work, the level of control you will have over the finished product, the access you will have to the project site for photography and your rights to the images. Begin work only after you and your client sign that contract. 

Interior Design Business Guide

Working for free is a risky but potentially valuable proposition for interior designers. But, if done right, make it worth your while. Make sure that you protect your professional integrity by stipulating your needs and expectations and executing a contract with your client. And always stand up for work and know your worth – no one will value you if you don’t value yourself. 

Margot LaScala
Margot LaScala
Margot is a writer and interior designer based in the NYC area. She is passionate about keeping up with the latest architecture and design news to not only stay informed, but inspired.

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