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How to build a design portfolio without working for free

Last updated on 
January 3, 2020

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Newsflash: you don’t have to do free design work to break into the design industry – ever. It’s a staggering misconception that discredits the skill of young designers and undermines the value of creative work for the entire design community. Your design career should not start with exploitation; here are just few of the ways you can build a strong design portfolio without working for free.

What is free design work?

When we speak of “free design work”, we’re talking about an unfair value exchange: one that sees you putting in effort that is not matched by your client. It comes in a lot of forms – the most common being design contests and crowdsourcing competitions, unpaid internships, spec work and flat-out “no budget” projects. You may also encounter it as unreasonable additional requests which your client won’t pay for.

Money is by no means the only form of compensation for your work, and quality experience or mentorship from senior designs can be payment enough for your effort. But that alone won’t help you sustain or develop your business.

Why is free design work so bad?

There are a lot of reasons why free work is a bad way of building your portfolio, the most important being:

  • You may not even be able to show what you made – clients often don’t even publish your work or use NDAs so you can’t even credit your work publically
  • You often lose your right to your own intellectual property – design competition work often becomes the property of the host company
  • It’s won’t be your best work – free work doesn’t tend to be the impressive, craft-defining work a solid portfolio requires
  • It almost never turns into paid work – once you’ve set the free precedent, clients will be unwilling to switch to paid
  • You won’t build solid client relationships – do you really want to keep working for someone who won’t pay you?
  • It fundamentally undermines your value – if clients rate your work, they’ll pay for it

Aside from the above, we also harm the design industry every time we take on free design work. We support the toxic idea that creative work is less valuable than other work, and that designers need to be tested before their skill can be confirmed – irrespective of any portfolio.

Building a design portfolio without working for free

While there’s no one template for a winning design portfolio, showcasing projects which intelligently solve real-world problems is a good place to start. While you will obviously want to show off your skill and technique, you need to actually showcase work that has a clear use case behind it. Don’t fall into the trap of producing beautiful but pointless “dribbblish” design.

All very well, but how do you get that real-world experience without working for a client in the first place? By seeking out opportunities that give you an equal value return. Here are a few ideas to get you going:

Design your digital brand

Your website and digital branding offer a huge opportunity to show off exactly what you can do – especially since you have complete creative direction over what you produce. Invest time in designing your website, showcasing your fresh creative thinking as well as technique. Try reformatting your portfolio – designing to produce a captivating or memorable experience for potential clients, instead of just reducing your skill to a page of clickable images. Get rid of the burger menu, introduce animations or interactive elements, and find a new approach to market yourself. One of the coolest web portfolios we’ve ever seen was an interactive arcade-style game!

Create your own personal projects

If you can’t get the work you want, create it yourself. Personal projects are healthy for every designer, and some may even turn into something you can monetisze. They offer you a safe, unrestricted space to explore ideas and stretch your design brain. Simply come up with your own brief and design a solution; play around with new concepts and really indulge in what you love doing.

Volunteer for a cause that matters to you

Consider offering your services to advance a cause you really care about, from producing posters right through to designing websites. This can take any form – community centres, charities, local support groups, schools, activist organisations, seniors, theatre groups, bands. Supporting those who could never afford your services is different to being denied payment from those who don’t pay you when they are able to. Just make sure you get something out of it – whether that’s experience working in a new industry or purely the joys of altruism.

Work on open source projects

This one is similar to the above, in that you’re helping to produce work that really matters to you. Open source projects let you contribute as part of a public community, improving upon others’ work and adding your own for subsequent coding designers to learn from. The whole idea is to offer up something without restriction that benefits the wider group, but it also offers something pretty unique in terms of your own learning. By seeing the workings of other designers, and any tweaks they make to your work, you can mature your own process and technique. It’s essentially “virtual collaboration” without borders, learning by seeing what other experts in your field do first-hand.

Identify problems for potential clients

Instead of waiting for your ideal client to acknowledge their design requirements and post a designer job ad, proactively identify their weaknesses and send them your analysis. Don’t spend a ton of time on it: keep it top-level and short. Starting the conversation and showing that you’ve seriously considered their brand demonstrates advanced initiative. You’re being useful right off the bat.

Even if they don’t go for your ideas, consider designing a solution and putting it on your portfolio anyway – obviously clarifying that it was a personal project. Exploring a real-life problem, creating a brief and developing your solution is all solid design process experience.

The bottom line

Remember, no matter how strong your design portfolio, some people will always try and get you to work for free. It’s not an expression that you’re not good enough as a designer; it’s a mark of toxic business. The more we can say “no” to free design work, the sooner we can stop the practice definitively.

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