Survival Tips: Doing Free Design Work for Friends and Family

As a designer, you’ve no doubt encountered situations where friends, family members, neighbors or even mere acquaintances ask you for a favor in the form of free design work. If you’ve ever given in to one of these requests, you probably know how quickly they can get out of hand.

How should you respond to these requests and what should you prepare for if you take one on? Today we explore the wonderful world of pro bono design.

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The All Too True Tale

Anyone with a job in design knows the story well. Once people realize what you do for a living, favors will be expected. It’s just something small. It’ll only take you a second because you’re so good (flattery always helps).

I know exactly how these things work out, yet still I falter. Just recently some family members contacted me about creating a logo for a little side business they were starting. They had tried their darndest to create something themselves but to no avail. I would surely be able to top their ideas in a matter of minutes right? Because I’m so good at what I do? The work will be free of course.

I gave in. It was against my better judgment, past experience and everything I’ve read but I trudged ahead with a childish sense of optimism. I sketched out some quick ideas, followed one of them to completion and even included a few alternate versions for different use cases.

I had not only successfully fulfilled this favor, I had gone above and beyond the call of duty! Surely my amazingly generous act and obvious talent would win me some major bonus points. It took me a few hours but I felt better having done my good deed for the day.

They wanted something “a little more basic, but still kinda fancy.”

Then I received the email back. They were asking for a few small changes. First of all, they wanted something “a little more basic, but still kinda fancy”, next they wanted me to add a long tag line that would screw up the layout, change the name of the company that they had given me the first time around and finally, change the colors.

To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure how to interpret these vague changes, but I knew one thing for certain: they wanted a complete redesign. Oh and here’s the kicker: I received this email on a Saturday afternoon and they absolutely had to have the changes completed that day.

My optimism had been brutally stabbed in the heart. The favor had gone exactly where I knew it would and turned into a major annoyance, and a free one at that. Now I was faced with becoming the bad guy and telling them that I couldn’t come through on their unrealistic expectations. Somehow, my good deed had turned into me being selfish and uncooperative!

The Problem with Working for Free

The problem with doing free design work for friends and family is that it’s just that: free. Because you’re good at what you do, it’s hard to put less effort into a project, no matter what you’re getting paid. This leaves the burden of recognition for the favor on the receiver and it’s a long shot that they’ll remotely understand the time and effort you’ll be putting into their “small” favor.

“Suddenly, your free project is going through hours and hours of redesign time and actually eating into your work for paying clients!”

Ideally, your friends would fully realize what they’re asking and do their best to not act like a paying client. Unfortunately, this almost never happens. Instead, as soon as those emails start flying, you take the role of the battered designer and they the role of a high roller client that you can’t afford to lose and will do anything to keep happy. Suddenly, your free project is going through hours and hours of redesign time and actually eating into your work for paying clients!

Tips for Free Work

If you’re a nice guy or gal, at this point you’re probably nodding your head furiously. You’ve been here before and will be again. Every time it happens you somehow manage to get trapped in an ugly situation.

Let’s take a look at some tips for preparing for this unfortunately inevitable situation. Below are some things you need to keep in mind and some suggested actions to choose from.

It’s OK to Say “No”

First and foremost you need to come to the realization that “no” is a perfectly acceptable answer. You don’t have to be a complete jerk to turn someone down when they want you to do some pro bono work, but saying “no” nicely isn’t exactly easy.

“You don’t have to be a complete jerk to turn someone down.”

Some take the route of turning it into a matter of policy: I have a policy not to do free work for friends and family. Such a policy might be awesome to have, but stating that outright might sound like you’re accusing your friend of trying to take advantage of you.

Some genuinely are and need to hear it. Others though simply don’t have a strong grasp of the time and effort that goes into a logo, a flyer or even a full on website, which is exactly why they ask you to do it for free. At this point, try offering up the simple explanation that you’re completely swamped and can’t take on any extra work at this time.

If someone really cares about you and sees their favor as something that will significantly add to the mound of stress that you’re already facing at work daily, they’ll back off.

Be Ready for a Full-Blown Client

When should you say “no” as opposed to giving in and doing someone a favor? When you’re not ready to take on a new client that doesn’t pay you. This may seem obvious, but the key here is to realize that this won’t just be a quick, one time favor for Aunt Sue, but a drawn-out and possibly ongoing client relationship that you’re starting.

“It’s rare that someone can ask you to create something that exists only in their head and be satisfied with your first attempt.”

As my story above illustrates, no matter how great you did on the first round, the changes will come and they will be time-intensive. It’s rare that someone can ask you to create something that exists only in their head and be satisfied with your first attempt.

If you’re interested in doing the favor, say “yes” with the full knowledge that the person will act like a client. They will impose deadlines, snub your work, request large-scale changes, call you at inconvenient times to discuss the project, send you emails at 2am describing a brilliant idea that they just had and engage in every other act that paying clients do, except of course writing you a check.

Be Wary of Unrealistic Turnarounds

Let’s say you’re Mr. Nice Guy and actually want to continue to do favors for people, no matter how many times you get screwed over. The story above illustrates that I’m obviously stuck in this camp. I enjoy using my talents to help people out every now and then, but I don’t enjoy the realization that my consideration isn’t being reciprocated.

One of the major pitfalls here is something I fell into right away in the situation above. Upon agreeing to do a free project for a friend or family member, I tend to jump right on it to get it out of the way. My naive thought is that this diligence will be rewarded with a pat on the back and a nice “you’re a lifesaver”.

“I’ve shown right away that design work can be rushed and turned around very quickly.”

The reality is that I’ve shown right away that design work can be rushed and turned around very quickly. They only just asked me to do the favor and the next morning here it is sitting in their inbox. That means it’s no big deal to ask me to start over and have it done in a few hours!

If you want to keep expectations in the ballpark of realistic, stop turning free work around so quickly. Explain to the person that it’s going to take time and has to come in after paying clients who have contracts in place that can’t be broken.

Once they realize that their free logo will take 2-3 weeks, they’ll hopefully come to the conclusion that the favor is a significant one. Then when they ask for changes, you can kindly explain that, once again, it’s going to have to get thrown at the bottom of the stack and will take some time to get to. All the waiting might just make them turn elsewhere, and trust me, that’s not a bad thing.

Bartering Can Be Great

If the person asking for a handout isn’t someone that you see as fit for charity, then consider setting up a barter situation. Unlike free work, these agreements can be immensely beneficial if you’re skilled in structuring them.

“Unlike free work, these agreements can be immensely beneficial.”

For instance, let’s say your pal Joe wants a logo for his landscaping company. Explain to Joe that you typically charge $X for a logo project and will therefore give him a free logo if you get the same amount of money back in landscaping services.

If you’re good enough, before you know it, you’ve got people mowing your lawn, cleaning your pool and giving you free meals at their restaurant! As long as both parties are professional enough to not get greedy and take advantage of the agreement to their obvious favor, everybody wins.


At one point or another, we all swear we’ll never take on another free project again. If you’re like me, you suck at making good on that promise.

Keep in mind that it’s perfectly acceptable to turn a friend or family member down, that saying “yes” means taking on a full-blown client, that completing the first round quickly only sets unrealistic expectations for change and that, when compared to 100% free work, bartering can be a fantastic alternative.

Do you have a horror story of a free project gone wrong? We want to hear it! Leave a comment below with your story along with any tips you have for working for friends and family.