Design Dilemma: Should You Charge a Family Member for Design Work?

David L. writes: I’d like to know where I stand on a possible upcoming dilemma should the worst happen. I created a completely original piece, even hand drawing the letterforms, used for the company name. The first use of the logo was on a business card (which I also designed). It was later printed on a banner for a trade show and T-shirts. Since then, a website has been created (which I also developed), and print ads for nationally-published industry magazines (which I have also created… 3 in total).

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I have been paid for website and print ad development for time involved to create each. However, I was never paid anything for the original logo. I simply created it, and provided a PDF they could use for the business cards, T-shirt, and banner. The company has huge potential for explosive growth based on the nature and applications of the product it is selling.

Here’s where the dilemma may come in to play… I work with (for) my father in a different business, and this relationship may take a turn for the worse. At that point, I would lose any interest I have in “helping” him out.

My question is, where do I stand with this logo I created? Do I still own it even though it is in use already? As I said, I was never paid, but I never billed either. Would it be too late to demand a price at this point? Would I need to register this logo to claim ownership and prevent it’s use?

YIKES! When family enters the business picture, too often professional consideration leaves the scene. Join us as we delve into another Design Dilemma, helping to answer your questions, queries and concerns about the murky world of design…

Putting the “Fun” in “DysFUNction”

Whenever it comes to family, there’s always some sort of problem, unless you assure them it’s free, you’ll make as many changes as they want, listen to stories about why they knew you’d be an underachiever, and claim no rights to the work for ever and ever…

“On top of everything else, his father reneged on a promise of giving David the company for which he was working and asked him to sign a two-year non-compete agreement”

My first question to David was to ask about his relationship with his father and what might happen if he pushed for payment. He wrote back. The 2,000 word answer wasn’t easy to read and while I’ll spare readers from the whole sad story, I will summarize it as a man trying to hold onto a relationship with a father who doesn’t seem to care… except when it comes to getting his son to do free work or work based on promises that are all to easily broken.

On top of everything else, his father reneged on a promise of giving David the company for which he was working and asked him to sign a two-year non-compete agreement. The same problems David has faced all his life with his father. David said that he loves his father but just doesn’t trust him. An untrustworthy family member who needs a contract is… a client!

Legally, David owns the logo as it wasn’t transferred in writing. His father, no doubt would disagree and fire David and never speak to him again… until he needed something from David. Would David forgive and forget (along with the financial hits he has taken all his life from his father’s change of mind), or is this the final insult, pushing a clear message that it’s his design skills that matter in the relationship and not the father-son relationship?

“He would always promise there would be money later on for everyone, but it was always for him. When I would demand money up front, I would get a teary call from my grandmother, asking my why I didn’t support family”

I faced a similar situation with my family, but chose to forgive and forget, except for my uncle. He was the kind of person who would take startup capital from my grandparents, start a business with a sound foundation, make a lot of money and then screw up and the bank would repossess his cars and expensive toys, my grandparents would pay off his house and he would go on to another business in the same manner. Each time, of course, I would get the privilege of designing his logo and branding work.

He would always promise there would be money later on for everyone, but it was always for him. When I would demand money up front, I would get a teary call from my grandmother, asking my why I didn’t support family, and what a genius my uncle was and how I could do very well if I worked for him. He would call to ask where his design work was and I would ask where the payment was. Then grandma would call and cry some more.

After a half dozen businesses, he was left with no car, no house (and, when I was cleaning out my late grandmother’s house, according to some papers she stashed away, probably to be found after she had passed away, a debt to her for a half million dollars, just in five years since my grandfather had passed away) and he had yet another business idea and he asked for another logo, packaging design, etc. This time I insisted on money up front. He insisted we would “all make money later,” but I stuck to my guns and after a few calls of him angrily demanding the design work and threats to get an art student to do the work for free (and crying calls from my grandmother), he got the message that there would be no work without payment, which included past due payments.

What Does Your Family Mean to You?

We all do many things for family, so where does it end? Family can be connections for a better job (Uncle Bob’s college roommate is now the president of a major TV network), provide support in tough times, and be the biggest pains when you just need them to shut up… with love in your heart, of course.

So, my advice to David, and anyone else with family that cannot fathom that being a designer is a professional job that deserves a professional fee, is to decide if doing it for free is really going to haunt your sense of guilt or is one of those things you do out of love and kindness.

His father and my uncle, of course, kept proving that there was no love involved on their part, which sends a clear message — business is business and if “you’ll be paid later” is part of the plan, then there should be money and no fear of asking for it… over and over and over until the words, “where’s my money?” is scrawled on that relative’s tombstone.

The best avenue is just to apologize, look sad, tell your relative you’re too busy to work on their identity, brand, and hair-brained scheme and refer them to a designer friend… or, with some family members like mine, a designer enemy, heh-heh!

Send Us Your Dilemma!

Do you have a design dilemma? Speider Schneider will personally answer your questions — just send your dilemma to [email protected]!

Speider has created designs for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson and Viacom among other notable companies and is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild and co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee. He writes for global blogs on design ethics and business practices and has contributed to several books on the subject of business for designers.

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