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Back to Blog Home Never work for free – but tell clients you do!

Value v price

Especially for creative businesses like architects, it’s about value, not price.

Seems like a contradiction, doesn’t it?

Never work gratis. But then tell your prospective clients that you always work for free?

Believe it or not, these two apparently conflicting ideas are actually completely consistent.

Bear with me while I spell out exactly why…

Never work for free

Whether you’re a graphic designer, architect, interior designer or anyone selling creative services.

And by ‘free’ I mean for any less a fee than you need to cover all the costs of providing the services you offer. Plus a reasonable profit.

And by ‘never’ I mean never, ever, ever, ever!

[Well ok, except where you’re legitimately offering a pro bono service as a charitable gesture to a needy client.]

Unfortunately, there are all sorts of clients out there – big and small, experienced and inexperienced. And many seem to think it’s ok to ask you, and usually several of your competitors, to solve their design problem for free. Generally, you assume that if they like your ideas better than others they’ll appoint you. And pay you to complete the commission.

For some reason they think this is ok with architects, but they’d never remotely consider taking this approach with other professionals. With their neurosurgeon, their accountant or even their used car salesperson.

So why have we, as creative professionals, allowed ourselves to so easily be taken advantage of in this way?

Why have we allowed our profession to be devalued?

And more importantly, what compelling and irrefutable ammunition do we have to resist…?

Here’s the ammunition

Those who know me well as a business coach and business advisor know they need to stand back when I get started on this issue. It’s one I happen to feel extraordinarily passionate about.

And you and every other creative professional should, too!

So, when your client, or prospective client, approaches you to do work ‘on-spec’ or to ‘free-pitch,’ why not pause for a moment and, before you say NO, ask them the following questions:

[Note: If they still won’t agree to appoint you for a reasonable, professional fee, they’re just not a client you want to work for!]

  1. Do they really want a design that’s based on guesses and short-cuts?
    Working for free inevitably means the design process will have to be seriously abbreviated.
  2. Are they happy to have a design that’s, at worst, plagiarised, or at best, heavily derived from some template or another completed project?
    I know you wouldn’t do this. But some of your competitors might feel it’s easiest to adapt something they completed for another client rather than produce a truly innovative design solution.
  3. Are they comfortable taking on significant risk, and with asking potential architects or designers to do likewise?
    Unpaid, competitive ‘commissions’ generally have few of the usual contractual safeguards that a normal, paid commission with a professional would offer. For both parties! Not to mention copyright and intellectual property rights for the designer.
  4. Do they realise they’ll likely get lower quality design solutions from less experienced or less motivated members of the competing firms?
    The only way most design practices can afford to do ‘spec’ work is by giving the task to younger, lower paid staff. Or, at a pinch, by ‘squeezing’ the work out of more experienced staff out of normal hours.
  5. Can they see that one iteration does not generate a sophisticated design solution?
    Design and design thinking are iterative processes. They rely on numerous cycles of thought, both within the design team and between architect/designer and client.
  6. Are they prepared to remove the enormous benefits of communication and collaboration from the design process?
    Effective and responsive design is usually the product of substantial interaction between designer and client. Ideally, interaction in a collaborative setting where feedback is used to heavily inform the evolving design.
  7. Do they really think it’s ethical?
    Coercing or blackmailing a professional into parting with their creative product without compensation is nothing less than intellectual property theft.
  8. Do they understand they’re forcing somebody else to pay for their design?
    Ultimately architecture and design practices must survive. And to survive in any business, revenues need to exceed costs. Which means that the cost of working for free for one client must be covered by all your other, paying, clients. Which seems just a little unfair to me!
  9. Can they put a price on trust?
    Starting a design project without building a positive relationship based on trust will almost always lead to one outcome. A negative relationship based on mistrust.
  10. And finally, do they want the best price, or the best value?
    Almost invariably, the value that superior design creates is many times greater than the fee the designer charges to produce it. And just as importantly, the cost a client may bear from poor design can be many, many times the cheap fee they thought they needed.

This is all the ammunition you need to help you mount a compelling case against working for free.

So, why tell your prospective clients you always work for free?

I guess you’re now starting to wonder about the second part of my proposition?

Remember… where I said to tell your prospective clients you always work for free!

If I’m so against ‘spec’ work and ‘free pitching,’ why on earth would I make such a bizarre suggestion?

Let me illustrate with a simple example…

Imagine you’re looking to hire a tax advisor. Advisor A proposes a fee of $200. Advisor B proposes a fee of $2,000. Which would you choose?

Seems a straightforward choice, doesn’t it?

However, let’s consider that Advisor A uses a simple template process that will get you $400 of deductions. While Advisor B undertakes a more complex and sophisticated analysis of the structure of your financial affairs. And their approach will lead to $4,000 of deductions.

Now, which would you choose?

It’s clear that whether your potential client realises it or not, the price of your services is nowhere near as important as their value. So, starting your discussion about fees with a seemingly outrageous claim, can quickly get your prospective client to focus on the value you can create for them, rather than your price.

For example, if you’re an architect, your strong knowledge base can save them many $$ and add long-term, sustainable value by:

  • Shepherding the project more quickly through complex approval processes
  • Selecting materials and construction methods that will stand the test of time
  • Deeply understanding the inter-relationships and long term implications of key design decisions.

Your finely-honed design skills can add considerable value by:

  • Improving the durability and ‘timelessness’ of the design solution
  • Enhancing the ultimate resale value of the property
  • Reducing energy and utility costs in the completed building.

The comprehensiveness of your documentation can save even more $$ by:

  • Improving apples-v-apples competitiveness of builders’ tenders or quotes
  • Reducing the need to provide or spend large contingency allowances
  • Reducing costly variations and unforeseen delays during construction.

Your presence on site during construction can save yet more $$ by:

  • Rebalancing the ‘information inequity’ that exists in a direct relationship between owner and builder
  • Addressing builder’s errors or omissions before they become too costly to fix
  • Negotiating harder and smarter than most clients ever could.

And there are many, many more ways that quality design adds value, way beyond its cost.

In fact, if you don’t fundamentally believe this, you arguably shouldn’t be in an architecture or design business.

And if you do believe it, why would you ever agree to devalue your design work by giving it away?


Ross Clark is the founder of Melbourne-based business coaching and business advisory firm, WhyWhatHow. He has more than thirty years’ experience mentoring and coaching architects and creative professionals to productively start, creatively innovate, and substantially grow their practices.

You might also like to read Ross’ recent article: “The five dysfunctions of an architecture practice” 

© 2017 WhyWhatHow