Visual arts skills are very useful — great visuals can make man-made things more aesthetically pleasing, and they also help sell products.
If you’re not a visual creative yourself, and you find yourself in need of design or illustration services for your project, there are two options: pay for them, or ask a friend to help you out for free (or cheap).
If you opt for the second route, here’s a short guide to help you approach your friend in a way that will not endanger your relationship.
How good friends are you exactly?
If this person is just someone you know, but you aren’t very close (you didn’t call them up for coffee or a beer in months or years), then it’s probably not a good idea to ask them for a favor.
If you have a history of helping each other out, and you have some good karma points with them, then it’s safe to assume they’re likely to help you.
Don’t ask people you don’t know at all. This should be obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t get it. Sob stories don’t help either — they don’t know you, so why should they care?
(The only positive thing about this strategy is you have nothing to lose.)
In any case, I’ve never said yes to a complete stranger who sent me a request for free work.
Prepare to accept “no” as an answer
It’s hard for us to say no to other people, especially those we love. We’re taught that nice people always say yes, and if we say no we’re selfish. Learning how to say no to some things in order to be able to do things that make us happy is a difficult lesson for everyone.
Please, don’t make it harder than it has to be.
If you ask for help, and the person refuses, accept it gracefully.
It’s nothing personal.
It doesn’t mean they don’t like you.
It doesn’t mean they’re selfish and they don’t want to help other people.
It means that sometimes we have to say “no” to other people in order to say “yes” to ourselves. If we kept saying yes to everyone all the time, we’d be out of money, time, health and joy very soon, and we couldn’t contribute anything useful to the world anymore.
Write a detailed request
People can’t give you a straight answer until they know what they’re getting themselves into — that’s what design briefs are for. You should have a clear idea of the type and amount of work you need, and have it in writing.
If you want to maximize your chances of success, do their homework for them. A few of my friends approached me with a sketch or a clip-art mockup of a logo they had in mind, and asked me to draw it in vectors. That was easy and didn’t take me as much time as making a logo from scratch, so I said yes.
Maybe they’ll come up with a better idea on their own, but at least you gave them something to start with.
Give them an easy way out
Send your friend an e-mail so they can check out the brief on their own time, and think about it thoroughly before answering.
I hate it when people call me on the phone out of the blue, because I feel like I’m put on the spot. This may just be me, but I recommend you avoid calling people if you’re not super awesome buddies.
I’m not a fan of meeting in person before I hear what the project is about. The main reason is time, but also because I don’t like the pressure of having to make a decision on the meeting.
I’d rather get the initial proposition in an e-mail, answer it when I have thought about it thoroughly, and then meet as needed once we’ve agreed to work together.
You may be wondering, if your chances of hearing “Yes” are higher if you put people on the spot, why should you listen to me?
Maybe you’ll get what you wanted, but at what cost? Your friend may resent you for it and act passive aggressive (ie. they’ll say yes, but then procrastinate on the project for months) and it can make your relationship awkward.
(It’s pretty obvious I’m writing this because I have done it. I’m not proud of that, but when I realized I wasn’t doing people a favor by being flaky and irresponsible, I started saying “No” more often.)
You want your friend to be excited about your project, because excited people do awesome work, and they do it fast.
If someone is not that happy to work on your project, you don’t want them to do it anyway.
Creatives are busy (everyone is)
When we’re not working for our clients or bosses, we love to work on our own projects. And even when we don’t work on anything in particular, we like to enjoy some free time and relax – just like everyone else!
So, before you ask your friend for help, be prepared to hear “I’m sorry, I’m really busy and can’t help you right now.”
Accept it politely, and don’t push.
Avoid following up by “But it’s very simple, it should take you only a few hours of work!”
You can’t predict how long it takes — you’re making a judgement about a skill you don’t know much about.
Another thing you shouldn’t say is: “Just make something rough, it will do just fine!” — creatives don’t like compromising on quality, because we are wary of our reputation. If we make crappy work, we don’t want anyone to know we did it. So it’s likely that even if we gave you a huge discount or did it for free, you’d still be getting top service simply because giving bad service makes us look bad.
And even if it did take only a couple of hours, your friend would appreciate having a few hours to relax and rest, instead of squeezing in some more work in their already hectic schedule.
Another possible answer is, “I’d love to help you, but I can’t do it at the moment. When is this project due?”
They may genuinely consider working on this project at a later date, or they may really want to say no, but are afraid of offending you. Either way, if your friend isn’t overly enthusiastic about your project, treat this “maybe” as a “no”, because it’s likely you’re going to wait for a looooong time before it turns into “yes”.
Give a reasonable deadline
One of the worst things you can do is ask for a freebie, and demand it has to be done by the end of the week, or tomorrow. It’s rude and disrespectful.
You knew about the deadline all along, but didn’t do anything about it, and now you’re trying to make it somebody else’s problem.
Depending on the project, it can last from two weeks to two months to get it done, but you’re not a paying client, so your work cannot be a top priority for the freelancer who has to earn money to make a living. Your deadlines must be more generous than those of paying projects, because your project can’t fit in the normal working hours.
To avoid deadline stress and looking like a complete ass in front of your friend, contact the creative as soon as you realize you need one. This will also allow you to look for someone else if the first person declines your offer.
Don’t be too generous though, and not give a deadline at all. You risk getting your project at the bottom of the pile and forgotten about. If there is no objective deadline, ask your friend to give an estimate of when they think they could finish it, then say the deadline is a month later. (Humans are terrible at predicting how long something will take, so allow for that.)
What’s in it for them?
Please, do not insult your friend by offering them “exposure”. Artists create exposure for themselves by creating awesome work. They get picked up by press and blogs and social network users just by doing their own thing. They don’t need to further prove themselves by working for free.
Exposure via credits is granted for every project, it’s not an “extra” you can generously offer them. Professional creatives get both money and exposure for the work they do.
But there’s another issue with “exposure”: you can’t predict how popular your project will become. Marketing activities cost money, so chances are if you don’t have a budget for visuals, you don’t have a budget for marketing either, and your project might not take off as well as you hoped.
Very often when people realize this, they abandon the project completely. Since they didn’t have to invest money in visuals, they didn’t lose too much money. This means we have less of a chance to get exposure from a client that isn’t investing money, than from a client who is paying us fairly.
Now that we got that out of the way…
What can you really offer them?
If it’s a product, will they get a few copies for them and their close friends in an approximate value of their service?
If it’s an event with paid tickets, will they get a free entrance for several people?
Remember, the value they bring to the table can cost anywhere from several hundred to thousands of dollars. If you’re offering them goods or services in exchange, make sure it’s a fair exchange. One $30 book or a $100 festival ticket is not an adequate compensation for a $1000 worth of illustration.
If you’re a professional in an area that they might need in the future (for example copywriting, online marketing, making music, videos etc.) you could offer to provide these services for them whenever they need it. The fact you’re showing a sign of goodwill, compared to most people who feel entitled to use us, is very refreshing.
Please bear in mind that the goods or service you’re offering should be useful to the person you’re bartering with. Don’t try to trade in a purebred puppy (this actually happened to someone I know) unless you’re absolutely sure the creative and his/her family are very excited to get a new pet.
Since app-based startups are all the rage now, I should mention that as well. If you’re looking for a designer to contribute to your app at the time when you’re not able to pay them, it’s expected to give them a share in your company. Still not everyone will be eager to say yes, but the person that does will be as motivated to get the project out in the world as you are.
What if it’s a non-profit project?
In that case it’s OK not to offer something material in return (as you’re not gaining anything yourself), but you’re more likely to get help from people who are passionate about the cause.
Before asking your personal friends, ask around if there are other volunteers for the project that may have the skills needed for this job. When choosing who to ask from your friends, pick a person that you know is likely to be interested in this project.
Don’t expect just about anyone to run to your help because the cause is “good”. People are entitled to do whatever they want with their free time.
Volunteering for a nonprofit is admirable, but not required in order to be a nice person.
Don’t feel discouraged if your artistic friends are not as passionate as you are about this project.
Try finding a forum or a Facebook group where people who support the cause are posting, and post an open call there. If there are any creatives in that group, they’ll be likely to help you out if they have the time.
To sum it up…
- Ask people you’re close to, especially if you’ve helped them in the past.
- Write an e-mail with all the necessary details about the project.
- Do your research and offer your own ideas as a starting point.
- Offer something useful and valuable in return.
- Give them a generous deadline.
- Find people who support your non-profit cause online.
- Accept “No” as an answer.
- Ask people you barely know.
- Call people you haven’t heard for months on the phone.
- Invite people for a meeting before they’ve accepted to help you.
- Offer “exposure” in lieu of payment.
- Tell them it has to be done by next week.
- Say there’s no deadline at all.
- Become pushy if the answer is no (or a half-hearted maybe).
I hope this helps!
P. S. Artists, designers, and other creatives who constantly get asked for free services, what’s your pet peeve when it comes to this topic?
Is there anything you’d like to say to people who ask you for free stuff in a manner that doesn’t make you all that eager to help?
Or, did someone do all the right things and you were glad to help them out?
About Nela Dunato
Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.
On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...
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