Ask DN: Should design students work for free for startups?

over 9 years ago from , Designer @ SAP

So someone post this on local craigslist http://vancouver.en.craigslist.ca/van/web/4495555486.html

I've seen some debates on should design students work for free or not. Often when I look on craigslist, there're indeed some starups saying"We don't have much money now so we won't pay you, but this is an awesome opportunity"kind of stuff.

As a 2nd year student, I'm more like "I'm currently in need for project experience so I won't care for money too much." It is indeed hard to get a job for student designers like me, although.

I wanna hear opinions from other student designer/design professionals. In your country/area, does student work for startups without pay? What do you think about it?


  • Aaron LarnerAaron Larner, over 9 years ago

    I can understand why it's tempting to take unpaid work as a student and since I'm not in that mindset I'm not sure what the right answer is. From the start-up employers perspective here is my take:

    I don't want to hire anyone who can't work under very little direction. I expect new members of our team to be able to jump in and get real work done in the first week, with very little training or hand-holding. We just don't have time for that. This goes for seasoned veterans and students alike.

    Given that restriction it feels wrong asking anyone to work for free. If I'm not teaching you anything and you're improving my product/business then thats an incredibly one sided arrangement. For this reason I always pay (in cash or equity) anyone who works for us.

    This is why I'm so surprised when I see so many start-ups asking for free work from designers. I don't think I've ever seen a a start-up asking for free work from developers (even if they are interns). The difference is that I think start-ups under-value design work. They see it as something they can throw in at the end to put some lipstick on their product. From that perspective, why not hire a few unpaid designers and see what color lipstick they pick? If it's good they use it, if not then it gets thrown away. I wouldn't want to work for a company like that so I don't ask any of our team to work like that either.

    On the other hand, if the start up is actually going to teach you something than it's a different story. But it needs to be very clear what you will be learning. You should have a mentor who has a large chunk of time dedicated to helping you. In that case there is more of a give and take. The company gets real design help and you learn a lot and get portfolio pieces that are more likely to actually be used in the real world. If the start-up is offering nothing then they will value your time at nothing.

    4 points
    • Laurie CaiLaurie Cai, over 9 years ago

      The difference is that I think start-ups under-value design work. They see it as something they can throw in at the end to put some lipstick on their product.

      On the nail.

      3 points
    • Tori Z, over 9 years ago

      Totally agree with the lipstick metaphor. Actually it's not just startup.. I found a lot of clients think the same way.

      0 points
  • Nick MNick M, over 9 years ago

    What's the word I'm looking for..... oh, it's no. It's always no.

    2 points
  • Elliott ReganElliott Regan, over 9 years ago

    I've never worked for free, but I have worked for cheap because I knew that I was getting a lot out of the position. Every situation is different, but this is my philosophy:

    If you are doing free or highly discounted work, make sure that you are the one taking advantage of the client, not the other way around.

    Use every resource they have, get as many introductions as you can, produce good work that you can be proud of, experiment with new techniques/tools, make good impressions, and don't be afraid to leave if you feel like it isn't going anywhere.

    Also, rather than work for free, ask for a convertible debt note equal to the cost of your services, with a 20% conversion discount or something along those lines. It is free for them, and if they end up making it, you will get a nice big check in the end for your time + risk.

    2 points
  • Helen TranHelen Tran, over 9 years ago

    I did a brief internship at an agency for credit towards the last bit of my schooling. They didn't pay me anything. This is very typical in Toronto. Outside of that, I have tried working "for free" for the "awesome opportunity" once or twice. Here is what I have learned from this experience:

    • I didn't end up getting any work that was usable for my portfolio in any of these situations for many reasons. They weren't used/project never launched, the client was mismanaged, the team members weren't as serious as I was, etc.

    • I didn't feel happy about my work in the end because I didn't provide them what I considered to be the best solution because either one of us didn't take the agreement seriously. I either did not frame the project properly or the client didn't met eye-to-eye with me. This was my inexperience speaking, but the working for free didn't make the stress 'worth it.'

    • There were projects I could get experience from, I just had to be more creative. The difference was that I had learned by being burned a couple of times and became more creative with how people paid me. If they didn't have the funds in cash, they were going to pay me somehow by offering things they had. At the time, I was really into fashion photography and the documentary filmmaker I worked with offered me a little cash and then made up the rest of the project fees in studio time. From that, I met more and more people that ended up landing me a few freelance gigs to further pad my portfolio.

    There is no reason for a student to work for a business without pay. You can, however, learn a lot about client relations.

    2 points
    • Tori Z, over 9 years ago

      This is really, really helpful for me. I'm actually in the exact situation that I think they don't take the project seriously.

      1 point
  • Nice ShoesNice Shoes, over 9 years ago

    If a company profits from your service then so should those that help provide the service.

    We pay way above the minimum wage to our interns.

    1 point
  • Darien HenryDarien Henry, over 9 years ago

    I'm graduating in a couple of weeks and I'll tell you straightforward just like everyone else: absolutely not. You don't have to be incredibly picky about jobs right now but at the same time don't get stuck lowering yourself to something that doesn't even treat your time as worth money. I haven't worked for free the past four years and you may have to look around more (well outside of craigslist) but it's definitely possible to find the right people.

    They kind of lack in teaching the business side of things in a lot of educational design programs but unless it's your startup I would avoid it.

    1 point
  • Darth BaneDarth Bane, over 9 years ago

    The most important thing in the design business is experience, and that's why I would answer 'maybe'. Getting the experience of working with a client and learning the process is worth money in the long term. If working for free is what it takes in the short term, so be it.

    However, there's a difference between working for "free" (experience) and a client/employer exploiting your willingness to do so.

    'You get what you pay for' is a good saying.

    1 point
  • Catalin CimpanuCatalin Cimpanu, over 9 years ago

    I started my career working for free. It helped me a lot. There are lots of things you'll never get to know unless working in an agency.

    If someone else decides to do it, then work for free in the best agencies in town. At least learn from the best.

    1 point
  • Sergi MiralSergi Miral, over 9 years ago


    1 point
  • Louis-André LabadieLouis-André Labadie, over 9 years ago

    If you're working for a person/entity that will profit off your work, or receives funding for it, you should be paid.

    Work for non-profits is special work. Work for startups is not.

    You'll do a ton of work in very little time, most of it will be thrown away (95% of startups ship very little compared to how much work is done). You won't have anything live to show for it after the internship.

    The first sentence in my reply is pretty much what you should answer. "I cannot produce work that supports your business model for free. That would place me in an incredibly disadvantaged position."

    If they're still interested, find out what reasonable grounds are available. And congratulations! You've just made the statement that your work has a value, and that places you above 50% of the design market.

    Internships aren't well paid, but they should be paid. With professional internships, companies trade their own time to educate you, in exchange for you giving a hand to their workforce at small cost.

    1 point
  • Tori Z, 9 years ago

    Just want to give an update on this post.

    I think I posted this at the beginning of summer. At that time I was worried about not able to get an internship. I end up with: Found a really good internship. After that I got a very shitty client, but gave me a good pay. Now I'm interning at a big company, good pay, working on interesting projects.

    Sometimes you just need to wait. There are times that you are so worried about your future, your career. It's so tempting to work for free. But don't. Just don't.

    Finalize your portfolio. Try to get in touch with a lot of people. You'll eventually get an opportunity. And when it comes, eventually lots of other opportunities will come along the way.

    Stop worrying. Just keep doing.

    0 points
  • leo duqueleo duque, over 9 years ago

    I think it is the web industry's responsibility to invest in young designers. There need to be more short but strong starting positions, even paid internships. I feel that the web industry should know better than to essentially have young designers in "spec" positions.

    Yes they are learning lots, but EVERYONE al the way up to the owner of a design studio should be constantly learning lots. Learning opportunities are NOT a replacement for pay.

    0 points
  • barry saundersbarry saunders, over 9 years ago

    Unpaid internships aren't great, but it's good to get some experience - I would advise a paid internship if you can find one (perhaps at an agency - you'll get experience and direction as well) but if not, I'd consider looking for an NGO or community organisation. You'll be able to do good work without making someone else rich.

    If you really want to do startup style work, there's nothing stopping you doing it on your own - and if you succeed, it'll be you making the money, not the person who's getting you to work for free!

    If you're mostly after mentorship, there's a lot of mentorship programs that will give you experience without exploiting you.

    0 points
  • David KizlerDavid Kizler, over 9 years ago

    In the past when I undervalued myself, I got burned. I don't regret doing it because it taught me a lot about what not to do in the future, but I don't think this type of work will generally lead to portfolio material.

    I don't know if this is a law of science, but I feel like the less money on the table, the more likely a designer will be treated as a pixel pusher. Make sure you are getting something out of the deal, even if it's not money, otherwise the relationship will be strained and one-sided from the start.

    0 points
  • Nice ShoesNice Shoes, over 9 years ago

    If a company profits from your service then so should you.

    We pay way above the minimum wage to our interns.

    0 points
  • Ed ChaoEd Chao, over 9 years ago

    Many many years ago, I did this. Honestly, it was worth it. If only for the healthy dose of reality and the chance to watch superstars at work.

    0 points
  • Anthony TadinaAnthony Tadina, over 9 years ago

    You should refer to this chart: http://shouldiworkforfree.com/

    To make it easy, No.

    0 points
  • Nick NobleNick Noble, over 9 years ago

    If you want to and you truly have the time, do it. Otherwise, don't do it.

    Personally I wouldn't commit any large amounts of time, and I would still have a scoping agreement.

    0 points