Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Paid what you're worth...(again)

Nice timing. I talk about free services, and the NYTimes does an update on the On the Cheap series.

From the start, this series bothered me. Mainly because the NYTimes solicited their readers to write in their problems as potential clients and then asked designers to participate by waiving their fees. The readers got beautiful rooms that "fit within their budgets". The professionals participating? Well, supposedly publicity.

The projects required full design services from the professional participating. And, to the credit of those participating, the professionals seemed to take on the projects with zeal. Not just a 5 minute consultation, some sketches, and a sample board. They were on site, arranging furniture, ordering, coordinating, even making items for their respective clients.

Now, I know many firms write off a certain amount under marketing expenses. So, I imagine the professionals who opted in for this series saw it as such. It might be time not paid, but certainly it is magnificent exposure. But, as with any foray into a public forum, not all the articles in the series were flattering.

The professionals, in participating for free, were not only subject to the typical ups and downs of completing a project, they were now doing in under the scrutiny of the NYTimes readership. Everything laid open for others to judge. The problems that might arise between client and professional. Aired for entertainment, framed by the narration of third party. Worth the price? I wonder how many new jobs the participating firms got.

I am glad that the NYTimes included the cost of the design services performed. And the services fees weren't insignificant. Personally, I think it would have been better for the NYTimes to cover those expenses, rather than asking for professionals to donate it. After all, the NYTimes isn't some non-profit organization, publishing for free. They make money off what they write and the subjects they write about.

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Monday, April 05, 2010

Paid what you're worth...(cont.)

I promised I'd follow up on my previous post. So I'll begin with a story.

Since completing the renovation projects that brought me home, I've been hunting for work. Any work. Cause, well, I gotta pay some bills. I've been up for anything. I've done some writing and editing, some graphic design, a competition, and even some consulting. Small things to get me by while I received letter after letter telling me what I already knew - no one is hiring.

So, you can imagine my excitement after getting a referral from my parents. A restaurant: it was small enough that I could do the work by myself, and seemed like a pretty clean slate, design-wise. Sure, it'd be a tight budget, but these projects always are. Besides, aren't these also the projects that launch people's careers. Small, quirky...get it out there, get some press, and I could be well on my way.

I should have seen it coming, from the second they thanked me for agreeing to do the project. Why? Well, because, this was the first thing they said to me, despite me having never met them, nor actually agreeing to do anything besides meet with them. Let's just say, somewhere along the line, there was a miscommunication. I'd learn quickly what that was.

In their initial conversation with my parents, they had discussed their dire budget. They hoped they might find a designer that might help them in light of their financial situation. You know what that means? They wanted someone who might do their work for free. Or at least, do it all up front with promise of payment at some later date. They got the impression from my parents that I'd be amenable to that.

That initial meeting was extremely awkward. They approached it as though I had fully committed to designing their project. Not knowing anything, I got drawn into the discussion, noticing that any discussion of fee was being carefully, but consciously, avoided. Only when I mentioned the need for consultants, especially for the mechanical, electrical and plumbing, did they go on about their need to "save", and perhaps I'd know people who'd understand their position and be able to help them like I was.

I left torn. The designer in me wanted to dive in - say, what the hell. I've got nothing better to do. The business man in me, the one thinking about my upcoming bills, wanted to go home, write a service proposal, and send it back to them immediately.

I spoke with some mentors, some colleagues, to get ideas. You see, my professional practice course drilled into me one mantra - never work for free. And, in principle, I agree. Doing work for free, as an intern, or as a professional, is a disservice to you and the profession. It devalues the work that we do, leaving people the impression that what we do doesn't really have any worth.

Working for a free as an intern bothers me because the firm utilizing your efforts rarely, if ever, passes those savings on to their clients. Your free labor is used to help that firm stay afloat, because they undercharged to get the job or are trying for a high profile gig, in which they through everything they have at it, even if it means exceeding the hours budgeted. Either way, it perpetuates the undervalued perception of the work we do.

Working for free as a professional - well, it becomes a more personal dilemma. After all, you as the professional, are responsible for saying yes or no. As one of my mentors reminded me, sometimes, you take on a job, pro-bono, in the hopes of achieving another outcome - publicity, portfolio building, experience in a new field. And for many of us trying to break out on our own, without the connections or backing that allows for paid commissions, doing free work might be an avenue towards recognition.

And, to be honest, there are times when I can see free design services are justified - doing work for non-profits, which use your expertise to achieve something that benefits the underserved, or a community in need. By all means, take some time to help out. But, in my particular case, I felt unmoved, despite my excitement for the project itself.

I went back and forth for a couple of weeks. I did end up doing some work for them - options for their logo, as well as four floor plan options on organizing the space. But I stopped there. And then I wrote a service contract for the services I provided, as well as a service proposal for the work they would need from me take the project forward.

At the second meeting, I showed them the work I had done. They were excited, they asked questions, they wanted to know more. And I gave them options - ideas how to move forward, the things they needed to complete before they could continue, how to finalize their budget. And then I gave them my service contract and my service proposal. They stopped being excited. They stopped asking questions. I explained to them that, if money was that tight, there were a number of things they could do themselves. The consultants they would need to find, the drawings they would need to get, the concrete items they would need to price so they could determine how much they might actually have for their interior fit out. The client only focused on "this is how much I owe you?" I told her that the rates were negotiable, and to review them and get back to me. It's been two weeks. Do you think they've called?

In the end, my gut tells me I was right to do what I did. If it had been a close friend, or family, I might have been more open to doing work upfront, without worrying about the compensation. But, if close friends or family had asked me, they'd have also been willing, hell, they'd have been adamant, to discuss the nature of my compensation, whatever that might have been. I would have done the work because, ultimately, I'd trust them to carryout their promises to me. I didn't have that feeling in this case, and so far, I've been proven correct.

Everyone has to figure out what works for them, what they ultimately decide is right for them. So I'm not going to judge, or definitely say you should or should not do work for free. I admit, I wanted that project. And for a moment, I seriously considered moving forward. I had a number of ideas floating in my head from the second I met with them. In the end, I ended up doing some work for free, as I doubt I'll ever get money for what I completed. But, though they might have a floorplan, they didn't get anything else. Those ideas, for everything from their material palette to the design of feature elements, is still locked in my head. And, even if these ideas don't get built, they are ideas that I imagined and these clients could not. So I'll save them for another time, when I think they'll be given a value equal to their worth.

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Friday, April 02, 2010

Paid what you're worth...

This NYTimes article hits on something that our profession often utilizes - unpaid internships. It happens, more than we'd like to acknowledge. Pros and cons abound, and I have some thoughts about it too, which I need to get down soon. But, until then, take a read and leave your own thoughts...

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Thursday, April 01, 2010


What can I say besides, yes, if it looks like this, it will be a spectacle indeed.

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