I can’t afford to pay you but this will be really good for your portfolio.
It’s often joked that clients will use this line to take advantage of poor, non confrontational designers who don’t have the self respect to charge for their work. The general lack of proper compensation for quality work is often discussed in the online community and many-an-article has already been written on the subject. Most of the advice I’ve read has strongly discouraged artists from doing any work for free. The old comparison “If a plumber charges $100 an hour for his time, you should be able to charge something for yours” comes to mind.
I tend to be a bit of a pushover when it comes to this stuff so this sort of advice only causes me to feel guilty. I asked one of my coworkers about how to start getting paid for gigs, his advice was “the first step is to charge your family”. Call me a softy but I’m never going to charge my mom next time she wants me to design an invitation for my father’s birthday party. It’s just not going to happen.
Here’s my perspective. Don’t sweat it so much, especially if you’re young and starting out. My first gig was designing the program and invitations for my own wedding. My second, third, fourth, and, fifth gigs all involved doing wedding stuff for friends. Sometimes I got a free cup of coffee while I met to brainstorm with the happy couple. Sometimes I was able to write the design work off as a gift so I didn’t have to buy them anything. Sometimes I got a check for $40 (I did more than $40 worth of work). I never asked for money and often I didn’t get any, but these where my early years when I was still figuring out how to use the Adobe software my parents had bought for me. Rebekah already mentioned The Gap video but if you haven’t seen it it’s absolutely essential viewing for anyone in this business. In my opinion it’s okay to not charge for work while you’re still in your “making crap” phase. The practice, the deadlines and yes, the portfolio padding are payment enough while you’re still finding your voice.
Also, if they’re not paying you, they don’t own you. The payment for not getting paid is the freedom to walk away from a project rather than yield to their constant demands and changes. Sometimes this is more valuable than money.
Now that I’m a “real” designer, I still find myself doing the occasional favor for a friend or huge time-consuming project for a cup of coffee. I’m not a complete hard nose yet but I’m working on it. And whenever I get stiffed I try to remember that art is it’s own reward.