The post below is my answer to “What are some good ways to get a free logo design?” on Quora. Note that I am in no way advocate for asking for free work, and generally consider it an insult.
After joining everyone else in shaking my fists with fury, I’m not going to add to the chorus of slightly offended responses on here, although I wholeheartedly agree with them. Yes, it’s a bit of an insult to expect a professional to deliver quality work for free. Yes, your promises of future payoff are meaningless. However, there is that 0.0000001% of cases where asking for a free design is OK. Perhaps you are truly an all-volunteer organization that is making huge strides in solving a particular problem, and you know that the designer you’re approaching cares a lot about this issue. Perhaps the designer in question is an old college friend whose back you had at 4 in the morning too many times to count, and he or she really owes you a favor, but you don’t want to act like a jerk when asking for it. I’m going to try to describe the best way someone could bring up the request for free work in these rare circumstances.
Be prepared to give up control. If you can’t pay them, give them the freedom to create work they’ll be proud of and happy to add to their portfolio. Let them take the wheel and remember that they’re the skilled professional in visual presentation, not you. When you try to tell a designer exactly what to make or change, you’re showing disrespect and making them feel like an eyes-mouse-software robot instead of a designer. Provide objective information, like who your competitors are and what environments the logo will be used in, and try your best to avoid butting in with what you like and don’t like. Agree to not modify anything, ever, and to use the work only in approved contexts. And don’t wait for the designer to come up with a list of demands for you—approach them first with a list of things you agree to give up. It’s a great way to earn respect from the beginning.
Always make your interactions with them a priority. Nothing is more infuriating than doing a favor for someone and feeling like they can’t be bothered to pay attention to you. Answer emails promptly, pick up the phone. Listen to what they tell you, and provide all requested information. Sounds obvious, but a lot of people don’t have the decency to do this. Keep in mind that if a designer loves working with you, they’ll be more likely refer you to other people who can help you.
Check the ego. Being cocky about your project’s future without having proven results and existing revenue is the most telling sign of a wannapreneur. It’s annoying. Being cocky about the value of your own aesthetic preferences is equally annoying. If you’re asking for someone’s help, please don’t act like your opinions should dominate the relationship.
Prove your influence. A designer is investing his or her time with you. Prove your worth like you’d prove it to other investors. It’s a waste of breath to simply tell someone your idea is bulletproof and that you’ll be struggling with server load in a month after launching and viral growth. Also, don’t say that you’re changing people’s lives, point us to evidence. And make it easy to find. No one has the time to browse through your site.
Know your sh*t. Be concise about what you’re asking. Decide ahead of time what kind of visual feel you’re going for, what you position in the competitive landscape is, what formats you need, what complementary brand elements will need to be developed in the future, etc. Never surprise someone with unexpected information when they are doing free work for you.
Offer something unique in return. It’s one thing to ask for something for free, and quite another to offer something the designer can’t find anywhere else in return. My favorite “barters” so far have been with a dance instructor who wanted to start a blog about dating, and a social enterprise that provided financial advising services for low-income earners. I’ll leave it up to your imagination what each of them offered me in return for my help.
Show familiarity with the designer’s past work, and prove how it will help you. No one wants to feel as if you’re asking them for a favor only because they’re the only sap that would agree to do it for free. Do your research on the designer, show them that their particular style is what you love, and ensure them that they’re special out of all the different people you’ve thought to approach.
Compliment specific qualities of past work. Just to add to the above, don’t just say “I love what you do!” Be specific. If you love their preferred color palettes, say it. If you’re happy to see their work for clients in a specific industry, say it. It will help the process significantly.
Stop taking advantage of students. It made me a bit sad to see how many people here recommended getting a student to do the work. If you need a student to do it, it still means that they have an advantage over you when it comes to skills and background. Their time is not free. Yes, students will often do work for free because they are insecure about their portfolios, but shame on anyone who takes advantage of this. Don’t pay them what you’d pay an established professional, but pay them something. Actually, imagine an amount you’re comfortable paying to a student, and triple it. At least pay for one of their overpriced textbooks in exchange for the stress that they’ll go through to get you a logo after working and studying full time. Come on, people!
Stop spec work. Spec, or speculative, work is work that is requested without prior agreement to pay someone a specific and reasonable fee. An example: holding a contest where many designers submit ideas for your logo, and you choose one of the submissions to use. Read through www.no-spec.com and stop unethical work requests.
Other authors on this topic, for both clients and designers: