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Why You Should Never Work For Free: An Interview With Mike Monteiro

Technical and design skills are awesome, but most of being in business is…business. Skillcrush CEO, Adda Birnir, has said this is the most important thing she learned in the past four years of running her own businesses. Even when you work as a designer or developer, only a small portion of your time goes to your craft. The rest is spent building relationships with clients, pitching, landing deals, negotiating, paying employees… all of the OTHER stuff that comes with the day to day running of a business.

Mike Monteiro, one of our favorite designers and a true legend in the web design community, is here to help. He wrote a MUST READ book, published by Brooklyn-based publisher A Book Apart, called Design Is a Job. Though short, this book is exactly the book for you if you are planning to take your technical skills and use them to make money (as you should!!). It is jam packed with key insights about how to structure your client relationships, how to make sure you get paid (and paid well) for your skills, and how to handle criticism. We guarantee that this book will save you a lot of heartache, and will give you a good chuckle or two!

Mike granted Skillcrush an exclusive interview, to share his additional insights on interviewing for jobs, negotiating, and even what he would tell his 25-year-old self. Read on for his insightful – and delightful – advice.

BONUS: A Book Apart has given Skillcrushers an amazing discount code to purchase any book in their suite of go-to resources on web design and development! Check your email (in the most recent Skillcrush newsletter) to grab the code. Didn’t get it? Sign up for our email list here.

In your fantastic book, Design Is A Job, you encourage designers to never work for free (and you provides great advice on how to actually get paid). What sparked your passionate stance on this?

Not sure this is a passionate stance as much as I just believe people should get paid for their work. Designers are trained craftspeople. It took time and money to develop and learn that skill. And what we do has value. Especially in a business setting. I think a better question is “Why are so many designers willing to give their work away to companies and organization who turn around and benefit monetarily from it?” I can’t think of any other profession that is willing to do this, or more interestingly, feels compelled to do this while simultaneously complaining about it. People will always ask you for free work. That’s not something you can control. What you can control is how how respond to the request. Get comfortable saying no. And more importantly, get comfortable explaining the value of what you do in a way that inspires enough confidence that people will pay you to do it.

Historically, women don’t negotiate as frequently as men, and are less comfortable talking about money. What advice would you give to make a negotiation easier?

From where I stand, everyone is uncomfortable talking about money. Male and female. That said, the business world has historically undermined women’s value and confidence in an incredibly repulsive way. So I can understand how this has made an already uncomfortable situation that much more so. Approach every negotiation with confidence. And always start by stating your benefit to the company or organization. For example, “In the past year I’ve increased this, grown that, expanded etc.” Show them the financial benefit of keeping you around. Many people, male and female, negotiate with an emotional plea of how hard they work. Stop doing that.

At Skillcrush, we’re minting brand new web designers. What is your best tip on getting started for our newbies?

Your first job should be at a place where you’re surrounded by lots of designers with more experience than you. Learn all their tricks. The greatest design skill of all is learning how to deal with other people and knowing how to work a room. If you can’t work a room you can’t get your best work through. Nobody does this better than someone who’s done it a million times. Watch them work.

How does having tech skills (i.e. front-end development ability) impact a web designer’s value?

It can only increase it. If you do two things really well you’re more valuable to me than someone who can do one thing really well. And if you only do one thing you better do it better than anybody.

When you interview candidates for positions at Mule Design, what 2 qualities are you looking for in a designer?

I need somebody who understands design from a problem solving perspective. If you don’t have a clear understanding of goals you’ll never be able to measure whether your work is successful or not. I also need someone who’s willing to fight for good work. Someone who’s willing to be an advocate for what they’ve done, but also open-minded enough to see when it’s wrong.

You recently wrote on your company blog a post about why gender balance is important to the success of your company. Can you share a specific story or incident in which this has been true?

That’s difficult to answer because we’ve been gender-balanced from day one. And we generally skew female. In general, I try to hire people who think differently than I do. I already have one person who thinks like me — me. So if I’m going to have other people around I want to make sure they’re bringing different points-of-view and experiences to the table. The stuff we’re designing is being used by all kinds of people. I want to make sure it’s being designed by all kinds of people. Empathy is such a huge part of getting this stuff right. And a room full of dudes will generally design things for a room full of dudes. But a room with variety will design with variety in mind, and that generally leads to better, more robust solutions.

If you could go back in time and have a conversation with your 25-year-old self, what would you say?

Everyone else is as scared as you are. If you pretend you’re not, eventually you’ll just forget to be scared.


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“Everyone else is as scared as you.” An interview with killer advice for web designers from @monteiro via @skillcrush