Notes on working for free
If you choose to regularly create artistic work, whether it’s your main source of income or knitting scarves in front of the telly, you will likely have been met with comments such as “ooh, could you do me something like that?” “Could you whip me up a quick logo?” or “Could you draw my portrait?” (and the list goes on). It is a constant issue – and although I hate to say it – I don’t think it’s going to go away anytime soon. I have found it hard to tackle the sheer amount of requests for free work, especially as it can often leave you feeling that your work is of little value and can feed into the confidence you have in your professional practice.
Before I continue, I should probably start with saying that I have done free work which I’ll talk about a little bit in this post. Telling students they shouldn’t work for free is all well and good once you have your foot in the door somewhere, but it’s hard when you’re just starting out to know which opportunities to look for. We need to create an open conversation instead of penalising people who are trying to do the best they can to get a job. I have also noticed an increase in requests for free work which makes things tricky. In part this is down to the amount of competition – companies know that many artists will jump at any offer that comes their way in order to get another rung up the ladder. Wherever you're at in your creative career, here are some things that you may find helpful in order to tackle this issue.
Your art is your gift
I was once staying on a campsite when a man started playing proficiently on his guitar around the campfire (well, disposible BBQ.) and singing with an incredible voice. Slowly, his mates joined in with the singing and after a while more people gathered to listen or join in. It was a sunny evening and everyone was in good spirits, enjoying the unexpected performance by an amazingly talented musician. It was fun and of course it was free. Had that man demanded everyone paid him a fiver at the end for the privilege it would have seemed odd – more than that – completely unreasonable. In the same way, your art is your gift – something beautiful to impart to the world around you.
Now, supposing this guy was then asked to come back every week and do the same thing. What we have now is expectation – an expectation of a standard of entertainment, an expected time of a start and finish, an expectation to draw in crowds at the benefit of someone other than the artist. And here we have a distinct difference between a gift and work – expectation.
The difference between your gift and work
A gift is a willing choice - something you impart to the world with passion. You give a gift to a friend, but if they asked you to buy that gift in the first place with no prompting from you to do so it is a completely different scenario. Gifts are free of expectation.
The key is learning to recognise when you feel passionate enough to give something away for someone else’s enjoyment (or your own). Do you feel pressured or a sense of I ‘should’ do this because x y z? As soon as expectation is placed on you for free work, whether from an organisation or your best mate, you are in danger of your work losing value. It is now neither paid for nor a gift.
Art is profitable
But the truth is, art is highly profitable. The creative industries contribute around £92bn to the UK economy each year. The power of advertising is evident every time we turn on the television or reach for our phones – it encourages us to invest our money, time and actions. We are continually influenced by creativity – it is an extremely powerful tool, whether for advertising, propaganda or social good.
Companies know this, otherwise they would not ask for it. They would produce their food in plain packaging, film commercials in their back garden and use comic sans for their logo mark. They know creativity makes a huge difference in order for them to profit which is why they commission creative professionals.
So the question is, who are you gifting your art to and who is profiting from it? Do you recognise the difference? So, is it ever ok to work for free? If so, when?
I’ve noticed a lot more debate about this on social media recently, but we need to be realistic about the number of budding designers who are seeking opportunities to get a leg up in the industry. Agencies get inundated with requests from students for them to spend unpaid time learning about the day to day life of a graphic designer. On the surface it seems crazy to stop these enthusiastic and passionate people who are more than happy to work for free in the hope of a job later down the line. From this angle, companies are trying to offer help and, quite frankly, they don’t always have the uninterrupted time to spend a week teaching tricks in Photoshop. However, there is a difference between those who open up their practices for others to gain insight and those that advertise for work placements with a means of getting free labour, which is exploitative. With so many creatives actively seeking unpaid work you have to ask yourself why anyone has to advertise. The only reason I can think is to get the best ‘freebies’ in the industry – a sort of ‘try before you buy’. You need to question whether these agencies are team players or merely see you as a cheap commodity. If they don’t think you’re worth paying now, how are they going to be about pay rises or overtime in the future? Agencies who advertise openly about unpaid placements also make themselves sound cheap.
Start as you mean to go on
When you’re up against so much competition I totally understand the predicament of needing work experience to get a leg up in the industry. I couldn’t afford to do unpaid placements but, if I’m honest, if I could have I probably would have done anything to get one. And there’s the problem: budding artists are grabbing every opportunity they can believing that’s the only way to get ahead and to show passion, and meanwhile people who can’t afford it are getting left behind. It’s short sighted to think about here and now – one day you could be running the very agencies you are applying to (and although you may not care about some poor dude who can’t afford to work for free, one day you might be missing out on incredible talent because of it). Moreover, it all feeds in to the deep rooted problem that creatives shouldn’t be paid - the requests for free work don’t ever stop the further along you go in your career, instead you swap unpaid placements for unpaid pitch work. If we don’t tackle this issue at the root it will never change. I’ve seen some positive developments in this area with more design agencies and organisations being very vocal about the bad practice unpaid placements have on our industry.
Working for good causes
Let’s go back to the musician at the campsite. What if the person that asked him to play music was in fact a charity, trying to put on charitable gigs to raise money for good causes? If you feel passionate about a good cause and you have a way you can offer help then do so with gusto. I often donate time and work to charities, and speaking out about exploitation shouldn’t mean people in need can’t ask for help. However, although there are small charities who struggle to get support, a large proportion of charities do have funding for marketing and expect to pay artists for their work. Bear in mind that free work for charities still comes with expectation, therefore it is not simply a ‘gift’ so it’s good to put in some healthy boundaries should you work with charities voluntarily. For me that’s dedicating a certain amount of time each month to voluntary creative work and if the time goes over it has to be paid for or wait till the following month (obviously with usage taken into account too). It’s good to be clear about what you are and aren’t willing to do and treat it as a professional agreement just like any other. This is respectful for both sides so you both know where you stand. It is also perfectly acceptable to turn down working for charities if you do not have the capacity.
Mates rates (freebies!)
I love my friends and I want to help them, but as I’ve already said, true friends never expect gifts. True friends ask for help and they appreciate that help, they do not keep coming back for freebies when they actually have the cash to pay. As with charities (and most mates aren’t charity cases!), it’s good to set good boundaries so you aren’t finding yourself working endless evenings and weekends just because you can’t say no to a ‘mate’. No good friend would expect that of you.
There are lots of organisations who try to benefit from artists who are desperate to gain ‘exposure’ of their work and find opportunities in the industry. When I graduated I spent a lot of money on competitions. I got an award for one paid competition I entered only to find that I then had to pay for framing, transporting my art to a gallery and a publication fee. I got a bit of ‘prestige’ but no commissions and I was hundreds of pounds out of pocket. I’m not saying that art competitions aren’t always worthwhile – for some people they’ve made a huge difference in getting their work in front of the right people – but don’t ever think they are some magical way of getting paid work. Again, it also only provides opportunities for people who can afford them. I’ve found the best way of getting ‘exposure’ is to market directly to the sort of clients I want to work with. Don't fall into the trap of simply trying to impress other designers – most clients have no idea which are the best industry awards, they just want good work that's done on time. I’m also wary of any competition that stands to profit in some way from artists. Many act as a mask for getting free commercial work and this is exploitative. Always read the t&cs and at least check you aren’t signing away the copyright to your work or giving away more than you bargained for.
Talks and workshops
Creative community has been really important for me and the development of my professional career so I’m keen to be a support to others in the same way. I’ve done a number of free speaking gigs because a) I wanted to develop this skill b) I feel there is a lack of female voices in the design industry and c) I want to help inspire and encourage others (a bit like my blog but in speaking form). However, I’ve noticed speaking for free has unfortunately become an expectation in the creative industry – not just for free supportive events but profitable ones. A lot of creative events have a really good ethos and try to run free events that make design accessible to everyone, and although they aren’t profiting they also make sure speakers are compensated in travel, accommodation, food and drink. Others do not do so and make a lot of money out of creative events which is exploitative of creative professionals who’ve spent hours preparing and expenses getting there. I write my blog because I want to develop my writing skills and ideas and I also want to be a help to other creatives. I also do free mentoring and portfolio reviews to give where I did not get help myself.
If you’re a student it’s good to realise that the onus on respecting people for their time and resources starts now. If you send out lengthy questionnaires to other creatives, requests for portfolio advice or meet ups, showing appreciation will stand you in good stead for your career. Illustrators and designers regularly pass on work so it’s good to show respect on your way up and help those who are a behind you on your career journey too.
If you’re going to work for free then do it for yourself – after all, this is why you’re in this gig right? Produce the sort of work that matters to you and stop chasing work that ‘might’ give you exposure or doing free work for people who are just being exploitative. Personal projects have been one of my main sources of paid work. They reflect my passions and interests and bring in more of the type of work I’m well suited to. This is the number one type of work you should be doing for ‘exposure’.
The extra mile
I always go the extra mile for my clients – I want to produce work they are over the moon with and I want them to keep coming back. However, I am aware that sometimes I put too much into my work and the fees don't always reflect this. Although this isn't an obvious 'working for free' screnario, a client may ask for 'just one more thing' additional to the original brief, and once you've done that it is 'just another small ask...' Client relationships are really important but if things are going way over the original brief you need to nip in in the bud. It's helpful to manage expectations at the start of a job so you can refer back to them if requests are getting out of hand. Any extras you do may soon become expected of you in future jobs and you may find you are working above and beyond what you should be for no extra fee (in other words, for free).
Free work doesn’t pay (duh)
I used to think that I would reach some sort of pinnacle where I’d no longer get asked to work for exposure, but the requests for free work never really eases. Responding to them has been a bit soul destroying, particularly as most requests are from perfectly nice people who have no idea how much time and effort goes into the work, which often feels more disheartening than obvious charlatans because you feel like you’re going crazy. If people want work that helps them to get a better profile, more customers, followers, sales etc. then I would question any business model that doesn't set aside a budget for marketing. Similarly, if people want gifts for loved ones that they can’t pay for, I would question why they haven’t invested the time to learn the skills to make them themselves. ‘Opportunities’ are more easily available thanks to social media, but this means there are more people applying for them who are willing to work for free. Established creatives are being questioned on cost more frequently because of this, meaning that it's harder for all creatives to make a living in the long run. Do you want to progress in your career or be continually chipped down on cost? The things you decide now will affect your future career so have integrity with what you do - your work has value otherwise people wouldn’t ask for it.