Working For Free – Is It Ever a Good Idea?
No Spec recently published an article berating individuals who ask struggling creatives to work for free, and billing it as a ‘great opportunity’. While I could not agree more with the article, it led me to consider if it is ever advisable to work for free.
As an enthusiastic and green graphic design student, I did a couple of free projects with mixed results. From these experiences I came to the conclusion that as a student it can be a great opportunity to work for free with the right people. It can also be an infuriating and upsetting experience to work with the wrong ones. Here are some rules to live by when considering doing freebie projects:
As a general rule, if they are going to make money out of work you are doing for free, steer clear!
I still come across this all the time as a seasoned designer. An acquaintance will ask you to design their new business logo/website/promotional materials at serious mates rates or even for free. Now, I don’t know about you, but the idea of me working for free so somebody else can make money seems a little unfair. I’ve learned from years of experience that most people in non-creative industries don’t seem to see it that way. Best thing you can do is explain this perspective in your sweetest tones, then send them over a quote of how much this work would cost them. That generally gets the point across, and fingers crossed they’ll pay you or someone else properly to do their job.
I would also steer well clear of free pitching, unless that pitch would be a huge asset to your portfolio. I agreed to do some free rendering for a promotions company so they could see if ‘we’d mesh together’. Twenty hours of work later I rocked up, handed in the work and waited expectantly for the phone to ring. It never did. As much as you’d like to think that a business wouldn’t take advantage of a kid, unfortunately there are those people in the world who believe that all’s fair in business. I’m sure karma will catch up with this type of person eventually, but I would have much rather not worked for free in the first place!
No Spec’s article wisely pointed out that free pitching can be a ruse to get some free ideas. Luckily this has never happened to me, but a colleague free pitched to a company once. She didn’t get the job, but found out a few months later they’d pinched her design and hired a cheaper designer.
One of the unpleasant realities of being a creative is that people think your job is easy. Or because you do something you love you should be happy to work for free. Or that there are lots of creatives out there who can’t get work so you should be jumping to work with them. Do us all a favour – do not let them get away with it! The sooner it becomes impossible for these people to get free talent, the sooner we can all avoid their annoying requests (and make the money we deserve)!
Having said that, there are always some occasions when money is not the only form of payment…
Some jobs are just great for a struggling designers portfolio (and the right contacts can be gold)
We all know the design market is a competitive place for a freshly graduated designer to make their mark. In my case what differentiated me and helped me land that first job were the real world projects in my portfolio. In case you’re wondering, my new employers had no interest in the free renderings I did for the shonky promotions company, but rather in the two arty collaborations I ended up getting my hands on. These were well worth my while for a few reasons.
The first project was for a street magazine called Jet. These guys had no budget but were offering something every young designer needs – a very broad brief. This was a dream for me because I basically got to put whatever I wanted on the cover of a magazine with a circulation of 50,000. I got to collaborate with cool older kids, my work got seen, and best of all I was in print – the best possible asset for my portfolio.
What surprised me is that this magazine was having problems getting good creative on their cover. Yes they weren’t offering any money, but for me the contacts and real world experience more than made up for it. They asked me to do more covers which suited me fine.
A week after my first cover hit the streets, I got an email from Warner Music. As you can imagine, I did a jig, called my pops and went out for a night on the town. It turns out the editor of the magazine I had been working with knew a guy at Warner. He was starting his own indie label with no capital and wanted some free artwork for an album. Once again I got to do some mighty creative work, and for a golden period got every album my heart desired. Yes I was working for free, but it was great work for my portfolio, and a man working at Warner is a good man to know. He and I became fast friends and when he was promoted to A&R manager and I was starting my fledgling design agency he knew who should be handling his creative.
In cases like this, there were some significant incentives outside of cold hard cash. I could see that the exposure and connections were more than enough to make up for not getting paid.
I would advise considering working for free in this type of scenario because some jobs can be solid investments in your future.
So in a nutshell:
- If they are making or will be making money, you should be too (yes – even if they are your friend).
- The right job that shows off your creative genius is worth doing – but stick to groups that are similar in age group and experience to you. As a general rule, if the people you’re working with are doing it for the love of it rather than the money, you’re in good shape.
- If you do choose to work for free, make sure they know that they are lucky (because they are), and how much you would normally charge for your work. I’m not suggesting you be cocky, but rather subtly ensure that they know you’re on an equal footing to them. Using the word ‘collaborating’, can be especially useful in driving this home. Remember though, the goal is to win friends and influence people. And once you’ve got your foot in the door, wiggle it around so you get some standing room!
- Know how to pick a winner. If you see a young Donald Trump who wants to form a bond, by golly build your bridges.
Unfortunately when you start working, whether paid or unpaid, you’ll more than likely learn some lessons the hard way. But if you follow this advice, hopefully you’ll come out with some good experiences, some contacts, and a great portfolio.