Working for free remains one of the most hotly debated topics when it comes to creative work. Should you ever do it? If so, when? What should you expect in exchange? And if you shouldn’t, why not?
We spoke to a group of seasoned professionals about the subject, and found the answer to be an almost overwhelming chorus of “No! … Except, maybe in exceptional circumstances…” Read on to find out why you probably shouldn’t work for free, but when it comes down to it, how you can make the most out of unpaid commissions.
“You should probably say no,” was 2011 Kingston graduate Tom Moloney’s fairly straightforward response to our question, “should you ever work for free?” and Tony Brook, the founder of London-based design studio Spin, agrees. “If you can possibly avoid it, don’t do it. Free work is not valued by the person who has commissioned it, they should be eternally grateful but never are. Money is a sign of value and respect, even if it is a small amount.”
“If you can possibly avoid it, don’t do it. Free work is not valued by the person who has commissioned it, they should be eternally grateful but never are. Money is a sign of value and respect, even if it is a small amount.”Tony Brook
Artist Oliver Jeffers adds that by working for free, you perpetuate a culture in which creative work goes unpaid. “It undermines not just your ability,” he says, “but the value of artists and illustrators everywhere. And for another thing, it’s basically giving the nod of approval to those asking that it’s an OK thing to do.” Illustrator Chrissie MacDonald echoes Oliver’s sentiment about group responsibility. “I think it’s important for illustrators to collectively maintain standards when it comes to this kind of thing,” she says. “Jessica Hische’s Should I Work For Free chart sums it up rather well.”
Yet while this general “no” rings out loudly, there are occasionally situations in which unpaid work offers more than just financial reimbursement. What about for exposure, when you’re first starting out, for example? Ian Wright stresses the need to make such situations work in your favour. “Unpaid commissions seem to be increasingly common,” he points out. “While not wanting to encourage the practice, when faced with such a commission I would ask myself ‘What do I get out of it?’ Is it something I can turn to my own advantage, to get an idea out there that I wouldn’t be able to with a paid job?”
Furthermore, if you can negotiate creative control, an unpaid commission can add a body of work to your portfolio, and win you a great deal of exposure. It’s for this reason that photographer Francesca Jane Allen, who graduated last year from London College of Communication, struggles to say no. “Decide what it means to you,” she says. “80% of the time I find it too hard to turn things down; it’s always for a magazine I love and respect or a pop star I’ve been crushing on.” A lack of payment shifts the balance of power in such a relationship too, she explains. “If you’re not getting paid then it becomes a personal project. An unpaid commission is yours to play with, use and abuse to your own creative will. I find it hard to refuse spending time doing something I love.”
Graphic designer Shaz Madani asserts that the value of a job isn’t always financial: sometimes relationships and exposure can be equally, if not more valuable than monetary payment. “You have to be able to read the situation and ask yourself: how much benefit will this have for me? Is it going to lead to paid work? Can it be an opportunity to build some valuable relationships? Will it be an amazing addition to my portfolio? And if you decide to do it, tread carefully and put a limit on how much free work you are willing to do. Never undervalue your skills.”
"You have to be able to read the situation and ask yourself: how much benefit will this have for me? ... And if you decide to do it, tread carefully and put a limit on how much free work you are willing to do. Never undervalue your skills.”Shaz Madani
In photographer Ryan Hopkinson’s opinion, the creative industry today has made unpaid work a necessary evil. “I’ve done my fair share of free work in my relatively short career so far,” he says. “Unfortunately it’s something that everyone has to do in the creative industry. If you pick the right ‘free work’ to do then it can lead to some great opportunities and potential work for your portfolio.”
Working for free as a photographer can lead to other perks. In Ryan’s case, gaining access to fancy equipment. “It’s difficult, as you need to live,” he says, “but just keep in mind that when you have an idea you want to create, and that director of photography or illustrator you just turned down who was asking for a freebie has all the expensive tools you need to create your project, you might want to reconsider.”
Unpaid jobs might also be worthwhile in the case of charities, Chrissie Macdonald adds. “I’ll create work for small charities or causes I believe in,” she says, “and I did one commission for free when I started out, for a small independent magazine. There was a small budget which went towards the photography costs, but I felt it was worth doing for my folio at the time, though you need to be wary of this as you can be taken advantage of.” Oliver Jeffers is another who accepts the odd unpaid job if it is for a cause he believes in. “It’s ok to to do once or twice when starting out, if you feel the exposure warrants the lack of fee,” he says, “but don’t do it more than that… My one exception is for charitable work, which I will only do once or twice a year.”
The general consensus, then? No. Except, you know, if you’re looking for exposure, or it could create a useful and fruitful relationship, or if you really, really want to do it. “I think you have to stick to your instinct,” illustrator Oscar Bolton says. “If it’s for something commercial, then you should never work for free. But if it’s a nice project with someone you admire and it turns out well, chances are it will probably pay off somehow in the long run.”
It’s Nice That has created a special Grad Pack for new Graduates, which features a collection of tailored advice on how to land on your feet after leaving uni. We had a chat with It’s Nice That Graduates of years gone by, listened to words of wisdom from established creatives, and put together a studio-wide list of references and resources.
We are very pleased that The It’s Nice That Graduates 2015 will once again be supported by Represent Recruitment. The graphic and digital design recruitment specialists have developed a peerless reputation working with designers of all levels and matching them up with the right positions in some of the top agencies around. Represent’s support has helped us grow the Graduate scheme over recent years and we are thrilled they have partnered with us again in 2015.
About the Author
Maisie joined It’s Nice That fresh out of university in the summer of 2013 as an intern before joining full time as an Assistant Editor. Maisie left It’s Nice That in July 2015.