Show me the money: Saying no to working for free

‘Do what you love’ is a common refrain these days... but love doesn’t pay the bills.

Working for free remains endemic to the design industry – it’s still seen as a rite of passage for those starting out, while those who make it to the upper echelons often exhaust untold resources on spec work in an effort to cinch pitches. For a profession that’s struggled to articulate its value for years, figuring out where to draw the line remains a challenge.

You wouldn’t expect your accountant to do your taxes gratis and chalk it up as good work experience. So why do creatives so often get requests from people expecting to pick their brains or do a project for nothing but a small notch in the portfolio?

For designer and artist Greg Straight – who masterminded the cover of our May/June issue below, and some of the illustrations inside – the real question is, why should anyone work for free? After all, you can’t eat exposure.

“Imagine a doctor checking out your cold just for the ‘exposure’ or a dentist cleaning your teeth because ‘it’s great for his portfolio’.

“It’s funny because you call out a plumber, builder or sparkie and they often start by charging you a call-out fee and then a high hourly rate and you pay it without blinking. Someone asks you to design a logo for them and when you give them a quote they almost fall off their chair!”

Straight notes that the number of graphic designers out there seems to rise every year as the number of design jobs available dwindles. In such a competitive market, commanding your worth requires true confidence in your abilities – if you don’t value your skills, why would anyone else?

“If it’s good, it’s good, and people should pay you accordingly,” he says.

“The problem is as a graphic designer it’s very easy to keep tweaking a design or illustration until it’s perfect. Striving for perfection takes time and anything else just makes you want to curl up and die.

“It’s that eye for detail thing, a blessing and a curse. Sometimes you break down the hours spent on a brief and you realise the hourly rate is less than working at Countdown. But you can sleep at night and when you nail it people take notice and you get bigger and better work.”

greg straight idealog

Greg Straight (with his handiwork) tries not to work for free but has made the occasional exception if he feels it's warranted.

For those with talent, determination and a good work ethic, he believes success will naturally follow.

“But you have to start somewhere and in a competitive market, the life of a rookie designer starts out with tea-making, low pay and long hours. That’s just the way it is. Employers often want at least two years experience but when you leave design school how do you get the experience? It’s tough so you do anything to gain experience and sometimes this means working for free.”

Illustrator and designer Kelly Thompson knows all too well what it’s like.

“It’s happened to me a few times, particularly when I was starting out, everyone wanted things for free or dropped the ‘it will be great exposure for you’ line – which is rarely actually the case.

“While I realise that there is a certain amount of cut-price things you need to do for the sake of building your folio and your profile, there are definitely people riding this too hard and people/clients/editors need to also place importance on the value the creative’s work brings to them.”

Particularly when no payment is involved, a little thanks goes a long way. Thompson recalls one magazine that was only too happy to accept her work but could barely scrape together a ‘thank you’ for her efforts.

“At one point after doing a couple of ‘jobs’ I mentioned getting paid and was given a huge artful email about how being part of such
a beautiful magazine was only ever going to be good for my profile, look at all the great creatives on the pages beside me, and how great that made me look,” she says.

“The way it was worded was definitely ‘we are helping you out’ and not a ‘thanks so much for taking the time to do something original for free’.

“I think what wasn’t understood was that without all of their contributors they wouldn’t have such a beautiful magazine.”

Unsurprisingly, Thompson no longer contributes to that publication.

Paying your dues

Work experience (typically unpaid, but not always) is part of the curriculum for third year design students at AUT. Senior design lecturer Karol Wilczynska says it’s important their undergraduates – who run the gamut from school leavers to older people with partners and children – are treated fairly.

“[This is] the only area where we see there should be a little bit of working for no monetary gain,” she says. “We support our students and want them to be paid for the work they do once they leave uni.”

She adds: “We do not agree with people taking advantage of students. The first thing our new head of department said when he came in was ‘our students are not to work for free’.”

On top of that, however, she often fields other enquiries from businesses seeking free work from students.

“We probably get, two to three times a week, people ringing us up saying ‘hey, have you got a student to do a job for us’?” she says. A common request: a new company looking for a logo (but in fact usually seeking a whole brand identity). Wilczynska would typically then arrange a meeting to discuss the details.

“Half the time they would not actually come back, because we were asking the hard questions – what are you going to give our students?”

As a result, fellow AUT design lecturer Eden Potter has been appointed to the new role of industry relations liaison. Her job is to ensure students’ work experience placements are ethical and meaningful. She frequently sees a sense of naivety among students in regard to what they can expect from employers and what they’re entitled to.

Wilczynska agrees, and says they want to get students thinking more about the business of being a creative professional, empowering them to speak up for themselves as necessary.

She and Potter both stress the need for young designers to take charge of their own careers. The New Zealand market is a small one, but that also means it’s easier to make a splash. Take advantage of student discounts at workshops, volunteer at conferences, build an online presence.

“Get to Design Assembly events,” Potter says. “Volunteer at Semi-Permanent. Do a talk at CreativeMornings. Get used to putting yourself face-forward in the industry.”

karol wilczynska and eden potter aut idealog

Karol Wilczynska and Eden Potter

Wilczynska says working for free devalues the whole design industry. “It’s making our students feel they’ve chosen the wrong career choice – and that’s obviously something we don’t want to encourage.”

In some instances, employers do choose to compensate students and Potter says that’s appropriate if the student is adding value to the company.

“It’s tricky because you can say they’re getting experience, so that’s value for them. But at the same time if they’ve been trained up enough to add value to a company in terms of creating work that is chargeable then it starts to become a job and they should be remunerated.”

Is it inevitable that most creatives wind up doing some work for free in order to establish themselves? Thompson thinks so.

“Sometimes it’s okay, sometimes you want to and it is great for your folio. Sometimes unfortunately it’s not. You just have to be careful about who you do free things for."

Should you ever find yourself in doubt, consult the handy (and hilarious) flowchart at shouldiworkforfree.com. It’s the brainchild of American designer Jessica Hische, who sagely observes that the term ‘startup’ is often bandied around by businesses in an attempt to get away with paying less. However, instances that may warrant exceptions include people whom you owe a favour, your mother, and charities (unless an agency is acting as an intermediary). As she told Digital Arts Online in 2011, creatives should actually pat each other on the back for turning down work.

“We need to say, ‘you are doing us a solid favour by turning down that cheap work’.”

If you’ve put in your 10,000 hours and know your worth, it’s up to you to protect that. When people agree to work for nothing, it drags down rates for everyone else – or worse, encourages corporations to take advantage as it becomes the norm.

(For your amusement, we present this print by UK illustrator Mr Bingo.)