Thursday, 18 September 2014

Great Exposure! The moral dilemma of working for free.

A few years ago I wrote some Creative Tips and Resources articles for the fantastic Ten Paces and Draw website.  I thought it was about time to take a peek at my old work with that, and share and expand on a few of the highlights here. 

So first up, from the 'Getting Started, Getting Seen' article - Working for free.  

"I’ve touched on this before, and it’s a delicate subject which ignites flames of anger in some creatives: working for free, with the promise of exposure. You won’t believe how many ‘clients’ come forth with the glimmer of a fabulous commission but then drop the bombshell of “Oh, well, we don’t have the budget to offer payment to illustrators, but it’s an opportunity for some great exposure!”. It raises some particularly difficult morality issues if you’re starting out and don’t have any other offers of ‘real work’ on the horizon. It’s oh so tempting, and yes, I’ve been tempted into it before – mainly so I have something with a bit of direction to work on. But I have to say in a awful lot of cases I regret it – none of those promises of exposure ever delivered and it seemed like a bit of a waste of time, I could’ve been working on something I really love for my portfolio.
The main problem with clients seeking out illustrators that will work for free is that often they know there always will be illustrators willing to work for free. Post-graduates in this exact situation, like I was, and like you might be now. You’re waiting for commissions and will take what you can get for the exposure and practice – it’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it does become a problem when clients stop giving out paid jobs because they can prey on the newbies. Just look at these offers with a skeptical eye, weigh up if it’s really worth it and make sure you’re not undermining yourself for future commissions.
Of course in some cases working for free isn’t a bad thing at all. I’m very passionate about using my illustration work to help others through charity. It feels great to be helping others, gets you working to a brief and (without sounding like a cold-souled businesswoman) does often bring in good exposure. I’ve used my work to raise lots of pennies for some great charities in the last few years – It’s good to share the love!"
This is definitely one of the aspects of freelancing and the creative industries which really gets my storm clouds raging.  Even over these past few years since I've written this article this issue keeps cropping up.  I can understand why companies and illustrators go for it, but it's often an endless circle that saps a lot of life out of the industry in the long run.  

On the other hand, over the years I have made a lot of friends and allies who are going out bravely and starting up their own brands and magazines, and I've seen them struggle with budgeting and have to rely on contributors for content.  With a lot of these cases once they do have the funds coming in they will rightly pay illustrators for their work; but it's still a case of making it clear that illustrative content should have priority in a budget.  Personally, in situations like this - when I really love the ethos of a company, want to support them and build a business relationship with them; I will collaborate with them using existing work from my portfolio, or often they will look to feature my work or interview me - it's promotion and support for us both without the hours of unpaid work on the illustrator's end.

It's a complicated and often conflicting situation. We know the importance of building a portfolio and it's great to network and grow relationships; but in the end, like everyone, we have bills to pay too.  It's a risk either way, but in thinking of the career long game I would vote to stick to your guns and spend your time working on your portfolio through personal work, rather than feeding too many of the companies out for bargain content.

It's a case of knowing what your work and time is worth, and sending the message to the 'bad guy' businesses that crowd-sourcing, design competitions and free work isn't the direction to go to get quality creative work.

For more creative tips and resources head over to the Ten Paces and Draw articles here.

[Also, new illustration above! Getting my editorial illustration muscles working again with my own articles!]


  1. Fab illustration (I love the glow of the computer monitor!) and great topic!

  2. The short answer is don’t do it - you can’t call yourself an illustrator if you are willing to work free. If you are good enough - or get the right breaks/luck - you will find paid work.

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