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Working for free, or being asked to work for free, is bullshit; with some exceptions.

After two-and-a-half decades in the creative game, this being asked to work for free shit still amazes me.

I’ll caveat this post right from the off with the following:

99.99% of clients don’t fall into the category I am outlining below. Most people I work with are awesome. So don’t take this as a post about all clients; it’s about the annoying minority that do ask creatives to work for nothing.

When you start out as a creative, you need to get some experience.

This need means that you can fall prey to all sorts of predators out there that will basically take everything you can give them and leave you feeling rinsed.

Never work on a creative project for free.

People that know designers understand how much excitement a new project can generate.

These same people feed off that and know that somewhere out there, there’s a designer that they can swindle into creating something for them for nothing.

If you’ve been a designer and/or developer for some time, you’ll probably have experienced this already:

  • If you can do this one for me, there’s loads of opportunity for more work
  • This will be an amazing piece of work for your portfolio; think about the exposure
  • I’ll refer you to everyone I know, and you’ll get more work if you do me a favour on this project
  • It’s only a small job, and if you can do this for me, I’ll put more your way

This is all complete and utter bullshit.

The only person you should work for, for free, is yourself.

Never work on spec or promises, never chase the carrot of more work and have respect for yourself and your industry.

You are far better off spending 10 hours re-working your own branding than someone else’s.

Don’t spend 2 hours designing a small flier or re-working some code. Instead, use the time to write a blog post on your site promoting yourself.

Don’t fall into the trap that you’ll get some exposure or you’ll get more work: it never happens, and even if it does, you worked for free last time, so they’ll expect the same again.

Be fiercely protective over your time.

In the creative sphere, we make our money by selling our time.

Whether this equates to designing something, coding something or spending an hour on the phone explaining to a client what they need to do, it’s all; time.

If you ‘give away’ just 25 minutes per day across a typical 221-day working year, that’s nearly 93 hours or nearly two-and-a-half weeks of free,

I am not saying that you need to be an arsehole.

Just that you should politely mention to clients that you simply don’t work for free because promises of future work, likes or shares don’t pay the bills.

You can always trade.

Let’s say a new coffee shop asks you to deliver their branding, but they have no money as they are a startup, so they approach you to do it as a portfolio piece, that will, gain you exposure locally, and, lead to more work.

You may really like these people, so instead of cash, why not asked them to give you 3 free coffees a week for a year, or a 50% discount on anything you buy from them in the future?

You may be surprised how quickly others aren’t so eager to give their shit away for free.

You may get free coffee for a year, so if you like the client, this can be a good way of both doing the work (for your portfolio) and getting paid, albeit in-kind.

Don’t join the race to the bottom.

Over the last 20 years, the conglomerates in the creative industry have been in a race to the bottom to sell what they see as ‘assets’.

Many sectors of the creative industry now follow the peanut-payment model where a creative’s work is sold for pennies off the basis that it sells 1000s of times.

We all use sites like Flaticon, Freepik and iStockphoto for example, to buy stuff for next to nothing, but it’s getting out of hand.

To give you a real-life example, I used to contribute to iStockphoto back in the 00s.

  • When I signed up, I loved the community, the people and the whole ethos
  • I added as many illustrations as I could over a several-year period
  • When I started, I made $0.20 USD per download (I was getting paid)
  • Through valuing the work, iStock commanded higher and higher fees per file – later on, I was making $10 USD for the same file
  • Then Getty bought it
  • Fast-forward to now, and guess what? I am back to making less than $0.20 USD per file sold.

Getty doesn’t give a flying-fuck about me, and why should they? There are 1000s of other contributors falling over themselves to make a pittance.

What I create isn’t important for these types of sites; it’s an asset.

It’s one of many millions on there, so it’s disposable – no one would blink an eye if I deleted the entire 4,000+ collection of files I have on iStockphoto.

Luckily for me, I saw this coming (it happened a long time back), so I stopped contributing and did something better.

It’s ok to work for free sometimes, for the right cause.

Over at Toast, we donate £3000 of our time at Christmas to a worthy cause that needs some help.

It might be rebuilding their website or redoing their branding, but they get it for free.

We still treat it like a commercial project though, with deadlines and internal budgets.

We get our recompense by firstly doing something awesome for a local good cause, and secondly, we do try and get some positive local PR out of the exercise.

Charities and non-profits are often somewhere where it’s good to ‘volunteer’.

Volunteering your time doesn’t always mean doing something other than your day job.

It can be of huge help to small charities to volunteer your time to either design, develop or consult.

This stuff is also very rewarding, but it should still be treated like any commercial project you work on and should never become a time-drain.

So why do people work for free?

When you are starting out, it can be very tempting to take on a project in return for the exposure it will get you.

Some people just like the ‘likes’ and shares.

For others, it’s part of a bigger plan to get somewhere else; this is fine, but the plan can’t be to keep giving work away for free.

Portfolio sites like Behance and Dribbble are great, but don’t forget you are also working for these sites when you are uploading your own hard work to them – visitor numbers and traffic make money for these sites – it’s a trade-off between the exposure you might get and the returns they get for everyone giving them free content.

It’s true that clients look on these sites for potential creatives, but you are spending time making their site better, not yours.

Stop working for free.

Concentrate on your blog, your promotion and your SEO, not anyone else.

Don’t ever be tempted to work for free, and if you are a client, never ask me to do it otherwise, it will be a short conversation.

It may be easy to say as I have been in the business for a long time, but I never worked for free; I may have worked for not much, but I still got paid for my work.

Do the same, and you will build value in your brand rather than someone else.

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