Today I want to talk about a topic that has been controversial within the creative community (including the calligraphy/lettering community) for years (and was also inspired by Wil Wheaton’s recent blog post): Working for Free Never Pays.
Let’s clarify what working for free means within the creative community. Working for free means that you’ll take on a job or let a company use your artwork without getting paid. For the most part, there are always exceptions to the rules when you’re a freelancer; YOU have the freedom to say yes, no, or negotiate. YOU have the freedom to cut deals with friends or businesses that are just starting out (although, you don’t have to – it’s YOUR choice alone). There are always situations when working for free is a good thing. For example: working on jobs for charity, negotiating a trade between two creative services (i.g. trading your pal a photoshoot for a hand lettered quote she can hang in her baby’s nursery), creating a piece of artwork as a gift to a friend or family member, willingly submitting your work to be featured within a magazine or a blog… you get the picture.
But, working for free or for exposure for a client that should be paying for your services is never a good idea and never “pays off”. Throughout the years, creatives have continuously been taken advantage of when it comes to getting paid. Often, HUGE companies will come to creatives asking for highly sought after services with the only compensation being “exposure”. But there’s a problem with exposure… it doesn’t pay student loans. Exposure doesn’t pay your rent. Exposure doesn’t uphold pricing integrity within the industry and it doesn’t value your skills. Exposure does, however, perpetuate a world in which companies feel that they can continuously ask for work from artists without compensating them time and time again. Ultimately, when you work for free, you essentially are contributing to the problem.
With that being said, I want to share a bit of my own experience on this topic. The first few years starting out were really rough for me. Although I was getting some ok jobs, the work wasn’t consistent and for some reason, people never wanted to pay very much. In fact – often I wasn’t paid at all. Often, I was so desperate to get more work that I would reduce my prices to less than minimum wage or work without charge. Funny enough, my first “unpaid” job was commissioned by a company valued at $3 billion. This company was, and is, very well known within the wedding industry and I of course was honored and thrilled to oblige. The company claimed that the exposure alone was enough compensation and that they were happy to work with me on the project.
After the first job for this company, I was continually asked each year to contribute for the next three years. Every year, I would collaborate with their AD on elaborate projects under a tight deadline with my compensation being a name credit as exposure. The work I created for them would almost always be featured prominently as a major selling point for the company. Plainly said, my free work made them a lot of money at zero cost and kept them coming back to me expecting more free work to make them more money.
After the first year, I had a few inquiries about the piece that I created for this company, but never any customers. The first year I was never compensated. The exposure never paid other than making others feel like I was important because I could say that I worked for a huge name. Year two rolled around and it was the same story. Again, no customers, just the prestigious name on my client list. Perhaps some companies trusted my abilities more because I had experience working with a high end client, but I would never know as no one ever mentioned it. Year three rolled around, and I created my last piece for this company. I spent hours working on a truly distinctive, creative piece in collaboration with another designer. My artwork turned out beautifully and I knew the consumers would love it. And I was right. Everyone loved it. But there was a problem…. On year three, I didn’t even get a credit. No name. No payment. No thanks. Nothing.
Needless to say I felt used. When I reached out to ask why I never received a credit, the response was insufficient (misunderstandings within the company).
The really sad part…. This happens all the time and many of us learn the hard way. In fact, it has happened to me multiple times with different companies, mostly within the wedding industry. Moreover, as much as it seems like I’m bitter towards these companies, it’s really my own fault. I have the power to say yes or no. I have the power to uphold the value of my own work. I’m guessing that a few of you reading this have also had similar situations and can relate.
So here is my professional opinion on this subject that I stand by firmly: working for free never pays. I know a lot of you are struggling getting consistent work. I know many of you are desperate to get that big name client on your client list. I KNOW how you feel. I have been there. But I’m telling you – if you value yourself, please don’t work for free. Please do not price below industry standards. Please have faith in yourself and your abilities and know that you deserve to make a real living off of your artwork. Sometimes getting paid simply means when someone reaches out for free work, you just have to ask for fair compensation (you’d be surprised at how many companies will actually pay you if you just ask…) If you aren’t getting consistent work at a fair price, work a part time job until your freelance work picks up! It never pays to undervalue yourself and it always will bring down industry standards and perpetuate the lack of respect for creatives.
Sending so much love and encouragement to those of you reading this who have been taken advantage of or who have made bad decisions when taking on free work. Remember: this is something we all face and it’s so important for us to stick together and hold each other accountable! You’re not alone, and it’s never too late to start working at healthy freelancing habits.
Are you struggling with a similar situation and don’t know how to handle it? Feel free to comment below to start a meaningful discussion.