Creatives on Free Labour: Empowering or Exploiting?

About a week ago, a friend and past colleague of mine, Vincent Walden, posted a quick viewpoint on whether people in creative industries should ever take on free work. His outlook being that; “It’s a power balance, a scale between empowered and exploited.” And I can’t help but agree with him on this.

When reading about these issues, you often notice that people can take quite strong viewpoints to either side of the argument. Some say yes, you should work for free because this builds your portfolio, experience and exposure; Then on the flip side we have people who believe that taking on free work devalues the creative community and hinders progress for not just you, but other artists as well.

I tend to sit somewhere in the middle, wavering slightly toward the ‘no free work’ arguments, though still recognising the benefits that come from the opposite. In my mind if you are in the creative industry and WANT to do free work, if you approach projects and decide for yourself to work for free, then brilliant! It’s empowering, you are contributing to a community and accepting opportunities you might have otherwise missed. However, all too often you see creatives hired, or approached, about a project and then made to work for free or it is demanded of them as though it is the standard going. This is exploitation in line with unpaid internships and should certainly be addressed.

In theory, free work can be a splendid way to help get your name out into the design world

In theory, free work can be a splendid way to help get your name out into the design world, build up your portfolio with realistic briefs, and provide real references to help you gain paid work later down the line. Free work, when you want it, can help you to create work that might broaden your skill-set or produce projects that you might not have had the chance to with paying clients/companies. Pay heed though, because there are definite downsides to taking on unpaid work.

If you do decide to work for free, a client is much more likely to change their mind and change it often. This means that the unpaid work you take on, very often results in taking up more of you time and resources than a paid project. On a whole, the average freelancer in a creative industry would lose an average of £5,394 per annum through free labour [as shown in a study by The Guardian]. And as a freelancer this can be a defining amount of money for your business.

When debating unpaid work, we must also realise that this is not the same industry it was even 5–10 years ago. The incentive for free work being exposure, can now be counteracted by the influence of social media — why should you give a company free work that you may not be interested in, when you could work on your own projects and gain more exposure by posting that on social media? Most companies that ask for free creative labour, do not have a great creative outreach to balance this; Therefore, even if your name does get mentioned, or passed on (which it often won’t even if the work does eventually get published), it does not further enhance your standing within the creative community.

You can end up doing an obscene amount of work for no reward

Furthermore, if a company is not willing to pay for the work, it means that they not only devalue you and your craft, but they don’t respect their brand or the project, and it is therefore more likely never to make it to production. In essence, you can end up doing an obscene amount of work for no reward at all — whereas if you do it for yourself, at least you know it will be seen on your social media or other platforms.

[If you do happen to be looking for creative briefs, there are many free online resources, such as briefbox.me, that provide industry applicable briefs for you to work from for fun. This enhances your portfolio without the time or brand constraints.]

This is not to say that free work for exposure is inherently a bad thing. For example, John Michael Morgan sparked discussion with his tweet:

“Any logo designers out there want to work on a fun project in return for a lot of exposure?”

[twitter via travisrobertson.com]

It brought up the argument, from many creatives, that no one should give away free work. However, in this case I would say there is nothing wrong with John Michael Morgan’s approach. Not only is Morgan letting the designer choose to work for him, and being open about the fact that it would be unpaid, but with a little research you can see that this WOULD be good exposure within the creative industry. This kind of work would be a fairly safe bet, and would certainly help you in furthering your experience.

Morgan also believes that “Everyone deserves to be paid if they are doing work worth paying for”. And though I agree wholeheartedly with this, would this hint that Morgan does not believe the person who designed his logo was doing work worth paying for? Is the exposure by itself enough of a payment?

Hattie Stewart [via creative review] believes not, “because it undervalues and undermines the entire creative community.” She goes on to say that, “In the early stages of my career I most definitely did work for free in order to ‘advance’ it — thinking it would be helpful due to the old age scam of ‘exposure’. With the value of hindsight, I can say that none of the things I pursued, without monetary value, ever advanced my career.”

Work for ‘exposure’ does little to genuinely further your career

As a graphic designer, I have been fortunate enough to only take on unpaid labour for family members. And I would say that although I have had to work immensely hard, and advocate for my wages, I have been able to find my way in this competitive industry without ‘exposure’ from non-paying clients. And better yet, this has meant I’ve steered clear of work places that wouldn’t respect me as a person. I am now happy to say I work for wonderful company, that not only values my work, but values all its employees as well. So, from my own personal experience I have to say that work for ‘exposure’ does little to genuinely further your career, other than building up your own confidence to find the work place that you deserve.

Travis Robertson [via travisrobertson.com] takes the opposite (and rather strong) view, that you should definitely take on unpaid work and that “Anybody who tells you differently is just angry that you got a job they wanted.”

Perhaps I am misunderstanding the context of Robertson’s ‘jealousy’ theory — as I tend to think the best in people and feel most would simply want the best for others as well. It’s more cautionary, than jealousy, that would prompt someone to heed their friends or colleagues off unpaid creative work.

He goes on to say; “I have always done free work at the very beginning in order to build up a portfolio.” And uses the example of musicians, who work unpaid gigs to get their music out into the world.

As evidenced by my own career, you need neither a university degree, nor a plethora of unpaid work in your portfolio to make it into the creative industry, (this is not to say that you shouldn’t build a portfolio, portfolios are important and should be done to the best of your ability). I also take issue with his example of musicians, for the main reason that they are in completely different scenarios; When a musician accepts an unpaid gig, they will at least know for certain that if they play their music, people will hear it. For creatives, and designers specifically, you could do hours and hours of work just to never have it see the light of day because the customer just didn’t feel like crediting you, or even publishing the work at all.

If musicians are an apt example, why not take it one step further for the opposing argument? You would never find a situation where someone hires, say, a lawyer; then after they’ve won the case, the client refuses to pay them because the lawyer should just be pleased that he got to be seen in court at all. It would be ungrateful to ask to be paid, because by giving him a case you have helped them gain experience in court, his name might even have been mentioned in the paper so he will get other clients BECAUSE of this case. In fact — they should be honoured that you chose them to do this for free, because you MIGHT consider paying them for another case in the future (but you might also go back and ask them to win even more cases for free, because they’ve done it once before right?). They shouldn’t need to be paid because now they have a reference from you, and can tell other people that they worked on this case, it goes in their ‘portfolio’ to look good right? Ridiculous.

Work is built on a supply and demand basis

One thing that I do agree with Robertson on is his idea that creative work is built on a supply and demand basis;

“It’s really simple: When you are starting out, demand for your product or service is non-existent or extremely low, but the supply is high. Therefore, your prices have to be very low, or even free.

“As you gain exposure and build up a portfolio, the demand for your product or service will start to go up and your availability (usually measured by time) will decrease. Consequently, you can — and should — raise your prices.

“This is how business has worked for thousands of years and you are a business — whether you’re an employee, freelancer or business owner.”

However, I would say that even if the pay is low, it should still be there. If you are spending your time and skills on a project you also deserve to have that time paid for. Even creatives need to eat — the starving artist does not actually have to be starving.

(Another note to make, is that Robertson’s article was written 8 years ago; and since then the industry, and exposure means, have changed. What was more applicable then is maybe less transferable now.)

A large portion of the argument, for free creative labour, is that it helps build your portfolio up; and whilst I don’t disagree with this fact, I do take issue with the idea that this is the only way to do so. If you are looking for work in the creative industry, chances are you have been through a schooling system that helps build your portfolio anyway. And as you have been through schooling and cashed out numerous years and pounds to get yourself to a point of work, you should now be able to earn a living based on this.

Another point would be that most of the creative industry is based on natural talent, and unpaid briefs often don’t show this to the same extent as well as you could, doing it off your own back, and having fun with it. If you work on your own projects, you can manage your time, work on your own clock. And therefore, perhaps also dedicate time to paid work on the side instead of answering to a company that might not end up giving you anything back. It is also easier to work your own briefs if you have to hold down an interim job at the same time; You may not be able to give a free project your full attention, meaning that the outcome will not be representative of your true abilities and no one wants half finished projects in a portfolio.

One man seems to summarise my thoughts on whether free creative labour is exploitation or empowerment, Seth Godin. In his short article on ‘seths.blog’ he concludes that; “Exposure, the right kind of exposure, is good practice, an honest contribution and yes, a chance to build credibility. Make it a habit, though, and instead of exposure, you’ve set yourself up a new standard– that you work for free.”

He believes that free work should be taken on a “case by case approach” and “Just because it’s free doesn’t mean it’s a good idea (or a bad one). It means you should think hard about how everyone benefits (including you).” And I couldn’t have put it better myself.

If you feel that you want to take on free work (with the right project), then more power to you! But if you don’t want to, then I don’t think you should feel guilty for advocating earning a living from your profession.

I currently work for FlexMR in Milnthorpe as a graphic designer and enjoy a good read and a ramble every now and then.

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