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Should I Work for Free?

No.

OK, maybe that’s not a terribly nuanced response, so let’s try again in a bit more detail: No. Never. No way. Not at all. Under no circumstances.

Better? No? Alright, I’ll give you a few of my thoughts on the matter.

At all stages of your career you’ll be asked to work for free. It doesn’t matter if you’re just starting out or are an established professional, it happens. The prospective client will likely give you a combination of four reasons why you should work without pay:

  1. The client doesn’t have any money, but it’s a really cool (sounding!) project and/or for a good cause.
  2. You’ll get a lot of exposure for it.
  3. This could lead to more work down the road.
  4. This will be great for your portfolio.

Let’s tackle these claims one-by-one:

The client doesn’t really have any money, but it’s a really cool (sounding!) project and/or for a good cause

Is anyone else getting paid on this thing? The chances are, yes. And, if they are, you should be too. Don’t be fooled by non-profits’ lofty goals. People who work for them draw salaries (some, a lot larger than you think!) and pay for all sorts of things like event space, office rent, phones, etc. There is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t get paid as well.

If it’s an established for-profit company and they’re claiming they have no money, that’s obviously a straight-up lie. They’re just choosing not to allocate any of it to you. Clearly, you’ll need to make sure you get paid.

If it’s one of those, “Hey, I’m just making something cool and thought you might be into it” kinda situations, remember that payment doesn’t always need to come in the form of money. You could get paid in copies of whatever the thing is that you can then sell on your own; the client can trade some service or advertising that is equal to the effort you put in; or, if it’s a friend, they can at least take you out to lunch (a nice one, not one that takes place under a pair of golden arches). At the very least, though, you have to get something out of the deal.

Finally, those “cool” sounding projects can frequently turn into nightmare assignments once you’re actually working on them. Anytime you have someone who’s in control of your work who’s not you, there’s always the possibility that you won’t be entirely happy with the final outcome. Is that worth giving away for free?

You’ll get a lot of exposure for it

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha! Oh, I’m sorry, I just had a brain aneurism from laughing so hard. I’m back now and my doctors say I can finish typing this.

Exposure is one of the biggest jokes out there. It rarely does anything for you. The way you get work is to, simply, work. And keep working. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and a little bit of exposure is not going to create your career. Only blood, sweat, and tears can do that. Oh, and money. Because, you know, cash is required to buy the things that keep you alive and not homeless. So, unless you want to be the first homeless zombie illustrator, you need to get paid.

Additionally, the clients that really can give you the kind of exposure that would actually get some results already have the money to pay you. And they should be.

This could lead to a lot more work down the road

A lot more free work? Cool, sign me up!

This will be great for your portfolio

Possibly. But you know what would be even better for your portfolio? Doing something for yourself. Why waste your time working for free for somebody else’s dream, when you can develop your own ideas? A little secret: all the best gigs I’ve ever gotten have come from my own personal projects that ended up getting a lot of attention. I can’t overemphasize enough the importance of doing your own self-generated work. So, rather than working on some non-paying assignment, make something awesome that you’ve always dreamed about instead. Start a blog. Do a series of paintings for a gallery show. Develop that app you’ve been toying with! Whatever it is, take that time you would have spent on free client work, and invest in yourself. You’ll see a much greater return.

Final Thoughts

So, to sum up, don’t work for free. Don’t do it. Just, no. There’s really no point and you’ll be much happier in the long-run.

Further Reading

Mike Monteiro’s F*ck You, Pay Me talk is terrific. Give it a view if you haven’t already:

Additionally, Jessica Hische’s similarly titled “Should I Work for Free?” infographic is also very helpful, although we do draw some slightly different conclusions (for instance, non-profits).

Also, check out Harlan Ellison’s Pay the Writer, which is a pretty fun (and worthy) rant:

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Neil Swaab is a freelance illustrator, art director, author, and educator based in Brooklyn, NY. He's an instructor at Parsons the New School for Design and the illustrator of the New York Times bestselling book Middle School: My Brother is a Big, Fat Liar by James Patterson and Lisa Papademetriou. His new authored and illustrated book, The Secrets to Ruling School: Class Election, comes out this September from Amulet Books.

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