My Thoughts on Working For Free

Since graduating I've heard this countless times. It also comes in other guises such as:

"we can't pay, but it'll be a wonderful portfolio piece for you!"

"this is going to be really huge down the line - it'll be great for you to be a part of it."

"we'll pay you a small percentage when the book is published" (IF it gets published...)

"we haven't got a budget for this particular project, but we will DEFINITELY be in touch in the future with lots of paid work for you"

**bullshit alarm activated**

Exposure doesn't pay the bills

It's part of graduate life and i'm gradually accepting it as one of the perils of being a designer/illustrator. Learning to spot early on whether or not a client wants a freebie is a skill just as important as drawing every day, doing self-promotion and keeping up to date with the creative industry. For every 10 nice clients who give me a tasty brief to chew on and then give me some money to feed myself, there is 1 who pops out of nowhere and tries to pay me in exposure and/or empty promises. Make sure you suss out in the first few emails/phone calls/meetings whether there is any money involved. Otherwise it can be a bit of a waste of time for everyone involved. Here are some things you can do to weed out the scroungers from the genuinely nice clients who value your work and would like you to do some quality work for them...
  • Get it out in the open. Either state your fee, or you can always ask "What's your budget for this project" or "Who should I send the invoice to" (before starting work, by the way) This is usually enough to put off anyone who isn't planning to pay you.
  • Get an acceptance of commission form* written up, then get it signed by you and your prospective client once fees have been agreed.
  • Ask for a percentage of the fee before starting and a percentage on completion. 50/50 is always a good one. Sometimes clients will even pay 100% upfront before you've even started, but they are like hen's teeth. Rare.
  • If they try and seduce you with promise of exposure, a great portfolio piece, paying-you-a-percentage-later-on, or the ol' "no money now, but definitely some paid work in the future!", then politely decline and carry on with your day.

*For any more details on contracts and your rights as an illustrator, the Association of Illustrators has a wealth of information and some basic contract templates which have been invaluable to me over the past few years. See links at the bottom of this post.


In the past few years I've seen a handful of friends end up working as interns. AKA, working in design & fashion/journalist places, doing work for paying clients, but just getting pocket money to cover expenses. If they're lucky. More recently i've seen some North East design studios actually charging graduates and students to work for free. It's one thing to have an army of nearly-free workers, but disguising it as an "internship programme", giving it "modules" and plastering university-related icons all over it is taking something useful, and kicking the arse out of it (in my humble and open-to-debate opinion). I like to think romantically of internships as an exchange. You get to experience working in a studio, they get some very low cost labour. You get to beef up your creative CV and perhaps even your portfolio, they get some fresh meat in the studio and can pick your young creative brain for ideas. Do it for a set amount of time. Plump up your CV, get some good portfolio stuff, then GET OUT OF THERE. Apply for real jobs, go freelance, even move to a different place to intern (for a short, set amount of time of course) if there are no jobs or freelance things going. If a studio asks you to fork out some cash for the privilege of doing work for them for free then run away. Run far, far away. You also have my permission to tell them to fuck off.

So in summary, working for free has it's place in this economic climate but is best avoided. If you're a student or a struggling fresh graduate then perhaps do a little intern-ing to tide you over. When your Mum wants you to design a Christmas card for free, that's ok. She's your Mum. Be nice. 

If your Mum asks you to pay £500 for the privilege, it's time to find a new Mum. 

Jessica Hische has an excellent infographic/flow chart here that should clear up any doubts around working for free. 

The Association of Illustrators. Like a big helpful uncle for all illustrators. I highly recommend taking out a subscription with them, especially if you are an illustration student or a recent graduate who is unsure of anything at all. That being said, they have information for anyone at any stage in their career. Contracts, licensing, copyright, finances, etc etc etc. The £150 subscription fee may seem a bit pricey, but honestly if you have any questions they are really helpful, and you get a shiny magazine in the post every once in a while.