Why it Doesn't Pay to Work for Free
Working for free has been a big issue for a long time in the illustration industry, but I really feel it's becoming a bit of a problem at the moment. You would assume that as you become more established and successful as an illustrator people would stop asking you to work for free in exchange for exposure, but what actually happens is you simply get bigger brands and clients asking for free work . The way I see it there are two types of clients that ask you to work for free. There are smaller clients that aren't making much money and assume that because they are working for free that you should too. This only works if you truly believe in what they're doing and actively want to collaborate. Just because their business isn't financially successful doesn't mean you should have to work for free as well.
The second type of client that asks you to work for free are the big businesses and well known brands. These clients are household names and they assume their reputation and influence means they don't actually need to pay anybody creative. They can just pay you in exposure and you will happily work for free so that you can put the work in your portfolio and name them as a client on your website. Unfortunately this isn't really a good idea and too many illustrators fall for it. There have been times I've worked for free earlier in my career and regretted it.
Just to make it clear I'm not having a go at new illustrators that are currently doing work for free. I've done it myself, I know how tempting it can be! I just wanted to share my experiences with the benefit of hindsight. Also all the photos used in this post are of me doing paid work, not free work. I just thought a post without any photos would be very boring.
Maybe they'll like me if I work for free
A client that asks you to work for free will never respect you. You might expect them to be extra nice to make up for the fact that they are not paying you, but actually these clients are usually the worst since they don't value you or your time. My experience has always been the better paid the job, the better you are treated by the client. This is particularly relevant when you're working at events, teaching workshops or doing live illustration. A client checking to see if you need anything or offering you a drink makes a big difference when you're working flat out for hours.
Maybe they'll pay me next time
I've fallen for that one before. The client has run out of budget this time but surely they'll pay me next time? The truth is that if you've agreed to work for free once, and you've done good work for the client, there is no reason why they would start paying you in the future. If having no budget worked out well for them last time why would they change it in the future? The exception to this is small independent magazines who sometimes will start paying contributors as they grow.
But it would be great exposure
Generally my feeling is a company too small to be able to afford to pay you won't be able to offer much exposure, and a company big enough to offer huge amounts of exposure should be making enough money to pay you properly. Free work only leads to more free work. The best exposure that I have received has been as a result of paying work. Additionally a lot of the brands that contact me and offer me exposure have less followers on social media than I do!
But I don't need to make money from my illustrations I'm just doing it for fun
That's your choice, but ultimately it's bad for the industry. If clients can always find somebody to do the work for free they will keep asking for free work and keep allocating zero budget to illustration. There have been times when I have given a client a quote and they have come back to me saying 'this person is willing to do it for free, why can't you'? When you agree to work for free it's not always apparent the knock on affect you have on other people.
Is it ever okay to work for free? In certain circumstances yes, for example for family, charity or causes that you really believe in. There are also some occasions when you can offer to work for free and make a calculated decision about how it will benefit you. For example the first time I ever did live illustration over two years ago at The Bloggers Market I offered live portraits for free in exchange for a tweet or Instagram. This was completely my decision and I wasn't pressured into it, also it wasn't a big business, it was run by girls my age. I had never done live illustration before and I didn't feel that I could charge a client for it until I knew I could actually do the job. The event went really well and it was so popular that it attracted the attention of the venue (The Hoxton Hotel) who immediately booked me for several of their upcoming parties (paid) and corporate events, which then lead to even more paid work live illustrating.
What do you do if a company asks you to work for free? You can politely explain why you don't work for free or you can just not reply at all. If you'd like to work with them in the future I would recommend sending back a polite email, but otherwise don't give it anymore of your time.
What do you think? Would you work for free? Have you worked for free and regretted it?