Why is the Notion of Unpaid Work Readily Accepted in the Creative Industry?

Getting Paid in Exposure

When I was a beginner photographer, it seemed to make sense that people would ask to pay me in “exposure” or the opportunity to add work to my portfolio. As a young and hungry photographer, it seemed OK to me at the time to not get paid.

“This must be what ‘paying your dues’ means,” I thought.

I would work for free for a couple of clients and in return, they would help me build my network so that I could land more paying jobs.

In theory, this should work. You should be able to gain lots of exposure and the clients for whom you’ve worked for free should tell everyone they know about the wonderful work you’ve done for them.

But it rarely ever happens that way, if at all.

You’re Just a Beginner

Doing good creative work takes practice. That’s true. It will always be true. And really, that’s at the heart of this debate. Why should you get paid to practice getting better at your job? Isn’t the education enough?

Working for free when you’re starting out seems like a good deal, doesn’t it? You get a chance to prove yourself at designing graphics and your client gets a logo.

You practice designing a website, your client gets a website. At the end of it all, you will have gotten some real experience and a better understanding of your capabilities and you have a happy client that will supposedly tell all their friends about the wonderful work you’ve done.

This is all well and good until you realize that no other professions really work the same way. Just because you’re a beginner, that doesn’t make it OK to not get paid for the real work that you’ve done.

If you try to come up with a list of professions in which it is acceptable to pay people with a promise of future work or exposure or help building a portfolio, you’re really only be left with internships and creative work. At least with most internships, you’ll still get college credit. And with internships, if you do a real good job, it’s very likely they’ll hire you when you graduate.

“This Will be Huge For You.”

Some clients think that just asking you to work for them will be a huge deal for you. That’s why it’s OK for them to ask you to work for nothing.

The truth is, not all clients are created equal.

To put it another way, if I were a boxer and I was asked to train with Manny Pacquiao, you can bet that I’d be willing to train for free because training with Manny Pacquaio is a big deal for any boxer. I’ll be able to practice my boxing skills with one of the best fighters in history and even if I make a fool of myself, I’ll still be better than if I didn’t train with Manny. Manny, on the other hand, gets a human punching bag for a couple of hours which is exactly what he needs.

That’s like Apple asking you be part of the design team for the new iPhone. That would actually be a huge for you.

However, on the other hand, if I were to train with the same level boxer as me who is training for his next fight, what value do I get for training with him for free? I’ll get punched around and maybe get hurt. He gets to train for his next fight which that only he benefits from.

This is like being asked to design a free logo for a Kickstarter campaign to develop another weird iPhone App.

Final Thoughts

It doesn’t help that creatives themselves keep asking the question, “Should I work for free?” or “Is there value in unpaid work?” Entire websites are devoted to asking and exploring this question. Countless articles have been written on if and when it is OK to work for free.

There shouldn’t be any doubt as to whether or not we should get paid for the real work we do.

The fact that we keep asking the question as to whether it’s ok to not get paid creates a feedback loop in the creative industry which results in the value of our work being readily questioned. In other words, asking if we should work for free raises more questions about the value of our work than it answers.

Think about it this way. No one thinks twice about paying their doctor or a lawyer or even a plumber or a mechanic. That’s because no one really asks IF they should get paid. They just are. People just know to pay them. Even when they do a bad job, they still get paid.

Sure, creative work doesn’t always carry the same gravitas as doing quadruple bypass surgery. No one will die if a designer fails to deliver good work. But good creative work is valuable, nonetheless.

Good creative work can change minds and sway opinions. Good creative work incites actions and reactions in people. It can add beauty to the world and it can inspire.

I am fully aware that this is a highly nuanced and complex topic and that I have only scratched a surface. However, we do encourage you to share your own views and experiences with us in the comments below.

  • MD

    I agree with this mostly. I went down the route of unpaid internship when I graduated…only later to discover that legally interns are supposed to receive minimum wage under UK law. Yet if this is brought up another free intern can be found to replace you. In my circumstances it worked out ok because it turned out the director was incredibly racist and abusive, but shows how as new designers we undervalue our skills and almost feel like we should work for free.

    One point to raise is this “No one will die if a designer fails to deliver good work.” – not entirely true and quite a bold statement, there are lots of articles and stories of bad design causing deaths such as the badly designed medical software. e.g. road signs, if they are badly designed they could potentially cause accidents leading to death. So design has a lot more power then stated in that sentence.

  • MD,

    Thanks for your comment.

    I think you’re right that we as creative professionals often undervalue our work. Really, this article is about that. Why do creatives even debate whether it’s ok to work for free or not.

    I recently saw a movie and there was a line about making a “career move with a dollar sign” (paid work) vs. making a career move that’s just good for you. It occurred to me that creative work usually has that dynamic where getting paid and making a good career move are mutually exclusive to each other as though you can’t make good career moves AND make money doing it. No other profession really works that way.