Should you ever work for free?

If you’re working in a creative field, the current debate over unpaid interns will be giving you a major case of deja vu: creatives are asked to work for free all the time. Web designers are asked to build or revamp sites in exchange for expenses; illustrators are urged to contribute their best ideas in exchange for exposure; and writers are asked to write in the hope that one day, they might get paid for it.

To some, working for free is a necessary evil in creative industries. To others, it’s just evil.

So who’s right? Should you ever work for free?

The short answer is “umm, it depends”.

Who’s asking?

Not all free work is the same: there’s a big difference between helping out a local charity and working for a commercial organisation who’s paying everybody else but you. The people who’ll give you the opportunity to work for free tend to fall into the following categories:

  • Friends and family
  • Charities
  • Firms offering work experience and/or internships
  • People who’ll be first against the wall when the revolution comes

On the face of it, you’d need to be pretty hard-hearted to refuse to help out a friend or a family member, but that depends on the job: knocking up a flyer or a quick WordPress installation is one thing; designing a whole corporate identity or creating an entire ecommerce platform is something else entirely.

If you’re considering offering a helping hand, make sure you’re not being taken advantage of – a friend’s business is still a business, and pays all its other suppliers. Why not you? – and make sure that you’re not clambering merrily into the Bottomless Pit Of “Come To Think Of It, Could You Also…” Make sure everybody knows in advance exactly what you’ll be doing and how long you’ll be doing it for.

Charities are another apparent no-brainer. Everybody loves charities! But once again, things aren’t quite as simple as they might appear. Your local Save Our Hospital or We Hate Tesco group is almost certainly flat broke and would appreciate your help, but some of the bigger charities are enormous organisations that can afford to pay enormous sums of money to design agencies, web agencies, marketing firms and so on. If you’re given the opportunity to work for free by one of those agencies, find out whether they’re charging the charity. If they are, you should be getting paid too.

Work experience and internships can be an excellent way of learning new skills, getting an insight into your chosen industry or just packing your portfolio with new and interesting work. Which is just as well, because you’ll be lucky to be paid more than expenses.

The trick to assessing such opportunities is to ask, “what’s in it for me?” – so for example a three-month internship where “you’ll gain practical experience in the creation of 3D scenes and other visualisation tools” is a nice wee opportunity to move beyond making demos and into a real-world environment; an internship where the firm wants a Creative Suite guru with design flair to spend nine months doing all their design work for free may be taking the mickey.

The last kind of employer, the people who’ll be first against the wall when the revolution comes, is easy to spot. Their job adverts ask for an astonishing range of skills and experience, they’re often brand new new media businesses, and they can’t afford to pay you right now but promise valuable exposure. They’ll often promise that if you stick with them long enough, you’ll get your reward in riches and unicorns. They’re lying. The only rewards you’ll get are offers of more free work. Try offering that to your landlord instead of rent.

And that’s the fundamental problem with working for free. Graphic designers, 3D modellers, web designers and writers don’t live in magical space palaces where things like rent, council tax and the whole eating-so-you-don’t-die thing don’t matter. As a result, it’s essential that any free work you do is actually going to benefit you, either karmically – by doing a favour for a cause you believe in – or by making you more employable. If you’re unsure whether an offer is either, Jessica Hische has a wonderful flowchart for you.

Image by TheAleiness GiselaGiardino on Flickr [http://www.flickr.com/photos/gi/121409547/]. Some rights reserved.


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