Why Every Creative Should Work for Free - Travis Robertson

Why Every Creative Should Work for Free

My very good friend sent out the following tweet (which I in turn retweeted):

Any logo designers out there want to work on a fun project in return for a lot of exposure?

One of the first responses I received was this one from @notlikenormal:

Which was then followed by these tweets (as well as a few more):

I decided that these warranted a blog post since it allows for more than just 140 character sound bites.

Should You Ever Take Free Work as a Creative?

100% yes. Anybody who tells you differently is just angry that you got a job they wanted.

I’ve spent the majority of my career in some form of creative industry – from web design to application development to writing to speaking. I have ALWAYS done free work at the very beginning in order to build up a portfolio.

Why? Because without a portfolio of work, it can be extremely difficult to get paid work. It’s as simple as that. One of the first conferences I keynoted, I did for free so that I could have video of me on a stage in front of hundreds of people. Could I have refused the opportunity? Of course! Would I have been mistaken to do so? Absolutely.

That event has allowed me to book tens of thousands of dollars worth of speaking engagements, consulting agreements and more.

The Problem With the Starving Artist

Artists and creatives tend to make bad business people. Not all of them, but many of them. They value the time and creativity and energy that go into their art (as they absolutely should).

The problem is they are still starving because nobody is aware that their art exists. Ask any successful musician how many free gigs they played when they started and they’ll laugh at the idea of trying to number them. Most of them had day jobs to pay the bills and played nights and weekends to gain exposure and experience.

I want to be clear on this: you don’t deserve to be paid for your work, you earn the right to be paid for your work. How you get “paid” is completely up to you. When you have a day job and you’re starting out, which is more important: money or exposure? I would argue exposure.

Does that mean you should not try to start charging as soon as you can? Absolutely not. But don’t kid yourself into thinking that being untested and broke is noble.

The Truth About “Free”

Many of the people who get upset about situations like this give things away for free all of the time. They blog, they tweet, they post Facebook updates, etc. I do it here all the time.

Somehow, that’s an acceptable form of free. Yet we all know that it’s not free. My time has a high value associated with it. I have to pay hosting companies. I have to pay for designers and developers and much more to keep this site going. But I do it for exposure and that exposure has led to opportunities and those opportunities have led to income and allowed me to travel all over the country doing what I love.

I could live by the principle that people should have to pay for this “art.” And, if I did, I would still be slogging away at some job I hated. I charge for much of the content I create and I will continue to charge for more of it moving forward. I am able to do this because I’ve worked to create content and a brand that more people are willing to pay for.

Supply and Demand

It’s really simple: when you are starting out, demand for your product or service is non-existent or extremely low but the supply is high (meaning you have lots of work you’d really like to do). Therefore, your prices have to be very low or even free.

As you gain exposure and build up a portfolio or following, the demand for your product or service will start to go up and your availability (usually measured by time) will decrease. Consequently, you can – and should – raise your prices.

This is how business has worked for thousands of years and you are a business – whether you’re an employee, freelancer or business owner.

Is It Stealing Work from Others?

Nope. It’s simply choosing to get paid in a different way.

Don’t They Have the Money to Pay?

Probably. And there’s an old saying that you get what you pay for. However, if both sides agree to the terms, they both get to live with the consequences – good or bad. I know of plenty of professional speakers who charge tens of thousands of dollars for speaking gigs but will drastically reduce their rates given the convergence of the right factors (audience size, location, exposure, etc.).

I am also aware of organizations that could have easily paid for a speaker but tried to go the free route only to wind up with a train wreck on their hands and dissatisfied attendees.

Seth Godin has written 13 books all of which were best sellers. When he started his own publishing company and released the first book under the new company (Poke the Box), he spent the first week giving it away for free on the Kindle.

Why? Exposure. He knew that having people read and distribute it was more valuable than the money he could have earned during that first week. I would bet that he would tell you he made more from having given the book away than he would have if he held the price firm on the basis of “principle.”

Would he have been justified? Absolutely! As a writer, few are more proven than Seth Godin and his followers had both the money and the willingness to pay him. But this was about his new company which was not proven and launching under an entirely new model of book publishing.

You’re not Seth Godin and neither am I. If you want to quickly gain exposure in the early stages of your career as an artist or creative of any kind, leverage your ability to do work for free to build your portfolio.

[UPDATE: As John Morgan pointed out in the comments below, Seth Godin actually posted on a similar topic a couple of weeks back. You can check out that post by following this link.]

Is It Settling?

Absolutely not! I never settled for doing free work – I jumped at the opportunity to earn exposure and build my brand. I used that work to refine my craft and improve my skills so that, when I did begin charging, I was confident that I would over deliver to my clients.

It would only be settling if I never started charging out of fear or self-doubt.

Do you agree or disagree? Sound off in the comments below but please keep it respectable or I’ll nuke your comment.

Leave a Reply 41 comments

John Morgan Reply

I guess it’s only fitting I should comment if it’s my tweet that sparked this post! Everyone deserves to be paid if they are doing work worth paying for. That’s not to say that everything free isn’t worth something. As you said some people are out there waiting for their shot. Waiting to make a connection, waiting to get some exposure that can lead to multiple paid gigs.

Ironic you mentioned Seth because he talked about this not too long ago on his blog: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2011/07/it-will-be-good-exposure.html

If someone doesn’t need to work for free then great! If someone is looking for their shot then they should take it. In this case, a logo for this project would lead to being mentioned in an email to my list which is rather large, as well as my go-to choice for future projects which I end up needing design work monthly. That’s good exposure for the right person. It’s also more than a simple social media shout-out which may not be enough exposure for the work done.

Great post my friend. Too many people are wondering where their big break is when it’s right in front of them.

    Travis Robertson Reply

    Thanks, John! And thanks for the link to the Seth Godin piece. I missed that one during my vacation and I added it into the post so people could see it more easily.

    I think we do a disservice to ourselves if we only claim that money is the only form of legitimiate payment for our work. What you mentioned, “getting a shot” is a big deal for someone who needs it or wants it – as is the exposure that will come.

    I happen to know one of the people who responded that she wanted the gig. She’s a good friend of mine and a VERY talented designer. She doesn’t need anything that you’re offering but she just thought it would be a fun project (per your description) and so she wanted to do it.

    In her words, “not because it will give me exposure or bring me more work but because it will bring happiness to my soul.”

    That’s how she’s choosing to get paid for this and who are we to judge that as unworthy?

    Tim Reply

    But, can you guarantee you’ll mention it to your mailing list? Guarantee you’ll use them for paid work thenceforth? Guarantee someone on your mailing list will hire them?

    You’re asking someone to take all the risk on.¬†Having said that, if someone wants to take that risk, fine.

Diane Hughes Reply

I agree. Exposing others to your talent can open doors of opportunity you might otherwise have missed.

    Travis Robertson Reply

    Thanks, Diane! I appreciate you chiming in on this! Nice to know I’m not alone on it… ūüėČ

Diane Hughes Reply

I agree. Exposing others to your talent can open doors of opportunity you might otherwise have missed.

John Eddy Reply

So many different comments to make, but, since John came here and said “Everyone deserves to be paid if they are doing work worth paying for.”

Uhh. So then PAY THEM. Seriously, to ask for a designer of any level to do work for you for free, then to turn around and say ‘Everyone deserves to be paid if they are doing work worth paying for’ means one of two things: Either you don’t believe that, or you don’t believe logo design is work worth paying for.

A one time name drop isn’t as all powerful as you think it is. If you want to give someone recurring work, sign them to a contract now and *pay them for the work*.

You used the Seth Godin example. Lets go with any writer who gives away their work.

There’s a big difference.¬†

Their name is on the cover of the book. They are deciding to pay *themselves* nothing. There is a tremendous difference between doing work for yourself for no pay and doing work for someone else for no pay.

And let me make one thing perfectly clear: I have no problem with people giving away their work. I have done pro-bono photography work (or tried to, the restaurant insisted on a gift certificate) and volunteer photography work for causes I believe in. I didn’t do it for the exposure. I did it because I believed in one cause, and I thought the other would be fun.¬†

I’ve never taken money for any wedding I’ve performed because I know the couples I’ve married and wanted to do it for them as a gift.

My problem is the bartering of a free service for a amorphous benefit, that of ‘exposure’.

You know who does stuff for the exposure?  Flashers.

    Travis Robertson Reply

    Thanks, John, for jumping in!

    I know plenty of graphic designers who have taken very low paying or altogether free/spec work so that they could tweet, Facebook, blog and reference at every opportunity the fact that they had a client who was one of the major brands in the world.

    In fact, I know of one designer in particular who, when starting out, did 3 free jobs in these industries: social media (name I can’t release), technology (Google), consumer products (Dunkin’ Doughnuts). His name was not on any of the work as it went to the public. But, he leveraged that client list into many more jobs simply by putting them on his portfolio list and talking about it every chance he got.

    He would even contact companies and let them know that those groups were previous or active clients. It opened doors and got him work that ended up being well into the six figures. The reason? Those companies had no clue that he had done that work for free. They just assumed that if Google and Dunkin’ Doughnuts were willing to pay for his work, they should be as well.

    Every creative profession has some differences and you’ll always want to find ways to get the best deal for yourself. If a graphic designer simply does the work, posts it on their portfolio, and then disappears back into the shadows, that’s their fault for missing the opportunity.

    It sounds like you’re at the point in your career where the decision to do free work is purely a choice and done for friends. However, you’re being rewarded (whether you’ll see it this way or not) with the great feeling that comes from helping friends. You are “doing work worth being paid for” but choosing to forgo money for something else.

    Holding the same logic, wouldn’t it be incumbent upon your friends to pay you?

      John Eddy Reply

      I’ve done free work for friends and causes I’ve believed in, not for the exposure. There is a tremendous difference between volunteering for a cause, be it a non-profit, or a friend who’s business idea is something I support, and helping a random stranger who wants free work done.

      And, you’ll have to excuse me, but I failed out of college before I finished my logic class. You will have to explain the logic within the statement ‘Holding the same logic, wouldn’t it be incumbent upon your friends to pay you.’ because I am obviously missing the step after ‘Steal Underpants.’

    John Morgan Reply

    John, I appreciate your thoughts but also have to say there’s more details behind the single tweet. First off, the designer isn’t getting just a social media shout-out or some one time thing. They get their website and work email to a list in the tens of thousands. In addition to on-going work that is needed.

    I’m not here to argue about it. Last time I promoted someone they made over $12k. I thought a lot of designers would like that opportunity.

      John Eddy Reply

      Then why not pay them, even a minor amount, in accordance with their experience? Why do you feel that their work is not worth paying for?

      All I see is what you will give in lieu of money. Not why you can’t pay, or why you feel it is not worth any money.

        John Morgan Reply

        I never said their work isn’t worth paying for. In fact, I WILL be paying them. My other tweets said as much as my 1st one was taken wrong. You’re attacking me, but this post is about how some people need to do some work for free in order to get their work out there, especially when starting out.

        Every week I get asked to speak at an event for free. Last week the person who contacted me wanted me to fly to Canada to do it. I’m in a position where I don’t have to say yes to that. So I don’t. I don’t get mad at them for asking. I’m thankful for the opportunity.

        When I was in real estate I would have to go to people’s home, do an hour long presentation for them on why they should hire me, then spend my time & money marketing their home and could still end up not getting paid. Sometimes in business you have to do what it takes to get your name out there.

        If a designer has enough business and they are getting paid handsomely for their work then more power to them. I think they should because they are in business to make money. If they are unknown, and are trying to get their work out there then when the opportunity arises they should take it.

        In this case the exposure is going to be a blog post dedicated to them, an email of their work sent to a list of over 30,000 business owners, and a mention in my book. All of this in addition to being paid a fee for their time & work. How is this a bad thing for them?

Joey McNair Reply

John Morgan is a friend and he and I have butted heads over similar issues, namely spec work. This issue is a bit different and I couldn’t resist weighing in.

I don’t have a problem doing work for free as a principle. There are many situations where it makes sense for the designer, is simply a goodwill gesture for a deserving cause, or a favor for a friend. For instance, because John is a friend, if he asked me if I would do something like a logo I would do what I could to help. He has listened to me when I’ve needed a sounding board and has been generous with his time. I know he has received free work before and I can only assume that person did so being satisfied with the arrangement. Ultimately we can’t begrudge someone who is able to secure this work for free.

John Eddy also makes an excellent point. If you’re in a position to pay people for their work, I think you should. My views on creatives are somewhat like the way people who used to work in restaurants feel about servers, they tend to tip well because they know how hard the job is. I know the value of creative work and if I were in need of someone else’s services, I’d want to pay them accordingly. I can imagine how people would see a person asking for a free logo as a person that didn’t value the work all that much.

Travis, you’re absolutely right, creatives tend to make bad business people and I don’t feel like I’m an exception. It’s too bad God didn’t see fit to give me equal parts creativity and business savvy. Even with an over 13-year career, I can still use exposure. On the other hand, I have a portfolio of work that I feel is plenty of evidence of my worth. Only I can decide if the promise of exposure might be a fair trade for my work. The same is true for everyone else.

    John Eddy Reply

    The problem is that a creative who enters into a ‘work for exposure’ bargain is short changing themselves. Want a portfolio? Build one. Create alternative logos for existing companies. Create new logos for companies that don’t even exist. If you’re going to work for free, do it for yourself.

    It is like I said earlier, and also goes with ‘I did a keynote for free’: At that point, you’re your own employer and you are opting to work for nothing for yourself and your name is attached to what you are doing.

    If I do a keynote for free, it isn’t ‘The keynote for Frank’s Emporium of Clay Jugs Royal Society’. My name is attached to it.

    I’ve yet to see a business where their logo had the designer’s name attached to it (not including any business which is named after the logo designer).

      Joey McNair Reply

      I’ll grant you most “work for exposure” deals don’t turn into riches for the designer later down the road. Like I said, it’s up to the designer to decide why they might do the work. The promise of exposure to some audience is really the last reason I’d do it. Frankly, if that audience sees someone asking for free work, they’ll wonder why they should have to pay for it either.

      I’d much rather see John and others reach out directly to design schools and enlist the talents of students. They’re potentially more in need of real world examples than a more established designer. Your example of reworking an existing logo or the like is a good one as well.¬†

      I have to say, I’ve never seen a group more apologetic about their craft as designers.¬†It’s up to creatives to educate clients on the value of good design. As before, I can’t begrudge someone that’s able to get free work or, as in spec work, get dozens of designers to submit work and only pay one. In addition to clients, part of the focus should be on getting designers to realize their work is valuable.

Jason O'Brien Reply

Great point, Joey. Instead of spamming the web for free work, I think it would be better to reach out directly to schools that are overflowing with creatives trying to get a jump start in the industry.

Unless you’re afraid you can’t get the quality of work that you want. And therein lies the problem. Great work, not just work, is created by great people, and these people have spent a lot of time and energy crafting their skills. Would you go to a top architect and ask them to work in exchange for ‘exposure?’ No, you would ask students of architecture and would be prepared to receive work that isn’t the best, because you’re not willing to pay for the best.

I’m all for free work on a case-by-case basis, when it’s a direct conversation between two parties who would equally benefit. But scraping the social web isn’t the way to go.

Also, spec work has been mentioned in some of the comments. Let’s just be clear that spec work is an entirely different beast, and whatever you might think about doing something for free, doing something on a spec basis is harmful to the designer, the design industry as a whole, and the company who is initiating the work.

Ruth Zive Reply

The right kind of exposure can be more valuable than pay.¬† But therein lies the rub.¬† Companies offering ‘exposure’ in return for free work aren’t generally the companies that can provide the kind of exposure that you want or need.¬† I’m not talking about gigs that attract you because of cause or connection or some other personal motivation.¬† But if you are choosing exposure over pay, you better be sure that it’s the right kind of exposure in the right market.¬† I am a writer in the technology sector.¬† I can guest blog until I’m blue in the face on the Beautiful Wedding Flowers website, but I doubt I’ll be targeting my niche market.

Annieology Reply

You’re absolutely right. I patented my first three kids for free. Because I rocked at it the Tate gave me three of theirs. and thanks to your free parenting advice on #NotAParent I know it’s not acceptable to leave them at home with bags of Doritos while I go to Vegas for the weekend. Thanks!!!

Also? Really loved the post!

Markus Reply

Or you can always just refer to: http://shouldiworkforfree.com/

Gillian Reply

This is quite a timely find. I’m just finishing a 2 year pro photography course and during both years I’ve taken on free work, against the advice of my teachers. I approached a writer at our city’s largest newspaper and offered to take some images for her. She got me in to meet the photo editor, who was very impressed with my non-GenY attitude (well it would be as I’m an X-er, we are part of the generation who still had to make tea for their boss!). ¬†I do one story per week which amounts to 3 location shoots (restaurants and food). ¬†Here’s my take on it:

1) I’m a grown up and I can do what I like!
2) ok, yes, we aren’t starving broke so paying rent isn’t an issue.
3) I’m 38, I’ve come to this profession late and don’t have time to muck around waiting for work and slowly gaining experience. Basically I treat this work as my “apprenticeship” which is usually pretty poorly paid anyway.¬†
4) I get to meet amazing people who I never would, all of whom have now met me, know me and have my business card somewhere. Let me trot out a cliche now: it’s not what you know, it’s who you know! I could really annoy some of the “creatives” now by¬†admitting¬†I’m not the best photographer in my class. But I’m certainly the most business-minded and while they’re all fluffing about doing free shoots with models and other friends I’m working with influential business owners in my city.
4)¬†Free work opens doors, providing you know how to capitalise on that. I’ve run small business before and so I’m probably more “business” than “creative”.¬†I now have some paid work as a result of the experience and credentials I’ve gained. This paid work is very low, I still value my unpaid work as it really does open more doors. When I’m busy enough to ditch it I’ll gently let them know it’s time to start paying me, but I still value the contacts I’ve made within the media circle so I’d never burn a bridge.

I don’t tell the clients I’m working unpaid. I’m not a goose. They’ll want me to work for them for free and while I’m not solely motivated by money I am very fond of money. ¬†It’s about balance and choosing the right type of unpaid work. Would I shoot your brother’s cousin’s wedding for $500? Nope.* cos the type of people at that wedding wouldn’t value my work, and once word got out how much I’d charged I wouldn’t get any real leads out of it, except for more cheapo work.¬†


*also cos I don’t do weddings.

    Travis Robertson Reply

    Extremely well said! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Gillian! I whole-heartedly agree with what you said. The relationships that open up by being willing to do what others are not are invaluable and will no doubt serve you better in the long run. Like you wrote, you like money as much as the next person. You just have a different (and I believe) more effective way of going about getting it.

    Really appreciate it!

Rachel Reply

I don’t know about free for exposure only, but there are lots of non-profits out there that could use the help. And you can get exposure AND donate some time for a good cause. Win-Win!

Rachel Reply

I don’t know about free for exposure only, but there are lots of non-profits out there that could use the help. And you can get exposure AND donate some time for a good cause. Win-Win!

    Travis Robertson Reply

    That’s a great point, Rachel. There are many ways to build a portfolio and if you feel like free work is a good fit for you, I think doing it for a non-profit is a fine trade-off.¬†

Tim Reply

If you can afford to work for free, fine.
Apart from that I 100% disagree. If you honestly think exposure (which is a Faustian bargain) is worth it, or that the “hirer” can guarantee exposure, then go for it. Me, I’d be saying something like: sure, I’ll do it for free if you can guarantee it will lead to me being paid.
If they can’t guarantee that, bugger that.
You’re better off building a portfolio that demonstrates your work, by working on your own projects, working for family, or for friends.

Free just leads to a race to the bottom, I’m sorry. It’s alright for heavy hitters like Seth Godin (who pushes this line on free a little too far in my opinion) but for the vast majority of us trying to build sustainable businesses, you’re better off sacking any customer not willing to pay for quality, and concentrating on those who are prepared to spend money.

Celeste Noelle Reply

Travis – your posts are awesome! Right on! P.S. So, who’s the programmer that took you up on your offer?:)

Williamapowell3rd Reply

I absolutely, wholeheartedly agree. I was a graphic designer for years and building a portfolio of business is very difficult, I gave away free logos, website design, among other things. In order to “give away” and be successful, you need to learn when to draw the line and take calculated risks. Would I do free work for great opportunities. Would I do it forever? Nope.

Williamapowell3rd Reply

I absolutely, wholeheartedly agree. I was a graphic designer for years and building a portfolio of business is very difficult, I gave away free logos, website design, among other things. In order to “give away” and be successful, you need to learn when to draw the line and take calculated risks. Would I do free work for great opportunities. Would I do it forever? Nope.

Harvey Gardner Reply

I agree.¬† Who hasn’t bought something after tasting a free sample?¬† It’s good marketing.

Hilary Baumann Reply

I’ve been in the industry long enough to say that most people who want something for free in return for “exposure” really just want you to work for free. They often don’t value what you do and therefor aren’t interested in placing a monetary value on your work. This means a free design sample isn’t likely to lead to any more business. And usually when someone say “oh yes, we have three more large projects we might want you to work on after this free one” they are usually using it as a way to entice you into doing something with a vague promise of there being something in it for you. Bait and switch.

YES, there are exceptions to every rule. There MAY be instances where there is actually a mutually beneficial exchange. The chances of that are just very unlikely in the graphic design world. 

It’s not about someone being bitter because they didn’t get the job. Really, I get plenty of work without the “exposure” promised by other people. I’m bitter because I fell for this BS when I first started working for myself. I ended up on the short end of the stick, design work done, nothing in it for me. No exposure, no I don’t get to collect on my trade. Thanks for your time.

Same goes for spec work – no I won’t do a little bit of your design so you can see if you like me, that’s what a portfolio is for.¬†

You don’t ask a plumber to come in and do a little plumbing work for free so you can see how they work and hey while they’re at it they can put a sign in your yard. They would laugh at you if you asked for that kind of exchange.My opinion is that if you want to build your portfolio, go seek out some good nonprofits and community groups. You’ll get the hands on experience, help a group that may never have the money for a designer (though “non-profit” doesn’t equal “no money” all of the time) and you’ll start making some community connections.¬†Businesses are for profit, they are there to make a living from and hopefully you are doing something you enjoy while you’re doing that. You can’t pay the electric bill on the promise of exposure.

Jeff Goins Reply

amen. totally agree ‚ÄĒ within reason. once you get discovered, though, you should do free work very, very sparingly. but there’s no other way for a creative to succeed. you gotta serve your way into influence.

Jeff Goins Reply

amen. totally agree ‚ÄĒ within reason. once you get discovered, though, you should do free work very, very sparingly. but there’s no other way for a creative to succeed. you gotta serve your way into influence.

    Travis Robertson Reply

    And I totally agree with you! ūüôā The minute you don’t have to do free work, you shouldn’t. Unless, of course, you want to do it for a charity or for some other reason. I love how you phrased it: “Serve your way into influence.”

      Jeff Goins Reply

      I like these two price points: free and expensive. Every self-respecting creative should aspire to those.

Logo Design Reply

Fabulous! Some awesome stuff you have shared here. I have to
confess your great effort. Keep posting more blog posts like this.

Logo Design Reply

Fabulous! Some awesome stuff you have shared here. I have to
confess your great effort. Keep posting more blog posts like this.

Emma Reply

If you have a four year degree in design from an accredited school, then you should have a solid portfolio and references. Unless you’re a highschooler or untrained there’s no justifying working for free. If you have a degree, solid portfolio and references, it doesn’t matter if they’ve heard of you are not. As long as you have a solid resum√© and can write a decent cover letter,and you know how to present yourself, you shouldn’t have to settle for artistic slavery. If your work is good enough they’ll hire you. If the potential employer is a legitimate business and not some sole proprietor with his pockets sewn shut or a local husiness with unanswered emails from the BBB or some crappy local band, and you have credentials, they have no right to assume you should work for free. Not all artists are unprofessional and lacking in quality examples of their skills. Exposure is a weak offering and unnaceptable payment for a qualified artist, whether or not they are well known. Also, if you have a degree and you choose to give in and fall for the exposure bit, when you do find yourself in front of a potential employer and they hear you say you have worked for free because you wanted exposure, they won’t respect you as a professional and if they do hire you, you can be sure that they won’t pay you what they would have if you had maintained your integrity and valued yoyr work all along. If you don’t value your work, neither will they.

Destiny Church of Jacksonville Reply

If people wouldn’t see it as working for free but rather as an investment then perhaps more would do it. It is interesting how you can change a paradigm and motivation is fueled. When I have worked with clients in web design and SEO I would encourage using the word complimentary rather than free as stats have shown customers respond to it different. Half empty or half full? Good post.


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