The Dangers of Working For Free
Sep 29 2012

Ever had someone promise you unicorns and golden rays of sunshine if you could just donate a tiny bit of your time and draw something for free? Work in the art industry long enough and you will. All of these people suffer from the same, pervasive thinking that plagues the commercial art industry today: that art somehow isn’t valuable. More and more people think because art is everywhere, creating it doesn’t take take much–if any–effort.

So what are the dangers of working with such people? Could it really be that bad? The short answer: yes. These people usually fall into one of four categories:

  1. The Friends in it for Fun
  2. The Guy with the Golden Idea
  3. The Charity Case
  4. The Soul-sucking Start-up

Let’s start with the first scenario.

1: They Do it for Fun, So Should You


A group of friends in some light-forsaken basement strewn with grape soda cans calls you up and ask if you could do some character concepts. You’re into games and it seems like a good match for your portfolio. Maybe you could work it in. Besides, what if it hits it big and you missed on an amazing opportunity to be noticed?

Hold on there, sparky. These guys aren’t professionals. If they don’t seem like serious clients, don’t expect them to take you seriously. The chances of their game getting finished while done in everybody’s spare time is so remote it’s not even funny. And if in the one-in-a-billion chance they do make it big, you better have something in writing or good luck getting any slice of the pie. You did it for free after all. Artist shouldn’t be concerned about trivial things like money anyway, otherwise, they aren’t “true” artists, or so they tell you.

Sorry, but you can’t eat for free. They will never consider your work to be work, and they will never want to pay you for it. What’s more–they’ll expect you to forgo paying work to do their project instead. I once had a man ask for months of full-time work, including regular online progress meetings and tight deadlines, all for nothing. Trust me, you don’t want to go there.

2: The Guy With the Golden Idea


A man claims to have a million-dollar idea. He can’t pay you now of course, but once things take off you’ll share the profits. All he needs is someone to bring his vision to life and before you know it you’ll both be sipping margaritas on some paradise island as you bask in sunshine and cash. Comic illustrator Mark Evanier calls this client the “unfinanced entrepreneur”.

“Unfinanced entrepreneurs don’t have any money–or, if they do, they’re not dumb enough to risk it on their own projects. They want you to assume the risk.”

Most big ideas are not so big. If someone isn’t already in the field he or she professes to be an expert in tread carefully. Actually just run the other way unless the person makes it worth your time. After all, if this guy’s idea is a guaranteed success surely he could front a little of his own money. Just hire a professional now and rake in the cash later. A solid investment, right? Yet he goes quiet the moment you suggest it, then stammers through some excuse why he can’t.

If his idea isn’t worth his own money, it’s not worth your time. Every moment you waste on his doomed project, you forgo a paying job. Even if someone like this is willing to pay, be sure you get a solid contract.

3: The Charity Case


Don’t get me wrong–I am not knocking on artists who give their time to charitable causes. After all, there are a few perfectly legitimate times when you may want to say yes to giving free work, but just because a business isn’t profitable doesn’t mean that the business is “non-profit”. If you are contacted by a third party like a marketing firm or ad agency working for a charity you are entitled to ask if they are doing their part of the work for free. If they are getting paid, they should have it in the budget to pay you too.

Also, if you don’t agree with their cause don’t do the work. You don’t want your name plastered by something that makes your skin crawl. If it’s a great cause and you want to do it, be sure you clearly outline what you are willing to do so that there are no surprises.

4: The Soul-sucking Start-up


They promise fame and fortune (to be paid by the next company of course) all for the very low price of: your soul. “Work for us”, they say. “Yes we can’t pay you but you’ll get ‘exposure’.” Before you know it, one job turns into another and then another. “Keep at it,” they tell you. “If you work for us surely Blizzard or Wizards of the Coast will notice you eventually and then you’ll hit it big.”

Don’t do it. You will become a slave. These companies are in the business of making money and they should know better. “Start-up” or not, if they want professional talent they need to be willing to pay for professional talent. If they don’t use professional talent they aren’t likely to stay in the business for long. If they promise to pay you at a later date you better have a solid contract that includes a phrase akin to: I’m getting paid regardless of the success of this project on this date.

Contracts are Your Friend

Don’t underestimate the importance of contracts. If someone squirms at having something in writing, RUN. Legitimate project managers and companies have no reason to be scared of a piece of paper. It’s people who throw out words like “trust” or “why bother with contracts” who plan to skip out on you. I strongly suggest you ask for 50% upfront and 50% once the project is complete. Most clients aren’t going to have a problem with this.

Advice for Non-professionals

Now I realize there are artists of all levels who read my blogs. Some of you may wonder if any of the above applies to you. Remember, you have the power. Even a talented amateur should charge something. If you want to take on some free projects to help boost your portfolio it’s ultimately up to you, but once you reach a certain level, every time you work for free you devalue the work of other artists and graphic designers.

In the words of Mark Evanier:

“You have a limited amount of creative energy. It’s finite, if only because there are only so many hours in a day. Value that creative energy. Because if you don’t, no one else will.”

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2 thoughts on “The Dangers of Working For Free

  1. If a cable guy can charge me $300 to show up at my place to install a socket point to fix my phone line then why can't artists with skills that are more refined charge more than "free"?

    Some artists get so stuck in their world that they can fall into poverty in a 1st world country. I honestly struggle to understand how that happens.

    I think artists need to integrate themselves into normal society. Do other jobs for money and life experience. Sometimes people need to experience the hardship and benefits of other jobs to realise things.

    There are as many sob stories as there are artists. It's a struggle that will never end unless people structure the industry. Art is seems celebrity based. Sometimes even controlled by power bloggers/cyberbullies.

    The best art related industry to work in is gambling. They pay well and on time and they don't ask for impossible or illegal things. It's like a real office job but you get to do art.

  2. I used to work as a web designer before I switched to illustration and I see the same thing in that field. The cheap labor and free templates that amateurs are creating dilute the market value of the skills of the professional in the eyes of the layman. It's the bane of the freelance web designer. The biggest way to combat this in both areas is to educate the potential employers and artists about the value of these skills. Thanks for your comment.

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