Working for exposure / working for free

Like any freelancer I get occasionally asked (a few times per month) to work for free. In this blog post I will write about a few of my experiences as well as some experiences of other creatives.

Oh the joy, when you have a new request for an assignment. The best feeling, always. That’s why it can be really disappointing when you read the following, common line: “Sorry, but we don’t have any budget…”.

Aaah, crap.

I have this rule: if the client is making money with my work, then so should I.
Furthermore I have the rule that I only work for free when I have enough assignments to pay my bills. Otherwise: no free work. Like any other human being I have bills to pay. It’s not like creative people don’t need housing or food 😉

Don’t get me wrong, there are times it’s okay to work for free. But when?

Working for free

There are several scenarios when working for free is an option. The best test ever made (in my honest opinion) is this flowchart ‘Should I Work For Free’ by Jessica Hische.

Should I Work for Free by Jessica Hische
Should I Work for Free by Jessica Hische

A thing to keep in mind, when you are working for free, is that you’re creating something without anything in return.
As soon as you expect to get something in return (even exposure) you might get disappointed. Does the thought of getting nothing in return makes you feel crap? Then don’t even start with the project.

Non-profit organisations
As you may have seen above in the flowchart is working for a non-profit organisations a good way to create a portfolio, and you get to learn a lot. But always make sure you have in writing what you’re going to do for them, how many hours max you’re going to spend on it, before you get tangled up in a web of months of working for free with an endless road of correction rounds and uncertainty.
Trust me: been there, done that 🙂

Working for free to create a portfolio
If you’re just starting out, you can get tempted to do work for free just for the sake of having something to show for in your portfolio.
The big downside of this is that once you have worked for free, it’s a tough thing to ask money next time.

There are other ways to fill a portfolio and get the assignments that suit you as a creative: create your own assignment-jobs. This means you work on self-initiated assignments. It doesn’t have to be real, it has to be good.

A lot of creatives that are just starting out think it’s better to show work you’ve done for an actual client (even if it’s crap work) than work that is good but self-initiated. It’s just not true: your work has to be good and has to suit the job. Whether someone else paid you for it, is less relevant.
Most of my jobs come from my self-initiated work. I barely show assignments I did for clients in my portfolio or on my social media, and still, I get the jobs that suit me. Why? Because my free work shows exactly what I can do and people hire me for that.

So, you want to create editorial illustrations for magazines? Instead of offering to work for free, take an article of which you feel could use some great illustrations. Put it into your portfolio and tell prospective clients it’s self-initiated.

working for free

A creative profession is a job, not a hobby
You see a lot of illustrations in magazines these days. A lot more than a few years ago! This is an amazing thing. Being an illustrator has become a dream job.

With this trend another aspect steps forward: a lot of hobby-illustrators/hobby-creatives like to give their work away for free. One of the reasons for this is because they usually have another job to pay the bills.
Long story short: this is killing for professional creatives that actually have to pay their bills with their creativity.

It’s good to realise that when you’re giving away your work for free, you’re immediately making it harder for the ones that have to live from it.

The hobbyist vs the professional
A lot of people can make a good drawing but that doesn’t make them an illustrator.
As a professional illustrator (or creative) you earned the right to be confident about your skills, because being an illustrator goes beyond having the ability ‘to draw a good drawing’.
You have to be able to communicate a message in an image and you have to be able to listen to a client, brainstorm and come up with an idea and to deliver that image in a professional way. It’s not something everyone can do. Be proud!


Imagine you’re getting an email from a company that creates stationery. They would love an illustration for a postcard but (and you know this one): they don’t have budget to pay you. First, they are making money of your work so you can set up a royalty agreement (a percentage of the sales profit goes to you), or you can do a swap. “How about you give me a year supply of sketchbooks for one illustration (depending on the value of said sketchbooks)?”
This way you can make a trade.

Is swapping a solid idea at all times?
Not always. Make sure you have the deal in writing. I once made a swap with someone assuming she would hold up her end of the deal but she didn’t. I ended up with, well, almost nothing, although I worked five hours creating illustrations for her. Big fail, never again.

The best swap I ever made
In 2008 I had an accident in which I dislocated my knee. In a reflex I pushed it back. Bad idea.
I ripped my knee muscles and my knee cab broke. It was a mess. Several doctors told me I would be dependant on walking with crotches the rest of my life as no surgery or physical therapy could fix it.

But there was one physical therapist that liked a challenge. I would make his logo, website, flyers, stickers, etc. in exchange for therapy. It took almost two years but after that I could properly walk again. And he had the most fancy branding and shiny promotional items ever.

I do realise he gave me something much bigger than I gave him. I’m still grateful, everyday.

Getting exposure

Have you met them yet? The people that offer you exposure. It means you create a particular thing and they will mention you when the work gets published. Fingers crossed you get new assignments out of it!

The idea of paying in exposure is a bit strange: an illustrator/creative is at all times allowed to put their name on the work they produced. So it’s not like the client is handing you a gift when they offer you to put your name on the work.

Is exposure working though?
Firstly, you have to know what you would like to get out of it. In most cases this will be ‘clients that do want to pay’, so you can earn back the time you invested in the exposure-assignment.

In general we can state that mainly the target group of your exposure-client is looking at the work you did. Is this where you will find your new clients? Alrighty then, it might be worth it. But aren’t they amongst this target group, it’s basically a waste of time (thus money).
In short, the biggest shot of reaching that next client over an exposure-piece, is with B2B-companies, or C2C’s.

I’m going to state the obvious here but please note you can’t buy groceries with the exposure you got from a client. Food > exposure.exposure for illustrators

Repeated exposure
People only will remember your name if it’s repeated time after time after time. Being mentioned once or twice just doesn’t do it. A human being needs the same input time and time again before it remembers it. This is one of the reasons you get to see the same commercials over and over again on TV and Youtube.

My experience proves this. I worked for two years already for Flow Magazine, before the readers started to take note of my existence as an illustrator. My work had been published at least a dozen times in the biggest magazine of the Netherlands before the penny dropped.
Luckily, I got paid for every assignment, otherwise I would have gone broke.

When to work for exposure
Like mentioned above and said in Jessica Hische’s flowchart, you can work for non-profit organisations in exchange for name-dropping.
For me it’s important I approve of the cause I’m working for, and I want to enjoy working on it. I also need enough paying jobs so I can pay my rent and food.

Red flag
If you get contacted by a big organisation of which you know they have plenty of money but wants you to work for free for them, because “OMG you should be so honoured we’re willing to work with you”. you should question their moral considerations.
In short, this means they don’t value your work enough to pay for it. Or they’re too spoiled with artist that work for free. This is never a good starting point to work with someone.

Commercial companies/organisations/magazines often have a lot of money. The thing is that they often rather not spend it on creatives, as creative people are crazy enough to do it for free. Why pay for something if you can get it for free, right?

Better ways of exposure
An interview or feature in a magazine or popular magazines is a lot better than creating something with your name mentioned really small.
In a personal piece about you and your work the spotlight is much more on you as a creator, which results more easily in a paid assignment.


Pitches or spec work

Almost every illustrator has been asked one time or another to get involved in a pitch (or spec work). Although a pitch in general means a short presentation of your work, has it a completely different meaning in the creative world.

You get an assignment which costs you a lot of time most of the time, alongside several other creatives. All doing free work for the same assignment, all in the hopes of getting the job and getting paid.

Usually only one creative gets the job, thus the money. The others go home with empty pockets.

Determine for yourself how much time a pitch (or spec work) costs you and what it will mean for you when you get the job.

There are clients that pay every contestant in a pitch. This is fair (and great)!
Don’t be afraid to ask the client if there’s any reimbursement of expenses.

Want to read more about spec work? Here you go.


Why you need to get paid properly as a creative

If you just frowned while reading this title, you’re doing well. It’s silly I even have to explain. The answer is: because you do a good job, make money for clients and you should be compensated for that.

As soon as you’re confident enough, know you do a good job and ask for professional rates, the client will take you seriously as well.
Look at the purchases you make yourself: people are rating products that are more expensive to be of a better quality, then products that are way cheaper.
In most cases you can state: the more you pay, the better quality you get.
So if you’re working for free, or little money, you’re basically saying: I’m not good enough so I’m doing it for free/little money.

And please know: it’s easier to ask too much money and go down a bit, then to ask very little money and go up.

Professionalism is an attitude
Illustrator Bjorn Nelissen: “Professionalism is an attitude and some kind of maturity. When you notice your work has value to someone else, the professional attitude will follow. If that’s not the case, then illustration is your hobby. Nothing wrong with that. But if you want to make money with illustration, it’s absolutely necessary to gain a professional attitude, if you want to be able to provide for yourself.
Does this mean you always need to get paid as an illustrator? Well, yeah, actually it does! But the way in which you get paid, may vary. If you want to contribute to this one really good charity and make a banner for them, your reward is helping out a good cause. And then of course you make sure your name is visibly on the banner, because you’re not stupid, right?”

Working for free is not a must

If it doesn’t feel right to work for free, then by all means don’t do it. You don’t have to feel guilty when you say no to a client.
I do about one job a year for free. Sometimes it’s a bigger project, sometimes it’s small. I do it because I like it and I can do something good for someone. Purely selfish, yes. And I feel good about that.

How I spend my time, is my business. And it’s your business how you spend your time. Nobody has a say in that but you.

Invest in good clients

Maybe a client asks you to do something for free (or very little money). It doesn’t hurt to suggest a counter offer. What they offer you is just their starting-bid and not their end-bid. In most cases there is plenty of room to negotiate. Even more so: most clients expect you to negotiate! In my experience there’s more than they first show for. So, ask.
If they don’t or can’t raise the prices, then it’s fine to say no. You’re not obligated to take on every project, certainly when it doesn’t feel right.

My advice is to focus on the clients that do want to pay your for your work. The chance they value your work and the love your put into a project is much greater. From my experience I can tell you there are plenty of clients that have love for creative work and illustrations, and they genuinely understand the illustrator’s perspective. So be on the look out for them! It might take some searching, but they’re out there.

Freelancing is where you are the one directing how to spend your time. Make it so you enjoy it thoroughly!


I hope you enjoyed reading my blog and if you know someone who could use some help with these things, please send a link to them!

Marloes De Vries

Unfortunately I can’t answer questions personally I get per email regarding my blog posts due to lack of time. I try to help wherever I can, that’s why I started this blog. Do feel free to ask your questions below in the comments section! It might help others as well.









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