Should I work for free?

It’s an eternal issue in the creative industries, and a question that rarely has a simple answer. Here, we get to the bottom of when, if ever, it’s a good idea to work for free, what to watch out for, and what to bear in mind when deciding

Working for free is a thorny issue, and one most creatives will have grappled with. The question of when, and if, to do unpaid work isn’t going away either, as each generation of creatives balances the need to build a reputation while still making money. It’s very much a grey area as well, which means up-and-coming creatives run the risk of being taken advantage of.

To get to the bottom of whether doing work for free is ever a good idea, CR spoke with three people from across the creative industry – illustrator Hattie Stewart, Creative Mentor Network founding director Isabel Farchy, and Grand Matter founder and artist agent Dorcas Brown.

Creative Review: Is working for free ever a good idea?

Hattie Stewart: Generally, no, because it undervalues and undermines the entire creative community. You are providing skill and expertise and – depending on how long you’ve been working in the industry for – years of knowledge and experience. All of these things have monetary value that should be respected and paid for, just like any other job.

In the early stages of my career I most definitely did work for free in order to ‘advance’ it – thinking it would be helpful due to the age-old scam of exposure. With the value of hindsight, I can say that none of the things I pursued without monetary compensation ever advanced my career. If anything they made me more resentful and frustrated. I think you’re better off putting time into your own work, and finding financial outlets independently – an online shop (personal or independent), art/book/illustration fairs etc. There is always a way to fund your work in between waiting for/pursuing paid opportunities.

Isabel Farchy: I don’t feel like there’s a black and white answer to this. I don’t think anyone should work consistently for free. For example, I don’t think interning for free for long periods of time is helpful. If you’re doing one or two weeks of work experience, then I think you learn a lot about the culture of an organisation from that. But when you’re doing sustained periods of unpaid work experience, and you’re contributing a lot to the organisation, that’s problematic. It’s really nuanced, but I hear about young people working for free to up to six months, and I would strongly advise against that. There’s a hope that you’re going to meet someone who’ll recognise your talent, but probably you’ve learned everything you’re going to already.