To work for free or not to work for free? That is the question, though it shouldn't even be a question in my opinion.
Some have argued that when you’re in the beginning stages of your career, it’s advantageous to work for free for big companies to build connections, good karma, and so on. Since I’m speaking on behalf of a consistently undervalued profession, I’m going to beg to differ. While connections and good karma will absolutely help you in your career, starting your hourly rate at $0 will put you at a significant disadvantage. I know what it’s like to start out as a creative: wide-eyed, hungry, and ready to pounce on any & all opportunities that come your way. However, working for free isn't the only way to gain exposure and build your portfolio.
Here are 5 other ways to get your work out there that don’t involve giving free artwork to a for-profit company:
1. Start a side project of your own! The Internet has made it so easy to self-publish nowadays, so come up with an idea and turn it into a blog, Youtube Channel, or Instagram account. I launched my passion project Daily Dishonesty in college, and it went viral and launched my career. Other favorite side projects include: Emergency Compliment by Megs Senk and Sad Animal Facts by Brooke Barker. Instead of spending hours making free art for clients that will make money from your generosity, try spending those hours developing something yourself! Sure, hours spent on a side project are also unpaid, but consider it an investment in yourself. I ended up receiving a 5-figure book deal for Daily Dishonesty, and it was all because I used my artwork to launch MY passion project, not someone else's [clothing line, start up, insert dream here]. Exposure received from your own project not only feels better than the "exposure" promised by a client, it tends to be more effective too.
2. Do a collaboration with another artist and cross-promote! Collaborate with a creative friend instead! Use your skills to make something awesome and portfolio-worthy, and share the work with both of your audiences. It can be easy to see other creatives as competition, but instead we should see them as community. Some favorite artist collaborations I’ve seen are Mean Trills by letterers Shauna Panczyszyn & Danielle Evans and Wants For Sale by creative power couple Justin & Christine Gignac.
3. Donate your creative skills to a charity or cause you believe in! Think of it as a donation to a cause you support. The cool thing about working for a non-profit is that often times they will give you full creative control over the project, which is really rare for client work. This will allow you to produce work that is 100% you. Make sure you clearly state your working terms though; the 6 hours you intended to spend on a poster could double if the client is picky with revisions or tries to squeeze more artwork out of you. I’d recommend starting with offering a flyer or social media graphic and putting clear boundaries on the number of revisions (if any- it is a donation after all) and scope of the project.
4. Make a good old-fashioned promotional piece and mail it to agencies you want to work with. A quick Google search can show you the names of art directors and addresses of agencies and design studios, so make some eye-candy and send it their way. You never know when someone might have a project and remember you. When I used to work as an art director at BBDO in New York, we’d receive cool mailers all the time. A personal favorite that I still remember seeing was an oversized zine from Mike Perry Studio, who went on to do work for Coca-Cola, Rayban, and GQ. That was 3 years ago, and I was boozing pretty heavily at the time (lol thanks advertising industry), so if that isn’t a testament to the impact of a good old-fashioned promo piece, I don’t know what is.
5. Consistently post your work and process to Instagram, Facebook, etc. Building a following on social media is a key way to get hired for paid projects. I started posting my artwork consistently in late 2013 and slowly grew my audience to 7,000 followers by early 2015. I kept posting and engaging with my audience, and 18 months later, I now have 68,000 followers. When a potential client sees my Instagram, they don't just see 68,000 followers; they see 68,000 vouches for my work. The spike happened because of new exposure on popular feature accounts and various online press. Don’t worry about the number of followers you have or don’t have; If you keep posting good work, it’ll grow slowly and steadily over time!
My fellow creatives: we are just as (if not more) responsible for raising the bar for fair pay as clients are. There's absolutely a difference between a company honestly having a small budget and them trying to get quality work for cheap, and it's our responsibility to not be taken advantage of. We can't just say, "F**k you pay me!" and expect things to change. We need to let our actions speak louder than our words and stop accepting low project fees.
At the end of the day, it's at the artist's discretion whether or not to accept the project based on a number of subjective factors, and all I'm trying to say is that exposure and/or minimum wage shouldn't be acceptable to us, even at a fairly junior level. If you follow my tips above, there's no reason why you'd ever need to give away your artwork for "exposure". You are so much more capable than you think you are. Don't let anyone try to convince you otherwise.
Love and Hot Cheetos,