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Should you work for free? Below are two contrasting opinions about working for free within the creative industry.
Looking for work experience? A note on exploitation
Words: Jim Antonopoulos, executive creative director at TANK Branding
We get a real kick out of meeting students and mentoring graduates. We’re always out there providing advice and feedback, and giving our time, so the younger, less experienced people in our industry have valid, current and professional information to help them forge a career in design, advertising, branding or whatever field they choose to pursue.
From time to time we come across graduates who have been offered or just completed ‘work placement’ or ‘work experience’ or an ‘internship’ and often they are doing it for free. It shocks me that there are creative agencies out there today that are exploiting students and young graduates by offering work placement completely unpaid or for a ‘nominal fee’.
To have someone work for you and not pay them, at the very least, a minimum legal wage is exploitation. Our industry is filled with an outpouring of graduates each year vying for a very small number of positions. They are constantly told that ‘experience’ is what they need to ‘get a foot in the door’.
Most of these people go through their studies idolising some creative agencies for the work they do and for their thinking and philosophy on design and creativity. At the same time, our industry has businesses that exploit this idolisation of their own work and invite graduates to work for them for free under the guise of work experience or internship.
If you are a student, graduate or anyone considering doing unpaid work placement, here are four things I think you should consider when someone offers you an unpaid work placement/internship/experience:
- If the studio is getting paid for the work you are doing for them, you should get paid too,
- Of the studio can afford to run a business and employ paid staff, you should get paid too,
- If the studio can do great, sometimes award-winning work and get paid for it by clients, you deserve to get paid too, and
- If their business model leverages unpaid labour to make a profit, their business is built on invalid foundations.
It’s simple. Never work for free.
Why I work for free (and why you should too)
Words: Tim Cruickshank, junior designer, Qualia Creative
First of all, I strongly believe that if you let money drive your decisions and actions in this industry, then you don’t belong… or I don’t belong. Earlier this year, I took on an unpaid internship at The Hungry Workshop. Don’t be hating on them for taking me on; I’m sure that they have thought about the possible ridicule they might get for having an unpaid intern (they have since implemented a paid intern program at their studio), but the only other choice at the time was for them to turn me away directly. So… thanks for not doing that guys. I worked for them because I wanted to and to hell with the money.
I’m not saying I don’t want to get paid, ever. I’m saying that I’d do the work with or without pay regardless, because it’s what I want to do. What I want to do has nothing to do with my ability to live while doing it. If you want something badly enough, you will find a way to have it. I was working four to five jobs every week, so that I could keep doing what I want. I had two internships (one paid), two to three freelance gigs a week and a weekend retail job. All this effort allowed me to work those few days a week doing something that no other graduate got to do. I got to have fun, use cool equipment, gained great experience and, most importantly, I was able to have input.
The biggest fear I had after graduating was not being able to have input. I refused to work for a large studio or agency because I knew my opinion and ideas wouldn’t be recognised. It’s not that I think I’m some great designer or can think of the best ideas, I just think that all ideas deserve a chance.
So my message is: work for free, always work for free. By that, I mean don’t think about the money. It will come. It’s there, but don’t think about it. The moment you stop working because you want to and start working because you need to, your work won’t be the same. It won’t have that love in it, and it won’t have emotion and connection.
I wouldn’t be in the position I am today (working at a great design studio in the city), if it weren’t for the time I spent putting in the hard work. Because I decided to do it the hard way, I now have new lifelong friends, more contacts in the industry than I could have wished for and a stable job with a promising future.
Illustration by Eirian Chapman.