Working for free

Published:  September 3, 2012
Working for free

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:

  1. If the studio is getting paid for the work you are doing for them, you should get paid too,
  2. Of the studio can afford to run a business and employ paid staff, you should get paid too,
  3. If the studio can do great, sometimes award-winning work and get paid for it by clients, you deserve to get paid too, and
  4. 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.

For and against working 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.

Antonopoulos’ article was first published on TANK’s blog.
Cruickshank’s article was first published on his blog.

14 Responses

  1. Rachel

    I’m a designer with about 6 years under my belt, now. I was still doing the odd job, or an internship, for free, up to about 2 years ago. I can plainly say that although some of those experiences were in great studios, (because not all were, some where quite obviously a waste of time) there have never been any rewards to reap from those experiences. An intern is too often seen as a slight burden, and you are not given the time or invested in the way an employee would be.
    But I do work for free for myself. I have worked on many self-initiated projects outside of my work over the years, for my own fulfillment, practice, challenge and opportunity. It is from these projects that doors have opened, and people have taken notice.
    So agreed with Jim – if you are going to do an internship, don’t do it unpaid. And agreed with Tim – don’t let money restrict you, it shouldn’t cap your passion if it is something you want to do. Nothing contrary to it at all :P

    • Thanks Rachel! I am very much against doing an internship without reward. I’m very fortunate that the two internships I have had have been beyond rewarding. I also agree with Jim and am worried for our students and graduates, the last thing we need is more people getting burnt by the industry.

      Thanks again for reading.

  2. I think it’s completely dismissive to state that one should “Never work for free”. Of course it depends on where an individual is in their career journey but every member of staff at my workplace (boutique publishing business) including myself were first interns before they were full-time employees. Many small studios simply do not have the funds to make hires and yet have a huge array of intensely creative and progressive ideas and concepts in which they work on which would provide a wealth of experience for a graduate. It’s unrealistic to expect to paid by such a businesses from the get-go. In publishing there is a real culture of ‘paying your dues’ and proving your commitment, passion and ability before you are hired, as every hire is a big financial risk. We have many interns who are not offered employment because they didn’t demonstrate those abilities but they still got a reference and gained the experience. If an intern has ability they will be given responsibilities, end of story. It’s the ones that aren’t particularly useful or talented that do become a burden and are not given much of importance to work on and are at risk of becoming ‘professional interns’.
    The start of your career is when you can make these sacrifices, do not overestimate your own abilities early on. It’s not an endearing quality in a would-be employee. I think as an intern you really get what you put in. If you demand to be paid from the very start, there are many unique creative opportunities I feel you will miss out on. Just my two cents!

  3. William Hund

    If you are a student or graduate looking for design experience a good way to get some is to volunteer your time organising design events and conferences. Preferably non-profit. It will put you in contact with other people in industry, they will see your work, and you get free tickets.

    When you meet people at a design event you can introduce yourself as an organiser. It gives you a context to talk to people that doesn’t feel too self serving. People will also assume because you are an organiser that you are a generally competent and have initiative, which is the edge you need to get a job. This works.

    Graduates should understand that hiring graduates is very expensive and risky for employers, especially for smaller agencies. A graduate needs to be trained, which lowers other employees productivity. There aren’t many signals that an employer can rely on when choosing someone to hire. Graduates cannot prove they can work in a team or in the context of an agency, nor that they have acquired the tacit knowledge required to be a productive designer. Experienced designers demonstrate this easily, which is why employers prefer them despite higher salary requirements.

    Volunteering for events is a great signal to employers that a person is organised and has initiative, that coupled with a good portfolio should put you at the top of the pile of resumes.

  4. Glenn

    I agree that all commercial “opportunities” should be compensated. If no money is on the table then is should include something of equal value such as dedicated training or mentoring.

    I spend about a third to a half of my time working for free. I work on projects I would rather be working on rather than stuff someone needs to pay to get done.

    This allows me to direct my own work and learn skills I want to learn. I am also helping to save the world… :-)

  5. Kurt

    I graduated from a Graphic Design course earlier this year and am finding it impossible to find work. I didn’t look for work while I was studying as it was full time and very full on.
    Now I’m looking for work and every job I come across they want someone with experience. I don’t know how I can get the experience if I don’t get given the opportunity ?
    I’ve applied for so many full time, part time, casual jobs and internships and have even offered my services for free just to get the experience. Not even then can I find anything.
    I have a good folio, cover letter, resume etc, and also am a member of a couple of design employment agencies.
    I’d love to attend design festivals/functions etc but don’t have the money.

    Does anybody have any tips for this graduate to get his foot in the door? Does anybody know any places looking for graduates? It’s very demotivating when you get the rejection email or nothing at all, time and time again.

    • Heya Kurt,
      Having recently graduated myself (end of last year) and now working full time there are a few observations I have made that might help. First of all dont let ‘not enough money’ stop you from going to design events. Put some money aside, or look at different events. You dont have to go to (and wont get a job from) Semi-P or AgIdeas, there are other options. Sex, Drugs & Helvetica is pretty cheap and you are more likely to meet people in the industry there. Most of the people going will be very approchable.

      There are a bunch of free events too, like AGDA After Hours (follow them on twitter @AGDAAfterHours) they tweet about an event up to about a day before its on, very spur of the moment casual drinks. AGDA also puts on a bunch of cheaper events like Question Time and First 5 Out.

      Other than that, follow us on twitter. Find designers and studios and general creative people and just chat to them on twitter. No one will tell you to go away, they are all super nice and love talking about their craft. Just dont follow that “Some Jerk” guy…

      Hope that helps!

      Oh and don’t give up.

    • Dion Callanan

      Hi Kurt. I am a working graphic designer with twenty years in the industry. Competition has grown greater within this field, but I started by offering my mind for nothing. A great way to break into this industry, is to design something for an existing company that you want to work for…and simply send it too them…This shows that…. 1. you have initiative 2. You know something about their clients. 3. That you can think…
      the real message is what you create isn’t as important, as the meaning behind it.

      Another thing to do….is think big. Dont worry whether a solution can be achieved. Its your mind that will get you a job.
      Not simply computer skills.

      Sketches of an idea…..will sell you betta (:

      Good luck

  6. I completely understand where Tim is coming from – there are certainly a huge amount of studios using and abusing graduates for free work, but experience in the industry before even leaving uni is a huge advantage! I’m still amazed to hear about many degrees/courses not having it built into their curriculum.

    I was lucky enough to get some paid work while studying – it was actually a UWS funded program (5 weeks). I managed to get three of those during my degree, and did a further three lots of work experience (one was the requirement to complete the degree). This was a huge advantage to me when looking for work (having 6x times the experience of any other graduate) and I would not hesitate to do the same again. At the end of the day it was only maybe three weeks in total that I worked unpaid, over the space of a four year degree that is nothing.

    Kurt – the key is networking. I know it sounds lame and repeative, but it’s amazing how much work you can find when you know the right people. Maybe try contacting small studios that are happy to just meet with you for a coffee and give you advice, rather than spinning the ‘give me a job’ kind of email. Always worth a shot! And most importantly, never give up.

  7. Ray

    I really can’t afford to work for free, how the hell did you make it work Tim

  8. Ray

    How the hell did you do it? work for free?I can’t afford it

  9. Fair points made on both sides. I’ve done paid and unpaid before landing a full-time gig. I think in an ideal world we’d all get paid for interning but the reality is that the industry at the bottom level is incredibly competitive – if you don’t take the unpaid internship someone who wants it more will.


  10. Michael Flegg

    I have graduated from a vary of courses run through the TAFE system, last year I decided i should expand with something with more credit – so I started my degree in Film and TV (expanding my knowledge base). I’m still finding it a struggle to find work with the experience that I have. Some ppl in business explain that I don’t have much experience but after working in the field since 2007 I really would love to find a job that would pay…


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