Jessica Molina | Lettering, Illustration, & Design

Unfiltered Thoughts by Jessica Molina

Bitches Gotta Eat: Why Designers Shouldn't Work for Free

How many times as a designer have you been asked to work for free? Have you been wooed by the promise of experience, a good portfolio piece, social media shout-outs, or more work in the future? Or maybe you’ve had a friend or family member guilt you into creating something for them. This kind of thing is ubiquitous, and it’s a major problem in our industry.

It’s not always your acquaintance from high school or your aunt’s cousin’s brother asking for free work, either. Businesses are notorious for doing this, too—even ones who should know better. The trickiest version of this is a call for entries or contest to design something for them (also known as spec work). Usually this thing they want you to design also happens to take a significant chunk of time, like a logo, mural, or book cover.

My question to these people is: why? Why is this somehow viewed as an acceptable business transaction? Would you expect a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant, an architect, a plumber, a hair stylist, a massage therapist, or a chef to work for free? Hell no. So why are designers any different?

 
Would you expect a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant, an architect, a plumber, a hair stylist, a massage therapist, or a chef to work for free? Hell no. So why are designers any different?

So why the hell is this happening?

I have a theory, and I think this is a societal problem with the way creative jobs are viewed. My work has been described as “making things pretty” more times than I can count, and it gets pretty annoying. We teach children art in school, but then art is abandoned for rigorous state-mandated testing as we get older. Creativity isn’t necessarily viewed as valuable—certainly not like academics are. Even after many years of being an avid drawer as a kid, I didn’t really get the chance to explore my creative side again until I went to college to study architecture. We get the creativity beaten out of us; it’s thought of as fun and frivolous kid stuff, not the kind of thing that can pay the bills.

The reality is that we are extremely fortunate that these days, especially in the United States, that working in a creative field absolutely can and does pay the bills. We spend thousands of hours learning the technical skills to bring our designs to life and honing our craft, but we also learn soft skills like problem-solving, communication, time management, applying constructive criticism, and a thousand other things. All of these things have value, and they deserve payment.

 

But why does it matter if I work for free?

You may think it doesn't matter if you do free work because no one else will ever know, but the truth is, you are directly contributing to the problem. The more people out there think it's acceptable to offer "experience" or "exposure" as a form of payment, the more the industry as a whole becomes devalued. It's our responsibility to stand up for ourselves and demand fair compensation.

Feel free to be as polite or as catty as you want about this the next time you get one of these dreaded requests…but remember there’s an opportunity to educate someone about why it’s not cool to ask for free work.

Surely it’s okay sometimes?

I believe there are a few (VERY FEW) exceptions to this rule, as with any rule; first, charity and/or nonprofits for causes you really believe in. And second, your parents...because, come on, they raised you...what are you, some kind of ungrateful monster? You can do a free thing for them here and there.

In conclusion…

 

Resources/Articles

Should I Work for Free?
Website and flowchart by Jessica Hische

5ive Minute Logo
Parody website by Von Glitschka

No!Spec
Website by a collective of designers

#saynotospec
Video by advertising agency Zulu Alpha Kilo

Bitch Better Have My Money
Blog post by Lauren Hom