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Is Working for Free Good for Your Art Career?

Is Working for Free Good for Your Art Career?

Graphic Courtesy of Joseph Robertson, Flickr

Thomas James | Escape from Illustration Island

Most professional Illustrators believe spec work to be a bad idea. And in most cases, they’re right.

More often than not, working on spec hurts your business and wastes your valuable time and talent as a creative professional.

However, there are times when it’s okay, or even beneficial, to work for free.

Before you start booing, here are 3 examples of situations where working for nothing might be a good thing:

1. Something You Believe In

It might be a charity you connect with. It might be an event, a good cause, or a political movement that you feel passionate about.

If you have an emotional attachment to a group or subject matter, you’ll probably gain a lot from contributing your services to help out. In cases like these, you can receive the type of fulfillment that no other project can provide, even without the promise of monetary compensation.

2. Exposure (For Real)

Most clients who ask for work on spec or for low pay promise incredible exposure, which is usually one of the first signs that you should run away. Fast.

In cases like these, “exposure” is a bad word just as much as the word “spec”.

However, there are situations where you might get a great deal of exposure to the right audience in exchange for your talents.

Some examples might be artwork for an industry-related trade show, a publication with wide circulation, etc.

These opportunities are few and far between, and they’re only worthwhile if you’re prominently and publicly credited as the creator of the work, but with some discrimination you can pick out the situations that can truly deliver the kind of exposure that could boost your career.

3. Personal Projects

I’ve written about the value of personal projects before, but it’s worth including in this list because you are essentially working for free when pursuing your own assignments.

Developing your own ideas can be seen as an investment in your portfolio, or even in a marketable product that you can use to provide an alternate means of income, which might otherwise be considered spec work if the one who profited were someone other than you. And, just like working on projects you believe in, the non-financial gains can be substantial.

If you’re going to work on spec, it might as well be for yourself.

Alternative Compensation

The basic idea of this article is to encourage you to open your mind to other forms of compensation besides money. To be sure, there are other reasons to work for “nothing” than are presented here, but hopefully this will give you a good start to thinking outside the bank.

Have you ever gained something besides money for working on a project? Please share your thoughts below.


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