7 Reasons Why Creatives Should Never Work for Free

Written by Wholegrain Team - August 12, 2014

The creative industry is the fastest growing sector in the UK economy. And with good reason. Today, people are striving for a better work–life balance. They want to spend their working hours on projects they love, something they’re intensely passionate about.

The UK is recognised as one of the world’s leading creative economies, so getting a toe in the door here offers the opportunity to build a job and create your own income while using your creativity and passion.

But there’s one issue that most creatives will face at some point in their working lives. Whether you’re a creative agency or a freelancer, it’s almost inevitable that you will be asked to work for free.

Because while people wouldn’t dream of going to the supermarket, filling their trolleys with food then asking to leave the store without paying, they seem to think asking for a 100% discount from a web designer, writer, photographer, or any other creative professional, is perfectly OK.

This request is usually accompanied by a reason, such as ‘it’ll look amazing on your portfolio’, ‘but they’ll be lots of paid work further down the line’, or, my personal favourite, ‘but it won’t take you long’.

So, for those of you wondering whether you should be jumping at the chance to work for £0, here are 7 reasons why you should say no.

1. It Devalues Your Time and Abilities

Perhaps the key argument against working for free is that it devalues your work. And not just your work, but that of all your competitors too. Because why should clients pay for a project, whether a 500-word blog post, a photography commission, or a new website, when somebody else will do it for nothing?

And it’s not just your talents you’re devaluing, it’s your time too. As the saying goes, time is money. So if you’re working for nothing what value are you assigning to your time? And what value do you think your client gives to your time? That’s right – nothing.

2. You May Not Be Able to Give it Adequate Time

Most creatives have several jobs on the go at once. So what happens if you have paid work alongside unpaid work? Naturally, you will give precedence to the paid work, because those clients are paying you to work for them.

Over time, the quality of your unpaid project is likely to suffer because you are focusing your time elsewhere, meaning that the project you took on to look great on your portfolio may end up as something you’re not entirely proud of.

3. You Could Be Doing Something More Productive with Your Time

Some creatives may decide to take on an unpaid project when there is a lull in their own work – which can happen in this industry – or if they’re just starting out and want to build up a portfolio.

However, this is often time that you may be able to use more productively elsewhere, whether doing your accounts, taking care of admin tasks, or pitching at prospective clients trying to build a solid client base who will actually pay for your talents.

4. You’ve Set Your Hourly Rate to £0

If you agree to take on unpaid work, you’re suggesting to that client that it’s perfectly OK for your working relationship to continue along the same lines, i.e. working for zilch. Which is going to make it rather tricky when you try to negotiate a fair price for a future project – because why should they pay when they’re already benefitting from the work of a talented, dedicated creative, with no strings attached?

And when you think about it, accepting an unpaid commission is actually working for negative money – unless your client is prepared to pay for your food, refreshments and overheads.

5. You Can’t Quantify or Cash Exposure

Probably the biggest argument you’ll face for accepting unpaid work is that it will look great on your portfolio and you’ll earn some good exposure from it. So let’s look at that for a moment.

Firstly, how do you quantify exposure? When you’re paid in cash, you know what your project has earned, but how do you know when you’ve received sufficient compensation in the form of exposure? Some good reviews? A boost in visits to your website?

And how are you benefitting from that? Will you earn more unpaid work? Can you cash that exposure to pay your rent, household bills and to feed your family? I don’t think your mortgage provider will be especially happy if you ask to pay in ‘exposure’.

6. Your Client May Not Value the Project

If your client wants you to complete a project for free it may be an indication that they see the project as having less value than some of their other projects.

This could be extremely frustrating if you took the job to build up your portfolio, because it may be months before your project launches leaving you without anything to show prospective clients for some time.

7. It’s Less Likely to Have Clearly Defined Boundaries

The final reason for avoiding unpaid jobs is that they are far less likely to have clearly defined boundaries. When a project is being conceived, one of the first things to determine is its budget, which then determines the amount of hours, people, equipment, etc. needed to work on it. But if it has no budget, how can it have proper boundaries?

You may just find that because your time doesn’t have a monetary value for your client, they may start to expect more and more of it, leading these little unpaid projects to bloom into huge timewasters. But once you’ve set a precedent, it can be quite tricky explaining to your client that you don’t have enough time to finish it.

Should You ever Work for Free?

Working in a creative profession is essentially just like working in any other profession. You wouldn’t expect an electrician to fix your wiring without paying, neither would you expect a tailor to take up your jeans without paying, so you should never take on a creative project without expecting payment either.

Or should you?

There are exceptions to every rule, and this is no different. As long as you are clear about the boundaries of the work before you begin and stick to your guns, you may wish to consider accepting unpaid work for the following:

  • Close friends and family, although watch out for the freeloaders and emotional guilt-trips – remember you do have bills to pay.
  • Volunteering or charity work. Volunteering to do some work for a charity can be as satisfying as fundraising and, if you choose carefully, you may get the opportunity to work on something you’re particularly passionate about.
  • Work that could bring you real exposure. When you work as a creative professional, you need to continually build your reputation and brand, so you may decide to pitch an unpaid job, such as a guest post on a reputable blog with lots of followers, in order to create some exposure for your brand. And that’s OK – as long as it’s on your terms and you’ve taken a calculated risk for your benefit.

In case you’re ever uncertain, this wonderful graphic by Jessica Hische should help you to decide.


As a rule, we firmly believe that creative professionals should never work for free, aside from the few exceptions we’ve listed above (and even then, the work should be on your terms).

Do you agree with our reasons? Perhaps you have some other reasons you’d like to share? Or can you think of any other situations where you think it’s OK to work for free? We’d love to hear your thoughts.