Exposure or Exploitation? Is Working for Free as a Creative Professional Worth It?

Stylish woman poses as attention is paid to her. illustrated by Lo Harris
Illustration by Lo Harris. See more of my work here.

Early in your creative career, you may get asked to work for free in exchange for “exposure.” Should you do it? Is it worth it? 

I'm not going to tell you never to work for exposure. However, if you choose to, I would say do so sparingly, strategically, and with very specific intentions.

The decision to work for “exposure” is one you’ll probably need to make on a case-by-case basis. However, that decision will be easier if you have some parameters in place. For example, you could choose to only work for free if it’s for a good cause or only for professional leverage. Or you could simply set a limit on how much you will work for free each quarter or each year. 

If you’re not yet a well-established artist you may think you should accept any and every offer, even unpaid opportunities. But before you say yes, ask yourself these five questions. 

Will accepting this offer add anything new to your portfolio?

If the job you’ve been offered gives you a chance to showcase a skillset you haven’t been able to use in the past, this gig could help you diversify your portfolio. And this could help you land more of the jobs you really want.

Could this gig open the door to more lucrative opportunities in the near future? Maybe this job will help you connect with the contacts you need to land the client of your dreams.  

On the other hand, if you think doing this job is only going to get you stuck in a rut of working for free, you may want to reconsider. 


Does this opportunity really have to be free?

Don’t be afraid to negotiate. The client hiring you may not be able to pay what you deserve, but perhaps they can pay something! Don’t shy away from asking the client if they could possibly offer a small token of their appreciation and give you some monetary compensation even if it’s below market rate. 

Is this for a cause that you care about? 

Is this job in support of women’s rights, the Black Lives Matter movement, or the LGBTQ+ community? Maybe the work will help people experiencing homelessness or raise awareness about a disease that doesn’t get enough funding dollars. Perhaps you could consider doing this job for free as a moral investment. If this gig is for a non-profit organization or in support of a cause that you’re passionate about this could be an opportunity for you to show that art can be activism. 

On the other hand, if this job is for a company that has questionable practices or has values that don’t align with yours, you should probably skip this gig whether or not you’re getting paid.

Is this really exposure? 

Let's face it, a simple tag on social media is not going to cut it these days. Find out exactly how the client is going to use this opportunity to amplify your art. And remember to be strategic. Figure out how you can use the opportunity to elevate your personal brand too. 

Can you do this job on your own terms? 

If the client isn’t paying you what your work is worth – or isn’t paying you at all – you should be able to do this job on your own terms. So set your terms and be sure they’re agreed upon before you accept the opportunity. Get clear on the scope of work, the deliverables, and the deadlines. And have some boundaries in place regarding communication. They should not be blowing up your phone at night and on the weekends when they’re not even helping you pay the bill. 

How do you decide if you will work for free or not? 

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lo harris poses with her choice illustration markers

Lo Harris is an NYC-based artist, educator and children’s book illustrator who champions vibrance, confidence and joy.

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