As someone working in a creative industry, it just about sets me on fire to know that day after day, designers and other creative professionals are exploited without shame. For some reason, creative work is not valued among non-creatives, and it is accepted as totally reasonable to them to ask for free services. Case in point below:
< Insert string of angry expletives here. > The people posting the ad had enough money to buy a new construction home in a wealthy area of Chicago. They have a budget for an entire house full of furnishings in the “modern luxe style” but ZERO for the professional help they want to put it all together? Instead, they are preying on students who need portfolio projects in exchange for real compensation for their work. Sorry, but no thanks! An experienced designer would charge tens of thousands of dollars in time alone for the work it would take to handle a project of this scale. 4,000 square feet is HUGE, and specifying furniture, accessories and logistics takes weeks of detail oriented work!
I urge anyone who sees this type of ad who is need of building their portfolio to stop and think about what they are doing. People who ask for free services usually get them because there is always someone wiling to do the job. But when you agree to work for free, you perpetuate the culture of creative exploitation, and actually make it harder for others to be fairly compensated.
Creatives, do not undervalue yourself! The commercialization of the internet has created a world of writers who are asked to create click bait content for bigger websites in exchange for exposure. Anyone with a laptop and a few software programs can pose as a graphic designer. And while it’s nice that technology has made it easier for more people to pursue their passions, the competition has gotten out of control. It’s tempting to take a job that promises to build your portfolio, but you do NOT want to work for people who do not value you and the work you do. Would you ever go to the dentist and ask for a free root canal? Would you dare to tell your nanny that she is lucky to wipe your kid’s butt in exchange for the experience? NO. You worked hard to get your education and training, why are you going to give it away? I know you have bills to pay, but taking on a commitment to someone who doesn’t care about your bills means you have less time to find work for someone who does.
When people agree to work for “experience”, they are sending out the message that asking for free creative services is acceptable. Professionals who have invested years and money into their educations, equipment, and reputation are often overlooked by those in favor of someone with less experience who can do “the same job for less”. I encountered this when planning a wedding and lamenting over the costs. I now am so happy I decided to hire a professional photographer to document my day – she was worth every penny!
But I need to build my portfolio!
I totally understand that everyone has to start from somewhere, and that place is usually the bottom. But there are other ways to develop a body of work that you’d be proud to show other people without totally screwing yourself financially, and stripping yourself of personal integrity. For instance, find someone you know who has something you want, and offer a trade. My good friend is a working professional photographer who has traded services with other creatives in order to build her portfolio in the direction she wants to grow. The difference with a barter is that you initiate the trade, you set the terms, and you gain something that you value and otherwise would have to pay for.
Another option is to take (or keep) a job that’s not really what you want, and create the work you want to show on the side. This takes a real commitment to your craft, whatever that might be. Another friend of mine started a natural beauty line in her kitchen. Six years later still runs it our of her apartment, all in her off-hours while working a day job. Every day she gets closer to making it her full time job, but for now it is her passion and her patience is paying off.
If you have a passion for something, you will find a way to bring it into your life. You do not need anyone to tell you they are helping you by letting you work for free.
To those new homeowners, you get (and deserve) what you pay for. When you seek out an inexperienced college student to handle an important and life changing project, you will likely get student quality work – even if that person is talented. Many interior design students may work while in school, but entry level positions usually entail working in a resource library tucked far out of sight of any client. Their interaction with contractors and vendors are limited at best. When you are not willing to pay a professional, you are also sending out the message that you are not seeking someone with high standards for professionalism, integrity, and accountability. You are saying you don’t place a value on the experience of the designer who has solved countless problems in the real world, and you don’t care whether or not they have an extensive network of other contacts built up over years in the industry. And that’s a huge mistake. And you deserve to make it if you’re asking someone to do valuable work for free.
My views on this issue are nothing nobody’s heard before. You can learn more about the struggles of being a creative freelancer at Freelancers Union, as well as what you can do to help make change. It’s a great resource for the independent creative to learn about their rights and how to navigate difficult situations that arise while doing business.
For everyone out there navigating this type of situation, stay strong!