The 7 stages of being asked to work for free

Whether you’re just starting out as a freelance illustrator or graphic designer or you’ve been doing it for decades, one thing never changes – someone always wants you to work for free. The email lands in your inbox innocently enough; you read through the project and it sounds fun and then you see that word. The one word that immediatelys ruins everything. Exposure.

Nothing you do as a designer is free. Your time and creative talent is precious and these pesky so-called clients should know better. You pay with your time, your experience, the money you spent on university, college or training, the bills you pay to keep your office running or your heating on at home, your tools and subscriptions. This design lark can get expensive, so when someone tells you that working for free would be good for you, it can be difficult not to throw your computer out the window.

We feel your pain, friends, and we know exactly what you’re going through. So with a tongue firmly planted in cheek, we go through the seven emotional stages of being asked to work for free.

01. Shock

Chances are the first emotion you'll feel when being asked to work for free is shock

Chances are the first emotion you'll feel when being asked to work for free is shock

The first time you find out that a client wants you to work for free, chances are your jaw will drop to the floor and you’ll react with a sort of numb disbelief. Don’t worry though – this is a natural response and will help you from feeling the true impact of the situation.

02. Denial

Surely these people haven’t asked you to do all that work for no money whatsoever, right? Surely it was a just a typo? Perhaps they had an aneurysm in the middle of writing that email? They can’t seriously think that exposure pays for groceries, right? At this point in your emotional journey, denial is probably the sanest reaction.

03. Bargaining

Don't be tempted to work for free, no matter how much you think your portfolio could benefit from it

Don't be tempted to work for free, no matter how much you think your portfolio could benefit from it

You may rail against fate, questioning "Why me?" You may also try to bargain with yourself to justify the situation ("I will never work for free again if I do just this little bit of work, it’ll be good for my portfolio"). Step away from the computer right now and take a long hard look at yourself in the mirror. Your portfolio doesn’t need the work that badly.

04. Guilt

You might think the client must have chosen to ask you because you’re special and one-of-a-kind, right? You’ll worry there’s plenty of others out there who would love to work with this client and do this job. You’ll worry this work could lead to bigger and better work when you’ve turned it down. Stop thinking these thoughts and go and have a beer instead. Seriously.

05. Anger

You may not be able to connect with your feelings of anger right away but oh boy, they’ll turn up. The good news is that anger can be super-empowering, so it’s best to own it in all its glory. It’s all part of the grieving process of being asked to work for free, so grab a cushion and scream to your heart's content. Just make sure your co-workers, family or friends are far away for this part.

06. Depression

Don't let requests for free work get you down

Don't let requests for free work get you down

It’s tough knowing that clients think they can still get away with exposure in place of a pay cheque. You’ll probably feel like giving up your career altogether if this is where the creative industry is at; you’ll find it hard to get out of bed; you’ll no longer be able to find inspiration. Don’t let them do this to you! Rise up from the ashes of your inbox and crack on with the work from clients who actually value your skills.

07. Acceptance and hope

Not all clients are like this. As acceptance deepens, moving forward requires redirecting your feelings of hope – from the belief that you can singlehandedly save the creative industry to the possibility that you just might be okay without working on that one project. It’s tough to have to redirect your energy, but focus on the work you want to do with the clients that want to pay you. Every little step is a step further away from exposure.

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Sammy Maine

Sammy Maine was a founding member of the Creative Bloq team way back in the early 2010s, working as a Commissioning Editor. Her interests cover graphic design in music and film, illustration and animation. Since departing, Sammy has written for The Guardian, VICE, The Independent & Metro, and currently co-edits the quarterly music journal Gold Flake Paint.