Free work. Unpaid work. Spec work. Whatever you want to call it. If you’re not getting paid, you’re probably being taken advantage of. Unless of course its something you really want to do.

You may have always wanted to work for a particular charity or for a cause that you feel passionate about and would like to pitch some work to them. That’s a totally different story. That’s a passion project. Imagine how you’d feel if it then turned into paid work.

What I’m really talking about are the ‘opportunities’. The ‘opportunity’ to paint a mural on a café wall because everyone who has a coffee there will see your artwork. The ‘speculative’ job that might turn into a bigger job (that never ever does by the way). The ‘exposure’ you’ll get by providing that illustration or design which will get loads of eyes on it. Say no to all of that. Avoid those words at all costs for your own sanity – opportunity, speculative, exposure. It never ends well.

I say this from experience because I’ve done more free work than I care to mention over the years. Sometimes I’ve been paid a minimal amount for speculative work in the hope that it leads to a bigger job. It never has. From the children’s book that was ‘one of four’ that turned out to be a one off project to the branded character job that I spent two days on for £25 because ‘there’s loads of this work to come’. It never did. Yeah, I’m done with that. A plumber wouldn’t come to plumb your bath in in the hope they’ll also get the sink, toilet and washing machine to do. Yet some companies think it’s perfectly acceptable to request creatives to work for free. Companies with money. Because creatives live on fresh air and rainbows because they are doing what they love to do. No. I might love drawing but I don’t love worrying about paying my bills and nor should I have to. Unpaid work is not okay.

So a few years ago I decided that that was it. No more free work. No more being taken for a mug. I even turned down a job with a huge publisher who wanted the earth for very little payment. I worked out that I would have been working for around £3.60 an hour. If they don’t work for that, why should I? Why should anyone? I have bills to pay just like the people asking for the free or badly paid work. Plus, the people or businesses who ask are usually in a better position than you financially anyway. Obviously you’ll make your own mind up about what you are and aren’t willing to do. This is just my experience. But if you do take that work on, just know that they’ll end up being your pickiest client too.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an ogre. There are some things I do within a project that go above and beyond what the client has paid for but that’s at my discretion. Not because the client expects it to be done for nothing. They’re usually the clients you like working with as they appreciate what you’ve done for them. And everyone likes to work with nice people right?

All I’m saying is keep your guard up. If the thought of that free work leading to a £50,000 job sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Run for the hills.