Should you ever work for free?

15/04/2011 11:36am

If you’re working in a creative field, the current debate over unpaid interns will be giving you a major case of deja vu: creatives are asked to work for free all the time. Web designers are asked to build or revamp sites in exchange for expenses; illustrators are urged to contribute their best ideas in exchange for exposure; and writers are asked to write in the hope that one day, they might get paid for it.

To some, working for free is a necessary evil in creative industries. To others, it’s just evil.

So who’s right? Should you ever work for free?

The short answer is “umm, it depends”.

Who’s asking?

Not all free work is the same: there’s a big difference between helping out a local charity and working for a commercial organisation who’s paying everybody else but you. The people who’ll give you the opportunity to work for free tend to fall into the following categories:

  • Friends and family
  • Charities
  • Firms offering work experience and/or internships
  • People who’ll be first against the wall when the revolution comes

On the face of it, you’d need to be pretty hard-hearted to refuse to help out a friend or a family member, but that depends on the job: knocking up a flyer or a quick WordPress installation is one thing; designing a whole corporate identity or creating an entire ecommerce platform is something else entirely.