You should not feel pressured to say yes to every opportunity that crosses your path even at the beginning of your art career. It can be hard to go full-time freelance, but working for exposure in my experience has never resulted in more clients, more money, or much of anything at all really but a waste of time.
So why do so many artists do it? Because so many companies offer it.
Then why do so many companies offer it? Because so many artists do it.
Do you see the problem here? If you could hire someone for free wouldn't you? We need to stop this vicious cycle because the client certainly isn't going to. We have to start saying no to the wrong projects without the feeling of missing out on something big for our career.
Easier said than done; I know, but I’m going to help you figure this out. That way you can judge a good work exposure opportunity from a bad one. I’ll even include an email template to help you convince a client to pay you with real money.
HOW DO WE KNOW IF WE SHOULD SAY NO TO AN EXPOSURE PROJECT?
Sometimes doing work for exposure works out great, but it’s rare as hell especially on social media. One of my best pieces was featured on an account with 2 million followers, and I barely saw 20 new people come to my profile from it. So don't judge a company by its size, clout in the industry, or years in business because that doesn't mean shit.
So what kind of exposure project should we say yes to? Well, ask yourself these questions to help you decide.
Is this the kind of project you want to get hired for again in the future?
There is an easy way to attract the exact kind of clients you want to get hired by. If you want to be an editorial illustrator for a big publisher like the New York Times, then you should exclusively do editorial work to attract more of those clients as proof that you can do the job.
So if a dream company contacts you to do free work, it could be an excellent chance for a portfolio piece that was actually used by the company. But keep in mind that a personal project or series could accomplish the same thing.
You don’t have to work with big companies to prove that you can work for big companies. Just show your illustration work in an editorial mock-up or create a series where you re-design featured images in blogs and in print to replace bad stock photos with original art. Both options will get you where you want to go.
Is this a project you have never done before and need the experience?
As artists, we get bored, and we want to try everything when we first get started in illustration. You might think, “chalk murals, never done that before but sounds fun! Branding, sure I’ll give that a whirl!” But without having experience doing those projects, you really shouldn’t be charging for the service till you iron out all the kinks.
You wouldn't want a doctor operating on you with no experience, and the same goes for the designer you hire too. Yea the outcome isn’t life or death, but your client should not have to pay for you to learn on the job and the mistakes that will undoubtedly follow.
So if an exposure project comes up in a new industry you always wanted to dip your pinkie toe in, go for it. This is the perfect opportunity to give a new service a try while adding a fresh portfolio piece to your website in the process. That way, if you like it, boom you have proof that you can do it again. Or, you may discover that working on that project just sucked all the life force out of you giving you a lesson learned to steer clear of that kind of project in the future.
Have they done this with other artists and have they seen a benefit?
Now, there are those rare instances where companies are a big deal with a ton of followers watching their every move that may help you launch your career with just a simple mention on social media or a blog feature. But you may be better off just curating your art better in order to gain more followers on platforms like Instagram anyway.
But, as I said before many exposure projects can result in a lot of work with minimal payoff. So if this project is something that other artists have worked with before, it can't hurt to ask them if it was worth it right?
Take advantage of all the artists that have come before you, after you, and are working alongside you in this industry. For the most part, people are happy to share their experience especially if it resulted in something amazing or downright terrifying. Either way, you can connect with other creatives to get the scoop on a project if you are unsure of the benefit.
TRYING TO CONVINCE A CLIENT TO PAY YOU WITH REAL MONEY.
Now, for the reason I wrote this article and how I can help you try to get paid in instances where the company as the money to pay you, you have the experience to make it great, but for some reason, they think your work isn’t worth money. Back in early November, the major ice cream brand Halo Creamery offered me 10 pints of ice cream and an Instagram shoutout in exchange for an original commission, I immediately deleted it without hesitation feeling angry and bewildered by the offer.
But then that email stuck with me, and I ended up reviving it from my trash bin to respond explaining why “opportunities” like this actually take advantage of artists. I spent over an hour giving them ideas on a different marketing approach that wouldn't hurt their bottom line where creatives could be fairly compensated for their expertise and time like any other person in the workforce.
They responded with, “this campaign has been working great for us so far with lots of artists doing amazing work for our social media.” Which means, other artists are doing this for free so what makes you so unique? Why would we care if you decline when we could just get free work from someone else?
This, of course, is incredibly disheartening which is why I put them on blast on social media with this post. This mentality won't stop until we all band together to say no to these projects. Only then will these companies understand that they can't take advantage of our time and self-worth. So next time you get an inquiry like this, feel free to copy and paste this message.
Thanks so much for thinking of me for this project. This sounds like an excellent opportunity to be a part of but only if I am adequately compensated for my time to create this original piece of artwork for you. I hope you can understand that although I love my job and I’m incredibly passionate about creating design solutions like this for clients, I’m a professional with an hourly rate, overhead, and bills to pay, just like any other business owner.
With all that being said, I know your intention is not to take advantage of artists or that your job inquiry would be seen as offensive. I also understand that money is hard for everyone, where businesses like yours need to keep a watchful eye on their bottom line. But the whole reason that companies reach out to me is to help them make money. Working with a designer should be seen as an investment where good design is made to attract new customers, increase brand loyalty, and profits for your company.
If given the opportunity, I’d love to sit down and prove my worth to you as a paid illustrator. I have lots of ideas on how we can work together with a strategy that will increase profits with a design that will wow your audience. If you are interested in collaborating on a project together, you can fill out my form here so I can get all the details to provide or quote, or we can set up a free consultation so we can talk more personally and share ideas freely.
Regardless, thanks for thinking of me and I hope we can work together on something amazing soon. In the meantime, you may want to stir away from spec and exposure projects like this to avoid any bad press. I’d hate to see your company seen in a poor light primarily in the creative community because I’m sure you wouldn't accept exposure as payment at your job either.
This email is kind, professional, with just the right amount of sass. It lets the client know that you mean business while trying to offer advice on a better direction. This email template has actually worked a few times, where the company felt embarrassed but was impressed with the fact that I stood up for myself and my value. It could do the same for you too if more of us just had the balls to say no more often.
SAY NO TO THESE OPPORTUNITIES SO YOU CAN YES TO THE ONES THAT RESPECT YOUR TIME.
Every artist I know has worked for exposure at one point of their career. Whether it was something small like doing your cousin a solid by designing their logo in exchange for them passing out business cards for you, or doing a design contest for a massive company as practice.
These opportunities are not created equal, and sometimes can offer value to artists just getting started, but don’t be fooled by the lure of more promised paid work down the line, or exposure that will land you more clients. If you say yes to all the wrong projects, you won’t have any time left for the ones that are worthwhile.
Your time has value, so you might as well stick up for yourself to help prove that to the world. The industry thanks you every time you do.