Current Issue #488

The Cost of Working for Free

The Cost of Working for Free

Unpaid or volunteer design jobs that remunerate only in ‘experience’ and ‘opportunity’ are something graphic designers see far too often.

To most designers the concept of working for free is a thought barely worth entertaining. However, for this kind of work experience, professionals are not usually the target — instead these jobs tend to prey on students and young designers in dire need of experience and a ‘foot-in-the-door’.

Earlier this year a local, high-profile, and seemingly well-funded organisation put out the call for a volunteer graphic designer. This role was asking for someone who was trained and skilled in graphic design to offer their services on a volunteer basis in exchange for experience. Short of the word ‘volunteer’ the role and responsibilities read like any other graphic design job advertisement. Aside from the fact that the organisation is ‘not-for-profit’ there was little explanation as to why this was not a paid position.

Word of this job advertisement caused fury amongst designers and quickly came to the attention of the Australian Graphic Design Association (AGDA). AGDA was forthright in its response — that this kind of behaviour and attitude is ethically questionable, and likely fails to comply with the FairWork Act.

The aim of AGDA’s strong response was to ensure that the organisation that advertised the position knew that it had done wrong. In addition to this, it reminded the design community to be wise of such ‘opportunities’ and recommended that designers should not apply for the position.

Aside from the general outrage, this incident did bring up some interesting discussion. Much of the design community seemed in agreement that unpaid work is wrong and should be avoided. But in truth it’s not a black and white issue — many designers are still in debate that there are some cases when it is ok.

It is a complicated issue, however, it is important to understand, at least fundamentally, why unpaid work is problematic and what can be done to abate these kinds of unfair work practises.

To the inexperienced designer, unpaid work can be a potential minefield of problems. Even the most organised, disciplined designer can find themselves in a tangle if they don’t clearly define the parameters of the design job.

Payment is a sign that whoever is commissioning the work understands the value of your time and skill. If there is no payment, then you need to ask yourself if the client truly respects what you bring to the table as a designer.

If you’re forgoing money for a job in exchange for something else — then make sure it’s a fair exchange. Payment is a great motivator for you and the cost of a job to a client helps set boundaries — a design fee is often based on time — but if you take this out of the equation then what is there to discourage time overruns or continual amendments from the client? How will you prioritise the job around paid work? All these issues begin to pop up and suddenly what started as a great ‘opportunity’ descends into a job you have little interest in.

Perhaps most importantly, unpaid design work tends to undermine and devalue the professional skills and knowledge of all designers — not just the one taking on the work. It promotes the attitude that designers can easily be haggled with and that there is a market for ‘experience’ and ‘opportunity’ in lieu of financial remuneration. As long as someone is prepared to work without pay then it will always be a problem that designers have to deal with.

Students and graduates will always be eager to gain experience and apply their talents. If our industry cannot provide fair, paid internships, or work experience opportunities — then the lure of ‘opportunity’ will always lie within request for unpaid and unfair work.

Part of the solution lies at both ends of our profession. At one end, students and graduates need to have faith in the value of their skills and knowledge — and understand the importance in upholding this. At the other end, the professional designers and business owners need to recognise the importance and value in providing real opportunities and experience to young designers — as it will benefit the industry in the long-run.

Shane Keane, Chairman, AGDA SA


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