Free Isn’t Your Only Advantage

Earlier this month, I saw a tweet was floating around which argued in favor of newcomers working for free as a means of getting their foot in the door. Actually, I’ll just include the tweet here:

The reason I had even come across this tweet is because I saw a lot of designers reacting to it, and while I more often than not just shrug these things off, I too felt like I needed to chime in. The one point Erik made that seemed to push me over the edge was how he states that “‘free’ is the one advantage a newcomer has.” This ruffled my feathers because it reduces ones skills, perspective, and relevancy down to that of a commodity on the sheer numeric basis of one’s experience.

Truth be told, I don’t know all there is to know about Erik Larsen, but I do know that he is 55 years old, and left Marvel in 1992 to start Image Comics. (I wasn’t even born yet!) With that being said, Erik has no idea what it means to start or build a career in the age of social media. And it’s this sort of mentality which stems from a generation removed from this new reality that insists on exploiting the talent and efforts of young artists and designers. These were my replies to the tweet:

In 2014 I had illustrated a deep sea diver simply because I wanted to experiment with a new style. When I finished it I shared it on Behance, and later on received a message from the creative director of the Pacific agency in San Diego. He said “I really liked your athletic diver and I’d love to use it for some agency promotional materials and branding. My idea is produce 5 different positions (attitudes) of the diver.” Needless to say, I went on to charge them $4,000 to illustrate 4 additional divers. Similarly, I had shared a collection of hand lettering pieces I had done over the years on Behance which eventually led to receiving an email from Adobe to create a series of hand-lettered pieced for their photo-editing app Aviary.

In both of these cases, I was still in school and virtually had no experience. I was the definition of a newcomer. (Hell, I’m still a newcomer!) Considering I raked in $6,000 for these projects, I’d like to think that I had a lot more to offer than just “free.” The issue lies in how we value experience, and I fundamentally disagree with how it’s placed on a pedestal or at the very least how it’s used as the common denominator for evaluating prospects. The ways that we measure experience does not properly consider one’s intuition, care, patience, relevancy, or thoughtfulness, all of which are attributes that are more necessary now than ever.

There is certainly a time and place for doing “free” work, but to suggest that it’s the only advantage a newcomer has or to even urge them to follow that path is both toxic and disrespectful. To quote Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” So create the work you want to do more of, get good at it, and share it with the world. You’re worth a lot more than you might think.