Taking on free or unpaid work can be a great way to build up your portfolio and get the experience required to pursue a career in your chosen field.
But can you justify working for free?
The Short Answer
The short answer is maybe – but probably not.
It’s the old “catch 22”, you can’t get a job without experience, but you need a job to gain experience.
So, while it can be tempting to take on free or unpaid work to build up your portfolio, it is important to evaluate whether you will benefit from the trade-off of working for free.
For those just starting out, building a portfolio via free or unpaid opportunities can be enticing.
Yes, it can be a way to build up a portfolio, but:
- Can you afford to work without getting paid?
- Is it a full-time job or side hustle?
- Do you have other sources of income?
- Will “great exposure” equal future income?
If you have sources of income from other places, then working for free may be feasible as you are still getting the cash you need to pay the bills from elsewhere.
It’s easier for those who are building a portfolio as part of a side hustle or an extra job to work for free. But if design work is your main source of income, it’s not so easy.
The Longer Answer
Whether the income from a project is vital or not, working for free isn’t always the best option.
Instead, focus on finding opportunities that will allow you both to learn and to be paid for your efforts, maybe for a reduced fee.
Doing this gives you the best of both worlds – gaining valuable experience while also earning a wage.
Paid projects should always be your main focus, but occasionally taking on unpaid or free projects can help build up that portfolio and get your foot in the door.
You need to consider whether the potential exposure from the project makes it worthwhile.
Exposure can, and you need to be aware of the keyword “can”, lead to more work. But this isn’t always the case.
Exposure is directly influenced by where and how the end product will be used. If the project will be used in popular publications and other high traffic sources, as long as you are properly credited for your work, then yes it could lead to positive exposure.
However, if you are not properly credited, the work is used in low traffic publications or the end product is changed/altered so that it does not represent your best work, then there is little chance that any exposure will lead to more opportunities.
What are the Pros and Cons of Free/Unpaid Work?
There are a range of pros and cons when it comes to working pro-bono and you need to consider these carefully when making a decision.
It is worth noting that the pros and cons will vary depending on the type of project and the company who makes the request. There may be more positives to taking on free work for charities and starts up than large corporate businesses. However, these need to be assessed on a case-to-case basis.
- Make yourself known and develop contacts
- Gain experience
- Develop wide ranging and diverse portfolio
The pros of taking on free or unpaid work include the ability to gain experience, connect with people in your field, and build up your portfolio.
If you are looking to break into a certain market, but don’t have the experience for paid projects, taking on some pro-bono projects may be the only way you can gain exposure and experience in the industry.
Having access to projects you may not have been consider for if they were paid jobs can help you expand your reach and design for different sectors and niches.
This can help develop your portfolio to show you are flexible and can design for a range of audiences and requirements.
- Unpaid for your efforts
- Time management
- End product may not be suitable for your portfolio
Although there are a wide selection of free projects out there, you need to choose carefully which ones are the best fit for what you want to achieve.
The most obvious drawback is that you won’t be making any money. The knock-on effect of this is that you could potentially become overstretched by spending time on something that may not result in a long-term job or additional commissions while trying win paid projects.
You also need to consider situations where the client’s design expectations don’t match with you are trying to produce for your portfolio.
This means not only would you not get paid for your efforts, but you wouldn’t even come away with the desired portfolio piece that you need.
Things To Consider
Before committing to any free/unpaid work, it is important to assess the project carefully. You must consider the benefits of taking on the task in terms of the end product, networking, knowledge you will gain and how it will suit what you are trying to achieve in building up your portfolio.
Although the job may be unpaid, to produce the required standard for your portfolio, your level of commitment should be just as high as if it was a paid job.
Treating all projects with the proper effort and level of detail will help guarantee better success and a stronger portfolio.
Before taking on any work, either paid or unpaid, it’s important that you get a signed contract outlining your rights and responsibilities within the project.
This should include clear expectations set by both parties and a timeline for completion of the work.
A signed agreement will help protect you legally and ensure you receive credit for the work completed.
Taking on free or unpaid work can be a great way to build your portfolio and gain experience, but it’s important to make sure you’re valuing yourself and making smart business decisions.