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Work for Free: ICoD Position on Unpaid Work

Designers and illustrators often receive requests to work for free. Sometimes a charity asks for a donation of labor in support of a good cause. Sometimes a competition asks entrants to submit new work based on a theme or an issue that designers can address. Sometimes an illustrator is asked to create original work in exchange for “exposure.” While it’s easy to recognize the more egregious demands for free labor (hence the expression, “artists die of exposure”), some of these requests fall into a grey area.

To help designers navigate when to consider and reject a request for unpaid or uncompensated work*, ICoD has published the International Council of Design Position on Unpaid Work. The paper provides guidance for designers in evaluating such requests evaluate whether they provide some benefit to the designer without harming the working conditions for all designers.

Different types of unpaid work are rated for the appropriate response by the designer:

  • Avoid: work on speculation, work for “exposure,” hiring homework.
  • Use caution: contests, unpaid internships.
  • Participate: pro bono work (within agreed-upon terms).

The paper discusses the risks that uncompensated work poses to both the designer and the client. It concludes by outlining the benefits the designer gains from turning down uncompensated work, notably the reinforcement of the designer’s stature as a professional in the eyes of the client:

Achieving professional standing begins with self-awareness and self-definition. Only when the broad community of practitioners adopts a shared approach can wider society be expected to acknowledge the discipline’s professional status. Once these standards are established, the discipline benefits from enhanced respect, status and influence, independence, and assigned value.

* ICoD makes a distinction between “unpaid work” – work for which the designer might gain some compensation other than a traditional fee – and “uncompensated work” – work for which the designer receives no compensation.