thinking – when to contribute pro bono illustration?

Shop talk time. I posted last weekend about a tremendously enjoyable event for Amelia’s Compendium of Fashion Illustration. Billed as a labour of love – because when it comes to indie publishing, trust me, no one does it for the money.

What I really like about ACOFI is that it celebrates editorial fashion illustration – each work is commissioned especially to cover a story, and the illustrators enjoy a lot of freedom in how they interpret the subjects. This kind of opportunity is incredibly rare and it’s an excellent exercise for any illustrator. Another nice thing is the quality – the book is created as a valuable object, and the contents are printed with care. As far as worthy endeavours to volunteer for, Amelia’s has my blessing, if not my participation.

The reason why? I’m not against working for free, given the right opportunity, but at this stage of my career the parameters of when I’m willing to work pro bono are pretty narrow – only for selected charities or in exchange for useful goods (i.e. clothes) or certain services (strategic publicity or networking). If you’re a regular reader you already know my opinion on unpaid internships. In a saturated creative market like London, there is an implied expectation that you will do a certain amount of work (a lot) for free. I’m determined to make a living doing what I’m doing, and part of that is always invoicing. If I’m working for pleasure, I usually prefer put the results on my own blog or invest the time in my own business.

I’m often asked by aspiring fashion illustrators when and if they should work for free. Obviously, you should always be drawing whether you’re getting paid or not – to be an illustrator first and foremost, you have to illustrate. Plus, in order to generate paid work, if that is your goal, you have to figure out a way to make your work visible to the world. I’m a fashion blogger – but not everyone is. Not everyone has the patience (or bloody-mindedness) to hammer away at a personal URL for the years it takes to develop even a modest readership and decent googleability, and I’m not one to pressure people to blog unless they’re really feeling the hunger to do it, because hunger is what it takes to be a blogger.

If you’re not a natural compulsive when it comes to blogging, or a proud hustler when it comes to entrepreneurship, it makes a lot of sense to contribute to publications like Amelia’s. She’s gathered together a tremendous amount of energy to make her book widely available and her publishing work has been recognized with awards. By joining forces with a book like this, you’ve indirectly got a pro PR company working for you, and a level of recognition by association with a strong personality. Amelia is hustling incredibly hard, because she’s hustling for an entire collective of people.

The greatest pro-bono group project I ever participated in was Buy Design 2009. This charity fundraiser had a creative committee packed with terrific friends old and new. I met loads of awesome people who work in my industry. I had a respected PR firm working indirectly for me – and my illustrations were published in a number of popular city newspapers and magazines, in addition to being featured on a prominent video billboard – the BMOtron – at a major downtown corner in Toronto. Plus, it was so much fun. When it comes to great opportunities to work for free, Buy Design is the perfect example.

When volunteering for what are ostensibly supposed to be for-profit businesses like magazines, my feelings are mixed. It is frustrating as a working creator when contents have less real economic value than the commodity they’re printed on. The capitalist in me thinks, tough – the fact is that in 2011, creative ideas have been reduced to an in-quantifiable value measured in attention instead of dollars. I get it. There is a lot of discussion about fair trade, and I sometimes wonder why agitating for more equitable payment is reserved only for physical things like coffee or paper, why not for creative work as well? I guess the logical conclusion to this thought would likely result in a lot of labours of love being lost because they don’t cut it as economically viable businesses – yes, I’m talking about publishing. We’re in an era where boxes of excess magazines in people’s basements are in a real sense, worth less than the shipping it takes to move them, the paper, the printing, and even the rent for the space they take up. I’m seriously doubtful that a printed illustration is worth more than a digital one in terms of intangible influence, never mind money. Love aside, I’m not sure if subsidizing businesses founded on obsolete methods of delivery by volunteering labour makes any sense. The ethics of fair trade as it relates to creative work is a complicated subject, and our ability to manipulate economies to reflect ideas about fairness is questionable. I’m not even close to arriving at strong opinions either way. It is just something I think about.

The trade-off for the pay-off, whatever the form the pay-off takes? You’re investing your time and effort into someone else’s brand and business. This is sometimes worth doing, however it should always be treated as a business decision. Not all opportunities to gain experience, collect print credits, network or get publicity, are made equal. What is worth doing for you will depend on where you’re at in your career and what you’re interested in pursuing. Be aware that each step you take will lead to the next – so when you elect to do a pro-bono job, ask yourself what doors it will open (if any), and be honest with yourself about whether those are doors you’re truly interested in knocking on.

Finally, an exhortation: beware of falling into the trap of the eternal intern. At a certain point, you have to stop working for free if you want to be a professional and not a hobbyist. Even if you are new, always practice the art of asking for compensation, whether in trade or a modest honorarium. Because entrepreneurial skills are just as much an art as art itself – and in an incredibly competitive environment, good art alone is not enough to build a career.

5 thoughts on “thinking – when to contribute pro bono illustration?”

  1. What a thoughtful post. The last sentence really resonated with me as someone who is just finished school and is now looking to pursue a career in fashion design.

  2. Great post Danielle,
    As a budding freelance social media consultant I am still trying to figure out what my skills are worth.
    The amount of people expecting my services for free is kind of ridiculous. So you can’t help but wonder if there really is any value in what you do. Luckily I know I am talented and I am stubborn as all hell. You want my help PAY ME. Unless you are a great cause and I will happily support you sans dough.

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