I’ve been posting articles and blog posts I write on a number of sites recently, and all for free. These sites – Bitmob, for example – allow anyone to post their written work for public consumption, as long as it’s vaguely on the right subject. You get valuable exposure and more eyeballs on your work and the site gets free content – sounds like a good deal, right?
There’s an interesting exchange of value going on when you post something to a “free” site. You’re handing over your work for free, and in exchange you’re getting exposure. As an aspiring writer, exposure feels like the lifeblood of a fledgling career; the more people see your work, the more chance someone will hire you, right?
So I wrote an article about writing for free (very meta) and posted it on Bitmob, where it was promoted to the front page and sparked off a good debate. During the conversation that followed, someone mentioned a site called 99designs – a site based on the principle of getting designers to submit speculative work that a prospective client can pick through, critique and then (potentially) buy, paying whatever they like in the process.
I’m just going to say it: 99designs is a terrible thing. It exploits designers – especially young designers looking for work for their portfolios – by “allowing” them the opportunity to give their work away for free.
It gives the client way too much power, both in terms of picking and meddling with designs and in terms of payment; clients often have little-to-no idea of how much time, effort and emotion goes into design work, and tend to dismiss it as “colouring-in”.
It encourages quick, dirty, one-night-stand relationships between clients and designers. Longer-term relationships that are open and honest produce much better work because of the trust and exchange of knowledge, on both sides.
And it devalues creative work and creative talent. “Paying what you want” or working for free devalues the industry and the work of other freelancers who are trying to work in a more sensible, sustainable way.
Frankly, I was a bit shocked; 99designs seems like such a professional-unfriendly idea that I wondered why anyone would want to be involved with it. But then, I’m looking at it from the point of view of someone with an established job in the creative industry. I’ve already got a portfolio. I’ve got regular work, and regular pay.
What would 99designs look like to someone starting out in the industry? A lot like a pretty good deal, I imagine: work on tap, very little scary dealing with clients and lots of getting down and designing things, regular briefs to help you build up your portfolio, and exposure for your work.
The thing is that exposure, as I’ve come to realise, is a wooden carrot. “Getting exposure” is not enough to start a career in design or journalism, but it’s sold as the magical kickstarter that will make your dreams come true. The odd person, who gets the right article in the right place, can have a career made by an article, but for most people “exposure” is the equivalent of walking round a supermarket hoping to be scouted for a career on modelling.
If I was a designer starting out I wouldn’t use 99designs; I’d be approaching clients and employers directly. There’s a lot of work out there that you can get without much of a portfolio – just don’t expect to be bashing out campaigns for Nike within a week unless you’re both very talented and very lucky.
Likewise, I’ve realised that as an aspiring writer I probably shouldn’t be writing for free or giving my work away. The lure of a having profile page that says a thousand people have read my article is strong, but ultimately it means very little beyond a couple of quid of advertising revenue in someone else’s pocket.
The choice isn’t between labouring in obscurity on a personal blog or getting the magical exposure fairy dust of writing for someone else, unpaid: it’s between sitting back and waiting for something to happen or getting out there and getting paid.
If I want to be a writer, I need to get the fuck out there and do something about it.
If you want to be a designer, you should do the same.