11 companies who are trying to exploit designers, artists and photographers

These brands and companies are attempting to get creatives to work for free. Here we name and shame – plus give you advice on what you can learn from them to avoid being exploited.

Ever had the feeling that you've been cheated? Would you like to? Well, if some bizarre reason you'd like to then you should take up one of these offers to create art or design work for free – for "the love" or "exposure".

These demeaning projects take many forms. They can be disguised as competitions or pitches – though we’re not including what’s traditionally known as free pitching here, as that’s a separate issue. There can be the promise of ‘exposure’ as payment for your efforts. It can be framed as ‘pro bono’ work for a good cause (by an agency who’s getting paid by the charity involved). Or it can be offering you the ‘chance’ to ‘collaborate’ with a ‘cool brand’ (except it’s not a chance, it’s a job; it’s not a collaboration, it’s a commission; and truly cool brands don’t exploit creatives).

Sometimes this is pure exploitation by some soulless individual at an agency or at the brand itself, sometimes it’s due to ignorance about the creative industries and sometimes it’s a bit of both – often due to exploitative intermediaries who try to put a superficial veneer of respectability on asking you to product a project to work for free (or a promise-to-nothing that you might win a prize or commission).

Image: iStock

Much of the ignorance seems to from companies and individuals who see creative work as something to be bought like a product, rather than understanding and respecting that creativity and creation are skills that should be paid for in the same way that you’d pay for any other service – whether a plumber, mechanic or accountant. You pay for what’s made, but you also pay for the labour involved. Watch this video by the agency Zak, where they ask other professions to work for free.

There are occasionally good reasons to work for free – but if you’re wondering whether you should or not, use this handy flowchart from designer and letterer Jessica Hische. If you’re approached about working for free, follow its paths and you’ll discover that most of them lead to a big fat 'no'.

Over the next few pages, we’ll be naming and shaming the worst and most well-known offenders. Prepare to laugh, cry and swear never to be caught out by these mix of the misguided and exploitative.

Desall appears to be an Italian version of Talenthouse (see later) – a 'competition' platform that focusses largely on product design for clients including Coca-Cola and Estee Lauder. We likely wouldn't have heard of them if a PR hadn't got in touch (oops) to tell us about a 'contest' the company is running for coffeemaker brand Lavazza, wondering if we'd like to tell our readers about it – which we have, though likely not in a way they would have wished for.

Lavazza is after new graphics for its commercial vending machines for offices and stores. Thankfully, at time of writing the site says that there have only been four entries since the 'contest' opened on June 12 – though the appearance of limited competition shouldn't tempt you to enter as it could be a dark UX pattern (aka a lie). We have no evidence that it's not true, but we're not trusting the ethics of a company that's trying to get you to work for free.

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At first glance, Hitrecord seems not as bad as the likes of 99designs, as it encourages collaboration between creatives rather than competition. But the results are just the same – if you work isn't used in any form, you don't get paid. And if it does, the collaboration means you'll end up with very little.

The company – co-founded by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt – has stayed off our radar until now, but an announcement at the E3 gaming trade show in LA, it managed to anger many. Ubisoft showed off a new trailer for the highly anticipated (and much delayed) video game Beyond Good and Evil 2 – and asked artists and musicians to contribute in-game visuals and songs through the Hitrecord platform. 

This was called out as spec work by the likes of indie developer Scott Benson, and was reported on by mainstream gaming sites like Kotaku. And as the visual projects being offered are limited to small assets such as posters and other environment elements, it's not even a chance to make a meaningful contribution to the game – and appears to be more of a marketing exercise by Ubisoft. 

Designer and author Jessica Hefland took publishing house Doubleday Books to task in March 2017 for this attempt to get designers to work for free, over on Design Observer.

For the launch of author Dan Brown – aka author-with-a-net-worth-of-around-£110-million Dan Brown – Doubleday wants you to create a cover of a special promotional edition. And that's it – not only are you expected to work for free, but there's no prize either. Not even two first-class tickets and a few beers (see our next entry for more on that).

What you do get is, of course, exposure.

Ben The Illustrator brought this to our attention in September 2016 – and managed to capture a reply from the brand that drives home how some brands really don't get the value of creativity (or just don't care).

Virgin Trains wants designers to create a label for a Hop On Board ale, brewed by Rudgate Brewery to be sold on the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise (the one that controversially took over from the publically owned  – and rather successful – East Coast last year). Rather than pay a designer, they want you to enter a 'competition' where you could win a paltry pair of first-class tickets and a few beers.

Illustrator Pete Hawkes responded by tweeting an offer to do it as a paid job, to which Virgin Trains replied "where's the fun in that?" – a tweet that was quickly deleted, but Ben got the screengrab that you can see here.

Perhaps we should bunk the train to Newcastle – and if caught and asked to pay, respond with "where's the fun in that?". I don't think Virgin Trains would see it the same way...

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Arriving in my Inbox in June 2016, a press release from coffee brand ThreeSixty (me neither) is running a ‘competition’ (no it’s not) where it wants you to design the label for a new coffee brand that’ll be sold in Waitrose. In exchange, one lucky winner will get two flights to Cuba.

Everyone else gets nothing.

The press release quotes brand manager Nicole Hartnell as saying, "What better way to reward our winning designer for their creativity than with the adventure of a lifetime to Cuba?”

By commissioning them based on their skills and experience, paying them fairly and not asking everyone else to work for free, perhaps?

This is a great example how attempts to get creatives to work for free should play out. Sainsbury’s store in Camden, London wanted to redecorate their staff canteen – so put out an advert in May 2016 for an artist to help make it a more welcoming place. However, rather than paying the artist, they wanted a ‘volunteer’.

The ad was posted on Twitter by Katie Marie Andrews, who facetiously asked the supermarket if it could "send me free food? It's a great 'opportunity' to impress me with your 'skills’."

This spread across social media, and was quickly picked up national newspapers. It also prompted this extended response from artist Connor Collins and – finally – an apology from Sainsburys.

In some ways this worked out well. Sainsbury’s got called out before anyone got exploited and it gave publicity to this kind of practice being unacceptable.

Many attempts to exploit creatives are less public, taking place in the usual back-and-forth of what up front might look like a traditional commission – until the subject for payment comes up.

Holly Exley creates wonderful food illustrations such as the piece shown here, for which she was paid properly. However, in 2015 we covered her experiences with what she describes as "a major department store". Holly didn't name the store in question – even in a world where social media sharing is the norm, calling out someone who still might commission you in the future by name is still a bad move – by she did say that it's in London, a tourist destination and has a "very famous food hall", so there are a only a couple of possibilities.

What was first pitched to her as 'an exciting collaboration' and 'an exciting opportunity' quickly became a request to work for free – as due to 'production costs' there wasn't any budget to pay her (though there clearly was budget for production). But, of course, they mentioned the 'exposure'.

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You'd have thought that an organisation that takes such pride in its ethics as the BBC would be above exploiting creatives – so perhaps this story from 2014 just shows how pervasive the idea that you can ask creatives to produce finished work before deciding who to commission really is.

BBC Worldwide’s ‘Creative Challenge’ asked students and new graduates to create a short film, animation or poster to match a brief to 'win' £500 an perhaps an internship.

The appearance of a 'brief' for a competition is often a sign that it's a commercial commission without payment. We're not opposed to competitions, even ones based around loose themes – especially as the looser the them, the more likely you are to have something already in your personal portfolio that you can enter (or adapt).

Appearing on BBC TV’s Dragon’s Den in 2011, twins Polly and Charlotte Vickery – aka Brat & Suzie – told the panel of potential investors that they pay artists a one-off fee of just £20 to design the illustrations for their T-shirts, which sell for around £25 each.

This set off a Twitterstorm, with illustrators and designers decrying this insultingly low fee. Their comments about artists gaining exposure from the project was also bluntly shot down by Mr Bingo.

“Brat & Suzie have 1,103 ‘likes’ on Facebook and 1,470 followers on Twitter,” he said. “Come on girls, that’s hardly impressive fucking numbers for spreading the word. [Artists] can bung an illustration on 50 screenprints, sell them for £20 each and they’ve got a grand. Why would they sell it to a company for £20 instead? It’s not good maths.”

Their approach appears to have not lead to success, as their website is no more – with a few garments left in ASOS’s bargain bin.

There are a whole host of these exploitative websites – and what makes them worse is that they’ve done a very good job of making their ‘disruptive’ business practices appear to be of benefit to businesses rather than just asking creatives to work for free.

These sites are about different types of design – logos and other graphic design projects for small companies (99designs, Designcrowd, Fiverr), stock photography (Snapwire) or wider creative projects for big brands (Talenthouse) – but how they work is the same. A business creates a brief. Creatives complete that brief. The business picks one winner, pays them, and everyone else gets nothing.

As well as being bad for designers and photographers, it often delivers poor results for those commissioning logos and photography. For example, we’ve seen many reports of designers offering their services through these sites are just quickly hacking together logos using predesigned text and clip-art, with little thought for what makes each business unique. This is unsurprising – considering how these sites pay, quickly bashing out logos from a template to every competition going is probably the only way to make money from them – but if that’s good enough, the company who wants a logo might as well use an automated logo design tool like DesignMantic (which is essentially doing the same thing).

Photo: iStock

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Wix.com/Condé Nast (updated August 2016)

Based on the information initially given to us by the companies behind it, this photography competition from online portfolio site Wix and the publisher of Vanity Fair, Brides and Condé Nast Traveler appeared to be exploitative. However, we've since been told that the original information we were given was 'incorrect'.

The premise is that you submit your portfolio – as long as you've got a Wix site – to the competition and three photographers get chosen to shoot the covers of Brides and Condé Nast Traveler, or assist on a Vanity Fair cover shoot.

Originally we were told by a Wix spokesperson that the winners wouldn't get paid (beyond travel and expenses). The 'prize' was 'exposure'. After publishing this, we were later informed that the winners would now be paid, which is great news for anyone who enters.