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Why You Shouldn’t Speak To Art Students for Free

There are some terrific professionals who speak at design events, and art schools, and teach many things to others, with valuable insights into the business that can’t be learned in four years of art school. Some people command large fees for their time, and knowledge, and others do it merely for the ego boost of being in the spotlight.

For many years, earlier in my career, I spoke for free, and enjoyed the ego boost. Later in my career, I continued speaking for free, and considered it my duty to the industry, hoping I could keep young professionals from chipping away at the industry by doing free work, or accepting ridiculously low fees.

At a certain point, however, we all realize the ego building isn’t worth the time away from our business. There is a line that we reach, when requests to speak at schools, or in front of other professionals, is no longer even a choice, and when requests to meet someone for coffee to offer advice, or review portfolios becomes an insult, or huge bother.

Free Speech?

The big conundrum, that few may realize, is that while we try to teach young professionals that working for free is wrong, giving away valuable skills and information, we turn around and do the very same when it comes to sharing our knowledge for free. Shouldn’t we be holding out for fees in line with our experience?

Why You Shouldn't Speak To Art Students for Free
Image credit: Bigstockphotos

Greatness is Sometime Thrust Upon Us

As I started my career, a position of power offered to me merely by being on the board of the Graphic Artists Guild opened me up to many invitations to speak at local art schools, and with a little reading, and some shared stories I heard from other designers, and illustrators, I was asked to speak at more schools. It was a real ego trip!

Mount Rushmore
Image credit: Bigstockphotos

As my career evolved, and my experience quantified me as someone who “knew the business,” I was asked to speak at graduations, senior portfolio reviews, and was known for my “straight-talk” speeches on business for those entering the creative field. My ego was overflowing that people cared what I had to say.

I knew I had hit the top when I was asked to pose for a photo for an industry trade with the top design talents in the world. The photo, of course, showed me smiling widely on the end of the group while everyone else was looking at me like, “who is this guy?” To the casual observer, it looked like they were enamored with my presence. Fame can be such a mountain of bull droppings! My friends said of me and my career, that I was the Forrest Gump of the design industry, being in the right place at the right time for plum jobs, and opportunities. It’s true, and I knew it, so I was able to keep my ego in check.

As business made more demands on my time, speaking at schools, and organizations became more of a draw on time I didn’t have. At this point in my career, I considered my speaking engagements as mentoring, and giving back to the industry. At least for a while. Eventually someone ruins the party for everyone.

All the Free Headaches You Could Want

While temporarily living in a far away city, taking care of my late grandmother’s estate, which included keeping numerous thieving cousins from stealing items from her house, dealing with lawyers, and accountants, and a house filled with ten thousand doilies, and forty tea sets, among other hoarded items a 100+ year-old woman had collected, I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the graduation ceremony of a local art school. Naturally, I was flattered, and accepted.

Image credit: Bigstockphotos

I wrote a speech, and emailed it to the chief administrator of the school for approval, as sometimes I can be a bit inappropriate for all audiences, as evident by most of my articles. While waiting for the graduation date to arrive, I was asked to judge several portfolio showings at the school, and to speak to the student body about a subject of my choosing.

I collected a few dozen portfolio pieces, and set off for the appointed speech. After arriving, I milled around the room with several teachers, chatting about the school, and my career when the administrator who made so many demands on my time appeared. I asked her why she hadn’t returned any of my emails as the graduation ceremony date was fast approaching.

“Oh,” she exclaimed. “We decided to go with someone else as the keynote speaker,” and she quickly walked away. My talk was about to begin in two minutes, and all I could think about was the bash across the face I had just taken. It was then I noticed the head of the school speaking to the administrator in a loud tone out in the hallway. It seems she had never sent out any notice that I would be speaking that night, which explained the absence of any students in the room.

The head of the school went around the room, whispering to every teacher present, and they all rushed off, leaving me almost alone in the room. I found out later that he asked everyone to round up as many students that were left in the school that evening. The crowd for that speech was… small, but intimate. Needless to say I was quite pissed off.

Aside from my struggle with the family crush to strip my late grandmothers carcass of every cent, and antique, while trying to keep up my professional work, I had wasted too much time with this school. It was then I had a selfish epiphany; in all of those speeches on not doing free work for clients, and how people’s creative talents were worth something, and should never be given away, I realized that I was guilty of ignoring my own advice.

A few weeks later, a different administrator from that school emailed me to ask if I would appear at another portfolio review. I answered that I would have to charge a speaker’s fee. The administrator was flabbergasted. How could I have the nerve to charge for just speaking to students?

“I assume these students pay tuition to learn from your teachers?” I asked. “And, I assume you pay your teachers to teach the students?” I continued. “So, why would I continue to do this for free?”

“Well, we do give you certificates for a free sandwich at the café,” said the administrator. Unfortunately, the previous administrator with whom I had dealt never bothered to send me the certificates when I appeared at the school, not that a crappy sandwich was equal compensation (not even an iced tea?) for the travel time, and hours at the school, presenting a professional view of the business that the teachers couldn’t relay to their students.

No Free Work!

I’m still asked to speak at schools, and the request for a speaker’s fee is met with shock. Sometimes I’m told they have a $25- $50 speaker’s fee. Sometimes I’m told I’ll get a school T-shirt, and/or coffee mug. The anger in the caller’s voice when I turn them down is substantial, and to me, unwarranted. Am I wrong?

No Free Work
Image credit: Bigstockphotos

A friend of mine was booking speakers for a local AIGA chapter event, and asked if I would be willing to speak at the event. I told her I was flattered, and asked what the speaker’s fee would be. She told me it would only be the flight to the chapter city, and a stay in a member’s guest room, but she would buy me dinner. Spending two or three days away from work represented a huge income loss to me, but as she was a personal friend, I agreed to do it. At the same time, another AIGA chapter asked me to speak, and asked my speaking rates. I was confused, but gave a figure for the time I would be away from my studio, and the caller didn’t blink. I took down the date on my calendar.

As both engagement dates approached, I wondered if I was going to receive an itinerary… and a check. The first speaking date was days away when I emailed my friend, and asked what was going on. “Oh,” she replied, “I couldn’t get the board to approve you, but it’ll be a beautiful weekend here if you want to hop on a plane, and come to the event!”

If you’ve ever gotten so angry that you have no conscious memory of what you said in response to something you view as a huge insult, then you’ll understand that I don’t remember what I said to my friend… well, my ex-friend, apparently. The same thing occurred with the other AIGA chapter event, but I wasn’t as kind to that person as I was to my friend. I seem to remember saying things like, “my time is worth something,” “sue your incompetent ass for the fee,” and “this is why clients think creatives are mentally challenged fools.” I also seem to remember hearing someone whimpering, and crying on the other end of the phone.

Listening to Our Own Advice

As mentioned at the beginning of this article… or nasty rant, depending on your opinion on the subject, any professional will advise young professionals not to work for free, and while I’m tempted to say that if you wish to speak to groups for free, then by all means, that is your choice, but is it counterproductive to our industry, and other professionals to do so? Is our knowledge worth a coupon for a sandwich, or a quarter tank of gas? Do you do it to build your ego, or because you feel you owe it as a way to give back to the industry?

Time to Listen
Image credit: Bigstockphotos


The latter is certainly a noble cause. That is why I write articles on the creative business, aimed at young professionals. I’m able to give back, mentor others, reach a wider audience on my own time, and, I get paid for my time, and efforts. I also get to suggest to a large readership which art schools they shouldn’t attend, and which AIGA chapters are worthless.

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