Notes on collaborations (that aren't really collaborations)

Hopefully, by now, we've all seen enough fake/exploitative "collaborations" on this site to know how to spot some bullshit. To know that "exposure" has been swapped out for "collaboration" in the cheap/shit clients' lexicon. But given another recent spate in them, let's quickly revisit what collaboration actually looks like.

Collaboration is a value proposition for both sides. For creative professionals, the value accrued is in lieu of payment because, in some way, both parties are on an equal footing and offering the same level of creative endeavour. That value is not the work you put in, but what you get out.

For instance, a designer might envisage a project and want to pair up with an illustrator - think a calendar, tarot cards maybe. A photographer might ask a designer to design a book for their photographs, or a branding designer might ask a packaging designer to create a mock-up. The point being there is an equal division of labour and the results are beneficial for both parties. Often, but not always, the two (or more) parties will be at similar points in their creative journeys.

What collaboration isn't is creating something that you can then use in your portfolio. Someone asking you for a book cover for a book they've written is a job, a job they want you to do for free. Someone asking you to design a logo for their YouTube channel offers nothing like an equal benefit. If you are creating something for someone, rather than with, that's not collaboration. It's exploitation.

If you can do something by yourself and that's the proposed "collaboration" chances are it's nothing like. Collaborations are about shared skills and labour, not you engaging in a project for a collaborator that sounds suspiciously like a client - albeit a client that feels entitled to not pay.

It's rough out there. I know a lot of you are desperate for work and for work that might set you apart to employers, but working these pretend "collaborations" isn't how you do it. It's how you get shit clients and shit work and nothing to show for it. The kind of work good art directors / senior creatives can see a mile off.

Do yourself a favour, examine "collaborations" carefully and don't be afraid to call bullshit on those that don't pass the sniff test - we'll always back you up.


  • Thank you for telling it like it is. I've seen an increase in 'volunteer' illustration jobs on LinkedIn which shouldn't really be listed as jobs at all - they're just asking someone to do a favour for them for free. There are still good well-paying freelance opportunities out there, you just have to quote, quote, quote and sift through the BS to find them.
  • Thanks for a reminder and much needed notes clarifying what's what. I have a feeling that there's a big deal of fear of saying no to an "opportunity" or a client, especially when you're a freelancer and/or when the work is scarce. Thanks for pointing it out and keep strong guys!
  • The problem balls down to the start-ups & amateurs who give them such chances, the market is competitive and people would do anything just to get busy. But it isn't the best approach, there are clients who still pay value for your skills and time. You only need to study how to access the type of clients. Traditional marketing also still works a great deal. And the Dots can do better on such people by taking down their posts because with time I feel like the platform will lose its relevance.
  • Totally agree.
    Just recently I had the opportunity to point out to a member of The Dots staff that so many users are complaining about the ever increasing free 'job offers' on this platform.

    The suggestion I was given is to report those collaboration proposals that are clearly exploitative.
  • Very well put!

    I always want to comment on the posts on here that say they are collaborations but don't want to be seen as hating on the person posting, but also I want to look out for others being taken advantage of.

    The most common ones at the moment seem to be people asking photographers to shoot events as a collaboration - there's literally nothing in it for the photographer yet people still reply- it's really sad.

  • I wrote a blog post talking about the difference between collaborations and "non-paid" jobs, you can read it here if you like:

    I wrote because I had enough of people asking me to work for free, and I didn't want to have a moan about it, I wanted to share my experience for other creatives who have been offered these "opportunities" and hesitated, as I did previously.

    It is refreshing to read a post like yours :)
  • I think this points to the far bigger question that many creatives either don’t know how to value their work, time and skills, or they don’t have the confidence to charge what they think they are work.

    This particularly a problem for/with people (of any age) just starting out in business, and specifically the mistaken view that price is everything and lowering rates means you have more chance to win the gig. There is a huge amount of research showing that that people buy from people they like or who share their values (provided the work is good enough), price is not everything in most cases.

    If you know what you are worth you will soon start to pick and choose collaborations based on the/any meaningful benefits they can bring you.

You must sign up or log in before you 
add a comment.

Post reply