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Seven words you should never say to creatives


There are certain words you should just never say.

My three-year-old son, for example, has yet to figure out that he should never say, “You get in the kitchen and get me some milk,” to his mother. Though he will. (I hope.)

Yes, my son is currently a misogynist. But like I said, we’re working on it. And the truth is, we grown-ups are just as bad. Sure, we usually aren’t declaring that a woman get back¬†in the kitchen and make us some pie (if we’re sane); but we do say things we absolutely shouldn’t all the time. Things that, whether we realize it or not, are either insulting or just plain dumb. (And a pro-tip for gentlemen: If a woman is upset, for the love of all that is good and right and true, do not make any sort of comment about her reproductive cycle. It will not go well for you. And you look like a tool.)

For years, I worked as a graphic designer. And even though I stopped working as one almost eight years ago, I still work with graphic designers. And I work with writers and videographers. And the one thing I learned very early on was there are some things you should just never, ever say to any sort of creative individual.

If you say, for example, “This is what you’re giving me? I could’ve done that,”¬†you’re likely not going to have a good day. And the person working for you will no longer be there within three months. But there are worse, although most are too crass to publish on a Christian blog. However, among the worst things you can say to any sort of creative individual are the following seven words:

“It will be great for your portfolio.”

As a designer, particularly in my early days, I heard this a lot. And what it means is not, “this will be a great boost for your career,” but¬†“I’m cheap and don’t want to pay you.” An equivalent is that oft-heard promise to illustrators, “I’ve got a great idea for a children’s book; I can’t pay you now, but I’d be happy to split the royalties!” (This makes my wife’s eye twitch.)

And these are doubly damnable when they come from the lips of a professing Christian.

Christians tend to have a poor reputation among creatives‚ÄĒand usually it’s because we come across as cheap (and I know because I’ve experienced many a cheap client who happened to be a Christian). And this should never be.¬†Christians should always strive to be generous in every way‚ÄĒnot just in our giving to our churches and to charities, but in paying professionals what they’re worth. (And yes, that includes tipping your servers well, too.)

I’m thankful that, over the last several years with my current employer, I’ve seen them work hard to combat this stereotype. When we work with freelance creatives, we always do our best to pay fairly. It’s been rare when someone has said they can’t work with the budget we have, which is nice.

When I work on personal projects with independent creatives,¬†and¬†I know I don’t have what might be their standard rate available, I ask ahead of time what they can do with the money I do have.¬†I’ve had some say they can’t do a project, and I’ve never been bothered by it (in fact, I greatly appreciate their honesty). I’ve had one or two surprise me by¬†gifting me the project, even!

As a freelancing creative myself, I rarely have anyone mention this idea at this point. I just finished writing a magazine article for an organization that has a predetermined per word rate for writers‚ÄĒand it was a reasonable one, too! I’ve written for another organization¬†that’s paid quite generously. And one of my favorite emails was one that said right up front, “We currently can’t pay for contributions, but here’s what we can offer‚Ķ”

This, to my mind, is exactly what we should be doing. We should be up front and honest. We should be clear about what we’re asking for. And we should, at all costs, avoid any talk of¬†“portfolio building”.

In the end, it really comes down to two things: honesty and integrity. Weasel-y talk of work being great for a portfolio lacks both. So please, unless your goal is to lose friends and alienate people, you should probably never, ever say this again.


14 thoughts on “Seven words you should never say to creatives”

  1. I would add any phrase that includes the word ‘just.’ (‘Could you just do a quick edit of this book I wrote for free?’) I get asked to edit for free all the time, and people seem to think it’s so easy that it really shouldn’t take much time. (I would wager that editors are asked for pro bono work more frequently than writers or designers because people think of it as not that hard and not that skilled of labor.) They will often say, ‘You don’t have to spend too much time on it.’ (Does this mean I should correct your misspellings, but leave all your poor grammar? Or should I correct your punctuation but leave your flawed logic?) I have learned to just say no, unless they are willing to pay or it is a project I believe in.

    1. Not unlike the dreaded “why don’t you just…” parenting advice. (Internal response: Why don’t YOU just?!)

      I get this with the quick sketch request. Which people figure out means they will get a stick figure. No, I can’t do a full color image in 10 minutes of a boy running with a dog and the dog looking happy and they boy us like 5 or six but maybe younger, IDK, and the dog has to be like not a specific breed, just a generic dog. You know, a generic dog?

      I think that editors have the added issue of these free edits not actually being well received when they’re done. Like if you do very little they think you don’t care, but you make lots of changes they might get defensive. Basically there is no winning with free creative work.

      1. Yeah, no one really likes an editor. What they really want is confirmation that their work is awesome, so editors are the last people they should talk to!

  2. If you replace “Portfolio” with something about exposure, it’s even more widely applicable. I know musicians hear that all the time.

    1. Yeah, I was thinking that as well. The funny thing is, it’s the person doing the work who decides ultimately whether or not it’s good exposure for them or a good portfolio piece. It’s quite arrogant to go to someone and say “this project is totally going to be your big break”.

  3. Great article. Another frustrating line is something like: “You want that much for a logo? My nephew could do this for free!”

    1. A friend of ours coined the phrase “nephew art”. He worked at a newspaper where the advertisers often submitted ads “that my nephew did up in Photoshop” *headdesk*

    2. Also, imagine if all these talented nephews found each other and started an agency. They’d be unstoppable! I figure all other studios would just have to admit defeat and close up shop.

  4. Michelle Dacus Lesley

    Ah, those three year old misogynists. I’m sure his mommy will have him cured in no time. Now get in the kitchen and make your wife some pie :0)

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