Industry Expertise Trend

Thanks but No Thanks

Sometimes you just have to say no. And if you’re working in the creative industries, chances are high you need to say no more often than many others during the span of your professional life. The Corona crisis has hit designers and innovators particularly hard. Many creatives are now struggling, even more, to get fair pay for their work. Panicking, they then often accept too low pay. In the long run, this is diminishing their prospects. What can we all do for a thriving creative industry?

Creativity and expertise deserve fair pay.

When you are a creative, many people you meet assume, that the work you do is always fun, or at least fulfilling and that you love doing it for the sake of it. After 13 years in the creative industries, I can confirm, that a disproportionately high number of creative professionals are extraordinarily passionate about what they do. Often overlooked is, that what they do is still their job and thus they need to earn money. After all, no one can pay for their living with verbal appreciation or exposure.

Why is the creative industry comparatively underpaid? Why is it assumed, that creative work should be done for free?

Many people working in the creative industries are not paid particularly well compared to their skillset, the level of education they have acquired to reach their position and the hard work they put in, to find work that values their time and effort. Reasons are manifold, however, there are three main points to consider: 

Supply and demand

There are simply more talented people out there willing to work in the creative industries than there are actual paid positions available. However, there is much more work done, than is paid. Read more on this further below.

Self-fulfilment needs

Many people working in the creative industries are placing more importance on personal fulfilment then monetary goals. Referring to Abraham Maslow, creatives over-index in the top of the ‘Pyramid of Needs’.

Creative work is often seen as a bonus

Despite the well-studied fact, that the majority of consumers invest in the most attractive product for them within their budget, it is still a widespread belief, that creative work is secondary to technical aspects of product design. Good design needs empathy, creative thinking, knowledge, visualisation skills and technical abilities. In this order. Why is this not reflected in the price paid for creative work?

Here are eight suggestions for what we can do as creative businesses/professionals to create fair working conditions for all creative professionals:

1. Pay interns.

Equal opportunities for people of all colours and backgrounds are often a problem related to the pay gap between men and women (and all non-binary people) and/or racial/ethnic/social discrimination. These issues already affect interns. Poor young adults and many counted to the ‘middle class’ can not afford to do unpaid internships and will, therefore, most likely never receive the same chances in the future. They also have fewer opportunities to focus on their studies during their education, as they often have to work side jobs to finance their education.

Do you own a business? Take responsibility and start paying interns, regular staff and freelancers a fair living wage for the area your business is located at. If you can not afford that, then you should not ask someone else to get the work done for you. Should you make a profit from the pay you owe others?

You think this does not apply to you, as you own a start-up or are just expanding your business? You would like to pay more, but you just can not? Is it fair for someone else to pay the price to build up your business? Be honest with yourself. Would you do the work you are asking for, for the price you are willing to pay if it was not your business? As a business owner, it is your job to provide funding for all the work done in your business.

2. Stop discrimination.

I am happy to see many global and local businesses now showing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ movements. It has long been overdue that marginalised groups are afforded the same opportunities and justice. A fact is though, that in many regions there will be no applicants, that can be considered ‘black’, ‘coloured’, ‘non-binary’ etc. Often as a result of a lack of opportunities, but also because of demographical reasons. For instance, in my native Austria, there are only about 2% of the population, that can be considered as not ‘white’. The number of people discriminated is much higher though. See the bigger picture. Are there any applicants you have consciously or subconsciously discriminated previously? This can happen, but you can change that right away.

Just give all young, aspirational applicants a fair chance to make a living with their chosen profession, when you choose them for an internship or junior role. Interns are young professionals in education. An internship is not a school work experience week. Remember, the lower the monetary benefit, the more value you need to offer your interns.

3. Make more jobs available for graduates.

Also, stop fake internships. Graduates are not interns. If you want the skillset of a young professional, show them the respect they deserve and do not offer them an internship, but a fairly paid junior position. Everyone has got to start somewhere. Do you remember the person, that gave you your first real chance at work? I bet you do.

Now, maybe you have had to go through many unpaid and/or underpaid internships/first jobs yourself to get to your current position? I feel with you, but this should not hinder you to make your workplace a fair workplace.

4. Say no to underpaid work.

Recently, I was asked if I was interested to work on a project for my portfolio after I turned down a job offer. This is the polite version of saying for free. I was head-hunted of that same person for a different project due to my experience. The reason I did not consider a collaboration was, that my hourly fee was not matched. I am open to negotiating a package price, but I am not open to offer my senior expertise for the fee of a junior design consultant. Would you, unless it was for a charity? This, however, was supposed to be CMF work on the future of transport systems. Say no to work that does not pay enough for your level of skills.

5. Say no to unpaid work.

This is not a one-off experience though. Earlier this year, I had conversations with a well-established design blog for me to conceptualise, write and edit articles for them. My ideas were welcomed, but I had to ask the blog´s founder twice, how much would be paid per finished article. When he finally got around to answer it was: ‘We don’t pay contributors unless they bring advertorials. We give them access and visibility in front of millions of readers :)’ First of all, access and visibility do not pay my bills. Secondly, this publication does not reach an audience of this size. On top of that, some of my ideas were subsequently used of the blog after I told the founder, that I will not work for them for free.

6. Say no to work for your portfolio.

Occasions like these are standard for creative professionals all around the globe, especially, when they are/identify as female. One of the highly skilled people in my network from New York told me in our last video call, she has similar experiences. And ever since the outbreak of Covid-19 it gets worse. Recently, she was approached three times by different brands if she was interested in developing a colour concept for them for free (you guessed it, for her portfolio). Why would a design consultant with 15 years of professional experience in international colour trend forecasting need a project for her portfolio?

7. Know what your work is worth and demand it.

I love my job. But no matter how much I love my job, I am the only person responsible for providing for myself. Maybe this is not the case for you, maybe you receive financial support, maybe you inherited wealth, maybe you made enough money previously and you can afford to work for free. Please realise though, that this is not the reality most people find themselves in. If you work for free – unless it is for charitable reasons – then you effectively make it harder for everyone who needs to earn money with their work. Do you think that is okay?

No matter what position you find yourself in: Know what your work is worth, acknowledge that people need to make a decent living and do not settle for less. Even in times of Covid-19. This is self-care and the behaviour needed of all of us if we want a healthy industry to work in. If you personally don´t need the pay, donate it to people who do need money. Let us help each other in these tumultuous times instead of exploiting desperation.

8. Support each other.

Feel free to drop me a line if you have interned on any of the teams I worked with or if I was your coach/manager/mentor. I can write an honest recommendation for you on LinkedIn, as I am aware everything has gotten even harder for people at the beginning of their career these days. What can you do to make your industry inclusive and fair?


We Are All Coloured

I am the originator of this image, but I am donating it as a Creative Common (CC) image, with the condition that it is used to support justice for all human beings. In any case, I hope to encourage open debate and fairness for everyone’s benefit.

Who are people of colour? What does POC mean? Who is included in the abbreviation BIPOC?

We are all coloured. I created this poster several years ago to raise awareness about racial equality. The polarities of black and white aren’t doing anyone justice. In my opinion, these labels are a symbol of simplified thinking and aren’t getting us any closer. I hope one day we will not need these or other dividing terms anymore but simply treat all humans fairly.

Technically speaking, human skin colours range somewhere on the spectrum between brownish and pinkish shades. The alert reader will have noticed a more fluid use of labelling here. From the viewpoint, as a colour consultant and personal stance, as an advocate for human rights, we are all people of colour (POC). This is definitely not the classic definition of POC or BIPOC black, indigenous and people of colour. In general, POC refers to people that are not seen as ‘white’.

All lives matter. Everyone´s wellbeing matters.

All of the above said I despise the racist injustice and violence caused by ‘White’ Supremacists many people seen as having darker skin tones have faced for hundreds of years. I pledge for a world that is fair to all of us and I believe a large part of the current civil rights movements have this shared goal.

Millions of people worldwide are exposed to racial, ethnic, cultural and social discrimination and are suffering from violent attacks on an emotional and/or physical level. Examples would be the Rohingya people in Myanmar, the Romani people in Europe, African-Americans and Latin-Americans in the United States, genocides amongst different groups in Africa and so on.

Or how about publicly less visible forms of systemic injustice? Let me just name two examples. Modern-day slavery, present in almost every country and Female Genital Mutilation present in at least 31 countries worldwide. The list is too long to mention all forms of systemic injustice here but you get the picture. I doubt there are many countries, where there is no racial, ethnic, cultural and social injustice we should fight.

Is it the right time to also speak up for justice for all, as a so-called ‘white’ Central European woman?

I have hesitated as I don´t mean to take anything away from the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement. However, I feel the current debate about human rights should be more far-reaching and holistic than it generally is. Originating from Austria, the country where Adolf Hitler was born, a feeling of inherited guilt is ingrained within my country’s culture. Unfortunately, considerably large parts of my countries population are still against a lot they deem foreign or different.

I asked myself, whether it is my place to also speak up for justice for all right now. As a so-called ‘white’ woman, that lived in three EU countries, I have seen and sometimes faced racial, ethnic, social, religious, and gender-based discrimination from people, that could be seen as ‘white people’ and ‘people of colour’ in all those countries and other places on several occasions. This is why I decided to write this article, as I feel there are too many places in this world, where not enough is done to ensure human rights are afforded to everyone.

I think it´s time to understand, that no bigger injustice has ever made a smaller injustice okay and no previous violation of human rights should justify following violations of human rights.

How is this related to the Black Lives Matter movement?

Some of this might seem as if it´s a different topic, and yet, it boils down to the same demand: We have to create safe and fair living conditions for all human beings.

Does any of this mean, human rights violations – very often systemic injustice – against the so-called ‘Black’ Community are any less despicable? Absolutely not. I am aware the ‘Black’ Community has suffered disproportionately compared to many other groups of people. I am also aware the Black Lives Matter movement is a movement that supports equal rights and just treatment for everyone.

Coming from a relatively safe country and what many see as a privileged position, I don´t mean to compare my situation to any of the experiences many people face daily. Nonetheless, I do believe that we have to use this time to change how we deal with injustice on all levels.

The examples and personal experiences described in this article are by no means representative of any group of people. Injustice needs to be fairly addressed though, no matter who causes it, for whichever reason.

The danger of algorithms and living in a bubble.

So far, the common political strategies were to play-off different groups of people against another group. Tactics often were to discredit individuals or certain groups, rather than allowing to discuss uncomfortable topics from all viewpoints. Is this how we want to continue? Sadly, in recent years many have lost the ability for open and honest debate with people, that do not share their mindset 100%. Algorithms in social media have intensified this trend of living in one´s bubble.

Language is powerful. What is the best way to deal with sensitive issues?

I do not claim to have the answer to one of the world´s biggest problems. All of this is a sensitive issue. To be honest, I am worried about not finding the right words. I dislike describing humans by dividing categories and yet it has often been unavoidable in my professional and personal life to provide the context needed to understand an underlying issue. Sometimes it feels impossible to describe anything in a neutral way, without unwantedly using offensive language.

I am not an expert on all politically correct descriptions and social tensions worldwide, so please forgive me, if I have unknowingly hurt anyone. Please feel free to contact me, if you have suggestions to improve the article, in order to write fairly. I am open to feedback. However, openly communicating with the best intentions is vital for positive change. My only intention here is to support the mindset, that all humans are worth the same and deserve justice. I hope one day we will not need dividing descriptions anymore. What I am certain about though is:

The human brain works thinking in categories.

Naturally, the human brain is built for clustering information in categories, to save energy, when dealing with complex issues. Stereotyping causes an emotional divide and can in the worst case lead to physical violence. I am sad it took this long, but I feel recent events have clearly shown us, it is time to make a conscious effort to stop saving energy and deal with complex issues in a fair and differentiated manner.

Everyone can make a difference.

Understanding the mechanisms of the human brain can be a starting point for the path many have set out walking, and not just talking about anymore. I see thousands of people everywhere in the world now demonstrating peacefully, to show their support for what is often sweepingly summarized as the ‘Black’ Community.

Frankly speaking, it disgusts me to see politicians stating they are worried about the potential spread of the Covid19 virus amongst protesters against injustice, without using their power positively to prevent a potential spread. To every problem, there is a solution. In this case, the solution is simple. Make bigger spaces available, so demonstrators are able to keep more distance.

Social change is possible.

The current rise of Black Lives Matter demonstrations expresses the deep-rooted belief of millions of people worldwide, that it is time to overhaul the complete system. Following the tragic murder of George Floyd, a so-called ‘black’ man in Minneapolis by a so-called ‘white policeman’ and others watching on 25th May 2020, signs for positive social change have spread globally. Supporting the fight against the discrimination, injustice and police brutality many humans face, hundreds of thousands of people of all colours are now demonstrating for equality, safety and justice for all.

Returning with my observations to my native Austria, that tiny Central European state with roughly 8,9 million inhabitants, thousands of people are now taking to the street to show their support for so-called ‘Black’ Communities worldwide. To understand the momentousness of this action, please let me explain the context. Firstly, Austria has no remarkable culture of demonstrating. Secondly, only a marginally small number of inhabitants is not considered as ‘white’. The ethnical mix in this region of the world is very different to the USA or the UK for instance. And yet, my native country has a tragic history and present problem with racial, ethnical, cultural and social injustice and cruelty. The truth is though, that most countries have (not that this makes it any better) and it is long overdue we seriously tackle this issue on a global and holistic basis. I ask all of us to not play the ‘you-are-guilty-and-or-privileged-therefore-your-opinion-does-not-count-game’, as we have become used to.

Have we reached a tipping point in the fight for human rights?

The sobering events of the recent days may be the tipping point for the social change many have been longing for. We all have the opportunity to participate in creating a fair world for everyone.

Let us please stop thinking in ‘black’ and ‘white’ (literally and metaphorically). All humans deserve justice, no matter what race, nation or ethnicity they are counted towards, what belief system, gender, sexual orientation or considered social status they may have, have had and might have one day. All of these categorizations would lose their importance if we finally create a world, where human rights are respected at all times and everywhere. There are and always will be many colourful nuances amongst human beings. If we are honest with ourselves, most of us need to learn to be full-spectrum humanists. Let us really create justice for all.