Episode 24: [Mini] 3 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Viz for Free


Welcome to episode 24 of Data Viz Today. Have you ever heard these words? "We don't have a budget for this work, but we can offer you exposure!" Whether you're more in the graphic design camp or the data journalism camp, you'll probably run up against this at some point in your freelancing journey. In this episode, I offer 3 questions to ask yourself before agreeing to do data viz work for free so that you can protect your time and engage in projects that are truly a win-win.

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  • Welcome! I'm Alli Torban.

  • 01:00 - If you’re a data viz freelancer, whether your foot is more in the graphic design camp or the data journalism camp, then you probably have run up against people who expect you to work for free… what they like to call “for exposure” or “for experience”... and you consider doing it because you’re building a portfolio or resume or trying to get your name out there to get more work.

  • 01:25 - In this episode, I offer 3 questions to ask yourself before accepting a free project.

  • 01:50 - Listen for my story about hearing this for the first time: “Not sure what you mean by rate...we will print it to give you exposure.”

  • 03:20 - Some people might think of it as paying your dues - you just need to suck it up and get paid nothing or very little at the beginning while you build up your expertise, and I’d tend to agree with the idea of working up the ladder, but I see a big problem with this ‘work for exposure’ model…

  • 03:43 - Unpaid work is a barrier to social mobility. You’re excluding the people who truly can’t afford to do any work for free. We want diverse voices and by making working for free as a requirement to building a portfolio or expertise, then we make hearing diverse voices that much harder. And the more that people accept working for free as ‘just the way you pay your dues’ then the more companies come to expect it and more people are asked to work for free year after year. And it’s a vicious cycle. Not to mention, it’s straight up rude to de-value someone’s time and effort.

  • 04:30 - I’m not going to sit here and tell you never to work for free in order to build up your expertise or portfolio, because we all have different situations and I have worked for free plenty too.

  • 04:45 - Here are three questions that you should ask yourself before data vizzing for free (so that all free work is super strategic!):


  • 05:00 - Question #1: Where does this fall on the ladder to your ideal job?

    • If you’re not really sure what your end goal is - like you want to be a data journalist for the Washington Post or you want be a freelancer who provides custom dashboards to local banks - then define that first. Then you can easily assess how this project fits on your ladder to your goal. Is this project a solid rung that you can stand on to get closer to your goal?


  • 05:56 - Question #2: Could you turn this into a passion project instead for similar or better exposure?

    • With social media, you can create and share a cool project so easily and it can spread to just as many eyes as if you had done it for a company or magazine.

    • So if you’re in a situation where you think this project is interesting and could get some eyes on your work… ask yourself if there’s a way you could do a similar project just on your own as a passion project. You get the chance to learn new tools or techniques by creating it, and then share it across your network, tag people who you think would be interested and get exposure for yourself.

    • If you want to hear more about how to create a fulfilling passion project, check out Episode 18: How to Start a Passion Project That Hones Your Skills & Opens New Doors.

      There are so many benefits - like you have complete control over the project, you’re able to direct people to your personal site, you get to see all of the metrics on views and engagement, which you probably wouldn’t get if you gave it to someone else, and this would be one fewer instance of someone getting work for free.


  • 07:35 - Question #3: Can this person or company afford to pay you for this work? Are they making money off of your efforts?

    • Your time has value. Your current expertise has value. Just because you’re not where you ultimately want to be, that doesn’t mean that someone should make money off of you without compensating you.

    • So if you got the point where you answered question 1 that ‘yes, this would be a solid rung on my ladder to my goal,’ and ‘no, this wouldn’t work better as a passion project,’ then ask yourself what exactly are they gaining by receiving work from you.

    • Are you saving them money by building a dashboard that will streamline their process? Are you giving them interesting content to print in a magazine on the same page as a paid ad? If they’re making money because of your work, then you should ask to get paid. Or at the very least, get creative and ask for some kind of trade. Like in return you get an in-depth case study or testimonial, or a day with the editor to shadow the release process.

    • If they are technically saving money or making money off of you, BUT it’s for a cause that you’re really passionate about, then that might be a good reason to agree to work for exposure.

  • 09:45 - Sometimes taking on a few free projects to show that you can deliver can help get you to where you want to be. You can benefit from the exposure, experience, testimonials, and the relationships. But on the other hand, you can’t buy food with exposure, and it limits opportunities for people who really can’t afford to work for free.


  • 10:05 - My final takeaway is that while I don’t like the idea of people expecting work for free, there are cases where it could be a win-win. Just make sure you acknowledge that this should only be a short season, and that you are really thoughtful about the answers to these 3 questions:

1. Where does this fall on the ladder to your ideal job?

2. Could you turn this into a passion project for similar or better exposure?

3. Can they afford to pay you / are they making money off of your work?

  • 10:45 - I hope that these questions help you make a more informed decision in the future so you can protect your time and engage in projects that are truly a win-win.

  • 10:55 - Have you ever worked for free and it turned out great? Or really bad? Hit me up on Twitter or Instagram… I’d love to hear what happened.

Allison Torbanmini, free