In early September, two up-and-coming fashion designers managed to anger a large part of the illustration industry. Appearing on BBC TV’s Dragon’s Den, twins Polly and Charlotte Vickery – aka Brat & Suzie – told the panel of potential investors that they pay artists a one-off fee of just £20 to design the illustrations for their T-shirts, which sell for around £25 each.

On Twitter, Facebook – and in pubs across the country, we guess – creatives vented their spleen about how insulting this fee was to their craft. “Brat & Suzie are obviously a start-up and don’t have the funds to pay illustrators properly, but £20 is just wrong,” says ‘master of pens’ Mr Bingo (mr-bingo.org.uk). (*Since this article was published, Brat and Suzie have contacted us. We have published this at the end of this feature).

This work by Ben Tallon was given away as part of Unicef’s Climate Kid campaign

In their TV interview, Brat & Suzie also mentioned that their artists get exposure through having their work appear on T-shirts, but Mr Bingo takes issue with this too. “Brat & Suzie have 1,103 ‘likes’ on Facebook and 1,470 followers on Twitter,” he spits. “Come on girls, that’s hardly impressive fucking numbers for spreading the word. [Artists] can bung an illustration on 50 screenprints, sell them for £20 each and they’ve got a grand. Why would they sell it to a company for £20 instead? It’s not good maths.”

Why do people think design work is worth so little, and how can we make them value it?

Lettering genius Jessica Hische says that the design community needs celebrate the commercial value of the work they see around them as much as its aesthetic quality. She also says that we “need to pat each other on the back for turning down work because it’s too low-paying. We need to say, ‘you are doing us a solid favour by turning down that cheap work’.”

Unfortunately, at some stage – usually shortly after graduation – most creatives have found themselves doing work whose quality or terms of remuneration they have cause to regret later. Ben Tallon remembers co-creating an “eye-scorchingly dismal” mural at a low-rent Mexican restaurant in Preston for a £25 tab. “If I could cross space and time, I’d slap the 2006 incarnation of myself quite hard and use the weekend [that project] consumed to promote myself and pay for my tea instead,” he says.

The difficulty, Mr Bingo observes, is that many recent graduates feel that working for little or no money in exchange for exposure is worthwhile because it establishes an artist’s or designer’s commercial credibility. In the end, however, it is self-defeating. “When people agree to work for free, it devalues the whole industry,” he says, “and can encourage greedy companies to take advantage as it becomes recognised as the norm.”

Master of brightly coloured vector art Ben O’Brien – aka Ben the Illustrator – says that the way to reinforce the value of design is to connect price with quality. He says clients need to understand that low payments equal poor-quality art that will make their business look, well, cheap.

Art by Ben the Illustrator for the Guardian, which he regards as paying decent rates

On the other hand, “a professional creative giving their time for a fair and credible sum is far more likely to bring you something of worth that will benefit your business,” he says. “I’m sure it’s safe to say that Honda have always paid a fair price for their ads; Apple pay their talented product designers a fair wage… If a business has any real understanding of how they want to be perceived in public, then they should understand that a fair budget will ensure a good final product.”

“It’s the same thing as if you are on [US small-ads site] Craigslist to get a sofa, and you see one for free,” Jessica says. “You might think there’s something tragically wrong with it – maybe there are bedbugs.

“But if you see a sofa on there for $2,500, you think, ‘oh man, that sofa must be amazing’. It’s the same with art – you set your own value. If you say you’re a cheap designer, you are a cheap designer.”

Even if you’re paid at what seems like a fair rate, it’s still possible to be exploited when a piece you did for one-off job at a one-off rate is suddenly used across a massive campaign – and you’re not seeing an extra penny.

Finding out and agreeing how a piece is to used is hugely important, says Ben the Illustrator. “In advertising, a company could use your artwork on a grand scale to pull in a lot of business for themselves. If you’re not being paid for your part in their profits, then you’re missing out. Advertising usage can be among the biggest payments an illustrator will see in his or her career.”

Ben Tallon agrees that it’s absolutely integral. When you are commissioned, you are selling a license to use your work, he says, and the price needs to reflect this – even in these austere times. “Otherwise you are hammering the industry into the ground job by job,” he says.

Alternative movie poster by Ben Tallon and Andy Thomson

So when is it all right to work for free? Despite having a section on his website called ‘Does Mr Bingo work for free?’ that begins “Fuck you motherfucker”, even Mr Bingo admits that sometimes it’s OK not to charge. “Yes, for charity, always. For mum too, that’s fine – unless she neglected you as a child. If that’s the case, invoice the bitch.”

There is one kind of work for a charity that should always be remunerated, as mentioned in Jessica’s much-tweeted-about flowchart ‘Should I work for free?’ (shouldiworkforfree.com): if you are asked by an ad agency or design firm to produce a piece for a charity, and they are charging the charity, then it’s fair that you be paid too.

What about being paid in kind? Ben Tallon believes that is acceptable as long as it seems a fair swap. One classic example is designing your accountant’s stationery in exchange for him or her doing your taxes.

“Trading skills in co-operatives or collaborative projects has helped me a great deal,” he says. “There’s definitely a place for free work; just respect yourself as a professional. Would your plumber fix your toilet for free because your friend might use him in the future?”

*Since this article was published, Brat and Suzie have contacted us with the following statement: "Since being on Dragons Den, we have had serious re-think in the way we work with our illustrators.  It has never been our intension to under value the work that the illustrators do for us. With a limited budget and resources we have grown the business from scratch and we really value the immense talent and hard work that goes into each design produced for us. Going forward with all our new collections our illustrators are paid on a day rate which having spoken to many of illustrators who have contacted us on Twitter and e-mails we feel is fair and to the industry standard."