Working Smarter Guide: Being In Work

Business planning means identifying your strengths and values as a designer – to guide the choices you make professionally including which skills you develop, and how you promote these skills to potential collaborators/employers. Making a business plan might seem pointless given how unpredictable our work can be, but making a plan is a useful way of managing this unpredictability, and of giving us a more objective perspective on our career path.

Your business plan is your road map to what you want to achieve, how you aim to achieve it, and in what timeframe. Refer to it frequently as a reference point when making decisions.

Your business plan should be a living document that is reviewed and updated at least once a year.

Your business plan could set out:

  • What you can offer: your skills and professional points of difference
  • Your ‘value proposition’. This is a short, simple statement that summarises why a client would choose you as a designer, or use your services
  • Your current position: professionally, financially, creatively
  • Targeted areas of skills development
  • Professional goals – within established timeframes
  • Markers that help you recognise how close you are to achieving each goal
  • Other professionals you use as a ‘benchmark’
  • Mission, Vision, Values
  • Marketing plan – your website is crucial.
  • Budget and cashflow forecast
  • SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats)

Your plan can be quite simple, but it needs to set some clear goals, timeframes for each goal, and clear measurable indicators of how you are going in reaching each goal.


For live performance designers business planning indicators might include:

  • Your income: this might be measured as an hourly rate against the hours that you actually work, or measured in terms of cash flow, or average fee per project.
  • The number of interviews or reach-outs you make in a year that lead to a work offer
  • The number of work offers received over a year
  • The percentage of offers coming from sectors that align with your goals
  • Whether your professional ‘benchmark’ has stayed the same or gone up/down
  • Job satisfaction – the percentage of jobs that ‘worked for you’ – were satisfying creatively, emotionally… you might want to give each project a star rating so you can quantify this very subjective indicator.

Indicators should be measured within a convenient, consistent period of time – 6 months or 1 year, or 5 years for longer-term business planning. Document your goals and indicators as clearly as possible, so when you review the plan in twelve months you will be able to measure your progress.

Useful Links

  • Strategyzer – Useful free business planning tools and videos
  • Creative Plus Business will help you write and carry out your business plan
  • – Government support for businesses in Australia
  • Guide to starting a new business – Australian Government site (
  • Auspicious Arts – this private arts company has good, user-friendly live performance-focused resources and a recommended newsletter for artists
  • Creating New Income – a toolkit to support creative practice. There you will find guides and resources to help generate revenue for your creative practice. The Toolkit is designed for creative practitioners and small to medium organisations and Create NSW has taken a ‘how to’ approach to each topic, detailing steps needed to grow and develop income streams from sources such as philanthropy, sponsorship….
State-based resources:

Tips & Tricks

  • ‘Work out who you are, and what you can offer that is authentic to your sense of who you are’
  • Creative Plus Business is a wonderful resource for all things creative business.’
  • ‘I have found it beneficial to have a longer-term business plan, but then break it down into 12-week action plans – 12 weeks seems more manageable to commit to’
  • ‘Even if your first ‘business plan’ is just a few dot points with a date, it will give you a point of reference in six months or a year when you look back and are ready to reevaluate and plan the next step’
  • ‘Consciously evaluate your career path regularly (every year) to see if you are heading where you want to go’
  • ‘My first business plan was simple – just five columns: goals; indicators; where I am now; where I want to be in X months time; and how do I get there?’
  • ‘Be prepared to diversify early – parallel and related careers sustain many designers and enrich their practice’
  • ‘You are not alone – business planning resources have a lot of great information and are yours to use. You don’t have to invent the wheel yourself.’
  • ‘Expect ups and downs’
  • ‘It’s a competitive world, so I had to think about my particular skills and areas of expertise for my personal ‘business model’
  • ‘Personally I have found it the most beneficial to have a longer business plan but then break it down into 12-week action plans. 12 weeks seems more manageable to commit to. This Creative Plus Business resource has been useful.’

The project that is ‘right’ will be different every time. Evaluate what is right for you based on your particular circumstances at the time. Sometimes we can not afford to say no. Sometimes it is a mistake to say yes, but we do anyway because we have bills to pay. Sometimes what seems like the perfect project can cause us grief. Or sometimes the one we were not sure about can be the best thing we have ever done, or at least a great learning experience that we can look back on with appreciation.

When you are thinking about your next move or offer ask yourself these questions:

  • What are my goals – now, in the short term, and also in the longer term?
  • Who do I need to be working with now to advance me to those goals?
  • Will this project confirm my reputation, or open up new areas of professional growth?
  • Will the project have good exposure, and will my work be noticed?
  • If I do this project, what other doors might I be opening or closing?

Once all of the potential career moves have been considered check the vital statistics:

  • Is the director/creative leader someone I respect and feel I can work with?
  • Is the production manager someone I respect and feel I can work with?
  • Does the production company have a good reputation for supporting designers? (Ask other designers who have worked with them recently.)
  • Will I be paid appropriately/fairly/on time?
  • Are there other reasons this could be a good project for me at this time?

If you answered yes to enough of these questions, try these:

  • Can I actually do it? Can I fit it into my schedule without compromising my other commitments?
  • Do I really like the script/conceptual territory (if devised)? Do I like it enough to devote 2/3/5 months of my life to the project? (This might be the most important question. You might want to start here).

If you decide to decline the project follow common courtesy:

  • Let them know asap.
  • Speak to the key players personally, especially the director if it was a personal offer from them.
  • Clashes of dates are a way of saying ‘no’ diplomatically.

For another way to help you decide, try this handy project appraisal form: Download

Tips & Tricks

  • ‘You need to know when to move on – when you need to say ‘no’ to designing another co-op, or working as an assistant, or when your association with a particular artist or company has run its course’
  • ‘If you are pitching to a company, make sure you like their work’
  • ‘Volunteer for something: join your guild, a writer’s group etc. Opportunities often come from making these genuine connections’
  • ‘Give yourself one goal for each job that you believe will make saying ‘yes’ worth it. For example, what is one thing you would like to learn from/on this job?’
  • ‘Imagine your CV in 5 years – what would you like it to look like? How can you work to achieve this?’


The contract sets out the terms of your work and the mutual responsibility of yourself and the contracting party. The contract defines your role, responsibilities and key conditions of the project.

Use the APDG Live Performance Agreement. It is excellent! It is a contract written by designers for designers, and reviewed by arts lawyers. If the company issues their own contract, use the APDG Agreement as a comparison to inform your negotiations, or you might want to incorporate sections from the APDG Agreement that are missing from the company-issued contract.

Contracts issued by companies are written from their perspective, to protect their interests. Don’t expect their contract to protect your interests – it is your job (and your agent’s job if you have one) to make sure your interests are being protected.

Read the entire contract carefully, and don’t sign it until you know what every clause means and how it affects you.

Many contracts have all of the details specific to your project in an associated document called the schedule. Make sure you agree to all of these specific elements, including key dates.

Many contracts include lengthy sections on company OH&S and Environmental/Sustainability policies which you must also read, understand and agree to.

Some things to watch out for in contracts:

  • Are your Superannuation and/or insurances covered? (see sections on Superannuation and Insurance for more detail.)
  • Are future productions, tours and royalties covered?
  • Check the cancellation clause – many designers were caught out by COVID cancellations
  • Does the schedule of fee payments suit you?
  • Are the design deadlines achievable?

Your contract should acknowledge that your designs are your intellectual property. In live performance practice you own copyright in your designs, unless the contract explicitly states otherwise.

Tips & Tricks

  • ‘If I haven’t received a contract by the time I need to start work, I let the production manager know, and they will often make sure it happens because they need the design to be delivered on schedule!’
  • ‘Even if I haven’t actually signed the contract yet, I don’t start work until I have agreed to the terms, or at least have a deal memo.’
  • ‘I read the contract like a hawk to make sure it works for me.’
  • ‘I look for ‘cut and paste’ clauses in the contract that have nothing to do with my role.’
  • ‘I have added a terms and conditions of employment link to my website, and I get the company to sign this before I start work.’
  • ‘I want to suggest that contracts need to be received and signed prior to starting a job, but my experience (even on bigger productions) is to receive a contract a few weeks into production, which is not acceptable – but happens. If this is the case I make sure to cover all major requirements in an email in which they accept prior to commencement of work.’

Deal Memos

Contracts are often exchanged late, and far too often well after we have started work. If you can not get a contract before you start work, at the very least insist on a deal memo (or letter of agreement) that confirms payment and key design dates. First payments may be paid under the deal memo, and you should make sure you receive first payment before you start.

Try sending the company a completed and signed copy of the APDG contract if your employer is having trouble issuing a contract or deal memo.
Download a handy Deal Memo template:Download

Tips & Tricks

‘Try sending the company a completed and signed copy of the APDG Contract (aka Live Performance Standard Agreement for Design) if your employer is having trouble issuing a contract or deal memo!’

An agent is someone who represents you. Most designers start their careers without an agent, and some professional designers choose to continue to self-represent.

A good agent is worth their commission, and a good relationship with your agent is essential to making it worthwhile. Agents are not location-specific – the best agent for you might be based in another state or territory. Expect to be in regular contact with your agent – this may be daily when you are negotiating a contract. Even when you have an agent it is a shared responsibility to find, negotiate and secure work.

  • When choosing an agent look at designers you admire and who represents them – it is good to be part of a strong cohort.
  • Be aware that agents bundle their clients on projects when negotiating with companies, so you may be linked with particular directors or co-designers represented by your agent, or not linked if they are represented by a different agent.
  • You can expect to be represented by more than one agent through your career. Don’t feel you need to stick with an agent if it’s not working for you.
  • Agent’s fees are tax deductible. They’re an expense to your business.
  • A standard agent percentage is 15% – 20% of your fee; when you are offered a fee it is preferable that you negotiate for the agent’s percentage is added to the fee offer as you are aiming for their fee to be cost neutral.
  • You can negotiate for your agent to do specific administrative tasks for you, for example booking travel arrangements or arranging meetings with other creatives.
  • Your agent will invoice for you, and follow up on late payments.
  • If you’re having problems with the company or fellow creatives, you can use your agent as a professional confidante.
  • An agent is especially helpful when negotiating non-traditional projects.
  • You can feel alone when operating as an independent design professional, and an agent can be your partner in business.

Tips & Tricks

  • ‘My aunt is a lawyer, so she checks my contracts for me, like an agent would’
  • ‘For mainstage productions, if you’re not with an agent you may not be on the radar of theatre companies when they’re programming their seasons.’
  • ‘I called a few of the designers I knew were represented by the agent I most wanted and had a chat about their experience. It was very helpful’

When you have decided you would like to do the project, give yourself room to negotiate. If you have an agent, include them in your thinking early. Most offers can be negotiated to give you a better deal – increased payment, more flexible design delivery dates, better conditions… The APDG Live Performance Agreement and the APDG Live Performance Design Guidelines will give you a place to start negotiating from.

  • Give yourself time to think – you don’t need to say yes or no straight away. Let the client/company know that you will get back to them within an agreed period of time (at a minimum 24hrs is reasonable), This gives you time to think and make sure you have not simply been swept up in the excitement of the job offer.
  • Have you got all the information you need to negotiate? Script, design delivery dates and production dates, fee, budget, director’s availability, co-designers, cast…?
  • Before you start negotiating, work out your bottom line – what you won’t go below on any part of the contract.
  • Work out your priorities – what conditions really matter to you.
  • Is the fee in line with the demands and complexity of the project? If you really want to do the project you might be happy with a lower fee or less favourable conditions. Or not.
  • Check if there are any special factors that will make this project more complex and time-consuming – is the script developed enough for you to start work? is the director available over the design period? Will there be complex cast factors? How much support will the company provide – for example is there a skilled production manager and appropriate department/s supervisor on-board?
  • Benchmark your fee against other relevant professionals, or other people working on the same project. APDG Guidelines provides useful wage benchmarking guidelines
  • Auspicious Arts Simple budget template provides Award rates for comparison artists and production roles
  • Break the fee down into the number of weeks of working at your weekly rate, to check that the fee is viable.
  • Negotiate on every point that matters to you. This might take some time. Try to not start working on the project while you are still negotiating.
  • If you have an agent and they are negotiating on your behalf make sure they know your bottom line and priorities.
  • And the golden rule of business practice:
    Don’t start work until you have agreed to the terms. You might not have an agreed contract, but you should at least have a letter of agreement (deal memo) stating what and when you will be paid and the agreed time commitment and deadlines.

Another helpful negotiation tool is to establish a standard fee structure and share this with a potential employer. This sets your base fee and removes emotion from early conversations.
Download a handy fee structure template
Any tips to add? Any questions? Contact us!

Let us get one thing straight: the APDG does not endorse any designer working for free, or for less than what they are worth. The APDG advocates for designers being properly remunerated – at all stages of their careers.

Having said this, many emerging and established designers are asked to be part of co-ops and profit share arrangements, or to give/donate their skills and time for passion projects.  You may also initiate the project with collaborators or on your own before there’s funding.

When contemplating becoming involved with such a project consider: what is the value of the project? Will it influence the direction your work takes, or open up new opportunities or collaborations? It is a moment to give back to the community? Different projects will have a different value to you – monetary, career progression, developing relationships, inherent social or artistic value of the work and so on.

When embarking in a co-operative effort or profit-share arrangement, be mindful of the following points:

  • As there is no formal employer/employee relationship in a co-op, nobody has the right to hire, fire or dictate the workings of the group.
  • The group should make decisions as a collective.
  • Every party should be witness to a transparent budget and should all be aware of financial updates or changes to key parameters.
  • All members of the group will be jointly liable for any debts incurred over the project, so financial transparency is paramount.
  • All creatives and workers need to be aware that they are not covered under WorkCover and therefore the ensemble should consider taking out accident and injury insurance and, possibly, public liability insurance.  Refer to the Insurance section of this document for further information. Always seek professional advice about Insurance.
  • Always create a formal, written Agreement that all participants agree to and sign. Download a template shared by Auspicious Arts Projects below:

Download a Volunteer Agreement Form template:Download

Key Links

  • This Kit from MEAA helps to engage productively in profit share productions and warns of some of the common traps.

Tips & Tricks

  • ‘If the offer is beneficial to both you and the co-op it may be worth it. If it’s only beneficial to the other person/group, it’s probably not.’
  • ‘Identify what support you require to deliver the expected design work e.g. assistance with sourcing, returns, budget management, scenic art etc.’
  • ‘Be wary of the carrot, “once we start making money we’ll pay you”’.
  • ‘Be OK when it is just a ‘money job’, and adjust your expectations’
  • ‘Make sure to ask if the whole team is part of the co-op/deferred payments, or if some members are being paid or paid in advance. There may be room to negotiate’

You may be a designer who discovers that the way the mainstream industry is set up doesn’t really suit the way you want to work. If you have an entrepreneurial streak, you might want to build your own opportunities around your particular skillset, an innovation, your distinctive way of working, or a gap in the market that you can take advantage of.

Live Performance designers have a great combination of intellectual, creative, technical and managerial skills that can be shaped and recombined in any number of ways. An increasing number of designers find ways to market all these skills at once – by promoting themselves as a ‘design service’ or ‘design enterprise’ that might encompass running workshops, niche making (for example 3D printing), allied design skills such as drafting or art finishing, grant writing, script editing, directing or project managing as well as, yes, designing shows.

Entrepreneurialism isn’t for everyone – you would need to be comfortable with a higher degree of risk and be good at self-promotion so that you can market your edge. If you are curious, hunt through the business grants and entrepreneurial workshops online:

It would be very rare for an arts worker to go through their career without regular, often extended, periods of being out of work. We can accept this reality by being open with ourselves and our peers through the ups and downs and the ins and outs of employment. To some extent, our survival and wellbeing in the arts industry depends on us finding ways to be comfortable with sometimes being ‘out of work’. This acceptance prepares us for the realities of our profession and makes us more resilient. With more and more people working in the precarious ‘gig economy’ across all sectors, we may actually be more resilient than many.

What does ‘being out of work’ mean?
There is the loss of income, a creative hiatus and, sometimes, the testing of our sense of self-worth. All of these factors can be challenging, but they can all be managed.


Because we tend to work contract to contract, the income fluctuations can be anticipated – we know when they are coming. Four to six weeks out from the last job ending we can see there is a gap ahead. The gap is unlikely to be filled short term by designing a production. Forward planning is key. Leading up to the gap, we can contact professional peers and ask what other work is available – as buyer, draftsperson, set dresser…. anything that fits our skillsets and keeps the income stream going. If nothing comes up and we are struggling to pay the bills over a longer period, Unemployment Benefits are our safety net – for us as for every Australian worker.


When out of work we may not have the creative rewards of design work to sustain us, but we can still be creative – updating websites, upskilling and networking with professional peers (including in the APDG). Remaining visible, keen and committed is essential.

See our Staying Finance page (‘Income Fluctuations‘ section) or Outgoing Costs page (‘Tax, Income Averaging‘ section) for more information on managing income fluctuations over time.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to being out of work is to our own sense of self-worth. Remember that every arts worker will go through this – it is not a value judgement. Take a moment to review your professional plan and where you want to be. Consider all the things you are good at and could be monetising. Talk to your closest peers and enjoy their understanding and support (and return the favour when they are dealing with it too).

Tips & Tricks

  • ‘I am ok with three or four weeks when I am not designing. More than that, I need to do a re-set, and review my professional plan.’
  • ‘The first time I applied for the dole I felt very conflicted, but then I realised I was just one of hundreds in the social security queue needing a bit of support until the next gig.’
  • ‘Everyone always asks “what are you up to?”, so when I’m not designing a show I have an answer prepared that I’m confident to tell people.’
  • ‘I’ve applied for the dole a few times but never actually got it, because work has landed and kept me solvent. It seemed like the jobs came ‘out of the blue’, but really they came out of peer contacts I had put energy into over previous months and year.’
  • ‘If I am not worried about paying the bills, I’m actually really happy putting some time into my website between jobs – it’s almost the only time I get to work on it!’
  • ‘I hate people telling me, ‘it’s a good time to rest’, ‘great time to up-skill’ … but it really is.’

Despite our best efforts, we might find ourselves working on a project where the work dynamic has deteriorated to such a degree that we are faced with the decision to stay and put up with it, or cut our losses and pull out. This is a very rare occurrence because most of the people we work with are ethical and know how to collaborate – but how do we protect our own interests in this kind of scenario?

Protect yourself right from the beginning by doing due diligence on your employer: do they have a good track record? Do they pay on time? Do they have a production team that will support you? (Read above, choosing the right work.)

The first signals may be: Have they signed the contract before you start work? Is the contract OK for you? Were negotiations amenable? Have they paid your first fee instalment? Have they set you up with a float and reimbursed it promptly? Have they turned up for meetings and kept to their word? Has important information been withheld? Have you been excluded from important processes or decisions? Occasional slip-ups may be unintentional and quickly remedied but be very conscious of ongoing patterns of behavior that may signal poor ethical conduct or lack of respect.

It is every Australian worker’s right to a non-discriminatory workplace (visit Be conscious of the kind of conditions that make a workplace hostile, including:

  • Discrimination due to gender, sexual orientation, race, age, ability, religion or national origin
  • Bullying, harassment, intimidation or threatening behaviour
  • Victimisation or ridiculing

Our work can be tough, but how do you recognise a situation that has gone too far?

  • If the problem is oppressive, pervasive or persistent
  • If your manager fails to act after you have made two or three attempts at conflict resolution
  • If your workload is unmanageable and your producer, director or company are not prepared to negotiate or find support for you
  • If your creative decisions are undermined
  • If you continually feel anxious, angry or depressed
  • If others in the company are also unhappy

The first step is to speak with your manager/s. You might do this informally at first, but if conditions don’t improve arrange a formal meeting. If the company has an HR person, make an appointment with them. In any meeting have a support person with you and take minutes. Have your thoughts prepared, and a very clear message on conditions, expectations and boundaries. Put these in writing as a record of your meeting and agreed action.

If mediation and conflict resolution fail, your choice is to stay or withdraw from the production. Both choices are tough. You may be juggling concerns about letting your team or the production down, your physical or mental health, or your creative integrity. As early as possible, and certainly before you decide, seek perspective from your peers and your agent if you have one. Consider seeking advice or support from the APDG – we provide support and advice, and may be able to provide informal advocacy for our members when requested. If you are a member of your union (MEAA) you may also be able to get industrial action or support.

If you decide to stay:
Protect yourself by setting clear non-negotiable boundaries. You might decide to keep these ‘exit trigger’ conditions private for your own peace of mind, or to let management know so they are effectively on notice. Seek emotional support to help you weather the storm (see our Wellbeing section for more on this). You might be able to get a peer/friend to work with you at a crucial point to ease the load and isolation (consider doing this for a designer mate also). Know that in a week or two it will be all be over, and you will be older and wiser.

If you decide to pull out:
You need to know, this is not the end of your career – you will get other opportunities. Notify your employer personally or in writing, and clearly and concisely state your reasons for withdrawing. You might be able to have your name taken off publicity for the show if your contract states this. You probably will forgo payment, but perhaps you wouldn’t have received this in any case.

And if you strike an unethical producer, director, manager or other artist let the APDG know, and ethically spread the word in your network so others are protected.

Tips & Tricks

  • ‘When I’ve found myself in a problematic collaborative experience I’ve canvassed options and privately planned an exit strategy, if not actually pressed ‘go’.’
  • ‘I would never go into a conflict resolution meeting alone. Take someone who can back you up and act as a witness’.’
  • ‘When I’ve been through problematic projects I made time afterwards to thoroughly reflect on the situation. I wrote it all out so I got to know my own boundaries better and what to look out for next time. I’ve even organised debriefs with people I trusted on the project – it helped.’

There will be times when you need to validate your contribution and stand up for your professional rights. You do not need to feel that you are alone; there is support if you need it.

You have the right to:

  • Be paid fairly and on time.
  • Receive superannuation, when applicable.
  • Hold intellectual property over your work.
  • Be credited for your work in programs and media representations.
  • Feel safe in your workplace, free from bullying and harassment.
  • Ensure your mental and physical health.
  • Be yourself and be respected for it.

Key Links

Tips & Tricks

  • ‘Join the APDG – your professional guild is here for you!’
  • ‘Seek advice from more experienced professionals, use them as a sounding board or as a mentor to work through the grey areas.’ APDG offers an annual mentorship program for emerging designers: MENTORAPDG 
  • ‘By NOT addressing your concerns, you disadvantage yourself on the next job, and you disadvantage every designer coming after you. We collectively need to make change to be heard and set an acceptable standard.’
  • ‘Ask questions early, and ask specific questions that will improve your working conditions’


The APDG makes its best efforts to make sure all information we post is correct, however Members use this information at their own risk. It is up to each individual to research the validity of resources they use. The APDG accepts no responsibility for information given in external links. Tips and services listed in this resource have been recommended by APDG designers, however their listing in this resource should not be construed as an endorsement by the APDG. 

SMARTER WORKING GUIDE / an ongoing APDG live performance resource.