So on my last post, I said I had quite a rant forming regarding some of my conversations regarding ethical and business problems within the graphic design industry. While I’m not going to get into the exact details of any of my discussions at Secret Handshake (to save anyone any potential embarrassment – including me), I WILL try to lay out my thoughts regarding some of the issues that came up.
Spec Work, the Devil Everyone Knows
Spec work has always been quite a bugbear in the design industry. Spec work is basically doing some or all of a design as part of a bid for actually acquiring the job. It can also be used as a potential sales tool to drum up new business from prospective clients. You usually never recoup your losses from doing spec work. Most design organizations expressly forbid it. Just about everyone does it at some point in time though. It’s usually small companies that seem to demand it (either out of ignorance or malice – it can be a clever way to get good design for free or very little cost) but a few of the big guys often have it as a part of their bids as well. And what the 500 pound gorilla wants, he usually gets.
The debate over spec work has heated up over the recent years. With the rise of crowdsourcing websites and contest sites like 99designs becoming popular, the debate has gotten quite heated with everyone taking sides.
Me, I don’t mind spec work so much. You’ll never get rich doing contest sites like 99designs and you’d have to be careful to balance out paying work to spec work. While I do not like to talk about work too much on this blog, the company I work for does quite a bit of spec work. Maybe a bit too much as of late, but the concept works rather well for the lottery ticket industry. And besides, we’re primarily after the printing contracts for the lotteries rather than the design of it tickets itself, and that can get quite lucrative. Though not as lucrative as it has in the past…
So unless you’re after big multi-million dollar printing contracts, wherre taking a hit on the design end can still add up to big bucks further down the road, doing lots of spec work doesn’t pay. Or at least not very much. But it can lead you to future work that does. A tactic many young designers use to get noticed by agencies and studios is re-designing said agencies work the way you feel it should be done. Doesn’t always work, but I know a designer or two who got hired for doing just that. That’s basically spec work – you don’t ever get paid for that. And no guarantees of it working either.
I also find the tone (and many of the arguments themselves) similar to the ones used in the mid-nineties over royalty-free stock photography. Photographers were all up in arms about selling of their work to stock photography companies and not getting any royalties for any future sales. Before royalty-free, the only way to get photography was to set up a shoot with a photographer or sign complex contract agreements where a photographer (or illustrator) could get some nice residuals for each sale and use of a stock image. A few things have changed in that regard – for example, I don’t think anyone is selling CDs of images for only 60 bucks – and now many of these royalty-free places are considered legitimate places for photographers to get work. I wonder if there’s a way for these contest sites to change for the better… hmmmmmm…
And some of the other problems I have heard, like lack of good customer direction and input, I find rather questionable. As someone who has worked in the design trenches for years, I actually found the design briefs at 99designs rather refreshing. They were hardly perfect and still pretty bare, but way better than most I’ve had to deal with. Marketing people as a general rule are fairly obtuse by nature and many businessmen have few clues as to how to talk to creative people effectively. And if you work in a larger firm, it’s quite possible you won’t have any direct contact with the client anyways.
So while, my contact with contest siteses will and probably always shall be limited, all I can say to any designer is, “buyer beware”. And try to make certain you are balancing out the spec work with paying work. Have to keep the lights on and the belly full somehow.
The Devil You Don’t Know
Another interesting dilemma that is facing young designers these days is start-up companies looking for an investment rather that paying money for design. At first glance this looks worse than spec work. You are either donating your time for free on the hopes of cashing in big should the start-up succeed, or possibly even investing some of your hard earned money with, again, the hopes of cashing in big some point in the future.
For anybody in the design biz, you get pretty cynical quickly when it comes to the machinations of businesspeople. See? I even used the word machinations to describe them. Machinations is not a word you use when describing someone you trust. So even if some guy has an awesome idea for a start-up, you’ll find lots of designers will have a very negative view of such proposals. Not to mention not having much money to be investing. Designers (and other visual artists) are not always the richest of folk. And it sounds just too much like someone not willing to pay for design. Another clever way of getting something for nothing.
I would be one thing, if it was someone I knew and trusted well. Or maybe if it was a project I helped initially form (and therefore strongly believed in myself) rather than coming in mid-stream. Or perhaps a fun or cool project that would not take up too much of my time. Then I’d have some fun or at least an interesting story to tell. But otherwise, not for me. And not for a lot of other designers it seems as well.
Though as someone has pointed out to me, no reward for no risk…
Nah, still not interested.
The Cure for the Common Ill
So what to do about all this?
I think all of these are symptoms of one thing: lack of placing real value upon design in our culture. Regardless of all the cool looking gadgets and clothes Western people obsess about, nobody really like paying for design. Or at least not paying very much. That’s going to have to change. And that will take a lot of time. And it’s going to be up to all of us creative folk to help educate the public about what design is to our culture and why it’s important that creative people get compensated accordingly.
In the mean time, I think places like 99designs could change a few things they do that might make it more appealing for designers.
Number one, some sort of portfolio review before setting up an account. Even before such sites existed, the design community has had to deal with people who buy a computer with Corel Draw installed and call themselves a designer. This usually leads to lackluster work, gives all the rest of us a bad name, and reinforces the idea that design is expendable. The portfolio review wouldn’t have to be extensive. Or even have to have that high a standard. Just the fact that somebody would have to take the time to assemble a few items to prove they could design would weed out a lot of lazy people.
Number two, keep design submissions a secret. Everybody can usually see the designs as they are submitted (and can see customer feedback if any) and people are gaming that like crazy. Can you say shark infested waters? You let the people who submit first force the client to give feedback and more input, letting everyone else to benefit. I don’t think so. Private submissions will level the playing field and keep shenanigans down to a minimum.
Number three, guaranteed winners. Even if you don’t think anyone deserved to win, a contest without any winners is not much of a contest. The designers are taking a risk of not being paid. Only fair the contest runner has to take the risk of forking over a few hundred dollars for a design they might not care for. Besides, if the site really does have good designers, and you gave good inputs, you should have a fairly descent design in the end. Maybe one that might need a little tweaking after the contest, but hey, better than nothing right?
So until we get society on track to really value good design, good designers, and pay for it, maybe we should help get these contest sites become more designer friendly, rather than beating up young designers for doing the same things most of us older veterans do a lot more regularly than we would sometime like to admit.
Oh, and whenever there’s a local, public contest for a municipal logo or flag design, I think design groups and their advocacy groups should should simmer down a bit. These kind of contests are very rare, get the public at large interested in design, and designers come off sounding really whiny whenever we complain about them. Besides, I think everyone secretly thinks that the local designers who enter these things will win these over amateur submissions anyways. Just saying.