Working for reduced or zero compensation has long been part of the creative professions. Since advertising’s early years, it’s been common practice for agencies to produce fully formed campaigns on their own dimes to woo prospective clients. If the client goes with another firm, well then, the other competing shops are out thousands (hundreds of thousands) of dollars’ worth of time and materials.
Designers have long felt that the practice of pitching to win new business separated them from their advertising peers. But speculative work has infiltrated this field, too: uninformed clients ask designers to create work “just to see if we like your style”; organizations hold “design contests” to generate logo concepts from professionals and nonprofessionals without compensation; even pro-bono work gets murky if both parties’ intentions are in the wrong place.
It’s Not New
Clients seeking cheap (or free) design work isn’t new news … 20 years ago, those clients just went to the corner quick-print shop, asked the owner to typeset their company’s name, throw in some clip art, and print up 500 business cards. Ten years ago, clients asked their executive assistants to whip up a sales flyer in WordPerfect.
These days, thanks to design software that’s readily available to the untrained, technology that makes long-distance client relationships possible and social media trends that let everyone in on the action, crowdsourcing has become the new corner print shop. Want a logo design for your new small business? Throw the project out to the masses (99designs.com) or buy an off-the-shelf package (LogoWorks.com) and, Boom! A designer (or three) you’ve never met, who knows little about your company and market, with questionable training, cranks out a handful of vanilla solutions for you to choose from, for $5 or $99 or whatever.
It’s Caused Much Hand-Wringing
What’s the design industry done about it? We’ve done a lot of hand-wringing, but we haven’t changed our practices much. Efforts like NoSpec have gone further to educate pros, students and clients about the perils of devaluing design—certainly more helpful than the flurry of woe-is-us posts that hit design forums after a Forbes article in February 2009 famously labeled the design profession “snooty” and touted CrowdSpring.com and other creative-crowdsource sites. (Full disclosure: HOW encountered a backlash in late 2009 when we inadvertently promoted a new crowdsourcing logo-design service from an advertiser.)
Professional organizations must tread lightly in advocating against unpaid work, as AIGA discovered in the 1990s, when the Federal Trade Commission ruled that any statement or code of ethics that advised members not to work for free amounted to price-fixing. Its current position supports fair compensation for design work, and delineates between spec work (where a creative works for free in hopes of compensation) and unpaid work like pro-bono projects or internships (where services are willingly given away). The Graphic Artists Guild warns its members against competitions where the sponsoring organization retains all rights to all submissions, and helps creatives avoid unfavorable contracts.
It’s Not Going Away
Where does this leave us? With two sides to the debate. Read the complementary articles in HOW’s July issue and consider your own position. Perhaps, as Debbie Millman writes, this trend does devalue our services. Perhaps, as David Baker observes, it weeds out the low-level clients we shouldn’t be working with, anyway. Is crowdsourcing really “stealing” work from professional designers—or has it simply replaced the quick-print guy and the executive assistants?
Baker notes that crowdsourcing is here to stay. What are we going do about it?
One answer to that question may be: Let’s reinvent crowdsourcing so it works to the benefit, not the detriment, of both parties in the exchange. Maybe we could invent a way for a small group of designers, vetted for their expertise, to engage with a client, present their ideas, earn compensation for those ideas—and then the designer whose concept is chosen is further paid to fully develop and execute that idea. Talented creatives from all over the globe could participate in a project they would otherwise have no access to. Designers and clients have an opportunity to interact, so the solution isn’t derived in a vacuum (as is often the case with crowdsourcing). Clients can connect with a range of qualified creative thinkers to build their business. It doesn’t have to be cheap. Everyone gets paid. The client chooses the best solution.
In an article on BusinessWeek.com, designer and Behance founder Scott Belsky posits just that solution, modeled on the project-bidding process that architects have used for years. He writes:
Read more about spec work and crowdsourcing:
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