Why designers don’t work for free, as HuffPost contest reminds journalists

The Huffington Post hit a nerve in the professional design community when the website announced a contest to design its new Politics icon.

“To ask designers to work for nothing suggests that design has no value,” said Richard Grefé executive director of AIGA (aka the American Institute of Graphic Arts). Grefé was one of dozens of people to respond negatively on the Huffington Post site.

Many considered the mere wording of the call for entries to be demeaning. It read:

“Do you know your way around Photoshop or other design programs? Have a cool idea for a logo that screams ‘awesome politics coverage’? Enter it in the HuffPost Politics Icon Competition.”

Good design is a great deal more than proficiency with software, said Grefé. “A good design communicates a concept,” he said, suggesting that reasoned choices behind an image equate with levels of professionalism.

The differences in quality are akin to “someone saying ‘I am sick, so I’ll go into a pharmacy to get some thing to feel better,’ ” said Grefé, “versus saying ‘I am sick, so I will go to a doctor.’ ”

Some people will ask why spec design is a big deal, when unpaid contributors are regularly being encouraged to submit written stories and photographs for publication. The answer lies in the organized history of the AIGA, founded in 1914, which has discouraged speculative design work since their guidelines were established.

The AIGA worked to ensure that professional designers should be compensated fairly for their work long before technology allowed for easy, free publication of writing and photography. AIGA guidelines are revised as industry developments warrant—most recently in 2009 when they were eased to take the Web into account.

The guidelines warn of the risks for both client and designer when it comes to spec work:

Clients risk compromised quality. Little time, energy and thought can go into speculative work, which precludes the most important element of most design projects—the research, thoughtful consideration of alternatives, and development and testing of prototype designs.

Designers risk being taken advantage of. Some clients may see this as a way to get free work; it also diminishes the true economic value of the contribution designers make toward client’s objectives.

There are legal risks for both parties should aspects of intellectual property, trademark and trade-dress infringements become a factor.

Grefé is not surprised that there might seem to be a conflict with this contest and the ever-expanding call for community contributions and crowd sourcing. He understands the ideas of co-creation and openness within digital publishing. But he feels that everyone should be compensated for professional work.

A better question might be: Why would the Huffington Post veer away from their regular branding with this logo?

HuffPost spokesperson Mario Ruiz told Poynter’s Julie Moos:

“We asked fans of HuffPost Politics to submit suggestions for social media icon designs as a fun way of enabling them to express their passion for politics — and for HuffPost. … So while AOL Huffington Post Media Group employs an in-house team of more than 30 talented designers, we felt this would be a lighthearted way to encourage HuffPost Politics users to express another side of their talents.”

Design without strategy, according to Grefé, can lead to a fragmented and lower-standard brand.

In 1997, when the White House and the National Endowment for the Arts announced a Millennium Logo competition, AIGA protested heavily.

“When the marks (logos) came in,” Grefé said, “they realized that none of them could truly capture the concept of the nation at the millennium.”

Subsequently, the White House and NEA asked AIGA to help them with an alternative process that was consistent with their principles. AIGA arranged for five designers to present their approach to the Millennium project. The Carbone Smolan Agency was ultimately selected and paid to develop the design. The agency did not offer spec examples of what the identity would look like.

AIGA members in practically every community have encountered contests for festival logos, posters, t-shirt designs and such.

A better way for a company to seek a new icon or logo, said Grefé, is to reach out to the community to review existing work, done by professionals. Then select a designer based on his or her proposal. To ask hundreds of people “to put the work in for nothing—with very little chance of being selected is just not appropriate,” said Grefé.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    Again, it has to be mentioned — Poynter is disingenuous with these slams on “free work” as long as it continues to back unpaid internships as a way to get hired into journalism.

    Unpaid internships have been a terrible development. They ensure that only the people who can afford to take them are in consideration for future positions.

    Finally, the people who are leading the cheers for design should answer this question: When will this approach start attracting readers? It hasn’t so far; the circulation declines prove it.

  • Anonymous

    Ah, so we should all “adapt” and work for free?

  • http://www.facebook.com/alfred.ingram Alfred Ingram

    Good pro bono work is still professional. Research is done. audiences considered. A strategy is defined and executed with appropriate client feedback. The same professionalism that goes into commercial work. The reward os in advancing a worthwhie cause. 

  • http://twitter.com/justinph justin heideman

    The problem with spec work is that too often large organizations that can clearly afford to hire a designer use open calls in lieu. All too often in these situations, design as an afterthought or wrapper, rather than a core business decision. Designers are against spec work because we’re constantly advocating for design to be recognized as part of nearly everything, and spec work belittles that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasonfeifer Jason Feifer

    Remember that line from Other People’s Money? “You know, at one time there must’ve been dozens of companies making buggy whips. And I’ll bet the last company around was the one that made the best goddamn buggy whip you ever saw. Now how would you have liked to have been a stockholder in that company?”Grefé sounds like the union boss for the last buggy whip company—though instead of helping his members adapt to the changing world around them, he’s stomping his feet and demanding that everyone else stop making cars. I understand that he wants to stand up for his members’ rights to be paid, but he does them no favors by sounding ignorant and crotchety.I’m glad I’m an editor (with zero relationship to HuffPo, I promise). I’d be embarrassed to have this man speak for me.

  • http://twitter.com/ryananderson Ryan Anderson

    It’s a bit disingenuous to say that designers don’t work for free – most freelancers and agencies spend a lot of time on pro bono work for charities or other worthwhile causes. There is definitely a pervading philosophy that companies that make money and are going to make money with the work we provide should pay for the work. You don’t see a lot of factory workers working at famous factories “for the exposure.” Is the pushback bigger with design? Absolutely – because we deal with the “do it for the exposure” nonsense every day.

    The issue is supply and demand. Being a designer or being a writer are both specialized professions that take training to be good, but the barrier to entry for amateurs is much lower for writers, so pros have to content with more amateurs in that field. Either way, if you’re doing work for a company for free, you should really re-evaluate what it is you’re doing… and maybe direct some of that energy to a worthwhile charity or cause.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Eric-Sorensen/100000467251168 Eric Sorensen

    I’m cancelling my AIGA membership.  Worthless to me.