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.

  • Sara Dickenson Quinn

    Sara teaches in the areas of design, illustration, photojournalism and leadership. She encourages visual journalists to find their voice in the newsroom and to think beyond traditional job descriptions for ways to contribute their ideas, passions and abilities.


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