Unpaid creative suicide: the case for good design

Good design matters. It can make you pay attention. It can make you see things differently. It can bring an idea to life in ways that nothing else can. And it IS worth paying for.

A situation this past couple of weeks has led to me thinking (more than usual) about the role of design and designers. What follows is a kind of ode to design – which may come as a surprise to some given that I am, at times, a vocal critic of the practices of some agencies and designers, especially as it relates to what they call “brand”.

Not many people know this, but my background is design: graphic design, to be specific – Bachelor of Art (Design). I was lucky to go through design school long before computers took over, and what design school taught me was how to think.

How to think about problems; how to look at things from different observation points; how to see connections that might not be otherwise obvious; and, yes, how to translate all of that into a visual solution: Save for the last part, I still use what I learned as a designer in my work every day.

My design school also taught me to value and respect what we did.

As a practising designer in my various companies, my partners and I had one iron-clad rule. We didn’t do work on spec. Ever. The client either paid for concepts, for our work, for our product, or we didn’t play. Sure there were others out there, advertising agencies in particular who would do elaborate pitches on the chance of getting the brass ring. But I thought then, and think now, that it’s a fool’s game that devalues design for everyone.

To use the phrase we coined, it was and is “unpaid creative suicide.”

And, for the most part, our clients were happy to pay for all our work and we were happy not to work with those who weren’t.

We worked as partners with our clients and, as in any partnership, respect and value for what the other brings to the table is fundamental in making the relationship work. And long-term relationships are what we had. Clients stayed with us for years, took us with them when they moved to new companies, became evangelists for our work. Our work wasn’t a commodity that just anyone could provide.

Today the world for designers and, in particular graphic designers, is changing. Web sites such as 99Designs.com create a “marketplace” where design is a commodity to be traded on spec. And it appears that today’s designers are signing up for this newest form of “unpaid creative suicide.” From where I sit, the equation is simple, if you don’t value what you do and defend your right to be paid for it, no one else will.

Consider professions such as accountants and lawyers and even electrical or plumbing trades. None of those professionals do their work on spec, in competition with others doing the same work and the client only paying the one “they like”. I can see it now, get 15 accountants to do your tax return for you and only pay for the one you like…sounds crazy but, in essence, that is what sites like 99Designs are doing!

I may no longer practise as a designer; however, I fundamentally believe that the value of good design should never be underestimated. I also believe that you do not get good design (not even great design, which is a whole other thing) by treating it as a faceless, interchangeable, low-value commodity.

Good design matters and goes far beyond the cosmetics it is so often associated with. Good design can make you pay attention. It can make you see things differently. It can bring an idea to life in ways that nothing else can. It can turn a company identity into an icon. It can turn a poster into a clarion call. It can make you laugh and make you cry. It can make you care. And it IS worth paying for.

I’ll be the first to admit that all designers are not created equal. The rising numbers and falling standards of design schools have contributed to the problem, releasing designers to the marketplace who are capable of little more than the efficient operation of a computer graphics program. (As a side note, when I went through my four-year course the lecturers were brutal and only one in three finished, a number that was similar for other designers I worked with, I’m not sure what that ratio would be today…)

The design profession itself also contributes to the problem. If designers and agencies banded together to create professional standards of conduct and refused to do spec work the practice of clients requesting it would cease overnight.

So, yes, I believe clients should pay for any design they commission. They should also do their homework before they agree to work with a designer. Much as they would if they were looking for an accountant or a lawyer – ask for references and make a point of talking to them. Look at the quality of the work they have done for other people. Talk to them about their creative process; ask how they will deal with a situation where you aren’t happy with the work. Answer their questions and make resources available so they can learn about what matters to you. Work with them in partnership to help make your organisation and what it stands for visible to stakeholders.

And show that you value their work by never asking them to commit “unpaid creative suicide”.

See you next week.

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