As is usual with any high-profile spec work or crowdsourcing ‘event,’ Guy Kawasaki’s recent contest for the cover design of his upcoming book Enchanted raised an internet firestorm with graphic designers claiming that he was “selling out” the design profession.
Kawasaki pushed back, claiming that crowsourcing was the route to go for creativity and choice, gave unknown designers an opportunity, and that designers opposed to crowdsourcing best ‘deal with it’.
No beef with the guy.
As Kawaski himself points out, I have no beef with him (used to read a lot by him, and about him in MacWorld and similar Macintosh evangelist magazines.) Should also point this out – I don’t consider myself a book cover designer, despite having designed quite a few, during one of my previous lives as a magazine art director, and usually the result of a project that started off with “yo, graphics guy – design a cover for this book.” While most of the titles are now out of print, a few of them sat on bestseller lists for a while. Despite this, I always felt that book covers were left up to people who specialize in, well, book covers as it’s a niche part of the graphic design profession, with an entire subset of rules, techniques and considerations. That’s why, when Kawasaki announced his contest, I followed the conversations about it, and even had a few back and forths about his opinions about spec work and design contests. I think it’s safe to say he’s pretty much in the pro camp.
For the purposes of this post, we’re going to accept all of Guy’s claims at face value. We’ll grant (if only temporarily) that crowdsourcing and design contests offer unknown and upcoming designers a way to get their foot in the door, and an ‘opportunity’ to design a bestselling book cover for a world famous author. And that crowdsourcing does offer lots of choice, creativity and inspiration for the client (we’re not even going to get into the fairness, exploitation or even pricing debate – other than tell you that Kawasaki offered $1000 for the winning designer.)
It’s all about the numbers.
Hard to argue with the numbers with 240 designers entering. Between them, they produced over 750 entries for the Enchantment cover contest (though I expected more, considering Kawasaki’s high profile – a similar contest for Mega-church preacher Rick Warren‘s now ‘postponed’ The Hope You Need netted him over 3,000 entries). Once the selections were whittled down to 5, Kawasaki opened up voting, and encouraged people through his Twitter account to vote for their favorites (below – winning entry is second from left.)Some of the covers produced, in my somewhat limited expertise with book cover design, were really nice. Especially the version with the heart shaped ribbon (above – second from right). That one really caught my eye (and according to the final votes, a lot of other eyes). Concept is very cool. Tied into the Enchantment theme. Yep, that’s a decent cover alright. Maybe Kawasaki is right and designers were on the wrong track with this crowdsourcing debate. Maybe these design contests were great for sourcing creativity an original ideas. Maybe anyone could design book covers after all, elitist, snooty designers be damned. Maybe. And then again, maybe not.My favorite entry consists primarily of a stock photograph. Nothing wrong with that per se, but there’s nothing to stop anyone from using the that wonderful heart image on their book cover too (relax, this entire issue is pretend). Nothing at all. And like the 900+ people who done so before me, I simply purchased a license for the image from iStock, threw it on a quickly comped book cover and Bob, as they say, is your Uncle.“But that’s plagiarism!” you’ll exclaim.
No, it isn’t.
I paid for the image all nice and legal. According to the iStock website, the copyright of the picture belongs to Viktoriya Sukhanova (who, by the way, would probably be honored to have her work featured on Kawasaki’s book). It is a wonderful image. But as it’s available as stock photography, anyone can use it after paying a few bucks. As long as that use is within iStock’s license terms and conditions, which putting it on book cover (under 499,999 impressions) most certainly is. Here’s my receipt:
Takeaway? There’s a few. If the above cover won the contest (it came in second), and for less than $25, I can create a book cover that is almost a carbon copy of the famous Guy Kawasaki’s upcoming book cover – probably a bestseller the minute it hits print – and there isn’t a lick anyone can do about it (relax – it’s pretend, remember). If Kawasaki selected this cover, and wanted to market the book as a ‘brand’ using the heart shaped ribbon – a not unreasonable assumption to make – there’s nothing to stop anyone from riding on his coattails. Maybe even selling some mugs, or T-shirts with the soon-to-be famous heart shaped ribbon (they’ll need an extended license from iStock). That is, in fact, the very essence of stock photography (and why, similar to graphc designers’ spec work, many photographers curse its existence). Granted, I’d be a dooshbag for doing so (relax – it’s all pretend) but there’s very little evidence that we’ve running short of dooshbags, especially when it comes to making some quick cash on the back of someone else.
Opportunity for unknown designers?
But let’s get back to Kawasaki’s original arguments – that crowdsourcing offers opportunity for unknown designers to get their foot in the door. Sure, but anyone that exerted any creativity to enter this particular contest was pushed aside by covers that are stock photography (several of the top ten) and in one of the top five selections, a free vector download, designed by Ravi Poovaiah of IIT Bombay, and originally intended to give hosptals and public buildings in South East Asia an accessible symbol system. This look similar?Maybe Guy Kawasaki has no issue with using readily available stock photography or free vector art for his book covers (in fact, he ran a similar contest with iStock for his Art of the Start bestseller) but that’s not really the issue is it? Is this creativity befitting a $1000 price tag? Kawasaki got a load of ‘buzz’ about this contest (which I suspect was actually the real purpose of the enterprise) so I’d imagine yes. For him. But what about lesser known folks and lower profile projects whose only purpose is to get a decent cover design? Maybe an original cover design?
Wasted efforts, unpaid labor and uncredited talent.
In terms of the other designers who entered the contest, some putting in the effort to create original, custom work, was it a worthy exercise for them? You tell me. In terms of the glory that getting credited for Kawasaki’s book cover brings, I was kinda hoping that Viktoriya Sukhanova got some of it, because she’d developed the concept for the heart-shaped ribbon photograph sometime before Christmas Eve 2009 (when it was originally uploaded to the iStock site). And long before Guy Kawasaki decided to run a contest to design the cover for Enchanted. I guess as this cover design didn’t win, the exercise is moot. Though if we wanted to perform the same exercise with the winning entry, we could.All we have to do is plunk down $25.00 to iStock and download this butterfly. Download the free font Sketchbook Bold. And then we can do this too..Ain’t having something designed in the open grand?
Uhm, yeah. About that winning entry.