Couple of events reverberating around the design world over the past couple of days that are sort of indicative of where the profession is heading. The first was evangelical pastor Rick Warren, his publisher Zondervan, and their collective decision to hold a $5,000 (upped from the original $3K) book cover design contest on 99designs. The second was iStockphoto‘s announcement that they would be offering “pre-fab” stock logos, promising a $5 submission “bonus” for the first 10,000 logos “approved” under their new service. Another similar event, this time on Crowdspring was self-help Guru (sorry, “Peak Performance Strategist”) Tony Robbins‘ $1000 web design contest, but it went largely unnoticed and thus escaped being carped about on various blogs, forums and Twitter.
Oh, the unfairness of it all
Many of the protests and verbal denouncements took a similar, and plaintive, approach – “Oh, iStockphoto, how could you?” Numerous blog posts (and even an open letter) asked Rick Warren to reconsider how he was damaging the design industry, and how spec work and design contests are “unfair” to professional designers. Damn straight they’re unfair (Warren’s contest featured over 3,000 entries, only a couple of dozen with a rating of any sort). Damn straight they’re unethical (also featured a whole bunch of stock photos, something which was forbidden by the contest brief and against the licensing agreements for most of the images). Does iStockphoto threaten to nick away at an already shrinking design market? Maybe (though I’m still not sure on this one). And I’m sure if anyone noticed Tony Robbins‘ gig on Crowdspring, they’d be begging him to help save the industry as well. Folks, you’re talking to the wrong people.
Why should anyone but designers care about ‘design’?
Rick Warren doesn’t care about the design profession. Nor does his publisher. iStockphoto doesn’t care about the design profession. Nor does Crowdspring, 99designs, Hatchwise, Logo Design Tournament, Zen Layout and whatever bazaar-like design contest, crowdsourcing, free-pitching website that trundles down the pike this week. Warren cares about his flock (and topping the 30 million copy sales of his earlier tome). All that the other companies and permutations care about is their bottom line. The ‘free market’ at it’s best and it’s ugliest. Yeah, I know it isnt’t “fair”. But nowhere is it written that anything has to be “fair”. In fact, “It” very rarely is. And we shouldn’t have to expect Warren, Zondervan, 99designs or Crowdspring to “save” the graphic design industry by having a “fairness” epiphany in the middle of the night. They won’t. And as it turns out, they’re not even the problem. Other designers are.
In terms of the iStock announcement, a lot of the Twitter chatter involved variations of “how could you iStock?” and “what iStockphoto is doing to designers is really shitty”. Don’t get me wrong. I get the sentiment. I really do. But here’s “how could they” – send an unsolicited announcement to tens of thousands of designers (ironically. I received the notice because I’m signed up as a buyer) telling them about the new plan and offering a $5 “bonus” for early submissions. And then thousands of dopey designers will fall over themselves to submit their work, in hopes of being selected. See, the question shouldn’t be “How could you iStock?”. It should be “How could you, participating designers?” Same goes for Warren’s book cover. 99designs offered him a relatively inexpensive way to get 1,000s of book cover designs. Why shouldn’t he avail himself of the bounty of goodies offered to him (copyright issues notwithstanding)? The problem is that over 800 designers participated, knowing that they stood a snowball’s chance in Hades (pun intended) of winning. As the contest winds down (and the post-contest bitching begins) Warren ended up with a ton of publicity for his new book, 99designs pocketed $500 for their CMS system creating a few web pages (as well as bragging rights that Warren was holding the contest into the bargain). While over 800 “designers” (scare quotes intentional) completely and utterly wasted their time. Even if we take the usual design contest raison d’être (it’s an opportunity for feedback) at face value (which, by the way, I don’t). From 99designs and Warren’s perspectives, the contest makes perfect sense. As does it for any design contest held on every single design contest site and so-called “crowdsourcing” platform.
Cutting off our nose to spite our face
It is only from a designer’s point-of-view does the contest enter loony-tunes, self-destructo, cutting-off-our-nose-to-spite-our-face territory. Same theory holds true for iStock as well. If designers didn’t submit designs, they wouldn’t have much to sell. And whatever designs that were made available would be tinker-toy logos, cobbled together from clip art and copied illustrations and thrown up onto the server by people hoping to make a few bucks, despite their inability to design anything. They’d have nothing but crap to sell, the design version of garbage in, garbage out. Alas, that’s not how this will play out. Thousands of designers will submit their work, despite the knowledge that it’s highly unlikely they’ll make a dime from doing so. Knowing that while they do so, they’re shoveling a little more dirt over the grave of professional graphic design, the profession they’re supposedly learning some chops (“experience” and all that) to enter. As is the case with every design contest ever held.
Designers working for free? The answer is usually yes
Whenever a kefluffle about spec work or design contests breaks out, designers invariably start comparing design to other professions and drawing analogies to prove their point. “Would you ask a plumber to provide work on spec? (you can insert doctor, landscaper, tinker tailor in here) No you wouldn’t!” It is often used as the anti-spec-work “so there” trump card. Trouble is, the analogy is only partially correct. Truth is, many that hold design contests might well be inclined to ask their doctor, tailor or mechanic to work “on spec”. It’s the answer to the question in which lies the rub. The tinker, tailor, mechanic or doctor would tell them to “go piss up a rope”. Sane people don’t ask these other professionals to work for free because we already know what the answer is. In all but the most isolated cases, a resounding “no”. Trouble is, when you ask designers to work for free, many of them will answer “yes”. And so it will be with iStockphoto. And whatever webby, CMS driven design crowdsourcing sites that are in BETA testing now.
Supply and demand. The free market way
Lest anyone think I’m a fan of these design services, let me assure you that I’m not. I’ve been extremely vocal in my criticism and will continue to be. But they’re not the enemy. They’re just business people, doing what business people have through time immemorial – supplying a market using an available source to make a profit, while minimizing their outlay. It’s kind of naive for designers to expect businesses, cut loose from the #1 expense of most businesses (labor), to close up shop in the name of preserving the “integrity” of the design profession. As long as they’re turning a profit, they won’t. And as success begats copycats, there will be more. Here’s the thing though – the only way these business models can thrive is when there’s a source. A supply for the demand. If designers just stopped blessing these outfits with carte blanche design work, they’d all whither on the business vine. The only solution for the design profession is for designers to start acting like they’re business professionals and part of this vaunted ‘free market’ system themselves. Free market doesn’t mean giving stuff away for nothing. It means freedom to SELL shit. You know, commerce and all that.
Unfortunately, when it comes to daft designers willing to throw their hats into the ring for the ‘chance’ of some monetary prize, there doesn’t seem to be a lack thereof. They’re the problem and it’s why designers, not all but a lot, remain their own worst enemy.