Creative compensation: Is Barack Obama the Dave Grohl of graphic design?

The steps that some major touring acts—including the Foo Fighters, Ke$ha, and Janet Jackson—have taken to control and own photojournalists' work at their concerts have become so controversial that over the past several weeks I've felt compelled to blog about the subject not just once, but twice. In that debate, the speculation has been that the next step would be for musicians to demand approval (and ownership?) of written reviews—but it seems that the next battleground is graphic design, just as a major new exhibit of work in the field opens at the Walker Art Center.

At issue is a contest run by the reelection campaign of President Barack Obama. The Art Works Poster Contest "invites artists from across the country to volunteer their creativity to support President Obama's plan to create jobs now, and his re-election campaign to keep fighting for jobs for the next four years." Submissions will be narrowed down to to 12 finalists, which will then be put to a vote. "Three winners will receive a framed print of their poster signed by President Obama and a limited edition of their poster will be sold in the
campaign store."

Not bad, right? Sounds like a fairly typical contest. But AIGA—the professional association for design—has taken exception to the contest, on the grounds that graphic designers of the caliber likely to win this contest are professionals who deserve to be compensated for their work before they do it, not after (and only potentially, at that). In an open letter to Obama, AIGA executive director Richard Grefé writes,

The Art Works poster contest asks designers to work speculatively, creating designs without compensation for an activity that has value to a potential client, against established global principles in communication design. We are quite certain that public relations consultants, political consultants, networks, telecommunication providers and advertising media are not asked to donate their services and turn their ideas, research and work over to a campaign that is poised to raise $1 billion without compensation. This demonstrated lack of respect for the value of creative endeavors is exacerbated by the stipulation that ownership of all the creative property submitted, whether or not selected, is transferred to the campaign. And it is particularly contemptuous to ask the creative community to donate their services in support of a jobs program for other American workers.

That last line is a zinger, isn't it? The background here is that requests for proposals created on spec have long been a sore spot among architects and designers. This is far from the first design contest to request that professionals essentially complete the job—or at least a good chunk of it—on spec in anticipation of perhaps winning the contract. What makes this one different is the prominence of the client, the bitter irony of the theme, and perhaps a rising tide of resolve among designers to resist this kind of arrangement.

A further irony may be that it's precisely the currently tight economy that is raising design professionals' hackles: in rummier times, they could afford to do some work on spec, subsidized by other paying contracts. Now, designers, photographers, and other creative professionals feel like the vise is being tightened at exactly the moment they can least afford to work for free.

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Jay Gabler's picture
Jay Gabler

Jay Gabler (@JayGabler) is a digital producer at The Current and Classical MPR. He was arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet from 2007-2013.


Crowd-sourcing design

When the economy takes a down swing (and we've had a doozy lately), the first people to be let go from internal departments are the graphic designers. Companies figure that it is a service which they can outsource and reduce their overhead. I get it. But what that means is that freelance designers and independent design agencies need to be able to charge reasonable fees in order to keep food on the table and the economy moving.

Contests are fine for students who are learning a trade, but this "contest" and other crowd-sourcing efforts damage designers' ability to earn a living because it devalues our work. It has the net affect of reducing a client's expectation for how much they should pay for a given service - a logo, for example.

The topic at hand is a very high-profile project. What message does it send about the value of what we designers do for a living? Does the government hold contests for other professionals? I highly doubt it. What they are really saying is that they think what we do is a glorified hobby, and we should feel lucky that they'd even consider allowing our work to be used in their noble efforts.

They are parasites.