From the cover of AIGA’s Design Business Ethics* series (cross out added by me). Design: Grant Design Collaborative
When you cheat you only cheat yourself. That’s how the expression goes. It turns out, though, that’s just not true. I had an experience last week that drew this into sharp focus for me. I’m still a little raw from it, so I apologize in advance for any aspect of this post that seems cathartic. My hope however is that my experience may benefit you.
Two weeks ago we had an inquiry from a potential new client — a new business in San Francisco being started by a really interesting, experienced and genuinely nice guy. His initial email was a little sassy and I immediately got a good vibe about him. We spoke on the phone the following day, and on short notice arranged an in person meeting at our office. He pitched his concept. We shared our work. Mostly though, we just talked about our respective approaches to business, craft, living, etc. and quickly formed a pretty solid rapport.
I spent the entirety of the next day and evening writing a proposal for the project. I knew his budget — which was adequate but ambitious given the list of deliverables — and so tailored a design process to meet his needs. I don’t include concepts in our proposals, but I do outline some of the key conceptual issues and challenges. As such, every proposal I write is basically from the ground up. It’s a significant but necessary investment of time and effort, and an approach that I believe honors the client and respects the importance of the commitment we’re asking them to make.
The next day I received an email from our prospective client saying that he was emotionally moved by our proposal (I promised not to repeat the exact words he used, but they were flattering). Late that afternoon we chatted about some of the particulars and I made a few revisions to help clarify/quantify a few ambiguous points. The next day we won the job. Elation. “We’ll Fedex a check to you today, you should have it in the morning.” Sweet.
If you’re thinking this is where it starts to fall apart, you’re right.
Late the next day (Friday) our new client asked if I could take a conference call with his investors. They had some additional requests. Understandably they all revolved around money:
- Can we adjust our terms to require a smaller initial deposit?
- Can we give them terms of net 30?
- Can we lower our markup on reimbursable expenses?
- Can we sign over all rights of ownership and all electronic files?
Request number one was no problem. A larger initial retainer simplifies our billing and puts us at less risk, but I also believe business relationships are based on mutual trust and the proposed restructuring was well within professional norms. Likewise with number two. Request three eats into our profit margin a little, but I’m not a greedy person and as long as they pay their bills on time carrying a few expenses is no big deal. Done.
The fourth request presented more of an issue.
Like photographers, illustrators, architects and almost all other creative professionals we own the copyright to the work we produce. It’s not just an industry norm (see AIGA’s series on professional ethics in graphic design), its the law. When we produce work for a client we assign usage rights to that work. We detail that assignment very meticulously in our proposal so there are no surprises. We also provide a “buyout” option that allows the client to pay for exclusive ownership of the final work, and all the files. Photographers do this for their negatives, illustrators for their original drawings, etc. (for things like logos where the file is inherently the deliverable we don’t apply buy out fees. It’s also important that a client own their identity outright, so I’ve always viewed that as an exception to this copyright clause. We state as much in our contracts).
So here’s my quandary:
The job seems like it may now be in jeopardy, but all I have to do is change two words in our proposal and its ours. My staff is already really excited about it. We’ve already started doing a little research. I’ve put three phone calls, a meeting and 9 hours of proposal writing into capturing the job. It’s a great fit and has amazing creative potential. Plus, I genuinely like the guy. But is it giving away too much? Does it undermine my profession and my peers? Does it devalue our work?
What is the cost of those two words — to our bottom line, to our integrity, to the profession? How much do they really matter, and why?
I’m still not entirely at peace with my decision. But before I tell you how it all went down I’m interested in your thoughts. I’m being pretty candid here, so I hope you will be too.[you can read part 2 here]
*AIGA’s series on Design Business + Ethics is an excellent resource for the practicing designer, and one on which I continue to rely. The altered cover image is used here for editorial purposes and implies no comment by me on AIGA’s position on this issue, nor any endorsement by AIGA of my views in this instance.