Two Words (Part 2 of 2)

Thanks to all those who commented on the previous post. And now for the dramatic conclusion:

Appreciate first that I wanted this job in the worst way. It’s a really fun project with a smart, talented, ambitious and passionate young owner. It has cool deliverables and great creative potential. The name of his company is inspired by literature, ours is inspired by a poem. He brought a folder of visual reference that showed he really gets design. It’s a local project, and we love our city. It’s a project in an area I’ve wanted to work in for a long time. He lives in my neighborhood. Basically a great fit on every level. I’ve never been more tempted step back from my standards than I was in this instance.

After two days of handwringing, doubt and debate three things influenced my decision: my wife, my mentor and my former designer.

My wife, who is a studio manager and handles billing for several top design firms, was fairly adamant about not giving away more for less. For her the baseline standard of ownership is an industry given — not even worth considering. She made many of the arguments that others have made in their comments — the precedent it sets, the diminishment of the value of our work and of course the damage it does to the profession. She’s a great advocate for the profession and works enough places that she knows what the norms are.

My mentor, a man for whom I worked for eight years, is someone who can be defined by his integrity. I’ve known him for 15 years now and have never known him to do anything other than what was fair an equitable, without regard to the consequences. I didn’t have to ask him how he would handle the situation, I only had to ask myself: WWDAD?

Sitting at my desk trying to craft an email to our would-be client I found my third piece of advice — a gift that my former employee Tim gave me on his final day of work here. It’s a framed print he created and which offers this simple advice, “Believe in things an they will believe in you.” It’s printed over a grid of his old business cards. Message received.

So, I opted for a kind of compromise. I proposed that upon final payment the client would receive all the usage rights previously stipulated and that they would own the final design. The files would still be subject to buyout and because the clause that covers the ownership of files also covers their use and alteration, by extension their rights of usage would not include permission to create derivative works.

In essence it sounds like semantic distinction, but here’s why it matters:

The investors want to protect the value of their investment. I respect that. Not owning the critical the look-and-feel of their brand means they can’t count it as an asset in valuing the business for sale, franchise, other investment, etc. Granting them that ownership would ease that concern. It’s more than I felt comfortable with, professionally, but because we retained the ownership of our original files and excluded the right to create derivative works it seemed a fair compromise. They would be protected from the risk of being held hostage by us in the future; we would be protected from having our work exploited beyond the original scope of our agreement. Our peers and colleagues would be protected by us not undercutting the professional values and ethics to which they also adhere.

Now, before I tell you why it didn’t work, let me tell you whose fault it isn’t.

It’s not the client’s fault. He’s opening his first business and this process is new to him. He’s never hired a designer, so he shouldn’t be expected to know what the norms of our profession are. Once explained he understood and agreed with them. Because he also makes a product he was appreciative of the fact that these same laws and standards also protect the product he creates.

It’s not the investor’s fault. They’re putting money into a new venture with the goal of realizing a return on that investment. They have a duty to protect that interest and shield it from risk. The buyout option is there to completely eliminate that risk (not to mention written and verbal assurances from me that we would not leverage our ownership of files or original designs against them). In virtually every other client situation this has been enough to put all parties at ease. Not so here. The investment group simply didn’t want to pay anything additional for the additional rights.

So, a week after we were told we had the job, we lost it. Turns out the investors previously had a bad experience with a designer charging substantial additional and unscheduled fees. Because they had no files they were pretty much over a barrel. Once bitten twice shy, as the saying goes; that bad experience has essentially defined their relationship to the design profession. Nice one, designer.

What’s more, another design firm (a well known and well respected design firm) offered to throw in all the files, ownership, etc. for free. In essence they offered to do the job for 1/2 the price — something they can afford to do since 3/4 of their workforce are unpaid interns (don’t get me started on that…).

You certainly can’t fault the client for liking that option, but you can fault the firm. As I said above you can’t expect the client — hiring a designer for the first time — to know the standards of professional design practice. You can’t expect the investor — charged with realizing the greatest return on their investment — to prioritize the bottom line of our profession over their own. No, the duty falls to designers.

It’s up to us to be clear and honest and ethical. Its up to us to respectfully educate our clients on the value of what we do. Its up to us to stand up for each other. We’ve seen what short term gain does to the long term health of industries. What might seem like a win for this particular firm is a loss for the rest of us. For any designer who has ever wondered why clients don’t “get” what we do, firms like this are your answer. As long as we’re willing to sell each other out, to undercut and undermine each other solely for our own gain, to see each other merely as competitors and not as compatriots, we will continue to struggle to advance as a profession.

So, for my part, the next time I’m faced with this decision I’m going to do exactly the same thing. If you happen to be competing against me feel free to use that knowledge to your advantage. Or, if you wish, stand with me and toe the line. Either way, I’ll be standing there for you.

  • I’m still with the analogy that when you buy a cake, you don’t buy the recipe.

    I applaud you for holding your professional grounds – it may feel like you have lost in that you didn’t win the project in the end, but you have gained much more for yourself and for your industry. This is not the path of every designer, but it’s the right path for you, Christopher. You have decided in your career to be much more than a designer, but as well an educator, writer and advocate. As an influential person in your community and profession, could you really have slept any better or felt at better ease about your “job” if you had sold out and gotten the project? I think not…

    Recently, another prominent designer suggested that in 20 years, there would be no designers, but only strategists (and forgive me if I am misinterpreting this designer’s notion as I was not in attendance at this event). They may be right, but only if current designers doom themselves to be by stepping down and obliterating the value of their own profession. For this person’s sake, I hope that they are comfortably retired in 20 years, but for designers such as yourself and the people who read your works and the students you teach, I would hope that people who take their work seriously and find it of value prove him/her wrong. As someone who has worked with dozens of designers in my humble career, I can assure you that you are not standing alone.

    Sometimes there is a reason to lose, and rightfully so.

  • Agree with Amelie 100%. And obviously 100% proud of you, as always.

  • Well done, Christopher & Amelie. Well done.

  • Christopher, you’ll never regret sticking with your principals so I think you did the right thing.

  • So I guess we’ll just forget the Stanford “what those guys said, but half the cost” thing then.

    In all seriousness, though, a nice post. I appreciate your willingness to hold fast on your ethics in the face of what might have been the easier alternative option. Unfortunately, as long as there is the surplus of design services for clients to pick from (and there will continue to be so, judging from the amount of desperate folks who attended Portfolio Day this past weekend) this situation will not change. Not to be cynical, but it’s simple economics and, to be even more cynical in a Marxist vein, the free market has never been known for its high standards of ethics, especially in this country. The high road seems more and more the one less taken as competition becomes fiercer and fiercer.

    (Insert discussion of spec work, cheap logo sites, and unpaid interns here.)

    A clarification on Amelie’s point, since I was the one (I believe) who relayed the anecdote she mentions above, the point the person made was that graphic design in 20 years may very well morph into a more hybrid practice that incorporates user experience, strategy, and (yes! still!) communication/graphic design. The massive technological strides we’ve seen in just one or two decades leaves me hesitant to make any predictions in this vein, since at the rate we’re going the future is anyone’s guess. Certainly lack of ethical practice will do design in as Amelie says, but who knows how the design practice itself will change. Ethics may be beside the point, ultimately.

    Lastly, I would guess that another design firm’s choice to throw in the files free of charge could well have been as much out of plain ignorance than willful bad ethics. In my experience, an amazing amount of design practitioners are unaware of the fine points around copyright law and rights to their work. Adam and myself were unaware of such protocol during the first few years of running Volume. So don’t get TOO high and mighty. Let he who is without sin…as they say.

    • Ha. Stanford had a fixed budget. You know that was tongue-in-cheek.

      I also told them that you guys would be a great choice (seriously) and that they should feel confident that there was no better or worse choice — just who was the right fit. I’m honored when we compete against respect colleagues. Even when we lose (and we’ve lost a few to you, to be sure) at least I know that someone I respect is getting work and the client is getting a good product.

      (Insert discussion of Eleanor Porter characters here)

      Admittedly I’m a little high and mighty (and not without my own sins and ignorances). Perhaps its because I know this person knows better.

  • Eric, thanks for the clarification on the anecdote. Extracting two sentences out of a one hour discussion probably isn’t fair, and I do see that other factors besides design malpractice will inevitably change the face of design.

    I was discussing this with Cinthia and fellow NOONers today exactly that – that some people have no idea that throwing in the files could at all threaten the integrity of their profession. For some, a dollar is a dollar and a job is a job. Say yes, make the potential client happy, get the contract, do work. Get paid, move on. For the other firm, it is probable that they had not a clue as to the weight of the contract terms or if there was any competition to beat out. Perhaps it is not valuable to that designer at all. One man’s garbage…

    I don’t think CCHS is trying to be higher or mightier, nor holier than thou. Everyone has their own comfort level in life and work – and it’s hard to come to grips with these differences without discussion.

  • And in the words of the acclaimed Kelis:
    “My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard
    And they’re like ‘It’s better than yours’
    Damn right, it’s better than yours
    I could teach you, but I’d have to charge”