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.