The United States is experiencing the worst recession since the Great Depression (1929), and unemployment is among the highest and longest lasting it’s ever been — people are protesting in the streets because a lot of them are scrapping by from month to month. In this time of crisis many individuals turn to our government to be actively working to rectify this situation; and the current administration has begun work to turn things around with the American Jobs Act, but to help kick off this initiative they have fallen to one of the worst vendor/client relationship clichés ever.
Obama for America is seeking poster submissions from artists across the country illustrating why we support President Obama’s plan to create jobs now, and why we’ll re-elect him to continue fighting for jobs for the next four years.
That’s right, they have requested designers donate their time for a poster meant to communicate approval for the President’s attempt to create new jobs. Let me reiterate that, Obama for America wants you to work for free on a poster about creating jobs (theoretically about jobs that will actually pay). Who’s brilliant idea was this? How can the staff designers featured on the home page not be aware of the design community’s general feelings on spec-work, especially only a few months after the Huffington Post was frowned upon (once again) for the same thing. Spend some time on the popular Clients From Hell web site and read countless reports on the central theme of not being paid for work. Everything from clients misinterpreting the word freelancer, to trying to argue that websites aren’t real and shouldn’t be paid for, to treating the design process like a creative buffet without telling the designers, to pitching as portfolio fodder, and even trying to charge designers for the privilege of working for them. All of it, ludicrous.
Some of these stories are hard to believe (are people really that out of touch with reality?) but the one example above that is completely believable is a client working with multiple designers but only intending to pay one. Just check out sites like Freelancer, Elance, crowdSPRING.com, and 99designs (to name a few) which all readily promise clients that they only need to pay for the single piece of work they like after getting hundreds of designers to submit ideas to them by turning their projects into ‘contests.’ What other business do you do as a contest? Would you be willing to establish your own personal livelihood on the process of entering ‘contests,’ spending hours working in the hopes that your customers/clients pick you over the other guys entering the contest? The problem is, it’s easy to see how this sounds great from the point of view of a potential client — who doesn’t want everything for free? But as designers entering into these cage matches we are only serving to devalue our work and weaken the industry as a whole by producing homogenized, fad-of-the-month designs that are often ill-informed and unsuccessful in the longterm because they are not based on any serious understanding of where they are being used.
We instead need to be working harder to educate potential clients on the benefits of strong design; how a well thought out campaign/logo/website rooted in a deeper understanding of design (and not just the ability to click the right buttons in Adobe CS) can add real tangible value to their business. Make no mistake, this is a hard point to sell. While we have certain tools such as Google Analytics, or publication readership statistics, or the average number of automobiles passing a billboard in a given month, the idea that our training might give us a deeper understanding of what will be successful versus what looks pretty is harder to express. Don’t get me wrong either, while I’ve encountered clients who are unwilling to listen to a more informed opinion of things, I’ve also had my share of client collaborations where the final design contained input from both parties to the benefit of the overall piece. But such things are only possible in a relationship where both parties respect the expertise of the other; where the client respects that the designer knows the theory as well as the technical aspects of his field, and where the designer respects that the client knows his business better than anyone else. You can’t have that experience when you’re posting a generalized project and expecting hundreds of designers to post submissions. Some of them will have natural talent for working fast and making things look good (and I imagine those are the ones who constantly win), but they’re not going to have the deeper understanding of your business, nor the time to commit to learning it for free.
None of what I’ve said here is new to the design community — most design blogs have at least one article relating to this issue, and there are numerous images & videos poking fun at or discussing this mentality — which is why it’s so much more frustrating when an administration, which has long been applauded for its appreciation of well thought out design, presents the design community with something like this.
These are only some of the examples from ClientsFromHell.com:
 I thought freelancers work for free.
 A website isn’t a thing, you can’t steal it!
 It’s not that I don’t want to pay you, but…
 The reason I chose a student designer was to get something cheap, plus help you out for your portfolio
 I allowed you to design AND code it all – you should feel privileged!
One of my favorite videos covering the issue:
To try and give both sides, here is an interview with the co-founder of CrowdSPRING.com for additional reading.