Designers, “Hacks” and Professionalism: Are We Our Own Worst Enemy?


“The need is constant. The gratification is instant.” That’s from the American Red Cross, and it was copy that I plugged into a poster for a blood drive at a comics convention. Sitting beside an image of the sexy and well-endowed Vampirella1, the words took on a different meaning. Oops!

But I was struck by how these words are a perfect assessment of our society. We want it all, instantly and as cheap as possible. We are a Walmart culture. Fast and cheap have entered our every pore and changed our society, our lives and our livelihoods. Compounding our daily worries and pressures, we now fight to keep our industry professional and profitable. Clients want our blood for free, and the “hacks” are designing us out of existence.

Most people blame the laptop and easy-to-use software. Many blame art schools for favoring quantity over quality. Can any of these be blamed merely for doing business? If someone who has no idea what they’re doing wants to purchase a computer and a slew of graphics software and call themselves a designer, then they’re in business.

All you need is a computer, software and beard and you are an ARTIST!.. Right?

Should we call this “competing in the marketplace” or just “giving it away… and eroding respect for what we do in the process”?

Every freelancer who has dared to provide an actual estimate for their work has heard in reply, “I can get it done cheaper.” And the client can. The job, which requires thousands to be done properly, can be delivered for hundreds, and its horridness would never be noticed by the client. They will not notice the lack of a return on their investment or the consumers avoiding their service or the people making sport of their new logo online. And if they do — which would likely happen after they’ve gone out of business for making all the wrong, cheap decisions — they will blame graphic designers. All of us.

When a staff designer makes a blunder — even if only a perceived one — all designers need to have a watchful eye. We are the weird kids, the ones who drew pictures in math class while the kids who became marketing directors and account managers told on us. Yes, we need watching.

If you ever wondered how the practice of presenting several ideas in a meeting gained such a foothold in our business, just imagine some of the incompetents in the Floogelbinders Guild in the 7th century who really screwed up and codified the practice… before their heads were chopped off and their limbs burned. Ah, the good ol’ days, when they really knew how to maintain professionalism.

What Exactly Is A “Hack”?

Let’s take a look at dictionaries. Hack: noun.

  1. A horse used for riding or driving; a hackney.
  2. A worn-out horse for hire; a jade.
  3. One who undertakes unpleasant or distasteful tasks for money or reward; a hireling.
  4. A writer hired to produce routine or commercial writing.
  5. A carriage or hackney for hire.
  6. A taxicab.

Those who responded to my query in social media had great insights and varied opinions on what is a ‘hack’.

Wrote one designer:

It is not as regulated as other professions, such as interior design and architecture or accounting for that matter. To call oneself a designer, there is no apprenticeship required, no test to pass, no certification to obtain. If you have access to the software, it’s open season.

One creative director wrote some very kind words:

I view hacks as part of the overall ecology of what drives business when it comes to design and branding. On the one hand, hack has a connotation as it relates to businesses that are starting up or struggling to survive or that simply don’t take design seriously — the kind of business-folk who just look for the lowest bidder. Then there are the sincerely talented designers who simply lack ambition, business savvy or both, and who do not get past five years in their careers. Either situation actually helps cultivate a wonderful ecology of design business, in my opinion.

Surprisingly, an editor-in-chief of a well-known news service responded with an outrageous number of typos and grammatical errors (corrected here):

Every industry has hacks, but most artists I have met (most, not all) really do strive to be original and to use their imaginations to come up with new ideas. Very few jaded ones will rehash old stuff or try to peddle work that is derivative. It is always “buyer beware” in this case. If the guy seems like a slick used-car salesman, find someone else with whom you can work. On the other hand, artists look out for people who don’t want to sign contracts, people who can’t tell good art from bad, people who can’t make up their minds after being presented with 20 different sketches, and people who will not pay an advance or a set-up fee.

A well-known writer, checking in as “misery-loves-company,” added:

There are hacks in every discipline. Try working as a professional writer. Anybody with a keyboard and the ability to type can claim this for a calling.

A gentleman with the title of “Business Development” added another view that creatives might not hear often:

I’ve thought about the definition of hack. It is conceivable that a person with no formal training or someone who did not do well in design school could rise to the top of their profession. They would have to be driven to succeed and committed to quality, I am sure.

But there is no guaranteed correlation between the eliteness of one’s education and the quality of their current work.

Is “CrowdSourcing” and “Fixed-Price” Online Shops the Future?

I was once invited to witness what crowdsourcing could do. I guess I was being lined up for the next firing squad and lured by free pizza. I honestly thought I was attending a gathering of designers at a promotional advertising company. Mmmmm, nope!

The owner described the projects, mostly logos, and showed what a source of 8 “designers” could design. Seems that was the unpaid part. The “best designer” would get paid for finishing the project, which might not be his/her logo but a mashup of every design the owner, who now also owned all of the unpaid designs, decided to create…because he was so creative. “That’s a win-win situation” he closed with. I could hear him from the supply room, where I was helping myself to my “out-of-court settlement” for having been dragged to this thing.

HOW Magazine’s July issue has an article on crowdsourcing. Quotes from two authors on the subject in that article say:

Perhaps, as Debbie Millman writes, this trend does devalue our services. Perhaps, as David Baker observes, it weeds out the low-level clients we shouldn’t be working with, anyway. Is crowdsourcing really “stealing” work from professional designers — or has it simply replaced the quick-print guy and the executive assistants?

The editor adds:

One answer to that question may be: Let’s reinvent crowdsourcing so it works to the benefit, not the detriment, of both parties in the exchange. Maybe we could invent a way for a small group of designers, vetted for their expertise, to engage with a client, present their ideas, earn compensation for those ideas — and then the designer whose concept is chosen is further paid to fully develop and execute that idea. Talented creatives from all over the globe could participate in a project they would otherwise have no access to. Designers and clients have an opportunity to interact, so the solution isn’t derived in a vacuum (as is often the case with crowdsourcing). Clients can connect with a range of qualified creative thinkers to build their business. It doesn’t have to be cheap. Everyone gets paid. The client chooses the best solution.

Aside from other glaring mistakes in the article on business practices, the editor is quite obviously fond of glowing rainbows and unicorns. Every creatives’ guild or organization is against this practice because companies use it to their best advantage financially and people continue to provide work. Those attending this cult-fest of design suggested the same thing the HOW editor outlined, to the crowdsourcing person who called us to the ill-fated meeting. Pay MORE money for the same work? It wasn’t going to happen in non-unicorn world. HOW? How MUCH, is more like it.


“Mommy, I hate designer’s guts!” “Shut up and eat!”

To their credit, they did mention the position of organizations, which they totally ignored when sprinkling pixie dust on the subject and presenting it to readers who want to know “HOW?”

Professional organizations must tread lightly in advocating against unpaid work, as AIGA4 discovered in the 1990s, when the Federal Trade Commission ruled that any statement or code of ethics that advised members not to work for free amounted to price-fixing. Its current position supports fair compensation for design work, and delineates between spec work (where a creative works for free in hopes of compensation) and unpaid work like pro-bono projects or internships (where services are willingly given away). The Graphic Artists Guild warns its members against competitions where the sponsoring organization retains all rights to all submissions, and helps creatives avoid unfavorable contracts.

Surprisingly, Forbes aired an article on crowdsourcing5 and of course, the self-appointed “capitalist tool,” seemed more impressed with it as a business model, rather than a threat to an industry. To be fair, they were balanced in exploring a few quotes echoed by other professionals in the field.

Mix crowdsourcing, the Internet and a huge pool of underemployed graphic designers, and the outcome is a company that’s grabbed a great deal of attention. In the two and a half years since it launched, Web startup 99designs out of Melbourne6, Australia, boasts that it’s helped to broker 48,000 graphic design projects for big name clients like Adidas and DISH Network7 as well as for thousands of small businesses.

Personally, I’ll be sure to remember that when I need new sneakers or satellite TV service. Will other creatives?

Acting as a middleman between business owners and graphic designers, the 99designs site hosts contests in which clients post their needs — website design, logos, print packages — and designers compete to fill them. Instead of bidding for the job, designers submit finished work tailored to the client specifications in the contest listing. 99designs calls it a win-win scenario: Its clients gain access to the site’s pool of 73,000 active designers, while the designers are given a chance to compete for “upwards of $600,000 in awards paid out monthly.”

So, if my math is correct and every one of the 73,000 designers won just one competition a month, each would get $8.22. Sure not every one will win with the four to six entries they must submit to each contest…assignment…act of piracy on the high digital seas…whatever, so some designers will get $16.44 or maybe $32.88 per month? If I lived in Bali…and was stealing someone else’s electricity, I could live well. Well…live.

“99designs is something akin to a Walmart,” says Dan Ibarra, industry veteran and co-founder of Aesthetic Apparatus, a Minneapolis design studio. “It’s not necessarily dedicated to bringing you good work, but to bring you a lot of it. That’s not necessarily better.”

Ibarra’s thoughts echo the general response from designers to a 2009 article Forbes ran8 on a 99designs look-alike called Many critics of Crowdspring’s business model directed readers to NO!, an online campaign dedicated to educating the public about the risks of speculative work — which is, as defined by NO!SPEC, work in which the designer “invests time and resources with no guarantee of payment,” a “huge gamble” for designers competing against thousands of others.

Other professionals I have spoken with on the subject feel it’s just not a threat to the “design experience” or the “personal touch.” Several feel it just separates the serious design clients from the casual small business.

You have to remember that everything is consumer driven. What I mean is that the consumer is the one that dictates how we set our prices. If a consumer is unwilling to spend $100.00 for an original work verses spending $50.00 for one located on-line…what can you really do?

I really hope that it’s not. I think (and hope) that there will always be a market for those of us who don’t have quite a structured pricing plan, and who are willing to pay more for quality instead of quantity.

I’m still waiting for the day graphic design is held in the same regard as auto mechanics and plumbers… you don’t get fixed rates with them, and they’ll laugh at you if you ask for it. There’s a price for parts and and an hourly rate for service, end of discussion. You can give a flat rate by estimating (to yourself) how many hours it will take and then padding that for how many revisions the client will ask for. If you fall short, remember that the next time, but don’t penalize the client. Keep good records of your time. And… you obviously can’t charge the same fee for logo design for a company on the scale of Coca Cola as you would for Joe’s Landscaping down the street. It’s a different value to each. Large corporations get much more use and ROI from a logo than a one man show. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

With regards to fixed vs hourly, we almost always do fixed. Even on big application development projects. Sure, there are concerns with client requestitis and scope creep but thats part of the consideration. With hourly you are always guaranteed to be punished for your efficiency and experience by getting paid less.

As for cheapo logos and web templates? Go for it I say. It’s nothing new. The clients that find that type of thing valuable are the ones I don’t have the time to educate on the real value of thoughtful design.

It’s the future for clients that have a “checkbox mentality”, where a logo, a brochure, a website, are just things on a list to check off, rather than key elements of their business strategy.

Those clients have never been good clients. They’ve never paid well, or been good to work for. For a brief time, as design exploded and became available to businesses that couldn’t afford it previously, they had to buy more than they wanted, and employ real designers. Now that the supply of “designers” has also exploded, these design-blind clients can buy what they actually want, which is a cheap template with their words and photos stuck in it.

They’ve never wanted real design, the market has evolved to give them what they want.

The market for clients that do want real design is still there, and still very profitable for designers with the right skills and talents. But the bar for that market is very high, and people that can’t reach it are stuck in a no man’s land between the heights of success and the pits of mass-produced junk design.

Since clients have variable needs and budgets, there is definitely room in the marketplace to offer low-cost design services online. The clients who use these online design resources may not be a good fit for those of us who are answering this question, but they have a need with a tight budget and online creative services seem to fulfill that need.

Traditionally, junior designers and recent graduates have had access to the low budget projects more experienced individuals have passed on. I think the online sites provide a similar outlet. Students may benefit from putting their hat in an online ring to get experience – especially when they will (most likely) be charging similar low rates. Established creatives and businesses probably have other methods of finding work (the Internet is a great tool for getting business, but does not replace all other traditional marketing/networking/prospecting) so I do not think fixed-price online creative sites will completely ruin our ability to maintain a viable business.

Does Art School Make You A Professional?

Being an art school drop-out myself (12 credits shy, and going back over a decade later to get them) and having much success without a degree, I naturally understand this point about art school. Many echoed this sentiment: that creativity has nothing to do with a degree. I was teaching at Parson’s School of Design long before I went back to take the four art history classes I needed to graduate. My work for major corporations did, however, require a four-year degree. Guess the “accomplishment level” can mean something. Ah! but is it art?


“HA! As the sole surviving creative, I can charge $50 for a logo!” (it’ll still be argued down to $20).

It is a popular major, though, as one designer noted:

I asked nearly the same question to the owner of the art college I eventually graduated from: “Do you think similar two-year programs are flooding the market with graphic designers?” His answer was a resounding “No,” and he followed that with, “Talented artists will always find work when untalented artists don’t.” With the designers I’ve met or worked with and the ones I’ve read about, I’d have to I agree.

Naturally, sticks and stones were thrown:

From what I understand from meeting other students, the quality of education is lacking. Apparently, many educators simply like to take home a pay check for doing the least amount of work. A lot of the students suffer from not having any mentorship from a qualified teacher. However, the top students always find their way through the educational maze to get the cheese.

Should art schools teach online fixed-price business to students? Most people say, “no!” Shouldn’t an art school prepare a student to enter the field from day one with all the material and professional skills needed to enter the field as a peer and not a “hack” who lowers the bar for fees and professional demeanor?

Mediocrity runs rampant in today’s society. I don’t think design schools should teach the principles of online stores but make their students aware of what is out there and what they will come up against in the real world. Unfortunately many will go that way. But a true designer is worth their weight in gold, and will always cost more than Walmart pricing.

I’m sorry but I’m still laughing too hard at keeping a straight face while typing about art schools training students to enter the field. Pile on the insults as you will but I rarely see graduating portfolio shows that aren’t frightful, not due to the talent, but to their ideas on what they expect once they graduate. Several months ago I received a request for an essay of 2,500-5,000 words a dean at a Chicago art school wanted to “relay” to students. Naturally he was shocked I wanted to be paid. Guess those students stepped into a world of do-do. As a student commented on the question of fixed-price:

There are some pros and cons for hourly and fixed. However really as a designer you might benefit more from fixed pricing. Example: You design a logo at $20 an hour. Let’s say for the first time you do this logo it takes you 5 hours.

The next time you do the logo, you get it done in half the time. 2.5 hours. You just cut your profit in half.  Now the designers that are charging $50, should wake up and realize there offering a service that is worth WAY more than what they are charging.

In the beginning of starting my own design business I charge fairly cheap as well. I wanted to build a portfolio and clientele list. Once I had references and a portfolio to show, my rate can go up, because I can prove I’m worth it.

Yes, $20 an hour and $50 logos will shore up the prices she was going to command one day. No, it will set the bar with anyone you quote those prices to while I’m trying to charge a fair market rate. You have lowered that fair rate. Thanks for learning how to run a business within an unlicensed industry that relies on a standard of practice not being taught anywhere. AAAAAAAH! I’m still wondering what kind of logo is created in 2.5 hours. Oh, a “hack” one!

A Solution To Reconcile These Views?

Would a guild or union distinguish between an apprentice, a tradesperson and a master craftsperson? Some have tried. Years ago, I was a member of the board of the Graphic Artists Guild, along with several legal rights groups for artists. The prospect of unionizing was a constant buzz. Every meeting, time was set aside for the subject. There was discussion of joining established unions if no plan could be found to successfully create a union hierarchy and stop those who do not belong dead in their tracks. Neither plan would ever work.

Unions on the whole no longer have the clout or power they once commanded. The removal of organized crime really hurt them. The mob knew how to get things done. Now politicians try to do the same but without any efficiency. No union would take on the cause of an entire industry with so many holes as ours. No organization could ever stop the incursion of single-person home studios and $99 logos… or the equivalent on the Internet.


“Billy tried unionizing his art class in school. The other kids were heavily punished. I hope they learned a lesson, too!”

In an effort to establish standards and set pay levels for professional positions and freelance projects, the Graphic Artists Guild publishes a annual book entitled The Pricing and Ethical Guidelines. I highly recommend it to those starting out. It’s loaded with contracts, pricing, rights and considerations we must all apply to every job, so that both parties come out of a project eager to work together on the next one.

We are an unregulated business — anyone can join. I believe had we adopted the tactics of organized crime, we would be living the life of Las Vegas celebrities, and I get to be Elvis! Family heads, lieutenants, enforcers — face it, the mob gets things done. Can you imagine an enforcer negotiating with a client? Many years ago I tried pitching a comic feature to design magazines about a mob boss in the witness protection program, set up in a secret identity as an illustrator’s representative. “Zip Atoné & the Bull Pen Boys” was Goodfellas meets the publishing/advertising world.

Client: “I don’t sign contracts!”

Zip Atoné: “Well, that’s too bad because either your signature or brains is gonna be on that contract when I leave!”

Wouldn’t that be great!? Back to reality…

Design Contests Erode The Industry

The Graphic Artists Guild, along with every other professional creative organization, is against “contests,” in which the creative submits a design, illustration or photo (which become the property of the contest runner) in the hope of winning some measly prize that is not even worth the fee their work would have earned in the open market. But these contests get floods of entries. Who are the people who enter them? AIGA has a form letter on its website encouraging people to post when contests come up. A noble effort.

These contests are not advertised on cereal boxes. They appear in the inboxes of creatives. They are advertised on design blogs and websites. They are run by the same corporations that earn millions by selling us burgers and sodas every day. So, winning an iPod seems like a fair trade-off… in Bizzarro World! Getting our money and putting toxins in our bodies just isn’t enough for them.


Your “prize” is equal to what this costs…a stroke and your eternal soul!

In the end, we are the regulators of our own unregulated industry. If business is this cut-throat, then are we being lax by not making the removal of hacks and crowdsourcers from the industry our primary concern, or have they been doing the same to us, successfully, and we didn’t see it until it was too late? Does it just provide a cheap alternative for customers who don’t know quality, branding, marketing, customer appeal and retention? If, as mentioned in the article on Forbes, big companies are now getting into crowdsourcing, is there to be any leverage for freelancers or design and development firms?

We will never be unified by a union or organization but we can listen to our peers either through networking or organizations like AIGA and the GAG for some semblance of order. The experienced creatives need to mentor those entering the field. Art schools need to focus on business and professional practices as much as technique and other creative skills. There will continue to be clients that want it for nothing and will get what they don’t pay for. There will be plenty who understand the need for quality and that it costs a fair wage, sort of. Please, just keep the previous from calling me!



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Speider Schneider is a former member of The Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine, “among other professional embarrassments and failures.” He currently writes for local newspapers, blogs and other web content and has designed products for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, ESPN, Mattel, DC and Marvel Comics, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon among other notable companies. Speider is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild, co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee and a former board member of the Society of Illustrators. He also continues to speak at art schools across the United States on business and professional practices and telling frightening stories that make students question their career choice (just kidding).

  1. 1

    Reference 102 (Thomas):
    What is the global market, where the whole is at the discretion of a few?
    … and there will be those who are not willing to accept your condition as it is all smoke in the end.
    As article I mentioned earlier, you ‘taken over’ a bit too easily aura artist, musician, scientist, philosopher … take aura of competition also took control of speed and as long as the acquisition of resources for your culture, too.
    If – for a product tabled the bill also thousand of your electronic equipment, the dozens of hours of high-level academic quid, even just thinking, or free time to soothe your stress, if somewhere else is done the same thing but with less paranoid mind, then something is wrong.

  2. 52

    And yet,

    somewhat ‘too arrogant designers, creative people (according to this article) is defined as free and independent. Laughable actions of many, confused, disoriented, which shows that their minds are not * their * free and independent, but still guarded by the walls of their pomposity.
    The unique ability of designers is to attack a pompous caption in the work created by Bonomo and mutapic?
    But nobody knows!?

  3. 103

    Very good, I always enjoy Speider`s articles.

    • 154

      Speider Schneider

      August 5, 2010 12:31 am

      Thanks! :)

      • 205

        The one about “Little Miss Muffet” is a killer!

        Alfred Neumanl -Trust me, eating ‘Curds and whey’ will never feel the same again!
        “If you never read one article this summer, it should be this one!”- Don Martin

  4. 307

    A lot of this article really hits home with the state of the industry here in the UK. I work as a freelancer and for an agency, and the biggest problem in both situations is clients flat out don’t have a clue what work goes into making a website.

    I’ve had personal clients who want everything for free or as little as £50 for a fully functioning dynamic website.

    But on the other hand because I have a consistant salary with an agency, I can charge dirt cheap prices for smaller projects in my spare time. For the kicks, or for the experience.

    For this I am not going to apologise, hell I’d probably take part in competitions and croudsourcing schemes if I had even the remotest amount of time, simply because I enjoy what I do, whether I get paid £20000 for a website or £200.

    Oversaturation of the market is definately a problem, in part I think piracy is to blame. It’s easy for anyone to get a copy of photoshop and dreamweaver, read some tutorials on the web and start setting websites.

    Maybe sometime in the future our industry can become regulated, it’s not impossible but certainly needed.

    • 358

      “I’ve had personal clients who want everything for free or as little as £50 for a fully functioning dynamic website.”
      >Why shouldnt they? with WordPress being free and many attractive templates being free as well?
      Especially with you willing to work for nothing (for kicks) – Man, I think you’re underpaid, BTW, I just got a new pair of Steel Toed Boots…….. >:|

      “Oversaturation of the market is definately a problem, in part I think piracy is to blame. ”
      No, YOU are to blame, lol

      • 409

        With all due respect, Jack; what happens if you lose your job and have to survive on freelance work? The hobby prices suddenly are your survival wages.

  5. 460

    Good Article

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    Excellent article. Some good discussions and useful pointers to know how to charge jobs accordingly. Thanks

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    Hey I´d just like to point you to another article talking about another pitfall of crowdsourcing, plagarism.

    • 613

      99Designs has had the same problem, according to assorted articles on the web. You get what you pay for. $99 for a logo and tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees defending your small firm from copyright violations and redesigning and reprinting all company material.

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    Great article Speider!

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    I’m just seeing this post for the first time. Thank you so much for mentioning me. What a great feeling. Thanks again!

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      Speider Schneider

      August 5, 2010 12:31 am

      You lost me, Doc’. I don’t recognize you as one of the commenters I used in the article. Fill me in, please?

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    Competitions … know how much material is collected by thousands (or tens of thousands) of euros (the final prize)? Or that adding all the same material under normal circumstances would cost much more?!

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    Chris Lorensson

    August 4, 2010 7:16 am

    This quote:

    “And… you obviously can’t charge the same fee for logo design for a company on the scale of Coca Cola as you would for Joe’s Landscaping down the street. It’s a different value to each. Large corporations get much more use and ROI from a logo than a one man show. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”

    is exactly the type of unethical methodology which got us in this pickle in the first place, IMHO. More value my arse. More value because Coca Cola makes more revenue than Joe’s Landscaping? Come on – you’re charging more because Coca Cola can afford to spend more. How do you people sleep at night!? Does Branson pay more than me for a newspaper because he can afford it? Of course not. Should he? NO – that’s what tax brackets are for.

    Dishonest practices like this are why I went freelance in the first place – to set my own ethics. I don’t care if it’s an ‘Industry-Norm’. Don’t you remember when we figured out that smoking was unhealthy? Everyone smoked, but it didn’t stop being bad for them just because everyone else also smoked. That’s just nonsensical.

    /rant ;-)

    • 970

      Thanks for your posts, Chris! Glad to have you as a loyal reader.

      I refer back to the comment about 2.5 hour logos. I spend more than that researching to see if my ideas have been used before. There’s a famous story about NBC creating a new logo, back in the 1980’s I believe, and it turned out that a small public broadcasting station already had the same logo. NBC made a very nice settlement. So who failed to research registered trademarks?

      It’s not that logos/branding for large corporations are too much — logos/branding for small companies are too low. Usage, from my many years in licensing work, is the main concern of the creator. The story of the guy who designed the Patriot’s football team logo got $12,000. The logo on merchandise in in the millions of dollars. A good payday for the designer but I’ve heard of, and had, bigger fees due to usage.

      The problem, as pointed out in comments here, is lower cost work brings bigger headaches in the long run. Yes, a good place for a small business to start out but the logos and branding will have to change (evolve?) as the company grows and relies on branding more and more.

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    I was a hack before I got my current full time job. I got a AA in Digital Art at the local junior college and was offered a job as a Publications Assistant. At that time I was offering my (un-honed) design services to anyone who wanted “a good deal.” Since there isn’t a local option to acquire a 4-year degree, I used this time to expand my knowledge of design and practice it on people who wanted the $10 logo. I went to seminars sponsored by NAPP, I bought and read books, I spent hours on the web reading/watching tutorials, I asked questions in forums, I looked at magazines/websites/billboards/etc. and tried to replicate my version of what I saw. Eventually, I acquired enough skill where I quit doing the hack work and was promoted to a Graphic Designer at the college. My time is no longer worth $10. I no longer feel like I’m a hack because I’ve proven that I’m not just one of those guys who has a laptop and Adobe’s Creative Suite.

    One of the quotes you used talked about art schools and the ecology that evolves from them. Basically, good designers swim and bad designers sink. I can honestly say that several of my fellow classmates have tried and very few have succeeded. In fact, I know of three out of dozens. One is struggling, another is now my Publications Assistant, and the third must have a paid entourage telling him he’s good, cause he honestly needs to stop. If he brings me one more god-awfully designed business card I may have to smack him with his laptop.

    • 1072

      I’m surprised you hang the hack label on yourself. Growing and evolving are one thing and stagnating due to lack of talent, as with your former classmate, is another.

      But Eric, $10 logos? Even for a beginner that’s ridiculously low. I’ve had prospective clients finally reveal their set in stone budget and I have to tell them the time I spent on the creative brief cost more. Gasoline to and from a client, postage, electricity and the cost of keeping updated software aren’t covered by $10, much less eating and paying rent. I know it’s in the past, but to any beginners who may read this, I would rather see a portfolio of what you can do without direction than try to be WOWED by some low-paid published piece that will most probably not even be your work but that of the money-bags who hired you for less than minimum wage.

  13. 1123

    I find my best customers are those who have been screwed over a time or two by a hack. When they finally decide to hire and pay for a pro, who cleans up the previous mess, meets deadlines, explains why it should be done this way, who is going to be there in the long term and they see the positive results… Man, those are good clients.

    These clients may leave me every now and again for someone who claims to be able to “do it better & cheaper,” but as long as I don’t burn bridges, I know they will be back. That’s when I mention my “insult fee and surcharge.”

    The client whose image, in print or on the web, looks like it was created by a Junior High School student (or creates their own logo in Powerpoint) and can’t see the lack of quality is not a client I would ever want.

    • 1174

      I get the exact same thing…except they tell me they shot their budget with the first designer and if I fix it they will be loyal to me in the future…until they think my fee is too high.

  14. 1225

    WOW! Just got an e-mail from I guess my normal business wasn’t enough, so now they have a “design contest!”

    Yes, there is money to be had for some lucky winners but keep in mind that anything you send in will be the property of VP and they can do whatever they want with it (see the terms they list). Naturally they are very encouraging and state, “enter multiple times for more chances to win!”

    I was soooo excited I wrote customer service and told them they had lost a long-time customer. I wonder what they would do if more people wrote and stated the same?

    I guess they only need find one winner as the thousands of submissions will belong to them for free anyway. Not a bad deal…for them!

    • 1276

      Tell Vistaprint what you think about harvesting designs from the desperate!

      In the footer, under Services, click Feedback. Modal window if you are signed in.

      I wrote:
      The “design challenge” is offensive to designers who use your print services. I will not make orders until you remove it.

      Tai Travis

  15. 1327

    Loved the article, only I think that a person without a degree can be a good professional. I know too many people that have a degree (engineer) and only do ugly things, unthinkable things. If a person is motivated, and invest time in learning can become a good professional.
    The buy one work get 19 works for free is funny, would love to go to a market and yell “I have 5$ and I want a fish the most fresh one wins the 5$ but I need to taste them all, you can place the fish in the grill please sr.”

  16. 1378

    websites like 99 designs are great for getting experience in a classroom setting.. by allowing each student to pick a project on the website and submit a design, they get experience working with a “real” client (because everyone knows when you’re allowed to just make up a client like many class projects allow, you dont really get real world experience), get to see other people’s creative ideas and generally get more involved and excited about the project.

    that’s about all I can think of that those websites are good for, and I imagine that the designers who post to them are at about that level – anyone who will take the time to make a design that will probably not get compensation is either trying to gain experience or just hone their skills. i dont really see anything wrong with that.

    if a “professional” wants or has to submit designs to a website like that, it’s their own choice and they know the likely outcome.

    also I have to add that in countries with a high level of comptency/talent but at the same time a big saturation in the local market (India) it may be hard to break out and do work in other parts of the country where their work has more value. websites like these are a good way to get out there and show people what you can do, no matter where you’re from, and without having to woo a client into giving you a chance.

    • 1429

      Interesting point, Jamie. I think that submissions are driven by desperation, unfamiliarity with the process and outcome of these sites and my guess is that the majority of creatives who give it a try walk away after the first or second attempt. No matter what the “prize” the time spent, even in less developed nations with lower costs of living. Creating work on speculation takes time.

      The main point is not to allow a global economy to sink to the level of the lowest paid but to elevate the fees in poorer countries so the global economy is on a par with all nations. If these fees allow those in developing nations to make a living, what happens to the rest of the globe, in nations that have a higher cost of living? The answer is those citizens are forced to struggle to make a living as the fee levels shrink. Sort of a nasty downward spiral.

      Talent is not bound by nation or even going to art school.

  17. 1480

    99Designs is now following me on Twitter. I wonder if they liked the story?

  18. 1531

    Ok, this is strange.

    Thought i should go to smashing and get my read on. As i scroll down i notice the words “Our own worst enemy” and in that very moment i hear “…my own worst enemy”.

    Turns out that the Shoutcast channel i’m on was playing: Lit – My own worst enemy”.

    Good stuff!

    • 1582

      As long as it said nothing about the world ending in 2012. At least that would end crowdsourcing.

  19. 1633

    Mental Ward Design

    August 5, 2010 12:11 pm

    I have always found this process a catch 22 for artists. Mass Design Contests, that is.
    On one hand, I think they are great for budding artists to get their feet wet, and possibly gain some recognition. No harm No foul (as long as you keep your head).
    However, as this practiced moved into the mainstream as a “business model” things have gone a bit Wonky.
    In a perfect world, start ups and small businesses that cannot “afford” a seasoned artist would/could/should use a “pot luck” process to gain some “diamond in the rough” possibilities from budding designers – However, Once big-papa-corporate-greedy-profitmaker a) notices, b) adapts as “SOP”, and 3) wants to keep all the collateral for future use … well – that just turns our ideas, souls, and time/creativity/talent into a cesspool that we fought, clawed, and worked our asses off to get out of.
    It’s a real issue, and if it’s not addressed, I believe Designers will go the way of the “office assistant” in the eyes of Mr.Big Business.
    if you type, take notes, and can set up a calendar, you can be an office assistant.
    “you know MS Paint”? “Your HIRED!” “now, raise our profits 23% over the next 3 quarters and prove the ROI on your existence in the universe until we find someone cheaper….”

    “Who will be left when they come for me?”

  20. 1684

    >>>I have invited 99Designs to comment on this article. If they do, please read what they have to say and if you have an opposing viewpoint, please do not bait, name-call or flame them. It would be interesting to see what they have to say, so please keep the comments professional. Thanks!

  21. 1735

    I like your articles, Speider. I like the humor and the detail. My coworkers and I discuss this kind of stuff regularly–that there often isn’t enough respect and appreciation for real artists and designers because there are too many “hacks” out there they can easily access and often times too much work is done for free or pretty close to free for those who are trying to break into an unprotected industry full of hacks and virtually no regulations on how business should be conducted.

    • 1786

      I don’t worry about the hacks too much as they don’t really compete with me and when a prospective client smiles at me and says they can get it cheaper, I wish them luck and thank them for considering me. The look on their faces makes my day.

  22. 1837

    This part rang home some truths in my current situation:

    “It’s the future for clients that have a “checkbox mentality”, where a logo, a brochure, a website, are just things on a list to check off, rather than key elements of their business strategy.

    Those clients have never been good clients. They’ve never paid well, or been good to work for. For a brief time, as design exploded and became available to businesses that couldn’t afford it previously, they had to buy more than they wanted, and employ real designers. Now that the supply of “designers” has also exploded, these design-blind clients can buy what they actually want, which is a cheap template with their words and photos stuck in it.

    They’ve never wanted real design, the market has evolved to give them what they want.

    The market for clients that do want real design is still there, and still very profitable for designers with the right skills and talents. But the bar for that market is very high, and people that can’t reach it are stuck in a no man’s land between the heights of success and the pits of mass-produced junk design.”

    And I thought I was special ;)

    • 1888

      It’s hard to say where this will all lead. This is all perfect for the “I’ll know when I see it” client. I’m not sad to see them have an avenue that leads away from me.

      When stock illustration sources started, freelance illustrators said it wouldn’t go anywhere but five years later it was cutting into freelancer’s business. To be fair, speaking as an art director, I understood the ability to type in a keyword and find an image that could be presented to the powers that be and have them say yay or nay instead of torturing a freelancer with the whims of editors or publishers, not to mention the professionals who would deliver work at the wrong size or just not what was directed.

      As everyone has commented, this separates the serious design clients from the one-stop shoppers. If it stays this way, it will be a better world.

  23. 1939

    Hi Speider, I would just like to thank you for an interesting read, and I agree with your points (who doesn’t that’s reading-right?).

    I just want to say that I personally am a young guy who is yet to go to any design schools, but have recently discovered the site “CrowdSPRING”. That site is pretty much my opportunity to practice conversing with clients over a project, and taking their feedback to improve my work. This is handy for me to develop my portfolio and gain some valuable knowledge before design school.

    My work is quite exceptional, and I have spent lots of time working on these logos recently, and it is unlikely that I will ‘win’ the money that I would have if I was just working in a job because I have noticed that about six hours before a project ‘ends’ some genius comes through with a design that just blows everything else out of the water. I check the winner’s profiles and they have only won two competition over two months, and have entered like a bazillion different projects. So basically people are working for nothing mostly, and the clients get exceptional designs really cheap. So the designers do gain valuable skills, and get to build up a portfolio to show off to potential employers, but they aren’t being financially compensated, which is fair enough because anyone can upload what they deem as a ‘design’.

    Your point in the article about the pricing that clients will come to expect, and the lack of understanding of what professional designers do and how their works are generally far-superior is spot on. I can already predict in the future when graphics designers will be turned down for crowdsourcing for every need. What there will be is a few big fish with extra-professional skills that will continually win the ‘prize’ for every project, of which amazing designers (which aren’t better than the most elite) continually lose out.

    So thanks again for the read, and also for the opportunity to post my thoughts.

    • 1990

      Never having done this for design (once for writing and I ran away screaming), I don’t know what client interaction crowdsourcing has besides reading a “creative brief” and submitting a dozen or so designs. I’ve known a few people who have used similar sites and complained that once the project started, there was scope creep and mushrooming and the “client” refused to up the fee. Sounds like a real life situation.

      I suppose it is handy experience but I need to remind people starting out that the work in your portfolio does the speaking for you. It doesn’t have to be published (and then there’s the usual design decisions not made by the creator — so would it even be shown?). Have a portfolio with WOW! factor. Show people what YOU can do! If you are interviewing with a creative contact, they will appreciate your thought process more than work stepped upon by a non-creative person.

      Another factor is that most people will see your work online before wanting to give you work. I can’t remember the last time I had to meet with a client and show a portfolio in front of them. Always carry your laptop or use the client’s computer and you can show digital work. Show of my best samples are in a section of my site I call; “Product Fail.” It’s never-produced pieces that were great ideas but there’s no published sample. People love them!

      Crowdsourcing just eats away at our industry but I won’t repeat what has been said in so many comments posted here. Sometimes I think the comments have better information than the article itself (I just get the ball rolling).

      Best of luck in your career!

  24. 2041

    Even though this may get lost in the ginormous list of comments, ill give my 2 cents.
    I agree, we need to get rid of the Hacks. I agree they are screwing up prices and quality expectation. I don’t agree with ALL design contests being bad. Deviant Art holds all kinds of contests, and a few have been for commercial designs. Its the way the contest is being used, that makes it good or bad.

    Pricing. No offense, but you all sound like A-holes if you just tell a client good luck when he says “i can get it cheaper”. My strategy is this. Keep the client interested in you. Be a salesman. Show them the cheaper designs. Then show them your designs. Show them graphs comparing cheap designed sites with more pricey designs. Even if you have to bs your way around the graphs, clients love a good graph or chart. This also shows the client that you know what your talking about and makes you sound even more professional. Show the client you really care about them and their business/site. Even if you don’t convert them, you have made an impression. You have made yourself “the fallback guy” when the client finally realizes they paid for crap with the cheap guy.

    I don’t agree with hacks being Walmart. hacks are those little ripoff shops and thrift store type places that find junk, fix it and resell cheap. Walmart types in design are just young start up guys who actually think this style might help improve their business and get more traffic and money. But just like Walmart, they lowered the bar. crap.
    Some people just don’t have confidence in themselves to get their prices up. Some think just because they just started, they don’t have a right to charge high prices.
    I’m guilty of this when i was doing computer repair. My bad IT guys. But i did successfully devalue Best Buy’s Geek Squad in my town. Whoops.

    • 2092

      Not lost at all.

      I can’t really say I support your point on pricing, at least not at the level I am in my career and in my experience in the field but it’s a valid point for those just starting. I have been part of many discussions on creating a promotional piece that has really horrid logos and designs side by side with “good” work. I suppose that might break the hardest of wills if the client is set in stone on his/her ideas. I’ve never known anyone who has actually done it. Any readers who can share a story on doing such a thing?

  25. 2143

    The real problem with online design sites is that most of the designers are living in countries where the cost of living is pennies a day. A place like elance has the majority of their designers living in places like India and Serbia. It is impossible to compete with a designer who views $3/hour as good money and can easily underbid anyone in the US, Europe, Canada, Australia, etc. And they might actually be good designers, so hack might not really be a part of the equation. And another problem with places like Elance and croudspring et al is that 1) they make a profit off the brokering, so they don’t really care how much someone gets paid and they have no interest in the health of the industry and 2) they are working for the buyers, not the artists, so working for them is not in anyone’s best interest.

    It’s not a good thing, no matter how you look at it. And it’s a practice that is bleeding into other industries. New architect students usually spend their first 5 years drafting for an architecture firm. Today, most architect firms outsource their drafting to India, so there is no need to use recent grads. You can’t get hired unless you have at least 5 years experience drafting, so in the future, the only people to be hired will be those with experience from India.

    The only way any of this will end is if either there are laws passed which put a tariff on outsourcing or the cost of living index collapses world wide.

  26. 2194

    I feel like the “Design Contests” are a gray area. I completely agree with you in terms of logo, web and business card design for small companies. Who are these guys that have no problem designing a logo for the off chance to win $150? It’s crazy…it’s funny though, just last week I had a client who tried out “99 Designs”…I had previously designed a logo for his business and, I don’t know, I guess he just wanted to see if someone could do it better? Who the heck knows…the guy who “won” copied the exact logo I created for the client that was on his website, just different fonts. The whole thing made me question reality. Why would you pay to have a logo done twice?

    …but on the other hand there are some great design contests out there…I recently participated in the LG “Design the Future” contest on CrowdSpring (yeah, I didn’t win)…but rarely do I get the chance to design a cell phone like product…it was a great exercise in creativity and it really let me flex my muscle…and they had some substantial cash prices (first prize was $20,000)…I feel like competitions like that are great for the industry…the rules were pretty relaxed and it really let people go hog wild and show off what they can do. Too often you’re forced to roll with the clients vision… it’s great to have a contest that let’s you be you.

    • 2245

      I understand your point but let me play devil’s advocated and explore another option; so you submitted something you really enjoyed designing and it stretched your creativity. You loved your final submission. You didn’t win and the client, I assume, owns it anyway.

      What if you had designed it but not submitted it and then sought out companies that might purchase the rights to the design? You would have taken a cue to create your own initiative and owned the product rights.

      Was the prize worth giving away all rights to the winner? What would the project have paid a design firm or freelancer to do the work? I’m guessing that the prize cost was considerably less than that would have run the company. So, who was the real winner?

  27. 2296

    the way asian and western live in a different environment obviously has different way of thinking. a person who built his business at the western part who wants an asian feel for his business is obviously be better to hire an asian designer. why? coz even if a western design is educated to its fullest. the feel of asian environment and culture is not with him and the result would probably something is missing.

    I Probably hiring Talented uneducated 18yrs old who knows how to use Adobe CS5 suites and had played a lot of video games to design my logo and websites.

    Rather than hiring a professional 7yr experienced designer (who graduated yr 2001) who mastered adobe photoshop 7 and been at the four walls of his boss company for 7 yrs.

    technology is going faster, way of living is changing. is it really practical to enroll on a school when you already know that after you graduated.. you probably left out coz adobe already releases 4 new versions of what you previously mastered software? and are those art professor really can boost your creativity?

    Creativity and talents are inborn and being develop on how the way you live. we can not say a person is professional just because he is educated. (that’s racist.) I wonder if the First designer in the world have finished college?

    • 2347

      I like your point about the different cultures and the different thinking that will go into a design. I don’t think that design talent is bound by any culture or border but if I want an Asian feel to a design, I would probably seek out an Asian designer, more out of the need for correct characters in the lettering and authenticity of any symbols.

      I don’t think a different culture or thinking will adversely effect a logo or web site with the exception of misspellings if for a foreign market. A talented eye for design is what ties all designers together. Experience does make for a better product with usability and consumer experience in mind. With crowdsourcing it’s just a blind shot in the dark and the closest shot wins, so to speak.

      Thanks for your comment, Naldz!

  28. 2398

    This message has to run more often, & in bold too. and with the appropriate media coverage. or it’s gone be too late.
    For the future, There is still a lack of clear understandings of the consequences of what
    such hack, like crowd-sourcing, is doing to the design professions. It is not about short term vision but on the long term vision.
    I am very worried, specially When i can still read some of the comments listed above.
    Why not such discourse is not clearly addressed to real journalists in order to publish finally a real report versus of some shitty tech PR lobby inflating fat lines of new businesses mag.
    Finally, aren’t we talking about works, jobs versus hobbyists.

    • 2449

      There’s a sucker born every minute!” – PT Barnum

      How good can crowdsourcing be? I mean the final product, as with template brochures and sites are nothing special and neither are the clients who use crowdsourcing or buy $10 logos. The majority of businesses that start and close within their first year are, I believe, in the vast majority. Was it worth it for them to invest in branding and sound marketing? It would be an investment they would never see as important. They usually miss other important points, too.

      There are many avenues to use your creativity. You just need to find those and stay out of the dark forest of Hacks and tigers and bears, oh my!

      Keep an eye out for my article on creating licensing and e-commerce initiatives freelance!

  29. 2500

    August 20, 2010 6:50 am

    huge companies doing “contests” to get something for nothing is gross. it’s just plain gross, but that’s how these hack businesses work and we sit by and let them. that’s even worse!!

    • 2551


      August 26, 2010 6:21 am

      the best thing to do is to not take part in their “contests”. we can’t help it if there’s designers out there who are willing to create designs for their “contest”, and end up not getting anything from their efforts if they win.

  30. 2602

    Trackback from 1000 Pieces of Toast:

    I see a lot of parallels between the state of affairs in the design/creative industries and software development (where I hail from). There is plenty of spec work going on (e.g. every single little iPhone app is an example), and there are plenty of hacks to go around (e.g. vWorker). I think the problem lies as much in the professionals of the industries as it does in the client base. If our customers don’t know what the are buying, of course they are going to low-ball the pricing.

    • 2653

      I’m actually writing a chapter for the next Smashing book on that very subject and how to convince clients that they are buying something substantial and how to present it to the client as such.

  31. 2704


    August 26, 2010 6:17 am

    I personally believe that any person that has the true talent to be a graphic designer will be successful. Is a formal education necessary? Nope, it sure isn’t. Do some firms require a formal education? Yep, they do, but that’s only because they’re trying to make sure they don’t hire any “hacks”, because in their minds, if they hire someone fresh out of design school, then the person they hire will have what they consider to be the necessary drive to make their company successful. So really, those who hire graphic designers on a “degree-only” basis only care about their own success, and not about the success of the person who just graduated design school. To me, graphic design has and always will be about the client. THAT is the #1 thing EVERY designer needs to remember, and if we as graphic designers really do care about our clients, then we will always strive to do the very best we know we can do to meet their design needs.

    Being a “hack” is really all about our approach to what we say is our profession, because graphic design requires us to create things that do not yet exist, and that requires us as designers to step outside of our own comfort zones and to be willing to break free from what we think are our limitations, whether that be not knowing how to do CSS/HTML coding, to not understanding the importance of making sure a document that will be going to print is in CMYK color, and not RGB color.

    I’ve taken graphic design classes myself, some at a junior college, where I learned about Quark, Illustrator and Photoshop, and some classes at a school that specialized in graphic design. I didn’t graduate from either schools, but I did gain some very valuable knowledge. As I was attending classes at the aformentioned junior college, I learned how to use Photoshop and Illustrator on my own, which helped a TON when it came to projects I had to do. This was back in the day before Kazaa had spyware, and anyone could find literally anything on Kazaa, from full-length movies to full-version programs. The other design school I attended stressed more that in order to be a good designer, you have to understand the fundamental principles of design, such as typography, the usage of color to convey emotions, and so forth. These are things I had done in the past when I was attending classes at the junior college, so this wasn’t really anything new to me, but it did solidify some things. Another thing that was stressed at the second design school I attended was the necessity of knowing the process of design, from creating thumbnails of three different design concepts to choosing one strong design out of the three, then working that one strong design up to a finished design on paper. In order to progress to using digital programs, such as Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign, those who attended this school had to pass 6 months of fundamental design training that required us to create designs by hand, as I’ve already stated. Everything from magazine layouts to logos to book cover designs. Could I have created the same things directly in Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign? Most definitely, but I did learn some very valuable things from creating these things by hand.

    What I personally believe it all comes down to is having the talent, desire and drive to want to succeed, no matter what profession it is we’re talking about, and to not sell ourselves short when it comes to new projects that come our way.

  32. 2755

    Now THIS is an interesting approach…

  33. 2806

    This was really informative. It has a wide application to any creative industry. As a story artist/ animator, I know. I just forwarded this article to a hack, I refer to them as ‘dirtbags’ . Hope his pea brain can take it all in.

  34. 2857 are good. HAHAHA
    2 years ago find a ontest with istockillustration winner, direct from
    There are a lot of same storyes there.
    And i don’t know when the clients come and say: i love your works take a look at my contest. I have see yuor portfolio. And you start to do something in your styll, the final are i don’t like this, then push the winning button to the best “hacker” in the contest.
    And what? Start search the projects and see: 30 designs with the same projects. Only the collors, and stockimages are different. I don’t think this is proffesional.
    I think this is the world of design “HACKS”.


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