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

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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 … More about Speider Schneider ↬

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“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 Vampirella, 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 AIGA 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 crowdsourcing 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 Melbourne, Australia, boasts that it’s helped to broker 48,000 graphic design projects for big name clients like Adidas and DISH Network 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 ran 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?

Also consider the following Smashing Magazine articles:

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!

Smashing Editorial (al)