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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”? Link

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? Link

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 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 ran6 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? Link

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? Link

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 Link

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!


Footnotes Link

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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

    Hi there,

    Mind the self-promotion but I’m the founder of Feexd .

    I’m doing so not because I want just to take a spam piss in a random blog post wall but because it makes sense in the context of the second quote of “Is “CrowdSourcing” and “Fixed-Price” Online Shops the Future?”

    Might sound pretentious, but as one of our twitter followers putted it “On a 1st impression: crowdsourcing is being @feexd_ right now!”

    Even if the project just started from the idea of having a community to fix badly designed websites with awesome content, I think he’s right or at least is a cool side-effect.

    “Feexd – One site to fix them all” is just what the quote suggests in the context of digital design.

    It’s currently in private testing but you can head to the site to know more about Feexd at (In case you you’re still puzzled you can mail me at catarino# feexd _com)

    Concerning this 2nd wave of crowdsourcing controversy (the 1st was about 4-5 years ago). The problem is that design Divas are just talking instead of working. If you’re afraid, work harder, work smarter, ADAPT. Crowdsourcing / No Spec Talk is just that… talk. I’m sure that there are thousands of 14 year old kid fussing around in “crowdsourcing” sites that will be amazing Designers without a design degree before they turn 21.
    ( by “Designer” I mean: really experienced in both Design practice and theory and not just “Web Decorators”)


    ( thanx to @bschildt for this blog post heads-up. )

    • 2

      Hi @Steve42,

      I see that you don’t understand what Feexd is about.

      Please be patient, wait for the launch. I’m sure you’ll change your opinion a bit. (or maybe not but you will understand it better.)

      • 3

        Dont insult me by saying that I dont understand what a typical labor exploitation scheme is when I see it.

        You create a “clearing house for spec design work”

        You make it seem more “inclusive” and “attractive” by making it a “closed beta”
        and “invite only” during this period, thus coddling your initial cadre by making them feel they are part of this ‘inner circle’ and are thus ‘special’.

        You and they (i suppose) rustle up projects by identifying websites and building ‘better versions’ that you then try to sell to the client.

        A business model EXACTLY LIKE the guy who approaches your car at the intersection with a squeege and a spray bottle, offering a better, cleaner windshield!

        Its a win win only for YOU running your site, getting a database full of naive, somewhat talented, will work for nothing idealistic idiots who will do the grunt work while you toss a site together with free html and opensource php and cry all the way to the bank

    • 4

      why doesnt Smashing Mag have a REPORT SPAM button?

      Why, in the derisive and self abusive nature of SPEC WORK would people do UNSOLICITED and UNREQUESTED SPEC WORK using (obviously w/o permission and knowledge) some copyrighted material (with modifications) of the to be “Feexed” site * (so fucking cool to take a word, but rephoneticise it new letters/vowels! -Fix, equal Feex!


      now Fooooooque Off!

    • 5

      Thanx @Speider :)

    • 6

      this post is really not even relevant to the article and is truly baseless self promotion of garbage (spam)

      • 7

        Catarino may not have explained it clearly, but Feexd is a community of designers setting out to make the web more beautiful.
        People submit sites to be “Feexd” and (other) people submit proposals, or “feexes”.
        Feexd then contacts the site owner and shows and tries to sell them the proposals, the designer gets compensated.

        The idea is that the people that sign up for Feexd do so because of their love of beautiful, standard compliant sites, not so much for the money. (There have already been some proposals for non-profit sites where the idea is to redo the site for free)

        Here’s hoping Feexd comes out of closed beta soon and opens up to more designers.

        (I’m one of the people that were invited for the closed beta, based on my work (and based on my guesses when they teaser-launched feexd… :-) ))

        • 8

          August 4th, 2010 2:00 am

          Catarino may not have explained it clearly, but Feexd is a community of designers setting out to make the web more beautiful.
          People submit sites to be “Feexd” and (other) people submit proposals, or “feexes”.
          Feexd then contacts the site owner and shows and tries to sell them the proposals, the designer gets compensated.

          The idea is that the people that sign up for Feexd do so because of their love of beautiful, standard compliant sites, not so much for the money. (There have already been some proposals for non-profit sites where the idea is to redo the site for free)”

          Make the Web More Beautiful??
          Why do you feel the need to present lofty, grandiose goals to what should be straightforward and totally respectful commercial endeavors?

          Its all about earning money, pure and simple, and nothing is wrong with that. The problem I have with ‘Feexed’ is because it attempts to gain a leg up in the market with flat out misrepresentation and bullshit.

          Just say that you are going to try to get some guys together who will do the work (or the design work, at least) YOU will email a few sites that could use a makeover, the guys you have collected will put some free time in w/o pay (like a “design contest” but with no prize)

          For the honor of doing this spec work, these happy schlubs fork over 40,50% of the total payout?

          Hey Designers!
          How about YOU call up companies on the fly, and pitch them YOUR services and skill…YOURSELF???

          How about you stopping by some of the local places you pass by on the road daily , chat them up, see if they have a website and pitch ’em?

      • 9

        Hi Joel,

        Have you read the quote in question? Have tried to know anything about Feexd? Because if you have I’m sure you can relate?

        Anyway. You can always try to just comment the #2 without the “spam”.

        (thanx @Bschildt for explaining Feexd in more detail.)

        (@speider My apologies if my post is getting some trouble. you can delete it.)

        • 10

          Speider Schneider

          August 5, 2010 12:29 am

          As I mentioned below, in another comment, I don’t do the moderation of these comments. I’m torn between feeling this is too much of a self-promotion and having the professional experience of seeing if this concept will work.

          • 11

            I understand.

            As I tweeted after seeing this messages posts reactions: “Sometimes is hard to know if your doing spam when you’re talking about something you love.”

            It’s a thin red line, I guess. :S

          • 12

            thank God you only have this “thin red line” once a month! -Steve comments wryly.

  2. 13

    good in-depth post and I completely agree that “Design Contests Erode The Industry”

  3. 16

    Yep, design contests are bad, but I think they’ll go on, the important lesson to take from this is to value genuinely appreciative clients who understand the value of your work.

    • 17

      Harmony Steel

      August 3, 2010 5:26 pm

      This is so true. Good clients – those who respect what we do, pay their bills on time, and are pleasant to deal with – are a rare commodity and should be treated as such. These are the clients you should always go the extra mile for and genuinely say “thank you for being such a great client!”. They are also the clients who generate most of your work for you through referrals and good word-of-mouth. Tell them why they rock, say thank you, send them cookies, they are well and truly worth it.

      I’m currently working for a very successful print and web studio and my boss has a great saying – “the poor man pays twice”. We get a lot of our work from clients who came to us originally for a quote, said our qoute was too expensive, went somewhere cheap and nasty, and now have come back to us happy to pay the price we quoted because they’ve learned the hard way there’s a big difference between a cut-and-paste template website and one which will actually add value to their business and bring them customers.

      A fantastic article, thanks Speider and SM – would love to see more like this.


      • 18

        Thanks! There will be more. Check out other articles like this one by clicking my name at the top of the article.

        • 19

          or, for a superior reading experience, stab yourself in the eyes (or eye if you are a pirate/cyclops) with a fork!

  4. 20

    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.

    Hahaha… your take on 99Designs makes me laugh. Amen!

    • 21

      I also agree on the “Design Contests Erode The Industry”

      And I’ve also tested 99designs.
      – there are many things to be said about it, but the math in “if … every one of the 73,000 designers won just one competition a month, each would get $8.22.” is correct by the math-books, but does not bring the level of the designers into the calculation.

      It is a free haven where self-proclaimed designers can join in on the battle for the pricemoney. But, for some individuals 99designs can also be a great springboard for experience and a good job. Sadly the cheap and remote way of working with designs, where the buyers take little or no risk, undermines the work that is essential for good design. On the other side its alarming to that maybe only 10-20% of the projects are guaranteed, giving the contributing designers no safety for the value of their work.

      99designs can be a blessing for small businesses with low budgets, but its hard to see how it can give something positive to the design-community, except from two things:
      – many can get experience making them able to move on.
      – it might raise a higher level of awareness for design, that more people get access to “custom” design and therefor, in the end, causing more people to seek design with that little extra.

      • 22

        I agree that sourcing mediocre design from 99designs can be an alternative for startups, if they have absolutely no access to proper designers.

        But do keep in mind that design (and marketing in general) is and always will be an investment, and the faster young entrepreneurs learn to treat it as such, the better. If you invest next to nothing, you will gain next to nothing. Arguably, you could eschew design, marketing and even finding a company name if you’re strapped for cash and instead use your own name and let your actions and the quality of your work speak for you. At least you’re honest, and people appreciate working with John Miller, London over Miller Industries – London Branch if they’re getting the same work either way.

        Fledgling designers however are – if anything – only harmed by participating in these competitions: the management is totally unrealistic, there is no proper briefing or even art direction and the work isn’t critiqued by professional designers, but solely by laymen. All in all, you learn nothing useful aside from using drop shadows and lens flares in inappropriate places.

        • 23

          Haha, so true..The lack of insight and understanding is obvious, but despite all the negative aspects 99 still creates a bigger demand for design. Lets just hope the serious companies, with room for decent design-budgets, sees the benefit in seeking better work.

          The fact that 99 became big while nobody wanted to invest, due to the downfall in the international economy and generally high risks, can be a relief. The stability is better and the horizon is not as pitch black anymore. And what used to be a great web-side design is now simply a common template: Therefor that little extra and true finesse will be priced even more by those who appreciate it.. (or have been told to…)

  5. 24

    Amber Weinberg

    August 3, 2010 4:55 am

    It always angers me when “professionals” choose to charge $5 an hour for their services. However I think clients have become very educated in this area and many know the difference between $5 and $100 an hour work and choose the latter. This post is funny bc I have a similar article coming out in an hour about the same problem in the dev world.

    • 25

      Amber, I completely agree with you on the anger side, I hate being under bid or under quoted by these so called professionals, though I do admit to my secret evil glee when that client comes back saying that the job was done incorrectly and are more than willing to pay my price now.

      But I disagree about clients being educated about choosing to go with the higher cost option off the bat. Maybe its just my part of the world (Australia), but if I have to hear I can get someone to do that in India for a couple hundred I’ll scream

      There has to be more education for clients about how much our talents are really worth, and there’s a beer or two waiting at my local for the person who figures out to do it.

  6. 26

    Has smashing magazine become a rant blog now?

    • 27

      Just my work.

      • 28

        Man I completely agree with you!

        It’s the entire industry itself receives impact, not just our own pockets, time and effort. Somehow I felt it is our duty also to educate clients once we realize the importance and value of this whole damn industry.

    • 29

      did you really mean to say “rant”?

      I was thinking of a more emphatic, similarly ending word.

    • 30

      yes it is a rant but smashing magazine is in my opinion the only design blog that still brings out genuinely unique material even if they are rants

      • 31

        I’d like to think of my articles as edu-rants — a part of the business that just irks the heck out of me but a discussion/exploration or possible solutions and/or approaches to improve on the problems.

        More often than not, even professional organizations are afraid of “rocking the boat.” In example, when creative organizations banded together to fight the advertising industry and the practice of scanning images from source books and such to use in presentations. It is a violation of the copyright law. Period! Instead of supporting their own members and industry, they came up with “Ask First” — asking agencies to “ask the creator first” before ripping them off. It didn’t do too well.

        So, would you rather have a rant that a large number of respondents applaud for the blunt truth, or articles on “Ask First?”

      • 32

        What was unique about this particular rant – they appear every month or two on all major sites.
        Get over it – this is business. You are only worth more money than your competitors if you are doing a better job, and if you can’t prove that then expect to get a different job – you sound so much like the RIAAA bleating on about how _they_ (not the artists) DESERVE to be paid for whatever crap they produce.

        • 33

          I’m not familiar with RIAAA. And don’t belittle my work…it appears every week!

        • 34

          “You are only worth more money than your competitors if you are doing a better job”

          Actually, i beg to differ. You’re only worth what people are willing to pay for you.

          Guess you just gotta find the right people (:

  7. 35

    I have never been a fan of design competitions, too often there is a bias towards the winner for a reason other than the quality of the entry!

    • 36

      Having been a judge on many competitions, I know what you mean. Either the name of the creator draws attention, by peers and friends or the judging process is set up to prevent that but the system has jurors wondering how pieces were granted awards at the end.

      I’ve never entered a competition, although pieces I art directed won awards. At one job, the entire staff would accept the award because it’s not just the designer, art director, writer or production person who claims bragging rights; it’s a team of people and I think it’s a sound principle that the team should be recognized.

  8. 37

    While I do agree that the crowdsourcing option is not a positive one for the design industry we must understand that this field will always have a lot of parity in pricing. All of the reasons cited here about it being an open field that anyone can jump into will always ensure that a good number of designers will over insanely low rates.

    Really though can we blame them? For those still in school, having just graduated, or lacking a portfolio in general it’s a necessary evil to cut your prices in order to get work. The problem lies in the over-saturation of this market due to the ease of entry. 95% of these ‘designers’ fail to persist in the industry long enough to increase their skill set to the point of asking for a respectable rate.

    With most freelancers dropping the practice within the first few years due to the lack of income the design community will always be heavy on the bottom.

    • 38

      You’re right about the ease of entry and the design business being heavy on the bottom. That’s why this whole article reeks to high heaven of elitism.

      If designers feel threatened by newbs fresh out of school, with their portfolios on DeviantArt, then what does that say about them? It’s not the newbs’ fault if designers can’t convince people to pay them more. And I refuse to blame newbs for working for cheap when their choice is that or not working at all.

      I feel that if designers are worth the premium prices, they’ll still get them. And I refuse to believe “hacks” are worthless just because they aren’t able to get enough people to pay them more.

      • 39

        I actually get a different vibe from the article. I don’t think Speider is trying to put down anyone just getting into the industry but rather the sites and companies who take advantage of these individuals with no guarantee of payment for work that has already been completed.

        • 40

          Thanks for getting it, Jason. To be fair it’s a hot topic and people have definite passions about what appears in the article.

          There is someone who is growing and evolving and there are those who…do not. It is, however, an industry problem and the people who charge less than minimum wage just help set the bar low for themselves and others.

          Join the industry and make it stronger.

  9. 41

    Mike Todd-Miller

    August 3, 2010 5:33 am

    The advertisement featured at the top of this post, when I was reading, read: “The Constant Contact Developer Challenge…win $15,000…or an iPad”

    Oh, the irony!

    • 42

      Or nothing at all and they own all submissions. Embarrassing but ads pay the bills and CC hasn’t done this before. Proves the trend is out there and growing…unless creatives refuse to participate.

  10. 43

    Well I guess I would be considered a “hack”. I didn’t go to art school, I have no formal education in any aspect of design, my education was was in computing. I have a reasonably successful business providing low cost websites to small local businesses. However, my sites are all individually built not recycled from previous work, standards-compliant, and dare I say pleasing on the eye :) I provide effective, low cost solutions for a segment of the market which does not have thousands to go to a “professional” design company.
    The snobbery with which I sometimes treated by people who I consider my peers and colleagues (not talking about this article btw, which was a balanced discussion of the issue) is quite down heartening. Because I am self taught, does that make my skills any less valuable than someone who sat in art school to learn them? My skills were earned through hard graft. Countless hours of tutorials, reading design and art history books, honing my craft though repeated practice. Is this somehow worth less than someone who sat in the back of an art class barely listening? I would argue (as I am sure my growing portfolio of satisfied customers would agree with) that my route into the industry was just as valid. It does however get me down that the community which I feel I am a part of does not share that feeling, and treats me like an outsider. Unrequited love is a bitter thing.

    • 44

      It sounds like you’re not a hack. You clearly care about delivering quality work. Design is such a competitive industry. I think that we sometimes get jealous of each other’s successes, and want someone else to blame for our shortcomings. I think it’s entirely possible for talented designers to behave like hacks, and for untrained ones to become really great.

      • 45

        Some people shop at Primark, others at Asos. Both companies thrive, but target completely different demographics.

        Primark has higher volume but lower profits (per sale), Asos will have lower volume but higher profits*

        What matters at the end of the day is profit.

        *Merely speculation to show a point

    • 46

      Ali Blackwell

      August 3, 2010 8:13 am


      Don’t bum out old bean. Speider himself dropped out of art school!

      I too am a self-taught designer and coder. My degree was in English Literature and web design was always a hobby. But now I’ve built up a small business with a satisfied client base. I am a professional web designer. Art school or a degree in computer science has nothing to do with being a professional. People can learn in a classroom; people can also learn in the university of life. The brilliance of our industry is that we can learn from the masters of our profession by reading their blogs, following their tutorials, reading their tweets, whatever.

      The bar will always be extremely high. And we should all aim for that bar, constantly learning and improving our skills. Whatever the state of the industry, the best will always rise to the top, art-schooled or life-schooled.

      And if you’re making money out of it, you’re a professional. Screw the snobs. Mike’s right, they’re probably just jealous of your business!

      Chin up sir! We’re rocking this boat and it’s brilliant.

    • 49

      Hear hear

      • 50

        Anyone can teach themselves coding from tutorials on the web, but it is harder to learn design and craftsmanship outside of school. Learning first hand from experienced professionals, is what sets some people apart from the kid down the street with the same tools and tutorials.

    • 51

      I think that in certain situations a “hack” can mean different things, and as far as training goes, there is nothing wrong with being self taught, some great designers are self taught. As for pricing, you have to take into account that pricing varies with location. I, living in Orlando, FL, cannot command the same prices as a designer living in New York, Chicago, LA or even Miami, for that matter. You have to be competitive in the market you’re in. If I design print work for a business or a locally hosted event and my estimated cost starts at $1500 (for example) I’m likely not going to be in business in this town for very long. My client list would be extremely short and, even then, they would be looking for someone who could do it for a better deal. Same goes for web design/development if I want to charge $5000 for a basic website here, most businesses (and lets face it, as a freelancer, you’re mainly dealing with small business owners with small budgets when it comes to web work) will look at you like you’re growing a second head or something. There’s nothing wrong with trying to bill for what you’re worth, and I hope you are being fair to yourself with your pricing, but for a lot of freelancers out there, the main goal is to keep a roof over your (and your family’s) head(s) and keep the lights on and food on the table, anything above and beyond that means you’re doing well. If I’m having a slow month and I NEED the job (as has been the case many times during the current recession), I NEVER tell the prospective client my situation, but I am generally willing to negotiate a bit more than I would prefer to negotiate with price in order to win the bid, but again, the prospective client never knows that’s the case.

      It’s been my personal experience, that if you do the cheaper job well and treat them professionally and the job like any other, higher paying job the client will likely be happy with the job you did and be willing to pay more for the next job he/she brings to you. For me, ideally, when I gain a client I try and create a relationship that will bring me new jobs as their business’s needs evolve and change. I have had a lot of clients, that I did websites for, come to me wanting custom Twitter backgrounds, custom YouTube backgrounds and Facebook welcome tabs lately as they transition and bring their brands into the social media realm.

      • 52

        I NEVER do the cheaper job – I always tell them its a 5,000 job BUT I will let them have it for 2,000 *IF*
        and then the secondary negotiation starts: You have a product I can use? I’ll take the 2,000 and you make me some business cards, 2 or 3 sets
        Or you give me a cake every other month from your bakery. Or I get link placement rights. SOMETHING.

        If I dont want my ‘oil changed’ or my dog walked, gimme that anyway, I can offer it to a friend. I do this even if the site is free. Hell, you have to at least buy a girl dinner!

        • 53

          Quoting from my past articles, Steve? Welcome to the dark side!

        • 54

          Finally! Great post! That is one method of negotiating a final price that 99% of people forget about. Bartering is a solid method of payment. Ok, so the price isn’t exactly right but can you be paid in services and will that make up for what you don’t get in cash? Yes. When in college, I don’t know how many jobs I took simply because the company offered something I wanted. Like working at a computer store and getting free software, small hardware, and tech education/certification as a bonus. Or working at an art museum and getting paid to do something I was already doing anyway for free. When negotiating a price, find out what you need to make in cash and if the client just can’t get there, maybe bartering services will create a meeting of the minds.

          Secondly, quoting high is a good tip but I find the better place to use that strategy isn’t with fee – it’s with time. Quote higher than your true time estimate because projects never, ever, ever go without some completely arcane, unforeseen, time-devouring hiccup. *Over quote your time estimate* and when you come in under your time budget, your client will think you are superwoman (or superman). At the very least, even with production drama, you will come out on time – and what’s not to love about that?

    • 55

      Dropped out, kicked out…who’s to say? ;)

      I knew a designer who made three templates for use in real estate sales and he was overburdened by real estate agents to create sales flyers for them. He made a good six-figure income but finally went insane. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, “money may not buy you good health but it will buy you a diamond studded wheelchair.”

      There will always be “snobbery” among creatives. I once asked a top designer what he felt about the beginners and those struggling in the field and why they were generally so nasty to each other. He said, “there’s all the room at the top but precious little room at the bottom.”

      I see it every day. I’m considered to be successful so when a young designer comments on how they can’t believe I’m speaking to them or friend them on Facebook, I remind them I put my pants on just like everyone else…over my head.

    • 56

      As I began reading this article, I was thinking to myself, hmm… maybe I am a hack and all those years building my business and convincing people that I’m not a hack were all in vain. But then when I got to Gav’s comment and the replies I felt a teensy weensy bit better. I’m one of those self taught guys who toiled for years reading tutorials, breaking things and fixing them just to figure out how things work and learning along the way. It’s taken me about 10 years to achieve an acceptable (in my view) level of knowledge and a reasonable amount of skill needed to design and build.

      There are still times where my self-esteem gets the best of me, but as everyone else, the only way to improve is to work harder, learn more and do my best with the knowledge I have.

      Great article, though.

      I did have to laugh about a 2.5-hour logo being a hack job, because I’ve done 2.5 hour logos. But it they look good, what’s wrong with that? I wonder how long the Nike swoosh took to create?

      • 57

        Did you research the logo to see if it’s similar to a registered trademark? That has to be part of the process or you can end up in real trouble. See a comment and story I wrote below…somewhere.

    • 58

      Gav, the best revenge for a freelancer is steady, paying work. ;-)

      Your clients appreciate you whether your so-called peers do or not.

    • 59

      Firstly, as I tell all creatives; care about our industry and not what other designers think of you or your work.

  11. 60

    While I agree with your points, I happen to know a couple of designers making real decent money on 99designs, though probably not because they are the greatest designers out there, but for having a smartest tactics in selling their work to the client. But that’s the same in all the lines of business, being talented alone will not get you good deals, you need to know how to approach the client and how to sell yourself. Is it a room full of designers, or website contests, or one-on-one with the client (who already had one-on-one with dozens of people), thing is the same, you either sell or you not, it is still up to you to try to be better than the competition (just it’s not necessarily the design what you need to be better at).

    • 61

      But what is the decent living and how much time do they put into getting it vs. the return on investment?

  12. 62

    Well done, I appreciate the time and effort that went into this article. You raise many good points, and I think that illustrating both sides of the issue with feedback and correspondence was a good idea, a strong tactic put to good use.

    • 63

      Thanks! If you haven’t seen my other articles on Smashing, click my name at the top to see the entire collection.

  13. 64

    ““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.”

    cheaply made goods and services threaten many industries. While I do think that it is a problem worth discussion, I am optimistic that truly good artists will find clients who know what they’re worth.

  14. 65

    Who decides who is a hack and who isn’t? Some who may not have had the best education or have a style (not using that loosely or as an excuse) that isn’t a fad or used right now can be seen as a hack…

    I’ve charged lower rates just to compete in an area that is so overly saturated it is rediculous. I enjoyed the article a lot and agree with pretty much all of it. I was just wondering where this line is drawn and if there are more than just HACK and SUPER-DESIGNER levels…

    • 66

      I would have to say the definition is unclear but when several designers quote over a thousand dollars on a job, the one who quotes $100 is the hack…or just foolish.

      • 67

        foolish? or crazy like a fox?
        For in so doing, they are able to get a foot in the door, establish a relationship with the client and then get lucrative, full time employment?*

        * A situation directly analogous to a young starlet sleeping with the producer in hopes of getting the ‘big part’ (You know, where she uses her mouth, but to say words and stuff)

        • 68

          As I mentioned in one comment below, if it is a repeat client, which it usually isn’t because the one cheap job is all they need, or see as needing, you are setting your rates in stone. If it is a repeat, all you will hear is, “you were able to do it for $__ last time!?”

        • 69

          The thing with quoting $100 for a $1000 job is that even if they are repeat customers, you will never be able to bill them $1000 for a $1000 job. Or $1000 for a $500 job even. Because the relationship you have with this client is that you are cheap.

          Or to use your analogy: The starlet gets bit parts as the waitress in the club and will never be an Angelina Jolie.

          • 70

            No one will ever be Angelina. Pff…

            But what you have said is true. If you are cheap then you have to be cheap. The problem is that clients should by then expect a “cheap” design, not something made by a professional.

  15. 71

    I couldn’t agree more—especially with your closing statements about how unprepared art school students are to run their own businesses. I wrote a piece about this for Newsweek a few years back ( and was shocked by the response I got from readers—and not just from designers—who complained about how ill-prepared they were to actually perform their trade once they got out of school. But in talking to schools since (even fairly prestigious institutions like SCAD and Portfolio Center) there’s just no interest in offering creative business courses to remedy the problem.

    • 72

      I’m honored you like the article! As for art schools, when I lived in NYC, I would speak to seniors at the area art schools on professional practices. It would invariably be followed by a call a day or two later informing me that a “student” or “several students” had gone to the dean of the school because no one told them it would be “so hard” to be a designer.

      Admittedly, I have learned to tone back the horror stories and add more encouragement and while several schools have a professional practices course or two, it is nothing I’ve witnessed that has helped enough to make a smooth transition, especially as a freelancer. I have seen enough student shows and heard enough questions from seniors to see it’s rampant.

      My favorite question from an illustration senior:

      “Why do we need to learn this? We’ll just get artist’s representation!”

      “Where did you hear this?”

      Teacher: “Oh, I just told them to go out and get a rep’!”

      (for those unfamiliar with artist’s and photographer’s representatives, they only carry proven artists so…GASP!…they make a lot of money on commissions. The closest thing I ever saw to a student gaining a rep’ out of art school was the winning students from the Society of Illustrators student show.

      • 73

        Could not agree more Speider about education.
        I am regarded as something of a rebel at college as I mostly ignore the syllabus as written and try to infuse real life lessons into every minute and aspect of my classes for web design students. I teach part-time and freelance part-time and try to make sure my students are ready to work in non-fairy story roles. I am self-educated but believe that the right sort of education can make a difference if the teacher don’t bullsh*t or follow the syllabus blindly.

  16. 74

    It REALLY made me chuckle when the idea that 2 year design schools are flooding the market was brought up considering there is an ad for Full Sail University front and center before the start of the article. They are tossing out new designers every month.

    Anyway, I think it doesn’t help our cause that Photoshop is being taught in high school art class (probably in leiu of traditional drawing and painting techniques) and people, existing and prospective, don’t see us designers as professionals because their kid can make “art” on the computer too. We also have a large hurdle when it comes to professionalism, warranted or not, because those of us in the design industry are relaxed in most aspects of our lives. We’re not the Wall St broker dressing in our fancy suits and ties (or dresses and power suits, ladies) stressing out and being hyper competitive about the next business deal. Though some of us may be like that, at least to some extent, most designers are more comfortable in a t-shirt and shorts or jeans, depending on where you live, and generally have so much work on our plates that though we want to get the next business deal done, we don’t have the time to become hyper competitive and wine and dine the client and “get them in bed” like “businessmen” do. We as designers are our own worst enimies. It always feels like new designers and “hacks” are constantly working against us more experienced designers and undermining what we have worked so hard to achieve. You can explain all day why say a $500 logo is better than a $150 logo but in the end, the client just wants a logo and would prefer not have to pay for it at all, since theoretically their high school son or daughter can do it. So like competing corner gas stations, where the one on the left always seems to be a cent or two lower than the one on the right we experienced designers find ourselves undervaluing our work and competing with the lowest common denominator in order to pay rent, eat, etc.

  17. 75

    Fantastic article! Thank you for the book recommendation, will have to check that one out I’m sure i’ll be freelancing again someday.

    Do you still teach at Parsons? I go there currently… semester starts in a few weeks :)

    • 76

      Not in the NYC area anymore but it’s a fine school. You might also want to take some classes at SVA. Worry about a rounded education and not the piece of paper.

      Best of luck!

    • 77

      Worry about the piece of paper.
      You can get ’rounded’ for free, and for everything else, there is ‘instant expertise’ via google.

      You may not stay in this chosen field, but a degree after your name (even in something as gay* as ‘design’ helps!)

      *Design is not necessarily “gay”

      • 78

        Stop helping, Steve. Actually, Jillian, Steve has a point. I did work for one major corporation that needed the piece of paper. I ended up going back to school a decade later for the crummy 9 credits I needed to graduate.

        If you can work in the field and take courses toward a degree, you will appreciate it more…or bail.

        • 79

          awesome thank you both for the advice! worked as a web designer and moved on to school because I just wanted to push myself and I’ve only grown to love what I do more.
          will check out SVA

  18. 80

    Spiffy McDoogal

    August 3, 2010 6:06 am

    I worked with a guy at a sign shop a few years back who I would definitely call a hack. He was in his mid 40’s, with claims out the wazoo of his artistic abilities. He had a fine arts degree from a local college. He had to show me his portfolio on my first day at work which consisted of about 10 photo albums full of paintings, displays, etc. I knew he was lying when I saw some stuff I knew was created by a friend of mine. At the time I didn’t call him out, hell, I needed the job at the time. But by day three at the sign shop, he was accusing me of hacking his computer from my workstation. By the next week, I learned that this so called graphic design expert couldn’t install a font on his own computer, didn’t know how to copy and paste plain text from one application to another and thought that he could edit his resume with the vinyl plotting software we had and blamed me for sabotaging his computer because he could do it before I started working there. He called me his assistant, which I wasn’t, but I did end up cleaning up and redoing much of the work he undertook. It took me a few months before everything he did became a running joke with me and everyone else in the shop. Warning to all sign shops in the Baltimore/DC area, if a guy who looks like Dean Martin but sounds like High Pitched Eric applies for a job, I hope you have some insurance. This dude damaged some stuff. Definitely a hack!

    • 81

      Those who speak the loudest are the ones who need to be the quietest. I’m not sure where writing about this stuff puts me. I’m sure people will start posting comments to tell me.

  19. 84

    This is capitalism in its purest form. Capitalism cares for profit, and profit comes when you minimize your expenses. Few in the business world know good art when they see it, they just want to increases their ROI.

    Nobody, but nobody respects people for their time or talent. It’s intangible to them, so it equates to no value. I’ve done business by the 3 slices method:

    Quick, Cheap, Quality – You can only choose 2.

    Quick and Cheap? – It won’t be Quality
    Quick and Quality? – It won’t be Cheap
    Quality and Cheap? – It won’t be Quick

    Most choose the last, until I tell them “I’ll have your project done in 8 months”. Then, all of a sudden, THEIR time becomes valuable (and I HOPE that they realize the irony in how they devalued my time for sake of a Quality and Cheap product)

    • 85

      Allahverdi Sefihanov

      August 3, 2010 7:14 am

      Quick, Cheap, Quality – You can only choose 2.

      Quick and Cheap? – It won’t be Quality
      Quick and Quality? – It won’t be Cheap
      Quality and Cheap? – It won’t be Quick
      Really great words

    • 86

      I’ve heard (and used) the “triad of business” but most clients just don’t grasp why they can’t have it all. They go elsewhere and end up with two anyway. Guess which one is missing from the cheap jobs?

      Just the other day a prospective client approached me with a speculation job with no real defined “reward” for my efforts. I told them it would take a year to do the work along side my paying work as I am booked until November. They just didn’t get why they couldn’t have it in a couple of weeks. I explained it again and after a few seconds of silence they asked if I could refer a designer who will get it done in two weeks.

      Oddly enough they hung up when I suggested they try looking in the telephone directory under “Fantasyland.”

  20. 87

    unfortunately, this statement is true – clients want it fast and cheap. however, it’s always fun when some self-proclaimed designer screws up a job and the client calls you back to make the corrections. it happens often enough for me to not care about the minions who can’t get their job done or will do it wrong. there are more than 10 popular errors laymen can make (and most likely will) whenever he touches the print design and many more in webdesign (performance, optimization, SEO and many more).
    face it – sooner or later this client will get back to you.

    • 88

      While I think the people I turn down (usually politely, as opposed to my comment above) won’t contact me out of pride when a bargain designer doesn’t provide what is needed, I have heard from some who will call in a panic because the work is due the next day and the bargain was not worth the savings. Unfortunately, they also tell me they spent their budget but will “remember” me next time.

      I always politely remind them that they should have used my service and that the rush job has extra fees, so no budget means no work. They tend to get angry and abusive at that statement but deep down I know they are really frustrated with themselves. Oh, who am I kidding!? They’re angry a creative-type wants money and is keeping them from what they want…it ALL!

      • 89

        See, that’s why we cant have nice things!

        Why continue to foster this ‘us against them’ mentality?

        • 90

          Because that’s what it has become. We are fighting for our industry and our careers.

          You’ve read my articles, Steve. The numerous comments show the problems with trying to work and make a living being created. Can it be described as anything but?

  21. 91

    I like to think that small businesses grow out of the template logos and “do-it-yourself” web design offered by various companies just like we all grow out of training wheels for our bicycles.

    Unfortunately, some risk adverse businesses never do, and those steady wheels on the side of their bike prevent them from racing with the Lance Armstrongs of the business world.

    In the end its failing to identify a blind spot in their long term business strategy, and they suffer for it.

  22. 92

    I am one of those low-lives that graduated with a marketing degree. So you’re hearing this from a marketing perspective and an entrepreneur. I believe that there may be some light ahead for designers. Books like “Do You Matter”, “The Designful Company”, and “Start with Why”, are getting the attention of business leaders and teaching them the importance of quality design.

    Before I ever read or heard of those books it was my opinion that the most successful companies are the ones that invest a massive amount of their money in design and as an entrepreneur that is my focus.

    I believe there is a bigger need than ever for quality creative workers, ones that are capable of coming up with new designs and not simply recycling the old. When dealing with outsourced workers or “cheap” designers it always seems to be a design recycled. Being able to work with a designer who can take your message as a company and turn it into something real is priceless.

    Every designer should ask themselves, “If I am going to do this job at THAT level of quality, how much is my time worth?” Then charge that amount. Remember, I am telling you this as an entrepreneur on the receiving end of that bill.

    P.S. Great article.

  23. 93

    Great article. Very important information for us to consider.

  24. 94

    I am currently working at a studio that does a lot of low-end, quick turnaround design. Surprisingly, when speaking with a client, they’re more concerned about the speed at which their site is built than its quality. It’s important to note, though, that this type of design does attract a certain type of person. I can say whole heartedly that there is a distinct difference between a client who wants a beautiful site and somebody who just wants ‘something.’ This is where the article struck a chord with me. There will always be a level where low-quality work is acceptable. It may not be favorable in the eyes of most designers, but in the end, it does help to filter out the good or preferred clients.

    I say stick to what you feel most comfortable with and if you feel your work is more valuable, then market yourself to higher-end clients. While it’s hard to turn down work when you’re just starting out, showing integrity (in regard to creating low-end design) out of the gate can help to attract the type of clients that pay more and expect better design. Develop your skills and your image to suit. The rest will follow in time.

  25. 95

    I absolutely agree with this whole article. I’m so depressed about the situation, about how other designers sell ridiculously cheap “design packages”, and how clients are against paying well (because yeah, it is hard to get an excellent client willing to pay well), that I have lost my passion for graphic design. And it is sad that I wasted 4 years at the university studying something that “anyone with a computer” can do now, cheaper.

    I thought it was only in my country (Mexico), but now that I see is a global tendency I feel worse. =(

    • 96

      TF, one of my best friends is a graphic designer. I think there is hope! Read my comments above.

  26. 97

    If you don’t want to publish the post, it’s ok. but at least explain why.

    Was it spam?

    • 98

      Not sure to which post you are referring, Catarino but Smashing will remove posts with certain links. Did you include a link?

      • 99

        Yes it was one mentioning “Feexd”. that explains it. ok thanx.

        anyway if you want to strip that link part out it would be nice because the rest of the comment, well… it took me a while to write it and I think would add to the conversation. :)

      • 100

        Yes it was one mentioning “Feexd”. that explains it. ok thanx.

        anyway if you want to strip that link part out it would be nice because the rest of the comment, well… it took me a while to write it and I think would add to the conversation. :)

        • 101

          Speider Schneider

          August 5, 2010 12:26 am

          I’m torn between thinking this is self-promotion and an interesting concept. Worth watching to see the reaction.

          • 102

            I honestly understand your concern about the self promotion. looking back I think my first post was a bit to spammy, that’s why I told you to strip the “spammy” part.

            As for the project part. Thanx for the interest and yeah I’m pretty curious about what will happen, too. :)

            Thanx @Speider

  27. 103

    A decent graphic designer will take into account all the elements at play when it comes to his/her clients. It all comes down to three things… Fast, Good, and Cheap… The client can only get two because the end result is always the later. Good and Fast designs are never Cheap. Good and Cheap designs are never Fast. Fast and Cheap designs are never Good. (The client doesn’t know this.) But it really depends on what the client wants and a good designer should be able to work with their client within those boundaries and try to coax them into Good and Fast or Good and Cheap. Problem is that the client will choose Fast and Cheap 98.9% of the time. And a good graphic designer has no choice but to do what they can with what they got. Kinda forces them to be/look like a “Hack”. Either that or they pass the client off to the next schmuck that will do the job Fast and Cheap.

  28. 104

    I think what will separate the pack is one’s ability to provide strategy, rationale and quantifiable evidence for their decision making. Otherwise major corporations would be sifting through 99 designs. It’s funny to think, though, even companies with loads of money are producing work that gets butchered by a company misunderstanding the fundamental fact that they are consulting said designer for their design expertise. At the end of the day, however, money talks, and if a client choses to ignore your ability to provide expertise, that’s something they are paying for.

  29. 105

    I am just starting out in the field, so it’s hard to know exactly what is expected of you as a designer. I can’t tell you how many job postings I’ve come across looking for someone who can, basically, pump out design after design without much thought. These postings always say something like, “If this sounds like you, send us your resume!” Every one of them left a bad taste in my mouth. I thought, “This doesn’t sound like me at all. Is this really what people expect? Am I really not supposed to take too long to think a design through from start to finish. Am I missing something?!” Thank you for this article! It really made me see that NO, this is not really what a true designer should be doing.

  30. 109

    Mike Boardley

    August 3, 2010 9:37 am

    1. Anyone willing to participate in crowd-sourcing must accept the consequences because they willingly participated.

    2. There are different levels of designers and clients. “Hacks” fill the Wal-Mart niche.
    “Serious” designers skip the previous niche and only entertain proposals from clients who value the skills necessary to properly handle their brand. The trick is finding the quality clients and be willing to stick to your principles.

    Comfy Chair Consulting Inc.

  31. 110

    Chris Fernandez

    August 3, 2010 9:42 am

    What a great read! I agree on every point.

    I have never bothered with sites like 99designs because, like you and many others,I’ve made the determination that the overwhelming majority of projects on those sites are simply not worth my time or effort.

    Sadly, the ‘do it for whatever the client says’ mentality has infested some places I’ve worked and can really sap the energy and creativity out of young designers. It can really be a dangerous cycle that I’ve seen take promising talent and spit them out as what many here may call hacks…

    Kudos to you for this conversation, hopefully there is a shift in what schools teach as well as what the experienced design community shares with those coming into the fold.

    • 111

      Thank you! I must also impart that these sites are too often businesses phishing for ideas to give an in-house designer.

      I made the mistake of signing up for odesk (for writing) when I saw a great opportunity and a nice fee. Turns out the business wanted only to speak with me to get information for their start up and actually had the audacity to ask for referrals to “cheap writers.”

  32. 112

    I just can’t agree that we will never be united as a profession- I’ve come to see that unification and standards are the only real solution here. In Canada (Ontario, I believe) they have put in place a process for vetting designers coming into the workforce, much like we do for all our other professional careers (doctors, lawyers, engineers, ect.) That makes it simple: if you’re not talented enough or don’t have the knowledge, you are left out of the profession.

    It sounds heartless, but it raises the standard of design education by firmly setting the threshold that needs to be attained, and it prevents years of disappointment and struggle on the part of those who simply don’t have the chops to be designers. It really can’t be fun to spend four years (or even two years) in school learning graphic design, when someone should have told you a long time ago that you weren’t going to make it.

    As for businesses- just like with other fields, if you hire someone that is not a professional, and doesn’t have the credentials to prove it, then you do so at your own risk! Businesses strive for quality and consistency, believe it or not, and part of the reason they see no difference between hiring an expensive designer and a cheap one is that we’ve given them no reason to trust that there is a difference.

    Until we as designers decide that we want to be treated like the professionals we are, and demand a base level of education and competency from those entering the industry, we will continue to be undercut and undervalued.

    • 113

      You are indeed a wise owl! I truly hope your well-made points come true, but I tend to be jaded by years of seeing otherwise. Things can change or I wouldn’t write the type of articles that I do.

      For the edification of the readers, would you go into greater detail about the vetting process? I’m curious because I’ve never heard of it.


      • 114

        Sure Speider –

        I heard about this from David Berman at the latest HOW Conference (I’m from the States). It seems they were able to get an act passed in the Ontario Legislature forming a group to assess and certify graphic design professionals. According to David, it had an immediate effect on the quality of students coming out of design programs there. What it would ultimately mean to the problem of crowdsourcing is a matter of speculation, but I think it would provide a level of protection to those of us who take this career seriously.

        Here is a link to the website of the organization that handles this process there, called RGD (Registered Graphic Design) Ontario:

        • 115

          Thanks! Great addition to this article.

          • 116

            Lisa (Durham) Ellwood

            August 5, 2010 6:20 am

            I’d like to direct you to an article I wrote on the subject of certification for graphic designers in the US for the Graphic Artists Guild in the Mar/Apr 1998 issue of The Guild News during my time as a member of its Executive Committee of the National Board of Directors and Chair of its Certification Committee. I specifically noted the efforts of our neighbors to the north and also ICOGRADA as a whole.

            The article can be found on page 5 of the attached PDF link:


            Initially there was a bit of alarm amongst some of the senior ranks of the Guild (those that were self-taught), but once it was discussed, their was quite a bit of excitement about it. Unfortunately I relocated to the UK not long after this was published, but it is still an objective of the Guild to Establish a certification program for graphic designers. It’s something I would certainly advocate internationally.

            I also refer you to the and their related Facebook Group



  33. 117


    August 3, 2010 10:53 am

    I think this is something that’s important to consider. I do cheap and cheerful package sites at the moment. Doing 2 small 3-4 page sites a month (taking me around 4 days all together) and earning just slightly over my outgoings a month is fine, I have no current wish to earn anymore because I’m covering my bills and business overheads whilst doing 4 days of work a month that I love and spending the rest of the time doing exactly the same thing for fun. I think it’s perfectly valid to offer cheap services at the moment for the following reasons. 1) The money is secondary, I just need enough so I can spend time I could be wasting working at a dull job, to practicing, learn and improve my html, css, javascript, php, photoshop/illustrator, animation, editing, marketing, seo, sem, ajax, jquery, information architecture, cms and e-commerce skills. 2) Whilst the sites I’m doing are cheap and cheerful their still solid, functional, attractive (though minimalist) and importantly get the job done. 3) There are many situations where a sites visual quality, budget etc don’t actually affect the effectiveness of the site much. I did a very basic site for a client who deals in property, he’s currently working through a deal that could well net him about 20k from a lead he got from the site. Equally if someone needs a landing page up for just a few months so that around Christmas they can make some money from affiliate marketing the site being pretty doesn’t really enter into it as long as its serviceable, easy to navigate and achieves its goal.

    My overall goal is to get my skills to a high enough level that I can charge 4000 for an amazing site that takes me 2 months because I love artistic, beautiful, functional, well considered, planned and executed web design, but whilst I learn, charging just enough to get by on so I can spend my whole time playing is a very attractive prospect.

    Some people may be cheap because their hacks, others because some sites simply don’t need to be extremely shiny for their purpose and it would be an act of self indulgence on the designers part to suggest a client should pay more when the roi won’t actually be any better, as is the case in SOME situations. Small businesses that just want their name on the web somewhere are fine with a cheap starter site to be upgraded later as and when needed. Finally some, such as myself, are happy charging low amounts because as long as I’m spending every day doing what I love there’s nothing wrong with being short on disposable income.

    • 118

      I agree, but don’t cheat YOURSELF! If you need a certain amount of money per hour to survive and aren’t commanding that from a client, weigh the pros and cons of eating (perhaps) and the realization that this will be a one-time client because you are setting your rates in stone no matter what they say about making it up to you later.

      Eating — working. It’s a hard decision for many of us but there’s always an action and reaction.

  34. 119

    Excellent article Speider! I completely agree with you about crowdsourcing. My friend wanted me to sign up for a site that was doing just that and I thought it was kind of sketchy, but your article really put the “why” into words for me. I always enjoy reading your articles.

    • 120

      Thanks! Unfortunately, we may all be doing it in some form or another, sooner or later. I hope not.

  35. 121

    As for the education process, I know that when I was in school the focus was on preparing us for getting work at an agency. The concept of stepping out and heading straight to freelance or opening one’s own studio was a bit foreign. However, even in those first days of agency work I was interested in making a little cash on the side and design competitions were tempting. I think I entered only one, spent too long on the project, didn’t win, and discovered how terrible of a business model it was.

  36. 122

    Speider: Would your opinion of Adidas and DISH Network change if you found out that the work they scored was top-quality stuff for a low price? Or is the very fact that the two companies explored their crowdsourced options at all enough to put you off?

    I have no way of knowing how good the work was, but let’s say that they were (or eventually will be) able to strike gold. Doesn’t it then become a necessary shift in the industry caused by an increase in supply? And shouldn’t designers then have to adapt so they don’t fail along with their withering business model (a la the newspaper industry)?

    I know it looks like I’m leading with those questions, but I’m a fan of your writing and genuinely interested in your take on this. Thanks for the article.

    • 123

      Thanks, Corey! I appreciate the kudos.

      I don’t know what they sourced and what came out of it. There are projects that are bought and paid for and then never used. For all I know, they tried it and it didn’t work for them but the crowdsource company touts their using the service…even though it was only once.

      I think students should be taught self-marketing and all forms of selling one’s services have to be explored. There are some who might be happy to sit at home and design what they want, when they want and are not concerned about fees because their spouse makes enough or mom and dad’s basement is a comfy place.

      I am a big supporter of diversifying one’s talents where a proper sale can be made. If crowdsourcing, etc. is part of your freelance business, then do so proudly, but understand what you are giving away. It’s not just your work, but a part of your own industry and future ability to make a fair living.

      • 124

        Although relatively young (life and field wise) I’ve found that I’ve had more success than many peers/friends due mainly to sales and business skills than design skills, so I couldn’t agree more with the first sentence of your third paragraph.

        Personally I look back at my short time working in face to face marketing as being more advantageous than my four years studying design. It taught me how to position myself, approach cold/warm clients, deliver a pitch, find opportunities and close sales, all of which have helped me to realise that in design you’re simply a business man and your commodity is your creativity.

        An average designer with good business skills will always make more than a good designer with poor business skills.*

        * You can change the term ‘designer’ to any other industry applicable term – plumber, brick layer, lawyer, etc. Quality will always enter the equation, but who will work with you if they don’t know about you or you can’t manage a client relationship?

  37. 125

    Haven’t we heard of this before like some urban legend come to haunt us? The problem here lies in one’s set of ethics and so long as there are stuff that sells for peanuts ( or for free ), we’ll never run out of stuff to complain about. I think designers love to work alone – which spells another problem. How can they be united then?

  38. 126

    It’s hard not to laugh while I read this. Great article but, look to your right and all the ads on this page are selling to the “hacks” talked about in the article.

    “3,000+ Premium Quality Website & Flash Templates
    (Photoshop PSD & HTML files included)”

    $59.95 and you’ve just “designed” yourself a website.

    • 127

      Stop “designing websites”

      Its not as if YOU dont use templates either?

      Do you use Photoshop plugins to apply light and texture to a picture you are working on, or do you lovingly, laboriously and intelligently apply the virtual light source by calculating the pixel and color /chroma levels and placing each pixel?

      STOP “making websites” and INSTEAD create web applications AND/OR complete customer branding experiences, with knowledge and use of SEO.
      As technology follows us and cheap labor pursues us, we stay ahead of the curve by creating more value and a more complete package. Instead of decrying “recycling older site code, embrace it!

      GAV said “However, my sites are all individually built not recycled from previous work”
      ..that’s nothing to be proud of!

      I recycle the s*t out of what I do, and I will NEVER do the same thing twice. Just look at CSS Zen Garden to see what you can do with the EXACT SAME HTML and a few tweaks to the CSS!
      Many times, I will give a designer carte Blanche – but often, other times, their work is a commodity – “Do me a poster for my lost cat, Missy”
      The question is, is that sort of task work even design? (Google “lost cat template”) and should you care, or cry?

      “A website” is a generic, flooded commodity item (i.e. Corn Syrup)
      a work of ART is something else (i.e. Ben & Jerry Ice Cream)

      The key is to constantly be elevating yourself to be above the commoditization of your work to be something that is unique and specifically valued and sought.
      A web site, even an attractive and compliant one is but a $10 or free template away.
      But a successful “Web Presence” is something else altogether.

  39. 128

    “quality, branding, marketing, customer appeal and retention” how many people reading this website do you think have these skills?

    I guarantee those that know “marketing, customer appeal and retention” aren’t worried about cheap providers. Of course most solution provider hacks only know these skills applicable to other peoples businesses, not their own design business (yeah right!).

    Designers are killing themselves because they aren’t delivering what the customer wants. They don’t want a pretty design, they want results e.g. ROI, profit, more business, more time with family etc.

  40. 129

    This is funny since one of Smashing Magazine’s site sponsors ( is selling ripped versions of other people work.

    • 130

      Chris Lorensson

      August 4, 2010 7:28 am

      And I’m sure SM has complete control over everything their sponsors do.



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