The Obama presidential campaign is sponsoring “Art Works: A Poster Contest to Support American Jobs.”
A poster contest. Where designers create designs for free (“spec work”) and submit them, hoping theirs will be picked. This from an organization that expects to raise a billion dollars in donations.
This kind of “volunteer your creativity!” attitude towards design undermines the entire design industry and the value of designers’ work. It’s a common attitude, the idea that designers somehow shouldn’t expect to be paid for their skills (unlike, say, plumbers, nurses, landscapers, programmers, urban planners, film makers, or any other skilled profession), and it drives me crazy. The attitude often goes hand in hand with another patronizing attitude, that designers are so desperate for “exposure” that they will give away their expertise in exchange for a mere chance of being noticed.
Can you imagine, say, plumbers being asked to donate their plumbing skills to a new wing of the White House, in exchange for a chance that their plumbing design will be chosen among all the others to transport water to and from that wing? Of course not. A plumber would be chosen via a traditional bid system, and they would be compensated for their work.
AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) executive director Richard Grefé wrote an excellent letter demanding the Obama campaign cancel the contest and consider other ways to bring the power of design into the reelection campaign. The text of the letter follows. Emphases mine.
October 21, 2011
Obama for America
130 E. Randolph Street
Chicago, IL 60601
Dear Mr. Messina:
AIGA, the most established and largest professional association for communication design in the world, urges the Obama campaign to immediately:
- Cancel the Art Works poster contest that trivializes the value of design by failing to compensate for it and assuming ownership of intellectual property rights, against standard professional principles, and
- Consider the role of design in creating social and economic capital as well as innovation and growth, treating it as an economic driver instead of a creative indulgence, and involve the design community in integrating design into an economic strategy for strengthening U.S. competitiveness.
The recent “Art Works: A Poster Contest to Support American Jobs” demonstrates a lack of respect for the design profession, violates global principles and standards for professional design practice, contradicts the intent of creating jobs for American workers and asks designers to give up intellectual and creative property rights.
As executive director of the oldest and largest professional association for communication designers in the country, I speak on behalf of a profession that is central to innovation and creative value in the U.S. economy. We urge you to cancel the poster contest and consider alternative, appropriate approaches to achieving your need for great design that communicates effectively. No creative community in the world is as talented as American designers and as eager to be engaged on challenging assignments to enhance understanding of complex issues. For instance, over the past decade, AIGA and its members have been active participants in enhancing the citizen experience and clarity in the election process through the Design for Democracy initiative.
The Art Works poster contest asks designers to work speculatively, creating designs without compensation for an activity that has value to a potential client, against established global principles in communication design. We are quite certain that public relations consultants, political consultants, networks, telecommunication providers and advertising media are not asked to donate their services and turn their ideas, research and work over to a campaign that is poised to raise $1 billion without compensation. This demonstrated lack of respect for the value of creative endeavors is exacerbated by the stipulation that ownership of all the creative property submitted, whether or not selected, is transferred to the campaign. And it is particularly contemptuous to ask the creative community to donate their services in support of a jobs program for other American workers.
There are ways in which you can seek proposals from designers that do not violate the integrity of the profession (and the client) and we would be willing to work with you in developing a process to solicit ideas leading to retaining a designer to develop an effective design and program to advocate your messages.
The Obama for America campaign would also be well served to shift to a strategic perspective in involving the design profession by exploring with us the means to develop policy proposals to enhance the support of design as a key driver of innovation and economic growth in the U.S. economy. The government, in aggregate, is undoubtedly the largest single client for design services in the economy. Design provides a highly leveraged, relatively low cost means of enhancing the competitiveness of the nation’s products and services as well as a critical element in enhancing effective and efficient citizen-based government services. Recognizing this would follow the example of countries like Korea, China, Singapore and the UK in advancing productivity relevant to the 21st century.
If you choose to proceed with this contest, we will feel compelled to single it out as a reflection of your lack of respect for designers and your perception that design has little value, even while you are encouraging creating work for other workers and professions. Incidentally, it is also undoubtedly injudicious to seem to politicize the current NEA initiative entitled Art Works that is a well-conceived effort to demonstrate the value of art to communities.
AIGA executive director
cc: David Axelrod
Bravo, Mr. Grefé. Thank your for standing up on behalf of all of us designers. Little do some non-designers realize how ugly and non-functional the world would be without us. Our work is not just decorative afterthoughts. It is essential to high quality communication.