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Guild Executive Director on Speculative Practices at Icograda Professional Platform Meeting

On October 25-26, the Guild attended Icograda’s first-ever Professional Platform Meeting in New York City, attended by representatives from over 14 countries. The meeting provided a structure for professional association members of Icograda to address common concerns in the industry. The Guild’s Executive Director Patricia McKiernan was asked to present to the international audience the Guild’s stance on speculative practices. Her talk included examples of prominent crowd sourcing campaigns, such at those conducted by the Department of the Interior and the Obama for America Campaign, and described the Guild’s response. Following is the text of her presentation.

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From a general definition perspective, I am defining graphic art as a service that encompasses a multi-disciplinary approach to answering how a business entity, or society, approaches the structure of communicating what it represents to the world at large in a visual, structured form that is easily understood – if I legitimately engage the services of a graphic artist or firm, then who I’m trying to attract will understand who I am and engage in my business in a way that mutually attracts our needs. A happy collaboration for all with no spec work in sight.

As an organization, the Guild does not support spec work and looks at as an ethical question. The risk involved to the artist is the greatest – there is a risk of not being paid for the work, it takes time away from other possible worthwhile paying projects, and may incur expenses that are not reimbursable to the artist. As we all know, graphic art is a service, not a commodity, and requires a partnership with the client and the artist to deliver the product. Spec work does not foster that environment. There is invariably too little information available to do the work successfully.

Working on spec also has some legal issues, the main one being a copyright issue.  Work on spec doesn’t transfer any rights to the work — the graphic artist retains all the rights to it. Obviously, when spec work is submitted, the work is rarely returned and the possibility it will be used without compensating the graphic artist is real. Enforcing your right as a graphic artist once this happens is a huge undertaking, financially and time-wise, especially if you have not registered your copyright to the work.

Crowd-sourcing may be legal as a business model, but it is another form of spec work taken to an extreme, and far from ethical from the Guild’s perspective. We’re talking about devaluing the work of an entire profession in an incredibly public fashion. Crowd-sourcing sites encourage below market rates and treat graphic artists as an expendable commodity instead of highly trained professionals providing a genuine service.

If a client wants to own the copyright of the artwork created by a professional graphic artist, the value of that copyright is reflected in the fees charged. The below market rates encouraged by crowd-sourcing sites ignores the value of copyright and creates a perception within the business community that copyright doesn’t exist, has little value, or that a business hiring a graphic arts service owns everything the graphic artist produces.

In late 2011, the US Federal Department of the Interior crowd-sourced a logo project, probably because they thought it would appeal to the social media oriented designers (not necessarily an accurate perception), and is a prime example of how pervasive the trend is. We sent a letter to the Department of Interior and suggested that they do the math: if the DOI paid for every one of the designs submitted (over 279 submissions) each design would earn less than $5.37. We also pointed out that although the business models of crowd-sourcing logo mills are completely legal, they are considered highly unethical by the Graphic Artists Guild and the AIGA, and the Graphic Artists Guild expects higher ethical business practices from a U.S. Government agency and to hire a professional graphic designer that lives and works in the United States.

During the same year, the Obama For America Campaign to re-elect Obama, announced a design contest titled, “Art Works; A poster contest to support American jobs.” The alleged purpose of the contest was to create a poster to motivate people to support the President’s, American Jobs Act, as part of his then re-election strategy. The contest website read: “Obama For America is seeking poster submissions from artists across the country illustrating why we support President Obama’s plan to create jobs now, and why we’ll re-elect him to continue fighting for jobs for the next four years. Three winners will receive a framed edition of their poster signed by Barack Obama and a limited edition of the poster distributed by Sponsor (approximate retail value $195).” Yes, this was a crowd-sourced contest soliciting spec work from American artists for the purpose of promoting American legislation to create jobs. Naturally, we sent a letter pointing out the irony of a contest that doesn’t appropriately compensate the winner of a campaign to support American jobs.

I won’t go into every detail we pointed out in our response to the contest, except to say that during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the U.S. government sponsored a work program that valued artists enough to employ hundreds of them to make posters for what Franklin D. Roosevelt called, The New Deal, which included something called the Federal Art Project. Approximately 500 artists were hired by the Federal Art Project; more than 35,000 posters were designed and 2 million printed. Many of these posters are now part of the US Library of Congress collection. All of these artists were paid and given credit for their work.

One other area of concern that may not necessarily be looked at initially as spec work — although I am beginning to think it is the next generation of spec work, and crowd-sourcing certainly falls into this category— is the concept of mass digitization and what the Internet is creating besides the concept of community and knowledge as we discussed yesterday for the up and coming generation. Don’t get me wrong – community and knowledge is a good thing and I’m the first one to search for more community and knowledge online. It is part of what I do on a daily basis as Executive Director for the Guild.

Here’s the thing.

Mass digitization comes in many forms, and has created a commodity economy mindset where everything competes on pricing, i.e., how can I get it for less, perhaps even free, perhaps creating a revenue stream based on work that’s not mine – all shades of spec work.

Is a logo created by someone on truly a logo? When everyone and/or everything competes based only on pricing of mass digitized goods and services, it fosters an environment of competition that eventually guarantees a non-livable wage especially for the creators of original goods and services regardless of what country they live in. It also fosters an environment of infringement, whether willful of inadvertently, in order to compete and create in the fastest and cheapest way possible.

In the US, the economic contribution by graphic artists is felt in every industry. For example, the licensing industry generated $ 93.37 billion in revenue in 2011 for all 18 product categories tracked, according to The Licensing Letter, a US based organization that tracks licensing revenues across all categories. Think movie action figures, games/toys, sports figures, gifts and collectibles, apparel, pet products, novelty items, etc., and graphic artists create the foundation for that revenue.

All of us in this room know that everything we touch on a daily basis required the contribution of graphic artists to create order out of chaos. The irony is, despite the high public visibility of the works of graphic artists, the actual artist is invisible and seldom acknowledged for what he/she contributes to the economy, and society, at large — not just in the US, but for every country represented by Icograda, regardless of whether or not there is a design policy in place in a particular country.

So a here’s a legitimate question to ask, and it is a question we recently asked in a response to a US Copyright Office request for comments: Is the economy we want to create for the future on a global level based on a commodity mindset where everyone competes on pricing, i.e., how can I get it for less or perhaps even free?

The core issue for every conversation we are having this week-end is the value each creative member of this group brings to the world. Value and how it is defined is a highly individual viewpoint, which doesn’t mean it can’t be defined or questioned, although it can present some perplexing thought patterns.

We talk about education for both artists and buyers. And, yet, how do you educate someone, the buyer in particular, whose only concern is, “How cheap can I get this for?” It’s a challenging question and not necessarily easy to answer. When I get calls from buyers about fees and how little can they pay someone, I often ask the buyer, “How would you feel about people trying to pay for your product or service as cheaply as possible, leaving very little room to cover overhead, day-to-day living expenses, and never see any profit?” It is also a point I make when I talk with Congressional staff and Congressional committee members here in the US.

The global community may not have answers right now to the problems we face with spec work. And that just means we have a little more chaos then graphic artists may have a solution for, which means we get to play with what we are presented with — and isn’t playing with possibilities what graphic artists are trained to do? So let’s play with the possibilities of how the conversations we’re having here are intertwined with one another and maybe a solution will show itself.


Photo © Icograda. Used with permission.