Michael Bierut | Essays

The Road to Hell: Now Paved with Innovation?

Designers don't have many advocates as enthusiastic and highly-placed as Bruce Nussbaum. An assistant managing editor at Business Week, he's spearheaded the magazine's coverage of design and innovation for years, and has become an important online voice for how business can use design as a strategic tool. That influence will only grow this week with the debut of INside Innovation, his new magazine that promises "a deep, deep dive into the innovation/design/creativity space."

I'm as intrigued as the next guy about what's to be found in the dark recesses of the "innovation/design/creativity space." But I suspect there's one fact about the genesis of this new magazine that will disturb many of my fellow innovation enthusiasts: the actual design of INside Innovation was created largely through an unpaid competition.

Designers, welcome to the brave new world of spec work.

Nussbaum has described the process of creating INside Innovation in real time on his blog with his customary ebullience. Here is his account of how they sought a designer:

We broke lots of rules designing IN — and started changing culture at BW along the way. We opened the process by holding a contest and asking four players to pitch their concepts. You're not supposed to do this in mag design land. You're supposed to choose one brilliant design shop first and work with that firm all the way through to the end. Our Art Director was kind of stunned when I first proposed the idea.

But I wanted to open the process and choose among many new ideas so I opened it up. And we asked three out of four to do it on spec (OK, we didn't have much money either to launch something new). The spec thing is a no-no in AIGA but it turned out it wasn't an issue — the three players who did it on spec said they were willing to do so because the process created new IP that they could use with their other clients.

I'm sure Nussbaum knows there's nothing innovative about the urge to get a lot of different talented people to work for you for free: it's the secret dream of every client I've ever met, each of whom could make a similar claim of poverty, particularly where design budgets are concerned. As for AIGA's attitude about spec work, dismissed here by Nussbaum as a vaguely prudish "no-no," the kind of backward thinking typical of squeamish strangers to the world of innovation, here's what it says in the AIGA code of ethics:

A professional designer does not undertake speculative work or proposals (spec work) in which a client requests work without compensation and without developing a professional relationship that permits the designer sufficient access to the client to provide a responsible recommendation and without compensation.

Innovation: it's all about breaking the rules! Of course, a code of ethics isn't an "issue" for those change agents who simply decide not to abide by it, which was the decision made by three of the four competitors. Nussbaum doesn't make this clear on his site, but we can make a safe guess that it was the three large firms — IDEO, Stone Yamashita, and the eventual "winner," Modernista — that worked for free, and David Albertson, with a small three-person studio, who got paid. It's to Nussbaum and Business Week's credit that anyone got paid at all, of course, but this does point out another troubling fact of life in spec world: it's a game that only the bigger firms can afford to play for long. The official rationale of how the big three transcended any qualms they may have had about the dusty old AIGA code of ethics — their interest in generating intellectual property that they might use for other clients — is plausible, I guess, if you consider a new way of handling the page numbers on the table of contents as portable "intellectual property." More likely their reasons were the obvious, more plainly self-serving ones: an eagerness to make a deposit in the favor bank of a well-connected journalist, the prospect of some good publicity (and Nussbaum, again to his credit, has been generous in providing it for all four), and the dream of a big score should the gamble pay off.

Ah, the big score. Unpaid competitions have been a way of life in other creative fields like architecture and advertising, but they've been resisted, barely, by graphic designers up until now. In those other cases, the potential prize is big: for architects, a chance to keep a studio busy for years on an important, visible project; for agencies, millions of dollars in commissions on advertising space. Still, it's amazing how often these competitions degenerate into debacles: witness the grinding entropy at Manhattan's World Trade Center site, or read the best book on advertising ever written, Randall Rothenberg's Where the Suckers Moon, which tells the story of a bloody (and ultimately fruitless) battle for the Suburu account back in the mid-90s.

Spec competitions have been getting more popular in the context of digital communications, where working for free seems to get confused with the idealism of the open source movement. Indeed, the mothership of open sourcing, Wikipedia, is currently running an unpaid contest to redesign their site. No one has nailed the ludicrousness of this practice as accurately as creative director Andy Rutledge, who has put forward the following hilarious analogy:

I need a partner with whom to have a serious relationship but I don't want to invest any time or effort in finding the right woman; I shouldn't have to. I'm a great man and any woman should be proud to be with me, so I'm holding auditions. I'd like for all interested women to visit me and show me your "wares." I'm definitely looking for someone with a hot bod, and not afraid to show it off. Extra points for staying the night and letting me sample your attentions and enthusiasm.

One lucky winner gets a $400 wedding ring and the prestige of having me for a partner ('cause I look good). The rest of you just get screwed. Awright, who's with me?

Tempting! Full disclosure time: I was approached about working on this project. I really like, and respect, Bruce Nussbaum, so I thought long and hard about it. Luckily, my position in a large firm permits me to work for free, and I regularly do so, for a large range of pro bono clients. Moreoever, if ethics were an issue, it was made clear to me (once again, to Nussbaum's credit) that I could suggest a fee, although I was told some of the others were working for free. In the end, to be perfectly honest, it wasn't the money (or lack thereof) that made the difference for me, but rather something I've learned the hard way: I stink at competitions.

Partly this is sheer egocentricism. I like that old-fashioned model that Nussbaum was eager to discard, the process by which you "choose one brilliant design shop first and work with that firm all the way through to the end." I like being that brilliant design shop. Moreover, if I'm doing a project, I devote myself to it single-mindedly. I expect the same kind of single-minded focus from the client.

In this specific case, I was baffled by how one was supposed to create something as intricate, as complicated as a magazine design in a blind competition. Were the players just supposed to go off and concoct layouts that said innovation! in a vacuum? I've found the success of every design project depends on a close give-and-take between the designer and client; this is especially true in editorial projects, which require an airtight fit between form and content. Hard enough to do with an editor at your elbow; impossible staring a blank piece of paper in an empty studio. Okay, I suppose it must be possible. Just not by me.

Finally, I'm both really busy on one hand, and secretly lazy on the other. What motivates me more than anything else is the conviction that my clients are depending on me: if we don't come through for them, there's no back up. The responsibility is mine and mine alone. Knowing that three or four other teams are toiling away at the same challenge, rather than whetting my competitive spirit, simply brings out the slacker in me. When the players are good — and IDEO, Stone Yamashita, Albertson and Modernista are good, trust me — my attitude is knock yourself out, guys, I'm going home early tonight.

I'm not surprised Modernista won: as an ad agency, they're well familiar with the art of the unpaid pitch, and they're not just any agency, they're led by one of our best designers, Gary Koepke. Koepke is a great art director with the design of, among other things, Vibe magazine to his credit. And Bruce Nussbaum is even more excited than usual about the design that Modernista has created, calling it "modern, clean, elegant, perfect."

So my feelings about seeing INside Innovation this week couldn't be more mixed. On one hand, we desperately need a great magazine about design directed to a general audience, and I can't imagine anyone better than Bruce Nussbaum and Business Week to deliver it. On the other, the better it is, the better it will make the case for a design process that I feel is fundamentally wrong. If getting great work for free works for someone as smart and influential as Bruce Nussbaum, what's to stop every businessperson in the world from enthusiastically jumping on the bandwagon?

If this is innovation, I say to hell with it.

Posted in: Business, Graphic Design, Media

Comments [151]

Thanks, Michael, for a great piece. This is what blogs excel at - a personal story (not too confessional, I think that's a bad word now or something) - a relevant one, of course - mixed in with perspective, and analysis. Add in an articulate critique of colleagues whom are liked and respected (but not unequivocally supported in every single decision) and you've got real leadership.
Steve Portigal

Well said, Steve. I must add that Michael's post underscores the point that Richard Farson made recently on designers needing to become leaders, and partners, rather than vendors, if design is a professional practice.
Niti Bhan

i agree that this is a good piece. how about publishing it in Business Week, or INside innovation themselves?

one thing tho that i think this points to, aside from getting design firms to work on spec, is the desire of clients to have options. clients are making a big investment and a lot of clients probably feel comforted by the opportunity to choose. it brings them into the process more and gives them a sense of control.

on the other hand, i do know of a few places who propose only one solution/direction to clients, and im always amazed that they can get away with it. you have to be a very good designer and even better salesperson to do that i think.

Manuel, I often present only one option to a client, but seldom with a "take it or leave it" attitude. Rather, the reaction to a single direction helps me understand what kind of adjustment has to be made. This sometimes includes throwing the first solution out and going back to the drawing board.

Sometimes I think designers who let their clients pick from a lot of options are like doctors who let their patients help themselves to the pretty pills in the medicine cabinet. If the choices are meaningful, fine. If it's choice for the sake of choice, that's just irresponsible.
Michael Bierut

Perhaps I didn't see this the way that you did. But when I read Nussbaum's piece, it seemed like a slightly more expansive view of submitting a proposal to an RFP.

One of the major precepts of the IDEO/Business Week brand of modern design innovation, is fast prototyping. And letting the client in on the process of creation.

Its something that design firms in Washington, DC, where I live could do a better job at: the pitch. I've worked with some art directors that had their training in bigger cities and new that the pitch should include a pretty outstanding presentation: a brand truth video, even setting up a campaign (read the cover article of this month's Fast Company about how JWT is introducing this very idea into the way they pitch new business).

The old guard of: here's the principals bios, here's our past work, etc. etc. doesn't fly anymore. It doesn't fly in an interview (they say interview FOR the job, not FOR yourself) and I don't think it works in the fast prototyping world of modern product and service design.

Graphic design should absolutely step up to the plate and learn how to present work as part of the pitch and involve the client in the production of creative.

Michael, a most interesting post.

Since IDEO, Stone Yamashita and Modernista are all professional firms — national leaders, if you will — I'm hoping they will join in this conversation. (Keith Yamashita, especially, since he has also worked with AIGA and is clearly aware of their professional practices guidelines.) I'm sincerely interested in how these firms came to the decision that the "intellectual property" potential of the project was a basis for working for free.

This conversation is especially relevant today because there is another new magazine considering the same procedure. Ned Cramer has been named to be the editor of a new magazine, Architect, to be published out of Washington DC by Hanley Wood. They have contacted a short-list of Jop van Bennekom, Green Dragon Office (Lorraine Wild), Bruce Mau Design, Pentagram (Abbott Miller), Lucille Tenazas, Thirst (Rick Valicenti) and Winterhouse (Jessica Helfand + William Drenttel). After portfolio reviews with Hadley Wood management, they have proposed a round of free designs. Lorraine Wild did not submit a portfolio given these rules. Winterhouse submitted samples with an understanding that we would not do any free design. (Since this is still a live process, there are no sour grapes in my posting this.) Again, there are seven designers involved in this process, as well as an editor of a new design magazine, who could contribute their thoughts to this dialogue. It will be interesting to see whether any of the designers are willing to work for free under these parameters. I would love to hear their rationale in this forum, as well as from Ned Cramer.
William Drenttel

DC1974, I'm not sure how "fast prototyping" and "letting the client in on the process of creation" leads to doing work for free.

Doesn't submitting work as part of the search process in fact diminish the value of real give-and-take between designer and client? "Thanks for considering us for this project. Here are some solutions we've come up with based on whatever skeletal brief, if any, you bothered to provide. Hope you like them!"

Also, as I say in the article, the game is different for ad agencies (like JWT) and design firms. The former is gambling for, in theory at least, an open-ended and highly profitable lifetime arrangement with the client; the latter is often being hired to design the very thing they're asked to pitch with.

Michael Bierut

Michael, another great article. I share your disappointment with the BusinessWeek process. Additionally, I see Mr. Nussbaum's process as a missed opportunity to inform and promote the value of creative professionals. Instead of showing his audience how to respect the value of his design resources, he sets an example that may further commoditize our services.
Marc Drucker

My lengthy conversation with Ned Cramer about his new magazine never once touched on any aspect of a competition or spec work. I sent work to be considered for the job and arranged a meeting in two weeks time.

Abbott Miller
Abbott Miller

Michael, when freelancing, not once did I do any spec work.

I'm now working as the creative head at a design studio in India and spec work is the norm. Clients expect to see "something" before they even want an estimate on the timelines and price. I'm not sure whether this is an international problem or whether it's the Indian market that still does not "get" graphic design.

I find it amazing that Mr. Nussbaum and BusinessWeek actually invited spec work. But I also get that the firms who pitched saw the potential value of being associated with the magazine. But why internationally acclaimed firms choose to do spec work is something I don't quite understand!

Submitting work as part of the search process definitely reduces the value of the interaction. But it's the designers and the so-called-designers in the market who are promoting this practice. At least in India, the market is full of engineering grads, medical students who've flunked and a myriad of other people who claim to be designers and are willing to do anything to get their foot in the door.

Spec-work is still quite a debatable issue. Especially when a typical "designer" in a country like India does not know anything about AIGA.
Naina Redhu

Facinating article and following discussion.

The issue of IP as a creative resourse of an organization used to secure competitiveness and lead to profitability, raises another interesting question:

In the case of Modernista versus INside Innovation magazine, Who has actual ownership over the IP of the design of the new publication?

Given the fact that BusinessWeek didn't pay for for the design, does this mean that Modernista has actual legal rights over their creation, allowing them to exploit that asset for more than just a reputation generating tool?

Who owns the design if nobody paid for it?

Michael Melnick
Pratt Institute, Design Managemet Graduate Program
Michael Melnick

I guess I am a doofus but someone needs to explain to me what the heck those firms thought the "IP" was that they were going to create much less use - if they lost. It's a topical magazine afterall! I guess relating form to content has no meaning at all if you follow these guy's logic. "Gosh, I didn't win the free competition for the design mag but maybe we can use those ideas on the new Flynt Publications project."

So, these four firms pitched their ideas for nothing for the grand prize of what; not much probably. I can't wait to see the product here but if it is truly "modern, clean, elegant, perfect", well my hunch is Nussbaum got what he paid for - not much.
bernard pez

I've been trying really hard all this lazy Sunday afternoon to come up with an example of another field where the conceptual phase of work is treated as a "loss leader," but I'm drawing a blank. Terms like "fast prototyping" seem so sophisticated (up there with "brand truth video!") but really: unless there is some actual ownership offered to the winner of an uncompensated contest, I cannot understand why one would donate one's time and energy to another enterprise, other than as an expression of low self-esteem. Michael's examples of architecture and agencies are one thing, and of course industrial and product designers often have royalty arrangements that extend their provision of services into a relationship of co-ownership. But unless graphic designers think that they are only going to make money by marking up printing (or some other outside services), competing against each other by seeing who can give away their best ideas to projects that maybe represent a month or two of fees is just...depressing (along with unprofessional, and self-destructive).
lorraine wild

as i am coming from the old world myself i have a lot of sympathy for michael's perspective. and knowing *the old lady* pentagram also from a client's perspective i understand michael's post even better.
and it is valid.
(not - to my opinion - that much when defending codes of ethics of some organisations - but when explaining how he feels: "i suck in competitions!"... valid point because: DESIGN NEEDS TRUST.
Making ends meet, connecting all the dots, understanding all constraints, respecting most of the restrictions, finding the one solution that is the answer to a thousand questions.
... this kind of design needs trust... needs a trusted space. that is almost a natural law i would say. that is a natural law i say.
i can clearly understand bruce nussbaum who wants to blow all the dust away from this funny world of design that he has discoverd - and he deserves all credit for the job that he is doing - because this worlds also needs a little more reality from time to time.
but this design world also needs to be understood better. and it needs to ARTICULATE ITSELF BETTER. from my mba-perspective the substance in michael's statement come when he says "i am bad in competition - i need the love - i nee the trust" ... that is a clear message. and anybody who has ever worked with designers knows that it is an essential message too.
bruce nussbaum will learn that - i am sure. it just takes a couple of projects.
but something that design has to learn is to speak for itself.
contrary to a boring and very present discussion i do not think that design has to learn the language of the business world. i do firmly believe that the business world has to learn the language of design.
the time for that is now.
bruce nussbaum is doing a fantastic start. and michael bierut should sharpen his pencil and shout out his message on all the nussbaum channels.
jst as we learnt in couple therapy - design is not management. management is not design. todays companies need both. the key lies in the differences. the key lies in processes that respect the differences. nail them. name them. shout them out.

What strikes me most about the discussion of spec work here is the lack of commect about the ability to actually do spec work (especially in the tight timelines they are demanded) and its implications.

Certainly the fact that much of the design process now takes place on a computer - and that the perspective of many a client is that our field of work requires only the time to "do" something on a computer - is a driving factor here.

Work for no compensation is definitely a problem. And in my opinion, a client that understands what the designer needs to do and the time required to do it, and then requests work for no compensation, is not worth the coordination time spent talking about such a prospect.

However, what about the other potential clients? The ones that are not familiar with the design process our field undertakes (these are not a rarity, even these days). While the ethical guidelines are certainly useful for positioning one's self, what about tools or guidelines that in some way help communicate to the client and the general public what our design process entails.

Before the computer and the removal of much of the physical artifacts that belong to the design process, a client would potentially visit your studio and see what kind of work was involved, having a clearer understanding of the time involved. Now its likely that a client receives a PDF via email, or a screen presentation, slick and clean, that leaves no trace of anything but the result from computer input...

Again, work that is understood and requested for no compensation is bad economical policy and bad relations. However, I think the question of spec work here, and perhaps these days for designers, has more to do with educating potential clients on the time and energy involved in our practice.
Christian Palino

OK, we didn't have much money either to launch something new.

That's a pretty pathetic excuse. I'd like to ask Mr. Nussbaum if he had enough money to pay for electricity, or water, or printing. Did he hold a contest for his legal counsel?

It's rather ironic to use the word "Innovation" in the title of the magazine. For innovation to be a competitive advantage in business, it has to be sustainable. Sustainable innovation is impossible if no one can make a decent financial return on it.
Daniel Green

This is the kind of lesson that you (or at least I) normally have to learn the hard way. So one has to at least give Nussbaum credit for being up front about his exploitive business practices and ludicrous excuses (if Business Week can't properly budget for a magazine launch they hardly seem like a reliable source of information on "business"). Most of the time this kind of thing happens behind closed doors and even the designers involved are reluctant to speak openly about the experience (I suspect that's where the pathetic "IP" fig-leaf came from).

As Bill suggests, I think it's important to share counter-examples here to strengthen the resolve of other designers against participating in spec work. Last Fall I was asked to pitch a magazine redesign on spec. I was tempted because a)I'm lazy and hadn't read the AIGA business code of ethics and b) I thought since it was free I could do a kind of artsy parody of a pitch and therefore protect my ego from the truth: that I was getting scammed. In the end, I sent the publisher an e-mail explaining why I wouldn't work for free and included a link to the AIGA's code of ethics. He didn't respond. I chalked it up to experience, "Next time I'll just do the damn pitch." But then three months later I got a call from the publisher saying he had decided to solicit paid proposals from three firms and could I present to the editorial board in two weeks? I rapidly prototyped away without losing my professional dignity or undermining my fellow designers. The publisher deserves a lot of credit for doing the right thing, but in my imagination what actually happened is that all the designers he approached held the line.
dmitri siegel

michael and bill,

thank you and your fellow bloggers for identifying this very real, very big elephant standing right there in the middle of our virtual conference room.

it was interesting when the call(s) from mr. ned cramer came to our studio a couple of weeks ago. ned's name is not new to us as we worked with him during his tenure at the chicago architecture foundation and with all due respect, ned is by far one of the shaper knives in the drawer.

my comment to the three other designers at thirst was mostly informative relative to the ethics our practice regarding speculative work. i spoke of how it drives the fee structures down while at the same time turns the process of design into a silly one-sided, navel gazing charette. the most important point i underscored was that i believed it was the client who was missing a real business (spin) opportunity by not defining his magazine's presence by the choices he was making and the process he was indulging.

sadly, these requests for our free thinking only reinforce the client's belief that their project will be good for OUR portfolio. they fail to consider that maybe the designer he/she would like to herald to his advertisers and publishing executives does not define him or herself by their client list! instead these designers might just prefer to work only WITH clients who define themselves by a desire to work knee-deep in collaboration with design.

in a phone call to ned, i read to him the letter you will find below before i sent it and before we talked at some length about his approach. i also acknowledged that he was smart enough to have identified the 'usual-suspects' or better yet, the 'design dream team-du jour' of potential service providers. i also turned up my spin dial and suggested that he seemed to be missing this real opportunity to make a little history by rethinking how to engage a two of the most interesting 'brand name' designers out there (myself and lorraine wild were both on ned's invitation list and are currently collaborating with louise sandhaus under the moniker, WildLuV)... a bit self indulgent, i know but, yes, in the spirit of full disclosure, i was doing my best spin in an effort to stay in the ring without being complicit in this speculative invitation.

interestingly, the day before we were to due to post evidence of our WildLuV work with lorraine, the energy at thirst was devoted to finishing a proposal to the SAPPI ideas the matters grant for LaCASA, The Lake County Council Against Sexual Assault. while by no means am i holier than thou, this opportunity to use our strategic and creative talents seemed personally more fulfilling and important than chasing the elusive golden ring of a victorious competition or, at best, another portfolio sample.

after twenty-five plus years, a bushel full of accolades, a handful of very successful clients, i see time and time againg that the design profession has not really changed much at all. let me share a true story.

in the early 80's when i was just out on my own the most attractive project invitation came to 'r.valicenti design.' it was for the state of illinois' annual tourist book. i would have been my first project without staples. the downside was we were to show speculative layouts along with three other firms.

at the time, i had just finished two years as president of the STA and in my term our new code of ethics had been published. needless to say there was no way i could, in good conscious, say yes to doing speculative layouts. however, i am plagued with the inability to say NO and as a result scheduled a meeting two weeks into the future.

as scheduled i showed up to the conference table with two blank paper mockups of the predefined page count and paper stock, a postal scale, and a calculator. i proceeded to weight the 8.375 x 10,875" requested book and in sharpee pen marked the cover with the weight and the postage. i then weighed a second version trimmed .75" shorter in width. again, i calculated the postage and annotated the white cover with the cost. on the calculator i determined the total postage fees and acknowledged that the difference in the cost was substantial.

with a young designer's 'what the fuck' bravado, i pointed out that difference in postage exceeded the design AND typesetting fees! i smiled and closed by saying, "if you think that's creative, just wait until you see what i put on the pages"!

well, the next day r.valicenti design was awarded its first big gig- minus .75". i share this experience because i believe there are ways to participate in these speculative situations without compromising the respect our profession has earned over the years.


for the record...here is the correspondence from in reverse chronology from my desktop:

On May 31, 2006, at 3:19 PM, Cramer, Ned wrote:

Hi Rick: Should I be expecting a package or email from you? We're meeting tomorrow at 11am to review portfolios... Thanks, Ned


both lorraine and i have been on deadlines (one of which we share) and as a result were unable to forward you our portfolio. in the event that NO decision is rendered today and there remains an opportunity to throw our hat among the hatless, let me know.

personally, i hope no one passes your first audition.



now, DO readers, you can see i did not use this opportunity to speak from my 'will not work on spec' soapbox.

below, however, is the missive, that i read to ned and in doing so created an atmosphere for respectful telephone conversation.

for what it's worth, lorraine and i were sharing our correspondence with ned and did not hide this fact from him with BCC.

On May 25, 2006, at 11:09 AM, Cramer, Ned wrote:

Dear Lorraine: Thank you for your candor. Sometimes email can lead to misunderstandings, and I fear that my previous message left a false impression. Perhaps it would be better to discuss project with you by phone, if you're willing. Respectfully yours, Ned


earlier this week lorraine and i were together in minneapolis on a project for Target. yes, we compared notes and expressed disappointment in our perceived approach to your new magazine. graphic design's profession functions differently then the architects' and agencies' in terms of speculative 'competitions' because the rewards are not worth the risk.

personally, i would use your energy and approach this unique opportunity by leveraging ALL the spin potential out there. the real experience and process work for you will be in the 'collaboration' WITH rather than the 'jury process' OF graphic design. imagine how powerful this story might sound when your advertisers learn that YOU invited two of the three 2006 AIGA Medalists* in developing your magazine. A new chapter in publishing design history could possibly begin with issue number one. i know you know, but it bears repeating that along the way you will be engaged in the iterative design process as a complicit collaborator.

If it was my risk and my livelihood, I would commission and leverage WildLuV to collaborate and deliver their next best project. these are my $.02. i will talk with lorraine about this approach and our conversation. if she is game, then you will receive the WildLuV portfolio in pdf format by wednesday of next week.

good luck on your new venture as risk has it's just reward.


to the DO readers, i shamelessly leveraged my recent recognition of the prestigious AIGA Medal for the self-serving purposes of reshaping a speculative situation and hopefully redirecting a client's attention in this direction. in doing so then and re-reading what i had typed minutes ago, i felt a wave of remorse over me worthy of public confession. mea culpa.
rick Valicenti

Great piece. I couldn't agreed more that DESIGN needs a little personal development work. I intially read Bruce's blog about the competiton for IN and found it ironic that he was creating an artifact about Innovation for free and that the most important thing he said in his blog about it was how it looked. Not a very innovative start. If he truely believes that design is the crucial engine of Innovation as I do, then they should have done the competion about what IN should really be: a magazine or.. and why IN at all?...Couldn't businessweek make Design a regular section in their weekly like Investing thus drawing the clear conclusions about why Company X is a good investment and how design is critical to that investment. I am subscriber to many sources of "design porn" as my wife likes to call it and I am sure I will get IN as well. And Design is Free...Good designer are always designing, in the shower, in their sleep, etc. regardless of money, its access to our brains and passion that we charge for. Bruce needs to promote the Value and Power of that in IN, not tells us how pretty it is....
Colin Nourie

Thanks for your insights, Rick. You offer some interesting alternatives to just saying "no" by redirecting the conversation to terms that a potential client can understand.

One more rant from me: In order to be of interest to businesses, "innovation" must be defined in terms of being a sound investment for a future payoff in the marketplace.

Evidently, Mr. Nussbaum was not willing to make such an investment.
Daniel Green

Two comments:
"...it's a game that only the bigger firms can afford to play for long."
Well, what a surprise! Mr. Nussbaum asks some designers—who already owe some of the scale of their success to his coverage of their work in Business Week—to do him a favor, and suddenly the AIGA ethics aren't an "issue!" Either it required just a bit too much backbone to say "no" to a friend (didn't their mothers warn them of such things?) or I guess now we know why that statement of ethics that the AIGA publishes is necessary in the first place!
"...Our Art Director was kind of stunned when I first proposed the idea."
It must have taken at least an hour on the elliptical trainer to work off the angst. This would be a joke on The Office: but welcome to the world of design where the designers have been shown their place. I think I hear Mick Jagger crooning "Under My Thumb" somewhere off in the distance.

Dear friends,

I think Michael's posting, while passionately argued, doesn't contend with the full realities facing our community and our industry. I wanted to expand the discussion and the perspective.

In a rapidly changing world, we all want design, and the act of designing, to play a bigger role and to be a bigger driver of progress.

I believed that Businessweek's new magazine could be a very powerful force for design and designers -- by elevating the conversation and debate about design's role in helping organizations attempt new things. I think a quarterly magazine that places design front and center for business leaders is vital to getting clients to see the valuable role of designing. And if done right, this magazine could open up many, many new opportunities for design firms big and small.

I felt it was my firm's responsibility to push Businessweek's thinking, on behalf of our community, and that's why we engaged in the competition. We believed that it was worthy work to push Businessweek's definition of innovation, definition of design, and definition of what a magazine could be.


We thought our firm had a lot to contribute to how Businessweek thought about the topic of design and innovation. Like many of you, we are dedicated to fighting for greatness every day -- helping our clients achieve greatness, in their own way. We use the power of design (the noun) in telling their stories; and we use the power of designing (the verb) to help them find clarity in their strategy, to innovate, and to build enduring cultures.

We focus on the rare ideas that make organizations great. Over the years, we've learned a lot about innovation at companies such as Apple, eBay, IBM, Yahoo!, Nike, Old Navy, HP, Lifetime, and others. We've also learned a lot from the causes we've fought for. We've joined forces with Bill McDonough to fight for a cradle-to-cradle approach to product design to build a world where commerce, nature, and society live in sustainable harmony. We've joined forces with PBS CEO Pat Mitchell to fight for commercial-free news, information, and education. We've collaborated with Elizabeth Birch at the Human Rights Campaign to advocate for equal rights. We've teamed up with John Podesta to articulate a vision for a more progressive America.

Everywhere possible, we try to be a positive force for change.


Let me be clear: In the Businessweek case, we did not engage for work on spec. From the get-go, we knew it wasn't realistic to think that Businessweek could pay us for the full value of our intellectual capital about innovation -- especially at the early stages of the creation of its new magazine. But rather than withhold that thinking and know-how, we believed it was important for us as a firm, and for the community of design at large, that we engage. And so we did so. We put a contract in place that fully protected our intellectual capital; we would push Businessweek's thinking, but the ideas, tools, methods, models, and frameworks we brought to the collaboration in the process would remain ours.

No matter what the final outcome, we knew we would have a rare ability to advance Businessweek's approach. And no matter what the outcome, Businessweek would /not/ have an ability to use our methods, tools, case studies, or ideas later, without compensating us.

In the end, what both teams got -- Businessweek and Stone Yamashita Partners -- was an intense set of conversations and collaborations that have made both organizations stronger. I think we helped push Businessweek's thinking. And for us, our clients have already benefited from the models, examples, research, and stories we codified during our collaboration with Bruce's team. Both teams traveled farther than we would have on our own.


Recently, I was studying, again, the work of Charles and Ray Eames -- a designing duo that Michael and I both admire. In seeing their 40-year oeuvre, it's interesting to trace the relationships between their inklings, self-made projects, paid work, and research projects. Often, one led to another led to another, but often in unexpected ways. Charles and Ray teach us that sometimes you have to put karma into the world, before it comes back to you in another form.

I admire how much responsibility Charles and Ray took for cultivating their own success and their clients' successes -- not just by bringing their talent for hire, but by creating deep knowledge and know-how that was also of tremendous value. Their counsel and collaboration was worth as much as their tangible work product. They wrote briefs, as much as they followed them.

In such a world, the benefits of working with clients came in many forms -- compensation, camaraderie, deepening their firm's know-how, increasing their opportunity as designers to make an enduring impact.

I think by focusing solely on compensation, without regard to the other benefits, Micheal's posting sells designers short -- it unnecessarily blocks us from being the fullest partners to our clients, and catalysts of change in the world, over time. If we bound ourselves only to well-defined projects that have budgets attached, we may be limiting the areas where we can make a difference longer term. Certainly, if entrepreneurs only engaged in endeavors that offered immediate guaranteed pay-back, the world would be absent many of the most interesting companies, ideas, and brands we so dearly love.

I'm not saying that means we should chase every opportunity that comes our way. But I do hope it spells out why we decided to go after this opportunity at Businessweek on behalf of our company, and on behalf the design community at large.
Keith Yamashita

I'm a little confused here. First, let me say that I am not part of the design community, so that may be causing my ignorance here. But...

What is wrong with this exactly? Isn't it very laissez-faire and what not. You wanna ask for free work? Go ahead. You want to perform said free work, go ahead.


Keith: you say that you did not do spec work. Are you saying you got paid for the work you did?
debbie millman

Still, Mr. Yamashita, why not get compensated for your work? It reminds me of Starbucks vs. the little coffee shop. My perception is that Starbucks may have paved the way for real appreciation for coffe in the U.S., and that has helped the entire industry (other chains, smaller coffee shops, etc.) But Starbucks don't give it away.


Keith is saying he didn't do spec work because his firm had a contract requiring that they be compensated if the client decided to use any of their "IP." This is a pathetic "rationalization" of his firms' dubious actions. His firm did work for free, end of story. He can go ahead and candy coat it any way he wants with his self-impoartant, fighting the good fight for design rhetoric, but at the end of the day he sold us all out—and for his own gain. And who made him The Voice of the Design Community anyway? That's one election I certainly missed.

Michael, thanks for shedding some much-needed light on the spec process initiated by BusinessWeek's editor. When I first heard about it from one of the participants (after the selection was made), I was a little stunned to hear it was completely on spec.

Rick, thanks for your insightful (and kind of hilarious) comments too. It's great to hear two old-timers... err... veterans of the industry speak so candidly in such a public space.
Daniel Carter

I think this post and Rick Valicenti's comments are instructive for anyone who earns a living from the innovation/design/creativity space-- and that includes graphic design, product design, architecture, photography, etc.

Photographers in particular in their willingness to work on spec (and to continue to do so) have collectively devalued themselves to a degree that almost cannot be rescued. The value of photography is at an all-time low while its popularity and usefulness in our culture has only continued to grow. There are many reasons for this, of course, but the willingness to work for free has had a part in creating the conditions many currently struggle with.

Working on spec often creates an expectation of the working relationship between the creative and the buyer of that creative output that extends far beyond the immediate relationship between the two. Working on spec is bad for everyone, and it isn't sustainable in the long run.

so let me get this straight: Business Week wants to launch a magazine to the mass business market about the value of design and innovation, and how businesses can better utilyze designers services, and then asks four of the top design firms in the country to work for free. does anyone else see the cruel irony in this?
debbie millman

After reading through the very insightful and enlightening commentary, I thought to share a portion of the speech Richard Farson made, that I refer to in my earier comment. It has some food for thought on the issues being discussed here. The full speech is here http://www.theoverlap.org/blog/?p=26#more-26


In its orientation toward the private sector, design has become more a business than a profession.

Design has commoditized itself. Turned itself into a commodity

Social scientists refer to commoditization as that process whereby a semi-sacred institution or profession (art, education, medicine, ministry, journalism, and architecture, etc.) is transformed into a saleable commodity, a marketable product, with packaging, advertising, market research, etc.

Many social critics believe that the rampant commoditization of all that we hold dear represents the greatest long term danger our society faces.

Take journalism, for example. Journalism is the vaunted Fourth Estate, bringing us the truth, protecting us from tyranny. Without journalism, we lose our democratic freedom.

But journalism, particularly broadcast journalism, where most people get their news, has become dominated by corporations that insist on high ratings, on the news department being a profit center, not a cost center. That has led to a celebrity orientation, loss of investigative reporting, and generally an emphasis on what has come to be called infotainment. As a result, we see situations like the following:

The three major TV networks presented a total of six news segments on the Downing Street Memo, that British memo about our fixing the intelligence leading up to the Iraq war, conceivably an impeachable offense. At the same time they produced a total of 465 segments on the Michael Jackson trial.

That is commoditization.

As a result, architects and designers have developed what Barry Lynch calls a vendor mentality rather than a peer mentality.
Niti Bhan

Painfully on cue, in this month's Wired, Peter [Diamandis's] Principles: How to use contests to spur innovation...

1. Tell a story.
We make sure the rules for winning are very clear and that the teams are doing something with a dramatic finish.

2. Don't aim too high - or too low.
With the Ansari X Prize, people said, "You should go to orbit." I argued that was too big a first step; 100 kilometers was enough. A prize has to be hard but not impossible.

3. Portray the competitors as heroes.
Our job is to promote teams and team leaders as visionary, as taking on challenges against the odds.

4. Raise the stakes.
It causes people to fund teams not for the return on investment but for the media value, the ego value. And a large amount of money says the challenge is worth doing.

5. Pick the right battle.
Our mission is to bring about radical breakthroughs that benefit humanity. Prizes make sense where things are stuck because of mindset or unions or the military-industrial complex.

The AIGA code of ethics lends itself to ludicrous interpretations when it states that:

A professional designer does not undertake speculative work or proposals (spec work) in which a client requests work without providing compensation and without developing a professional relationship that permits the designer sufficient access to the client to provide a responsible recommendation and without compensation.

What the heck is "a professional relationship that permits the designer sufficient access to the client to provide a responsible recommendation"? That is vague enough to admit situations as the one described in the text, and probably was written with unpaid internships in mind.

By the way: is there any difference between spec work and unpaid internships? Aside from the fact that in the latter case the client is often another designer?
european (unpaid) intern

I am also interested in others thoughts on the above mentioned comment regarding unpaid internships. I was told as I neared graduation that if I ever wanted to really get into a well-known design firm early on I would need to work 3 to 6 months in an unpaid internship. Looking back, that seems to carry the same traces of "you're lucky to be working with me, even if you're not getting paid".

I understand the apprenticeship model benefits, but I'm curious what others think about this.

i'd like to continue josh's thoughts:

i'm an unpaid intern and though i realize how lucky i am considering how competitive the design industry is, i am a bit rankled on several levels. one, i can barely afford this especially since i'm in the middle of school. and two, what about all my other talented classmates who can't afford to spend the summer working for free?

design is such an incredibly insular community that it seems be especially susceptible to breeding success through networking. if my talented classmates-and honestly, some are equally or more qualified than i-can't afford to spend the summer making connections, doesn't this winnow the talent pool to those who can afford to work for free? yes, success in design is based on your actual abilities as well as your contacts, but getting your foot in the door is often the result of a referral.

like all those other firms working for IP, unpaid interns are often doing the same only there's no ethical code advising against it in the AIGA.

This has been a great thread to read, but I'm a confused and angry about the rancorous tone of some of the posters. Nussbaum's tactics have been called "pathetic", "ludicrous", and "exploitive". Are we really to believe that firms like SYP and IDEO are so dumb as to be exploited? Ideo especially has shown itself to be a master at cultivating positive PR. The most clear case of this would be the shopping cart they redesigned for Nightline. This was another spec project, undertaken with almost no commercial viability. They demonstrated their process and were able to reach a nationwide audience, most of whom had never heard of IDEO and likely never would have.

I'm sure they undertook the magazine project with a similar mindset. Would 25 out of 100 regular Businessweek readers know what IDEO is or what they do? Maybe. Would 5 of 100 know who SYP is? doubtful. This project was the chance to "write the book" on innovation. The winner gets a chance to to make an impression on thousands of potential clients, to make themselves synonomous with design and innovation. Even losing gets you mentioned in a magazine with a significantly higher business value than ID or EYE.

I believe design is inherently valuable, but also realize that innovation should extend to business practices as well as aesthetics. I think we should look down on the AIGA for suggesting that the only way to make design a lucrative is by artificially limiting supply (via the code of conduct).

The unfortunate reality is that any junior college dropout can call themself a designer. To many they are just as good as a RISD or Yale grad. I think the truly talented designers need to redraw the boundaries and offer a more valuable product to the business community. Either that or reexamine who is really "pathetic".
Joseph Flaherty

... "I'm a confused and angry about the rancorous tone of some of the posters. Nussbaum's tactics have been called "pathetic", "ludicrous", and "exploitive". ...

How could it possibly be confusing to understand why designers (on their own and as an industry) prefer to avoid being exploited?

The client says "I don't have the money to start off my project" so ... what do they do? They run a contest.

How is that not exploitive, ludicrous and in the end, pathetic for all joining in?

Shame on Bruce Nussbaum, Business Week, IDEO, Stone Yamashita, Modernista and David Albertson. All who have proven themselves to be so short sighted that they cannot see the bigger picture.



Thanks for the brilliant piece. It says everything I've ever wanted to say about doing spec work.

Apparently, like economics, ethics have a trickle-down effect... When firms with international standing and recognition start publicly producing work on spec for major publishers like Business Week, how can small shops like mine say no to spec work for our potential clients? My taking spec work (which doesn't happen) doesn't influence the industry and it's perception; however, Mr. Yamashita (et al.)'s decision will cause repercussions we'll be dealing with for years.

I am currently only subscribing to magazines that will let me read them free for one year.

My magazine collection is dwindling...

Although, I'd gladly pay them Wednesday for an issue today.

p.s. And no IN Web site with free content, either.
Joe Moran

Let the magazine come to the stand. Might be people start understanding after a period of time.

To hell with it, indeed! I say we air this dirty (spec) laundry any and every chance we get. To force an attitude shift like this you have to make people aware, get 'em informed and upset about it.

Cat: you folks at No-Spec should target the problem children directly. If we're all behind this lets put some moolah where our keyboards are and get some ads out there. Hello, AIGA? I can see the ad now: "Thanks for lowering the value of graphic design IDEO, Stone Yamashita, & Modernista. You are most certainly innovators."

Michael: How's about a short video a la Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth"? Just watch out for the spinach.
Brian Alter

Ultimately, michael and rick nailed it by saying that design is a collaborative process which not only should not but cannot be properly undertaken without the full involvement of the client. I'd be inclined to say that if you can't agree to this, you don't really know design.

However, I do think it's an ethical issue as well, and I am surprised by Michael's own admittance that the AIGA Code of Ethics was not the deterrent that kept him from working on spec. I think that if you're not willing to abide by an organizations code of ethics you shouldn't bother belonging to the organization. The whole *point* of belonging to a professional organization is to be able to take a stand on issues that affect your profession (not, as many people believe, just to receive cool stuff).

I'm equally surprised by the reluctance on many people's part to just tell a potential client about the code of ethics and why they can't partake in the competition. It worked for dmitri and lorraine; it's really not that hard to say "no." ... or rather "no thanks, and this is why." While rick's approach is enlightening, amusing and brilliant, I really think a firm stand on professional practices is a more responsible approach. And you'd be surprised how many people respond favourably, and change their rules. They just didn't know any better.

It doesn't have to be a dog-eat-dog world out there, people. Help each other out a little, will ya? Because spec work does degrade the profession, not just in fees-value but in perception and understanding of what it is, exactly, that you do.

I'm completely shocked that BW did this; completely shocked that they're uh ... strapped for cash to start up this new mag; completely shocked that a magazine on design shows so little understanding of design; and completely shocked that many of you are so forgiving. dmitri and debbie: i agree with you completely.

As for keith yamashita ... well excuse me for being impolite but that is the biggest load of unmitigated crap i've heard in a long time.
marian bantjes


"Thanks for lowering the value of graphic design IDEO, Stone Yamashita, & Modernista. You are most certainly innovators."

Designers have a strong voice as there is a LOT of power in blogs and forums.

Think about it. There are not many designers who do not read, own, and / or contribute to several blogs and / or forums a week, a day, or hourly.

Michael has already done the legwork with his informative article. All we have to do is point back here to get the issue known to those who may not read Design Observor.



Designers can fight back by educating the industry and the public at large, instead of ignoring the problem of spec.


Re: Yamashita,

1. Collatoral that might be obtained through such an exercise is his and his alone as he in fact admits when he describes the terms of his contract. I doubt there is a clause in his contract that returns proceeds to the common of the profession in any form or manner. Interestingly, these types of clauses do commonly exist in University research contracts between private concerns and Universities to protect the independence of the University and ensure that the University, not the individual reasercher, is the main beneficiary of successful research or substantive IP.

2. Confusing the ethics of pro-bono or reduced fee work done for non-profit organizations with work done for Fortune 500 companies is unrigorous. IBM and Apple are not and should not be seen as equivalent to the Human Rights Campaign or even PBS and when considering work for these different types of organizations one might want to define more carefully the differences, the risks, and the rewards.

3. If Business Week can not pay for the full value of Yamashita's intellectual capital re: capacity to lead and innovate, then clearly he must already be as wealthy as Midas and/or closer to God or some karmic design spirit then the rest of us. On the other hand, for Business Week to not want to pay for his innovative intellectual capital says alot about what they really think of it and should, I would think, make him question why he would want to be involved with them in the first place.

4. I just don't believe that the innovative ideas, tools, methods, models, and frameworks brought to bear on the Business Week project by Yamashita really have that much to do with his other clients. Perhaps this was an opportunity to refine or even reinvent their process - and as such was useful to the firm - but I suspect they already use much the same processes and language with every client they have and it is this, not the unique design solutions created for Business Week or any other client, that increasingly characterize their work.

6. Does Yamashita know for sure that the Eames' did upfront work for free for their corporate clients? Perhaps they did but in this context I think a documented example would help further the conversation. In any case, self-made work and research projects such as the Eames' are not the same as work for paying clients and should not be confused as the same.

For me Yamashita's rationalizations confirm the sense that this was first and foremost a rich marketing exercise, and not a rich design opportunity for his firm. In fact I do not begrudge his personal choice to market his capacities in this manner though I do think it is very suspect if not ingenuous to wrap himself in a cloak of design altruism.

I do admire the risk that Michael took in writing this post. I would imagine that not too many potential clients who want free work will be calling him anytime soon. On the other hand, I would imagine that Yamashita's telephone is ringing off the hook. Go figure.
Bernard Pez

"...How is that not exploitive, ludicrous and in the end, pathetic for all joining in?"

IDEO does ~70 million a year in revenue, not huge by normal corporate standards, but pretty decent for a design services firm. They are smart business people (as are SYP, et al.). It is ridiculous to assume they are being tricked into this competition. It is a shrewd business move. Doing this one project could lead to millions in future revenue. Apple derives no-substantive revenue from iTunes, but it uses the program to sell millions of iPods. Should it bow out because, selling music so cheaply undercuts other standalone music vendors?

From what universal truth does the no-spec ethic derive? What is classically thought of as GD (at least as a standalone business) is passing away. Develop a better differentiated product and you will thrive or believe that typesetting alone will be a valuable skill in the decades to come and fail. Solid design (graphic or otherwise) is valuable, but it is suicidal to try and fight progress with misguided protectionist tools.
Joseph Flaherty

From what universal truth does the no-spec ethic derive?

It's simple economics, Joseph. By turning their intellectual work into a free loss-leader, they devalued it as a currency for everyone else. While this may offer them a short-term payback because of the publicity they receive from it, it ultimately undermines the entire industry for everyone in the long-term...including them...and you.
Daniel Green

I am surprised by Michael's own admittance that the AIGA Code of Ethics was not the deterrent that kept him from working on spec. I think that if you're not willing to abide by an organizations code of ethics you shouldn't bother belonging to the organization.

Marian, in the article I say "it was made clear to me (once again, to Nussbaum's credit) that I could suggest a fee, although I was told some of the others were working for free." My position was based on a combination of distaste for spec work and the fact that competitions are usually not an effective way to get good design work done.

The questions raised about unpaid internships are appropriate and disturbing, and a good subject for a future article. Stay tuned.
Michael Bierut

The questions raised about unpaid internships probably do deserve their own post.

Very briefly, however, an internship (paid or not) is an upfront exchange of value, and (hopefully) an extension of the classroom experience. A student should receive mentoring and guidance in exchange for work done.

There very well may be exploitive situations out there that have parallels with spec work. Those stories deserve to be told.

However, my own unpaid internship many years ago was a valuable learning experience. It was a chance to engage in the design process and with communication professionals in a way that couldn't be duplicated in the classroom. It was not the crap shoot that spec jobs are.
Daniel Green

I think you speak for all designers in your comments about competition. It can be very distracting knowing other lasers are pointed at your task, knowing it could all be a waste of time and effort if your design becomes subjectively inferior when placed next to other design greats. Being secretly lazy is healthy, one can't constantly point and click, and doing so doesn't make you a better designer. Go outside! We all need time away to gain the perspective necessary to see things objectively. Thank you for the article -you speak for me.
Daniel Rowley

I think you should rethink your position.
I have paid for both great creative and horrible creative in my career, and if other clients have figured out a way to take the risk out of the process, good on them.
Maybe this obvious client need should not simply be resisted. Maybe it should encourage you (and me and other creative types) to rethink what's wrong with our business rather than embrace the very closed-shop ("We don't work for free") attitude. That sounds more like restraint of trade than a valid statement,anyway, and wishing won't make it true.

In my experience, I have been saddened by the number of designers who produced what they wanted to do, rather than what the client needed. Let's acknowledge and correct that issue before we decide nothing's broken in this business, and that no one should work in any innovative way.

By the way: tiny white type against a black background? No wonder clients want to put a leash on designers.

I've paid for good and bad meals in my career, and I'd like to take the risk out of the situation by suggesting that my local restaurants feed me for free, and let me pay only for the food that I like. What do you think?
Seriously, I agree there are a lot of willful designers who are their own (and the profession's) worst enemy. More professionalism is called for on both sides of the table. Respect must be earned before it's invoiced.
Michael Bierut

well said.
its about time people started getting mad on this site.

Michael, I guess I was focussing on your following sentence:

In the end, to be perfectly honest, it wasn't the money (or lack thereof) that made the difference for me, but rather something I've learned the hard way: I stink at competitions.

which led me to believe that the ethics were secondary to practicality. But i take your point that the ethical burden to charge a fee or not was placed on each individual firm. It's a little loop-holey, but ...

marian bantjes

Michael, thank you for taking the time to address this issue. I agree that the road to hell is ours to take. There are good intentions and big ideas involved, but this kind of thinking will only do one thing: make design more expensive, diminish the compensation for talented creatives, and make design lifeless and wrote. Risk-free = creatively dead. I do not want my field to become the circus that advertising often is, with massive amounts of time, energy, and capital thrown at phantom projects and huge billing rates thrown at the real ones. We all lose in that scenario. That kind of thinking will make design even less accessible to the public than it already is and kill the last bit of genuine collaboration we enjoy with our clients.

I have, very recently, worked with a client to show them why this sort of thing can be destructive for both the designer and the client. I have put good work on the line because this is a real issue for all of us. If a few designers do this work, we all have to deal with the consequences. No one should fool themselves into thinking it's a matter of "let others do what they want, because I wouldn't".

I understand Yamashita's perspective, and when a firm makes that kind of commitment and works to better both groups, trading knowledge for money, it's great. Because the real value, the respect and the relationship, are put at the forefront. But I'm not sure that comes through when a client blogs the equivalent of: "Ha! You can get free design! Just ignore what the designers tell you!"
Chris Rugen

I think it's funny that, of the three firms who worked on spec, the one who got the job is the only one who has print design as a core competency. Wow, maybe the system does work!

There are too many people out there that are utter shit at design - opps - there I said it.

This has a lot to do with it and Rick starts to point this out by saying why risk paying for crap - get choice etc - spec is not the solution though. There just needs to be an all encompassing thought that great design doesn't just work it has an effect (or something a bit more profound).

So Michael - I know there is probably just as many shit chefs but there are systems in place - restaurant inspections etc - maybe design organizations need to go visit design studios and lay the law down - make them cease operating until they tidy up their act!? If only it were that easy to rat out the bad design.

Just remembered something important to this duscussion...

Back in college everyone in my dorm got a "package" in their room. It contained "free" stuff. Snacks, perfume, coupons. ( I still have a shaver from that package and I use it every day. )

I also remember a local pizza shop giving away a free pizza to all new college students... an "introductory" offer. I ordered pizzas from that shop for the rest of my college stay there.

I guess what I'm getting at is this...

Where does a consumer/business/creative type draw the line at marketing by offering free stuff -- and whoring ones self and making us all, well, whores?

I'm confused.
Joe Moran

Great topic; a situation we've all encountered. And Rick V, your demonstration with paper and scales: what a witty way to make the point clear. Re: the issue of clients wanting to ensure the calibre of the work, doesn't that happen when they screen potential designers, review portfolios?
Marty Blake

I'm confused.


Please don't be confused.

The items you mention are commodities. They have a low price point. They're fairly undifferentiated in their markets. They're produced very efficiently on extremely high speed machines. (An example: the machines that manufacture frozen pizza can make 6 pizzas in 2 seconds. Cookie machines knock out 60 per second.) It's easy to use a "give-away" as a loss leader for future business. The ratio between the initial investment and the future payback is very much in the manufacturer's favor.

The practice of design, however, is (or should be) one of a professional relationship. The designer produces a targeted, customized solutions to a unique problem. There is a large investment of time in this process, but the payback for the customer is an effective, one-of-a-kind solution that will help their product or service succeed in its marketplace. The payback for the designer is (or should be) a reasonable compensation for that time and professional service.

Design -- especially at the complex level of magazine or identity design -- is not a commodity to be given away to a for-profit venture.
Daniel Green

Mr. Green,

Thank you. Good point.

Joe Moran

Excellent article, this is something I've been thinking a lot about recently. I've had frequent 'speculative' requests in the past, one recently was that we pitch by providing several suggestions / variations and various other bits, at no time was there any indication of budget for the final job. I think this is one of the big issues - at least if you've got to pitch you should know that the job is worth going for!

There really does need to be more protection so that pitches are not just used to cherry pick the interesting ideas, and even worse, giving the job to the first company they had in mind anyway.

It's aggravated by the fact that many public bodies, educational institutions have a policy whereby they have to put projects with a budget over a certain amount out to tender / pitch. This is intended to be a more open and fair process rather than just awarding it to a company they already know, but often it's just an exercise they have to go through but in the end the company they want to use gets the job anyway. It's simply a legal hoop they have to jump through, but instead of doing good as it was intended it actually just causes more economic harm than good.

Just some thoughts!
Rick Curran

Spec work must be the oldest beotch in the design industry. Mr. Bierut's commentary is valuable in that it points out once again that design is first and foremost a business, and that as in any business ours involves questionable practices, dubious motives, and practioners with a wide range of views about right and wrong.

But what's most interesting to me is Mr. Yamashita's rationalization of his position. What an incredible piece of copywriting. To believe that his firm undertook the project not only for personal/corporate gain, but also for altruistic reasons - "on behalf the design community at large" - requires an intellectual leap of WMD proportions.
Dave Mason

Another problem with spec work is that the client now has many ideas on tap so that if the one they choose doesn't meet their expectations in the marketplace they have other ideas to fall back on. (without spending a dime)

Also, if you don't have an idea where the client wants to go in the first place it puts you in the position of playing a guessing game. This is a form of gambling. Its not a good professional habit to get into.

This entire debate has highlighted a fundamental lack of perspective on the reason we work. We work to eat, to maintain shelter, to cloth ourselves. We are in BUSINESS. It's OK, in fact desirable, to have a greater good motivate us as we do our work. But it is work, nonetheless.

I'm a photographer, not a designer, but the issues are identical in my business. In fact, they're worse. Every day, we get clients asking for spec work. It's our job to educate the client as to the cancer-like effect of spec work. I particularly loved Rick Valicenti's solution of begging the question by showing up with blank paper dummies. (read his post in this thread).

Pro bono, volunteerism, altruistic donation, self-fulfilling project, art - these are all valuable endeavors that contribute to the goodness of the world. They can be done on your own time, and usually for a "good cause". However, advancing someone else's business is NOT a good cause. Advancing someone else's business is worth doing because it is work; it is business for which you must be fairly compensated.

It becomes progressively harder to do the right thing as you grow larger. A firm the size of SYP, while not a behemoth, is constantly in danger of resembling the monster who loses touch with reality to the degree that it starts consuming its own tail. This is what happens when one does spec work; it is an event that catalyzes subsequent events down the slippery slope of self-cannibalism. The ability to do spec work (i.e. having enough resources) does not make it right. Rationalizations like doing the work "on behalf of the design community at large" border on obscene. I'll speak for myself, thank you. I don't want clients coming to me saying that SYP did it for spec, why don't you? Constant vigilance is required to "do the right thing".

It is particularly ironic that this discussion is taking place in the design world. I have always taken the view that designers have a unique perspective on the world based on their ability to see how everything is connected to everything else. There is a blind spot in the vision of any designer (or photographer, or illustrator, etc) who does spec work and a lack of understanding on their part of how spec work is connected to the commoditization of creative services. This lack of perspective shown by SYP, and the accompanying rationalization offered by Mr. Yamashita (... apologies to Mr. Yamashita, but his is the example at hand) is shameful on its own. But to have that lack of perspective exercised by someone of Mr. Yamashita's stature constitutes a disconnect that I cannot resolve.

Mr. Yamashita wrote:
"I think by focusing solely on compensation, without regard to the other benefits, Micheal's posting sells designers short -- it unnecessarily blocks us from being the fullest partners to our clients, and catalysts of change in the world, over time."

Huh? Without compensation, you HAVE no client!

Don't confuse feeding the soul with feeding the belly.
Rick McCleary

Unfortunately, the architecture analogy is at best a great warning sign to how not to run this kind of business. I've seen compeitions where $100k+ has been spent and a $25k stipend offered, and the risk greatly outweighs the chance of return, and it is a terrible business model. The amount of press on offices that have declared bankrupcy due to this kind of model v. the glory of getting your name in the press for participating drives the ego of these things. The WTC compeitions have only made a bad situation much more visibly public, and now everyone and their dog things that holding a free design competition is the way to go.

SOMEBODY pays for the spec work, either a past client who was overcharged, or a future client who will be overcharged.
Rick S.

Thanks for bringing this issue to the forefront Michael. I find it mind-boggling that a pubnlication which claims to report on design issues and practices could taint their reputation before they even hit the presses!

It's an ongoing battle, not only in the US, but up here in Canada, culminating with our battle against the mighty IOC and VANOC over their 2010 beauty pagent (logo contest). I met with the CEO of VANOC and he was genuinely shocked that every designer in Canada wasn't chomping at the bit to "do their best" for queen and country. Well, they got what they "paid" for, a logo that has nothing to do with Vancouver and British Columbia, and are now frantically trying to shoehorn an intelligent theme and communications strategy onto the Inukshuk logo.

So it doesn't matter what the size of the project, big or small, spec work doesn't make sense. Either as a creative endeavour and process, as a communications strategy, and most importantly, as a business practise. And at the end of the day, that's the overriding reason for not doing work for free. (Good) Design is not only good for business, it IS a business.

I haven't subscribed to INside Innovation, but cancel my subscription!!
Matt Warburton

Thank you Michael. And thank you colleagues for this important thread.

Above all, it brings this critical issue under closer scrutiny so it can be further addressed with intelligent public discourse between working professionals out here dealing with these exact situations.

The reality of the information age of late has included a cultural shift we've never witnessed previously. Copyright and intellectual property rights have been devalued as has the process of designing truly innovative creative solutions to real-world communication problems.

Those of us that work with brand planners and youth research groups know that today's young people (the Bruce Nussbaum's of tomorrow unfortunately) see and use "free" stuff everywhere. Every day. We all do. There are free daily newspapers, web services like Google, MySpace and Flickr. Music and videos are easy to download for free. Even in our industry, there is easy access to cheap or free stock photography and logo designs. They may be crap, but they're cheap.

Granted, this isn't an apples-to-apples comparison, but think about it: Kids and young adults - and high-powered publishers apparently - think very little or nothing of the skills, research, time and heaps of effort that goes into developing these "innovative" solutions, so why should they value the process of design? Who cares? Someone, somewhere will create something good eventually, right? And whoever creates the best work is the one who deserves to be paid, right? Wrong.

Shame on you Mr. Nussbaum. You owe us all an apology. I hope your magazine tanks. And if we spread the word about this situation, undermining the design public's perception of your brand, it will.
Mark Busse

Why not tell Bruce Nosebrown himself.

on Publication of Inside Innovation one critic raves:
"The Champgane is chilled and the praises are ready!
Here's to Design's Favorite GodFather!!! Bravo!!!" Posted by: Pattie Anne (his secretary?)

and yet another:

"Please tell me this is something more than another IDEO publicity free-for all. Please let me know that you're writing about the teams of engineers, designers and marketing professionals creating innovation and not just star designers who fail to credit their staff. Please talk about how hard it is to get support from upper management for a product that does not fall neatly into an existing business unit instead of crowning another cell phone the breakthrough du jour" -Posted by: skeptic

outside this blog, the rest is tumbleweeds.
felix sockwell

Oh boy, I get to employ the cliché! With friends like Bruce Nussbaum, design doesn't need any adversaries. "INside Innovation"? The imagination of that title says all I need to know about this gentleman's visionary status.

A major part of the problem here is somewhat about terminology. It's how words like "business," "innovation," and "design" are hypostatized. When these terms are bandied about as if they are actual entities—instead of the activities of real people—operators such as Nussbaum feel free to rationalize exploitation. This is happening across society, not just design, and designers are complicit in the abstracting process. And this is how a bright guy like Michael Bierut will consider Nussbaum a design supporter. Michael reads "design" and sees the actual people who do the work. Nussbaum envisages an intellectual construct.

What's needed (and has been suggested by others in this thread) is to reclaim or reinstate people in these terms. The only weapon designers have in their arsenal is unanimously standing together against such scams. Unfortunately, that requires a Fraternité within design that doesn't exist. Keith Yamashita, IDEO et al. don't see some one-person design shop in, say, Norfolk Virginia as a peer. They aspire to separate themselves from those mundane practices and make their own rules. If they go back, it's temporarily but still differentiated—as a lecturer at an AIGA event. Design has a caste system (even into education, writing, criticism) that everyone's tied into. Combine this with a predatory interpretation of capitalism—which works when the playing field is kept level—and you get what we've got here.

(BTW, Rick Valicenti's action described above was a delightful third way to respond to spec requests. But, as he seems to acknowledge, it can only be used once.)

Though I'm not a working designer, this is a vital concern for me. As a teacher, I regularly receive inquires from businesses and charities announcing student design "competitions" or seeking free design work ("they'll get a great portfolio piece!") I respond to each at length, politely (I think) but firmly detailing the inequity inherent in their offers. And I frequently share this all with students, asserting that they must, even as students, respect their talents and be fairly recompensed. So it's disheartening—but hardly surprising—that leaders in the field are cheerfully undercutting my message—and those students' future.

What is the sound of a ladder being pulled up? You hear it between the words of any promoter or participant in Nussbaum's swindle.
Kenneth FitzGerald

Seventy comments into this post we have enjoyed a certain civility on a complicated subject. I would ask that we not engage in personal attacks or harsh language. The subjects of this post will be more receptive readers if we moderate the tone here a bit.
William Drenttel

I do not want to defend Business Week for choosing to manage this design process with three of the participants working on a spec basis. This ultimately seems so unnecessary: they had leading design firms chomping-at-the-bit to work with them. It would have been so easy to pay each participant a small fee for their participation and we wouldn't be having this conversation. It is really Bruce Nussbaum's gleeful declaration of having broken the AIGA no-spec rule as a model for innovation that has designers so up in arms...

Meanwhile, this conversation has had a positive effect on another project: the designer selection for Architect magazine, aluded to in Rick Valicenti's, Abbott Miller's and my previous comments, no longer has a spec-work component. The editor of this new magazine has made a short-list selection and no spec-work is on the horizon.

This said, I want to pick up on Keith Yamashita's point that his firm's participation was, in part, because of their interest in developing Intellectual Property around the topic of Innovation. This is not, in my mind, an excuse for doing spec work. They clearly had the clout to negotiate a fee if Business Week was equally interested in their participation.

But Keith's point has resinated with me, and I think it is worth further consideration.

Designers work all the time for fees less than their hourly rates. I do it, and Michael Bierut does it, and Rick Valicenti does it. If we take the idea of free work off the table for a moment, the question becomes why would a designer ever work for less than full compensation, however that is defined.

Most of the time, I believe, designers do it to work on projects with an opportunity to show-off their design skills. Sometimes, they do it because the cause is worthy. But the line between working for free and working for little is subtle: to pretend otherwise is silly.

Keith is suggesting a third rationale that I think merits our attention: research & development. There is no doubt that SYP has taken ideas developed on one project and sold them on others. In fact, their Unstuck: A Tool for Yourself, Your Team, and Your World book is a proprietary property developed and sold for money based on previous client work. Further, the entire way they sell their services is based on models developed for previous clients. Models and processes, as opposed to individual designs, are very marketable.

In our own practice, working on Design Observer for free has led to new clients, and more importantly, has led to expertise in technology and editorial development that has become integral to our practice. (We frequently set up blogs in Moveable Type for clients to develop and manage their own development of content that we will later need for a full-blown websites, for example.) And, a number of years ago, we too developed a prototype for a new magazine from Business Week for small businesses. The magazine was never launched but the R&D supported by small fees lead to significant projects from Netscape, AOL and others. Business Week in effect funded design development that led to many other, and more profitable, projects.

These experiences lead me to understand SYP's interest in this project. Innovation is not my territory, but it's a large zone beyond the scope of most individual designers. The notion that the Intellectual Property in such a large and rich zone is worthy of certain investments by sucessful design firms should not be discounted. (It is not uninteresting that two of the firms participating in the Business Week bake-off are large, corporate-oriented enterprises that could easily have afforded to walk away from this competition.)

In most industries, R&D is a sunk cost (unless you are in drugs or agriculture where the government seems to want to pay your way). Designers want to have it both ways: respecting a code of conduct that avoid the pitfalls of spec work (e.g., like the advertising and architecture industries) while allowing for significant investments in new ideas. The conversation about spec-work should not ignore this discussion about the importance of research + development.
William Drenttel

The magazine was never launched but the R&D supported by small fees lead to significant projects from Netscape, AOL and others. Business Week in effect funded design development that led to many other, and more profitable, projects.

I don't really understand this. How did the "R&D" lead to other significant projects? Or did you simply develop a bitchin' magazine prototype that impressed other companies greatly?

And also, while I understand that learning new things such as blogging software or other systems of operation while doing work that is paid, unpaid or for one's own interest can be applied to future projects, I fail to see how this relates to the ethical challenge of working on spec.

Yes, we all work for less money under various circumstances for various reasons, but this is not the same as working on spec. I would work pro bono for a good cause, but i would not pitch free work in competition against other designers for the same good cause. Why? a) because it's disrespectful of us as professionals, b) it wastes many people's time, money and resources and c) I don't get how i can do a good job if I'm not working closely with the client.

If someone wants to develop so-called R&D, they should do it on their own time, or on time when they're working with a client, not use it as an excuse to take several other firms down with them and undermine their own profession at the same time.

We have ethics for good reasons; they're not just something someone made up to be annoying. And I reiterate that if you belong to the AIGA (or the GDC, or ICOGRADA, etc.) you should be prepared to uphold their ethical standards, not just change them when it suits your personal needs.
marian bantjes

There's a real question that's unasked here, but very relevant for those of us who are dedicated to upholding this principle. I often hear things like "It was a paid competition. Everyone got $5,000 but of course we spent more than $20,000 by the time we were done."

It's a slippery slope, isn't it? Once you get "flexible" (and I'm pretty sure we've all been there), I can see how quickly the rationalization can start: "Well, it was an unpaid competition, but we got $20,000 — hell, why not $1,000,000 — worth of [publicity, intellectual property, client good will} out of it."

Once you're willing to work for less than your hourly rate, how low does the compensation have to get before you draw the line?
Michael Bierut

Dear Bill: you were your own client for Design Observer. Working for yourself on spec doesn't count (I think—unless that dinner I cooked for my family tonight was on spec, too!). But you did a project on spec for Business Week, and, well, you know you couldn't do that for very long, right? No matter what spins off from it? After a while it would cut into your DO time.
I want to pick up the point you made about the large scale of some of the firms participating in the "Business Week bake-off." As others have pointed out, it is precisely the large firms that can do this, whereas smaller consultancies simply can't bury the time in some other billable project. We now work in a environment of a few big offices and lots of small consultancies. It's remarkable that there is little rancor between such differently constructed practices, but I would think that the peaceful co-existence that currently exists in the graphic design world would break down rather swiftly if entire catagories of projects were open only to those firms who could afford to "invest" in their clients. And if one is truly committed to "innovation," wouldn't that cause be served best by preserving a condition that would keep the playing field of design (relatively) open? It seems to me that one of the good aspects of the graphic design world is that it has so many facets and it's open to anybody. While the conversation around the topic of "spec work" sounds almost simplisitic, it actually carries implications for the culture of graphic design. The intellectual and creative (and economic) independence of so many revered designers of the past will truly become a thing of the past if client expectations for sweat equity—without the equity—end up defining just who can and cannot work.
On the face of it, things like the AIGA ethical guidelines seem to be limited to contractual agreements and business practices (and certainly do nothing to make anyone a better designer) but the organic nature of their existence is evidence of some of the more positive aspects of the field itself, and obviously their abandonment must be approached with caution.
One more thing: we are also working in a period where designers have more and more opportunity to basically be their own clients, or a greater ability to produce truly useful pro bono work with the expanded techincal capabilities that we all enjoy, which is a sort of capital. How ironic to watch the large and wealthy design firms spend that capital on clients that don't really need the donation. It seems to lack imagination, for one thing: but it is right in step with lots of other tendencies in our society that have to do with the further entitlement of the rich, if I may be pardoned for indulging in the language of "class warfare."
lorraine wild

Lorraine has just posted everything I'd wanted to. And her highlighting the dubious notion of "investing" in one's clients offers a good opportunity to think about how spec work -- or any work -- really performs as an investment. What is the reward of such an investment? Is it proportional to the risk?

I think this helps me understand why I disagree with Bill Drenttel's comment that "the line between working for free and working for little is subtle: to pretend otherwise is silly." Negotiating a fee with a client acknowledges the fixed value of one's contributions, whether this value is fair, inflated, reduced, or even volunteered. This cannot be the same as a transaction in which one's contributions are defined as worthless. Back to the investment analogy, even a $1 lottery ticket has a potential (if unlikely) payoff; what kinds of $0 investments exist in the market?
Jonathan Hoefler

From the multitude of writers for Wikipedia to the democratization of media tools, giving things away has become a important part of developing personally, professionally, and even up to the level of market-wide products (Microsoft's Internet Explorer). Good and bad, we are still struggling with both the implications and the ethics that need to surround this, and the idea that it has all been settled by the AIGA *might* be presumptuous?

The various flavors of free work, pro bono, 'patron' R&D, spec, competition, deserve individual consideration, at least.

While I would not have accepted spec work on the level of a magazine redesign (and couldn't afford to even if I wanted), there are a few bits of work in my past for which I was paid (handsomely) in whuffie.

Okay, we agree. Spec work: bad. But is whuffie really evil, and is there really no way to differentiate and legitimize it?


I'm glad that Bill, Michael, and Lorraine have started to get us to the real issues here. I'm made more than a bit uncomfortable by holy incantations against spec work. My discomfort is not, BTW the defensiveness of a sinner; I do not do spec work. I make that choice, however, on practical and selfish grounds rather than ethical ones.

Nobody will be surprised to learn that Business Week did not contact me about designing the magazine in question but all offers of spec work that have been presented to me in the last twenty-some years have seemed like sucker bets. (I will admit to struggling for almost any sort of work early on and I was willing to do pretty much anything I could to get the proverbial foot in the door.)

In recent decades I haven't seen working without compensation on commercial projects to be a wise use of my time. Any business decision is a balance of cost and benefit: generally it's time, effort, and related costs put into getting a job (i.e., marketing costs) times how many such efforts are required per job gained, plus the time, effort, and related costs I guess for doing the job required (i.e., actual project costs) plus some accounting for risk. . . all balanced against the compensation. A speculative offer where several designers will do half of the work before one is chosen changes the amount of compensation needed to come out the same. It would have to be raised by half the actual project costs times the number of participating designers, plus an additional compensation for added risk (assuming all parties had an equal chance.)

But I have never been presented with a spec opportunity where the compensation was to be exceptionally high for the winner. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. My personal experience and that of many people I know is that people who want a freebie today will want one tomorrow and that promised future opportunities tend not to materialize.

I would, however, work in trade. I would, for instance, do design work in trade for advertising space if I thought it were a good deal. Leaving aside questions of journalistic ethics, if someone offered a trade for a small space ad I owned in a Business Week design publication for a favorable mention in the editorial section of the same publication, I'd take the mention. So if I could do design work in trade for said favorable mention without the nasty journalistic ethics problems intruding, I would gladly do so.

I am puzzled by the design ethics problem here. Marian assures us that "We have ethics for good reasons; they're not just something someone made up to be annoying" but fails to tell us the reasons. She also invokes AIGA membership as a reason but the AIGA policy is not binding specifically because that would be illegal. (I do think there are ethical problems with an organization first attempting to institute an illegal rule and then attempting to circumvent the law by weaseling the description of that rule, but that's probably best left for another discussion.)

The obvious arguments against speculative design work includes that such practice represents a covert reduced fee. That doesn't seem to rank as some sort of Categorical Imperative in that nobody has condemned the lowered fees listed in the posts above and only some sort of compensation is demanded. Would it be an ethical problem on my part if I did a small amount of design work in exchange for a stack of lottery tickets? It seems to me that all the design firms got valuable compensation for their work, just not in cash.

The distortion of the designer/client relationship argument also seems to be a red herring. I think that doing design where the designers can't freely converse with the final decision makers is bad for design and I try to avoid it but I've never heard anyone condemned for the ethical violation of working with a client contact who has no real authority.

Lorraine made the only argument I could think of that puts this in the ethical realm rather than strictly an individual business decision and she made it more eloquently than I was likely to. Rather than the distortion of a particular designer/client relationship, spec work distorts the overall business ecology, upsetting our (somewhat) balanced marketplace. How, in this sense, does spec work differ from any other reduced fee? How does it differ from a willingness to work for a royalty on future sales?

Why do we assume that the current graphic design marketplace is right, just, and otherwise something to be preserved while we watch our clients' markets changing and their business models becoming outmoded?

Why is it just that Lorraine or Marian or I, with our low overhead, should be able to afford to price some design services lower than a large firm but that they not be allowed to exercise their competitive advantage?
Gunnar Swanson

Seventy comments into this post we have enjoyed a certain civility on a complicated subject. I would ask that we not engage in personal attacks or harsh language. The subjects of this post will be more receptive readers if we moderate the tone here a bit.

My apologies for coarsening the discourse (discoarsening?). Please substitute "problematic opportunity" for "scam" and "questionable offer" for "swindle."
Kenneth FitzGerald

The problem is not just whether one is paid or not, but also the distorted notion that free pitching creates of what is involved in the exchange between designer and client. I think the curse of free pitching is that it degrades the value of ideas and the value to the client of working with a designer to think and draw and model their way to a solution. It focuses attention on the object of design (the noun) and not the process (the verb) - to paraphrase Keith Yamashita's wobbly defence.

I don't know many designers with a brain in their head who don't get frustrated that their ideas and way of thinking are unappreciated and that these are often applied in too narrow a field or too late in the process to have their full effect.

But speculative pitching tends to perpetuate that tired and closed old model of take brief, believe it, rush back to studio, create response, present back to the client and cross fingers. Heh presto! Here's the magic solution! You can see why the advertising industry goes for it - it's a silly one-sided, navel gazing charette.

I can happily accept that in the INside Innovation case the process was open and collaborative but it feels slightly twisted that the champion of "design thinking in business innovation" is promoting the idea that it's clever to get designers to give away ideas for free. So, I checked Bruce's blog, where I found another post, made since the one that sparked-off Michael's comment. It's a list of seven lessons learned during the launch of INside Innovation, of which number five is:

"Cost. We cut our costs sharply by open-sourcing the design and having a contest for the very best design." *

Let's leave the open-sourcing euphemism at the door, shall we? It's a free pitch. Hands up who thinks that passing your innovation costs onto the designer is a clever message to give to businesses that want to use design thinking cleverly? Bruce, here's an alternative model...

Last December the BBC's New Media team invited proposals for new ideas for broadband distribution of BBC content and community development. Out of 135 responses in London, 10 companies were selected to spend a week in March, offsite with BBC people, to work up and present their ideas to commissioning executives. We were each paid just over $9000 for our trouble, which might not make us rich but more than covered costs. The teams worked collaboratively as well as competitively, sharing ideas, and working closely with the client. We retained the IP and the BBC took an option to take successful presentations forward, with their originators.

Everybody gained, including companies that failed to get further commissions. That's how to innovate: work closely with the client, transparent and fair exchange of value. INside Innovation sounds like innovation games - not the real thing.

*It actually says 'cost our costs' but I think it's fair to assume this was mistyped for cut.
William Owen

My post, which Marian, Michael and Lorraine have responded to, was clear that I was not embracing or encouraging spec work. As I noted, "This is not, in my mind, an excuse for doing spec work. SYP clearly had the clout to negotiate a fee if Business Week was equally interested in their participation."

Once we take spec work off the table as the issue, I was making a different point: and, precisely what Michael picked up on. We would not be having this conversation if Business Week has paid all participants $1,000 because it would not have been spec work. The line against free work is clear. But what's the line between $1,000 and $5,000 and $25,000 and $100,000 for such participation. This can happen in isolation from a competitive bake-off, or like most architectural competitions, can it be a literal competition. I don't generally believe that clients get a designer's best work out of a competitive scenario, and we as a rule say no. But when a fee is offered, I'm not saying no because it is spec work, but because I don't believe a designer's best work evolves from such a process. Michael poses the question rhetorically: "Once you're willing to work for less than your hourly rate, how low does the compensation have to get before you draw the line?" This is not an ethical issue, and does not conflict with AIGA policy. As Marian notes, "We all work for less money under various circumstances for various reasons." I was simply pointing out, as Michael does, that this is a slippery slope.

My second point is more complicated. Let's assume that Business Week and SYP were wrong to engage in their collaboration as spec work. OK? We've put that aside.

I was arguing that there is something worthy of conversation is the idea that designers invest in R+D. This might be the basis for working for less than full-hourly rates — if it's not spec work, again, why is it wrong for a firm to engage in participation in a project where they think the long-term potential is worth the pay-off. This is obviously the zone of larger firms. Lorraine is therefore right to note the "class warfare" inherent is these scenarios.

It is the larger firms which have the capability to engage in R+D, to work on certain projects for less than their market rates (which may be 3x the rates of the rest of us). Someplace, though, I think we holding onto old notions about what design is in this conversations. SYP is not completing with Lorraine Wild or me or the next generation of young designers when it seeks to use design thinking to manage the process of integration between HP and Compaq. Whether Business Week pays them $1,000 or $10,000 pales against the opportunity to define certain Intellectual Property which can win them a $500,000 fee for a future project. In this sphere, they are not competing against other design firms but against Booz Allen and McKinsey. (Booz Allen believes enough in their Intellectual Property to have Randall Rothenberg, cited by Michael, as their Senior Director of Intellectual Capital.)

While this post is about spec work, Keith Yamashita raises serious issues about how firms of his scale compete in a larger sphere of commerce. We can stay that spec work is bad, but it doesn't answer the larger question (and very slippery slope) of how competition for new projects, albeit with paid fees, engages the development of new ideas that are ownable by their participants. This is interesting terrain, and a subject which I believe was missed by Bruce Nussbaum in his search for innovative ways to create a new magazine. (William Owen's post is a case in point.)
William Drenttel

"We have (AIGA) ethics for good reasons; they're not just something someone made up to be annoying"— Marian

You're right, Marian. But annoying isn't the right word here. It's powerful. These rules didn't fall from the sky. They were written by a guy who may as well be the Kenneth Lay of Graphic Design. Do the research. I did. In short, several years ago on the cover of the CA Illustration lay a blatant forgery of Brian Cronin. The illustration community here in NY is tired of flailing about it but essentially we got it wrong. We fingered the forger (Krepel) and the publication rather than the instigator- the Ethics author now president of the national chapter of the AIGA, Bill Grant. After seeing the cover I called Renee Ryner, (Brian's rep) and was told the Vivian (the art director) had originally sought Cronin for the job, but couldnt afford him. So they just did the ethical thing: hired a local in Atlanta to copy his work. I was also hired to appear in the same publication so I had all the dates on my computer as I sought to gather proof of foul play.

Then again, last year one of Bill's staff approached me about partnering in a textile venture. I was to develop
wall patternsfor his "largest project to date". My e mails (they don't lie either) document my cut as 10%, yet the contract was reduced to 5% when it arrived. Woops. Of course the whole thing was on a speculative basis (shocker). When I called Debbie Millman's radio program a few months ago and asked Bill Grant directly (regarding Cronin's debocle) he said he had no idea what I was talking about. Ethics are so...annoying when employees are to blame.

On a high note, CA recently came to Jesus, publishing a cover and article on The Real McCronin himself. Redemption is a powerful tool. Thank you, CA. Perhaps INside Innovation will follow your lead.
felix sockwell

I never suggested that the AIGA had "solved" this situation with their Code of Ethics, only that if you choose to belong to an organization, you should be aware of and willing to respect their Code of Ethics.

I know how much DO hates repetition, so I won't go into the point-by-point reasons why the AIGA, GDC etc. opposes spec work; they are written here throughout this thread a number of times.

But yes, there is that loophole, that if the competition is paid, it no longer violates the Code of Ethics. Personally, I think this is a flaw. I think if a client has $200 (or $200,000) they should do the right thing, and choose the firm they respect and can afford for the job, period.

The issue of "publicity" is an interesting one, however. Let's suppose the client is a high-profile organization like the Olympics, and they hire 4 firms to do conceptual work on a logo with the promise that all 4 logos will receive equal media attention. That undoubtedly has value, and I'd be inclined to say that the value could be approximated and applied as part of the fee. Said value would go down the greater the number of entrants involved. And if publicity is given only to the "winner," then we're back to square one.

I was arguing that there is something worthy of conversation is the idea that designers invest in R+D. This might be the basis for working for less than full-hourly rates — if it's not spec work, again, why is it wrong for a firm to engage in participation in a project where they think the long-term potential is worth the pay-off.

It's not. Once the client has chosen you, you have every right to set whatever price you like, taking into consideration everything that you'll get out of the process, including R&D, publicity, royalties, warm fuzzy feelings, stocks and dinners with the sexy CEO. This is a private arrangement between the client and you. Not a public arrangement between the client and your industry. If the situation is untenable, only you will be damaged, not you and several other firms.
marian bantjes

If the real implication between spec-work and an underpaid job is virtually none, then this is an issue of context. We acknowledge that small firms can't work the same way as the big agencies do. We also know that often their clientele are different too - sometimes spec work or whatever you call it, IS how you get the long term Bling ($$). Thus, I don't know if one can be so rigid in the way they interpret the ethics code of the AIGA. It can be a guideline sure, but to act as if this is written on a stone tablet, is to live soley in the vacuum of a two color spectrum.

I'm not suggesting that designers go ahead and do work for free; on the contrary. However, there is always going to be a circumstance where one has to bend the rules.

What are my opinions of this INside Innovation / Mr. Nussbaum fiasco?

• Only 1 of the 4 firms got paid. I think it should have been all or nothing.

• If this magazine is truly about appreciating the value of Design; what a mixed message this sends by having designers create mockups for free:
Value of Design = Free ~ Good? (scratching head)

• It seems to me, Mr. Nussbuam preaches a nice smoke screen, but his actions reveal nothing dissimilar from other clients who are concerned only w/ making a buck.
Frank Lin

This conversation continually gets derailed onto the subject of money, muddling the core issues: respect, creative relationships, quality work, and the ripple effect. Money is just a medium, a form of compensation, kind of like "publicity". If money were the real issue, none of us would do pro bono work. But we do, so that's clearly not it. I agree with Frank that context is key, because here "context" means "the relationship, the job, and the design community".

I consider spec work to be any work done without a functioning client relationship; design work based on speculation in more than one way.
Chris Rugen

Lets be honest. Bruce Nussbaum is the Don of design, and when he asks for spec work is different from nearly any other businesses asking for spec work. None of the firms who did this, seriously mulled over the issue of not getting paid. They aren't exactly cash flow strapped.

The fact is that most of these firms are getting "paid" and have been getting "paid" for the honor. Hell, they practically owe Bruce the return favor for the press and attention he's delivered to their organizations. That's what this is about pure and simple: getting and maintaining a presence in the press. They certainly didn't undertake the exercise to develop intellectual capital for their clients or to protect the design community. Come on.

They kissed the ring and, for the matter, so would I.

In regards to where to draw the line between "no compensation" and "little compensation," the obvious solution is to only put in the amount of work that the compensation affords you. For example, a $200 pitch fee will buy you 2 hours of a freelancer's time, whereas a $2000 fee will buy you 20. Idealistic as it may be, this would largely negate the difference between large and small firms, as overhead is balanced against available time and resources.

This also reinforces a fundamental principle that is fair, logical and ultimately good for our industry and our clients: that the client should always get what they pay for.

I'm afraid I'm still confused. A design firm that chooses to do work for free because they see some benefit is unethical because??—they distort the market balance between large and small firms?? they make people think that design isn't worth what it is??—but a firm that chooses to do work at a low enough rate that anyone trying to make a living doing such work would go broke. . . that's just business or personal choice so who cares?

I'm thoroughly convinced that spec work is a bad choice for most designers most of the time. (I'm not convinced that it was a bad choice for any of these designers this time.) While I believe that anyone choosing to do design for free makes the business climate worse for everyone, so does anyone choosing to do design for cheap. (From a monetary standpoint, spec work is doing work for cheap—usually a 1:4 or 1:6 bet where the winning prize is a normal fee. Anyone who doesn't notice that this is functionally the same as ¼ or 1/6 the fee should stay away from the track.)

The best I can get out of most of this is that ethical designers don't do spec work so doing spec work is unethical. Huh? Am I ethically retarded or do a few people need to look up "tautology" in the dictionary?

(Nick's call for an honest sample is intriguing. People who are snotty jerks on a job should be required to be mildly condescending in return for a small pitch fee.)
Gunnar Swanson

So I get back at 1AM last night from six great days in Costa Rica birding (saw 255 species and about 20 "life birds" that I've never seen before, including the Scarlet McCaw, come into the office to see the actual INside Innovation magazine (and boy, is it terrific thanks to the wonderful writers at BW and designers at Modernista), turn on my computer and WOW, blasted by Michael Bierut and the hoardes of graphic designers for "spec" work. Whoa, am I on the wrong side of history here? Or is Michael? There are are two conversations we should have here. The least im-

portant, I believe, is the one shaped by Michael about the contest itself. It is causing more heat than light. First some facts. The winner of the contest, the creative ad agency Modernista, pitched its concept for IN and developed its prototype on spec--but was paid for its subsequent work in designing the actual magazine. If I had a million bucks to give them, I would. Katie Andresen, Bruce Crocker and co-founder Gary Koepke did brilliant work. They were true partners with us. When you see the magazine, you'll understand. The reality, however, was that we had a tiny budget to launch a new magazine so we paid them what we could. This constraint was important in the way we shaped our design of the magazine.

David Albertson, a wonderful West Coast magazine designer, asked for and was paid for his initial pitch.

That leaves Stone Yamashita and IDEO who are innovation consultants and not magazine designers. I wanted them in the contest because they are in the same intellectual space in terms of innovation and their clients are our readers for IN. They were also outside the box--outside the norm--and I was hoping for something new and fresh. In short, I was hoping to learn much from both of them and I believe they were hoping to learn a lot from partnering up with us in this first stage of developing a new magazine. They delivered amazing prototypes with novel approaches to a new magazine on innovation. We both learned a heck of a lot working together and they are taking their ideas and prototypes back to use with their clients. That was sufficient payment for them and its OK by me. Indeed, I would argue that this is real compensation and the little money that we could offer these consulting firms at that point was really beside the point.

I use to joke with industrial designers that they needed to demand much more money for their work. They were paid so little that they made less than a second-rate New York shrink. So I find the heated discussion set off by Micheal a bit ironic. I also find the way he framed the events a bit disingenuous. Bad boy!

The larger issue here is the one about business models. I personally know graphic designers who were on welfare for years when times were very bad in the late 80s and early 90s. I understand their position on spec. But in a very competition world, as so many have found, value is not created by rules or prohibitions but by what one brings to the game. Architects, writers, industrial designers, painters, journalists, baseball players, screen-writers and many other creative professionals understand that. Heck, the entire business community around the globe understands that.

Michael decided not to play, even though he would have been paid to play, and now he's complaining.

Well, excuse me. Got to get to work on Issue # 2 of INside Innovation. I hope it will help educate people how to use design thinking to innovate.

08:46 PM

bruce nussbaum

Bruce, thanks for weighing in to a conversation that must have taken you aback upon return from vacation. I swear I didn't intend to ambush you.

Let me be clear: iif I'm complaining, it's that your posts on your blog appear, to any reasonable reader, to uphold spec competitions as an "innovative" new model for commissioning design. You say as much in the passage I quote in the fifth and sixth paragraphs in my original article. You are influential, and as someone who already receives enough calls from clients who are evidently already tempted by this approach, it's an influence that I find unwelcome.

All that said, you may have noticed that the discussion thread has gotten considerably more subtle as it's gone along. You hit the nail on the head with your observation that "value is not created by rules or prohibitions but by what one brings to the game."
Michael Bierut

Bruce - thank you for providing some additional background information to this discussion. Context is always a crucial element in an informed debate.

I must, however, take exception to your questioning of the typical graphic designer's business model. What business would see it as good practice to give away is primary equity for free?

As you know, intellectual property that can be patented and then converted into mass production is a key factor in successful enterprise. Since our compensation rarely (if at all) comes from the "mass production" side of this equation, we are left only with the intellectual property and to give it away for free in any sense is ultimately self-defeating.

It would be different if clients were willing to offer some sort of royalty in exchange for creative. Would this have been an option for INside Innovation? I imagine that making the leap from the "contractor" to the "investor" side of the fence would make spec work a lot more palatable to many in the design industry.

For the record, I could not agree more that what "one brings to the game" is what counts. This is precisely why so many feel that portfolios should carry more credibility than the (often) best-guess efforts of open competition.

After all the other comments it really is helpful to hear your view. I have one further question. Design is only one of many expenses connected with launching a new magazine. It would help put the debate among designers in perspective to know if any professionals, companies or individuals in other fields also contributed to the creation of the magazine without receiving their normal remuneration.
thomas starr

Bruce's comments about the tenuous business model of "creative professionals" got me thinking:

Is there a double-standard that values the work of creative services companies or individuals (designers, ad agencies, architects, etc.) differently than that of, for example, industrial services companies or individuals (engineers, welders, programmers, etc.).

Looking at it strictly from a business model point-of-view makes it all seem even more unbalanced, and makes me wonder if it's a client problem, or a design firm problem, or both, to accept that it's okay to initiate creative work on spec.

Is our value system messed up? Does spec work add to this imbalance?

Daniel Carter

Bruce: the prototype (was on) spec--but (Modernista) was paid for its subsequent work in designing the actual magazine.

C'mon. Once the design (prototype) is finished and approved, the real work is over.

Bruce, don't point to the birds and tell us its raining.
felix sockwell

My only question on the business model involved in launching a new magazine would be to ask if they paid for the original content as well?

Dear Hoards of Designers,

I'm reading this: If you decide to give away your "wares" for free, it's a guiltless crime. You didn't get paid. So Bad Boy to you.

But the underlying current is this: By giving away your wares, you are hurting the whole design community/business. Cheapening our collective bargaining power as " 'IN' novators " and business partners (as seen by our clientele -- present or future).

So thus:
We shouldn't really be upset by the "Mr. Nussbaums" of the world who just want to get something for nothing to increase their bottom line, we should be upset with our fellow designers who are cheapening our own business by giving it away.

Did I say whore earlier? Pardon me. Hoard...

Joe Moran

I suppose humor and impressing us with his wherewithal to take a birding vacation in Costa Rica is one way for Bruce Nussbaum to ignore the subtleties of this thread. While the surface issue appears to be his willingness to procure ideas on spec (which I am not opposed to) and Michael's discomfort, legitimate or otherwise, that leads to his challenging of this process in relationship to professional ethics, I think the more substantive concern has to do with the attitude that seems too often to drive the innovation process and Nussmaums consequent posts - the breathless and disrespectful "bottom line" if you will. There is a sense conveyed of design betrayal or rather betrayal of designers and the so-called value they create. If designer's create real value, than even in the limited circumstance of the development of an innovation and design magazine wouldn't it have been most ethical to invent a process in which there was some substantive sharing of both the risks and the rewards of the venture? This would have truly put the $ into IP and help turn designers into both the creative as well as substantive partners that the innovation mongers always claim they want but less frequently willingly pay for. I suspect that for many that read this post innovation and INside Inovation will be seen to be oxymoronic, a brand diminished at birth by the knowledge that the value of the design is not taken quite as seriously as the many articles contained therein no doubt will claim. When Milton Glaser designed New York with Pushpin, didn't his IP contribution get rewarded with an ownership stake in the mag? Are we truly more innovative now than we were forty years ago?
Bernard Pez

this week's Celebrity Death Match brings us Bruce Nussbaum vs Michael Bierut - applause! - but behold, dear readers, and let us zoom out of this muddy arena for a second... let's take the journalist's perspective. - what do we see now? we see one of the classical conflicts between management and design. both want the same thing - but both have completely different ways of getting there. - and here is the lesson to be learned from the IN-launch: the key to a productive cooperation between the right brain world and the left brain world lies in the differences! do not expect a Bierut to be like you - and a Nussbaum neither - embrace the differences - that is what they are telling you in couple therapy too - and then create.
think about it, gentlemen. - it is the differences that matter. - you have come so far - do not ruin it at this point.
thank you Bruce Nussbaum. thank you Michael Bierut.

After years of trying to eridicate free pitching, you get someone with influence like Bruce to do something like this. I shake my head in disgust. Tell me what so innovative about it?

Really ironic that how can Bruce, a non-designer please correct me if i'm wrong, can command so much clout in the design world? Does he really know what it takes to create a design? Espically as some has mentioned that this creation will put food on your table. This is a great example why design critics will continue to be critics and never designers. People sitting on the side line, arm chair commentators, but never really playing the game.

Whats worst the "big 3" fell for it? Why? Simple. Because of the client's influence and their association in the business world. Do something for free, but treat the cost as marketing. Delayed returns by the fallout. The responses to this blog and other postings is marketing enough.

Do you think IDEO will give me two hoots if i was a no name manufacturer in china looking for help even if i have the money to pay them in the first place?

I just hope the business who read this espically the ones with big brands, dont start to do the same thinking that is accepted. Because if so, we are finished as creatives.

A company, person or organization that can ask for or demand spec work - and gets it - is abusing there power or status.

I think a diagram is in order to show the process of spec work - needs three key inputs a) designers age b) financial position c) amount of spec - I can already see the trend ...

To explain - as a young designer higher level of speculative work produced this drops off with experience/age and the additional rize in financial potion - then there is the tipping point where it becomes finically viable to return to spec work. Possibly put too simply - I only wish I had to time to make the diagram (on spec) to show more visually what is happening.


This issue has been raised several times regarding different models of compensation for professional service firms, other than a traditional fee-for-service. I'd like to reiterate comments that those models do exist, but the ones that I am aware of allow the service provider a financial stake in the success of the project or venture. They share the risk and they share the gain.

Mr. Nussbaum's attitudes toward traditional compensation in graphic design is condescending at best, and easily twisted in his favor. With his logic, it should be perfectly agreeable to him that I just read INside Innovation while standing in the bookstore. No need to pay for it. After all, I'm just exercising an innovative approach to acquiring intellectual capital.
Daniel Green

I posted this on BN blog...

Like it has been already stated, spec work is done in other business models. I think spec work is not done in the graphic design world because we don't charge enough for jobs we are hired to do.

When we are hired we charge a certain amount for that work. I think designers could do spec work, but we must raise our prices on jobs we are hired to do to make a profit. To make up for the time, money and talents used to do spec work.

In other words, we don't do spec work for free, we charge clients who do hire us for the spec work done for the clients that didn't hire us.

Other business models do not do work for free. Business cannot do work for free and remain profitable. But it is true, the other types of models mention in NB's blog above do spec work.

I have worked in these other types of models and have seen the spec work and seen how much they charge for jobs they get paid for. And they charge a lot so they can cover the loss done for spec work.

Designers are always talking about good design is good business. Well this is business, charging those who will pay, to make up for those few that won't pay.

So we just have to raise our prices. So we make enough profit to cover our time and talents used for spec work.
Nathan Philpot

Don't they say that Nussbaum "is trying to buy cool"... - This time it seems the saying does not quite fit..
Albert Feldmann

I hope the players in the Bruce Nussbaum competition were at least "rewarded" with creative freedom. To be honest, I can see that the opportunity to participate in creating a new magazine about design innovation would be too hard to pass up—but I also wonder if it came with micro-managing strings attached.

So I've gotten some sleep and read all the comments and now understand the depth of pain felt by so many designers triggered by my cavalier use of words on my blog. I apologize to you and to the AIGA for not being more sensitive to the history of spec in your profession. But...

Let's be frank. If we hadn't had the bakeoff (and please remember that we did pay the one graphic designer who entered for his prototype and we did pay Modernista for their intense and amazing work which was far more than just a prototype), we probably would just have gone with Michael Bierut or someone else from Pentagram or another large, established magazine design shop. That's how the spec rules really work. For big publishers, the relationships you establish are ones with big-name designers at big-name design firms. I've known Michael and others at Pentagram for years. Our Art Director, Malcolm Frouman, knows all the big-time magazine designers. We would have gone with one of them, perhaps Michael or Abbot or someone else at Pentagram--and then what? Is that really the optimal outcome?

I would have missed the great work of David Albertson. I would not have met the head of Stone Yamashita and her team and seen her amazing work done for SYP's corporate clients. I would have missed the breakthrough concept that IDEO came up with for a new magazine. And I would not have worked with the amazing Katie Andresen, the brilliant Bruce Crocker and Greg Koepke, the creative director for VIBE magazine and co-founder of Modernista. What a loss for me and what a loss for anyone in the field of design, magazine, graphic or otherwise.

The truth is that we should all beware of good intentions. Rules that try to legislate equity and fairness in the marketplace and the business world have a way of reinforcing those in power. Yes, spec can often lead to commoditization and devaluation of one's work. But sometimes not. I personally was not paid for any of the work I did in design for over a decade. I was paid to do the editorial page. I worked with the IDSA and the industrial design community at night, over weekends, etc. I did it because I respected their work, thought it was critical to business, found design thinking fascinating and I loved the people in design. In the end, it all worked out pretty well.

However, the larger issue is how to gain respect and capture the value of your work. I can understand why graphic designers hate spec work, but rules against it may not be the answer. I think we acted ethically in our contest, protecting the one small design shop, opening new oportunities to work with big, non-magazine consultants, paying for final work (not much but all that we could come up with) and ultimately partnering with talented designers who would have been frozen out if we had gone with Pentagram or some other big firm and followed AIGA rules.

I don't expect the AIGA to be asking me to speak anytime soon but I'd be willing to debate the issue with Michael.
bruce nussbaum

I've just been directed to this thread due to it's "passionate discussion" about design. I read the first paragraph of the article and it took my breath away.

I am a magazine and publication designer. I have had the opportunity to work on some of the better-known publications for design and now work on my own.

I do not work for free for magazines. Magazines are paid for by advertising revenues--the same revenues which are used to drive many design decisions like paper choice and format (among others). Magazines are [typically] owned by media companies.

Here's how I would look at this "opportunity" to work on spec:

•If Business Week is owned by McGraw-Hill and wants to spin-off to INside Innovation, what are the market forces that are driving this decision? Media companies do not launch new mags without financial targets.

•What does the media kit pitch to potential advertisers? Have they remarked that the beautifully designed magazine will cost them less to advertise within because they've cut costs up front?

•If INside Innovation has "only a small budget" to get started, how does that reflect the content? Most small budget publications do amazingly resourceful things around monetary limitations. They're also usually nonprofit or are so committed to their content that they'll take a hit margin-wise in order to get their message out.

There's a lot wrong going on here. I don't need to keep blathering, but I will add one more point in that there is plenty of pro bono work to be done out there, and most of it is not porfolio worthy.

When big-money players make a new game to play, it hurts a lot of people--designers, readers, etc.

Kelly Kofron

Well, I feel so much better now, knowing that asking IDEO and SYP and Modernista to particpate in Mr. Nussbaum's Innovate-athon saved him from having to work yet again with those high-billing, no-talent hacks at Pentagram! O, the humanity! I can't wait to see just how exceptional the new magazine is going to look. And I expect my first issue for free (even if I have to shoplift it).


Don't get caught ;-)
Joe Moran

After reading Mr. Nussbaum's latest comments I can only shake my head in wonder at the notion of "settling" for working with Michael Bierut/Pentagram vs experiencing all that smart thinking from 75% of the bake-off participants for free, all in the quest for the "optimal outcome".

The simple question in all of this: If Mr. Nussbaum wanted to find out what the optimal outcome produced by non-traditional / non-mainstream / non-magazine designers might be, why didn't he pay them to find out?

The answer is equally simple: because he didn't have to.

Until now.
Dave Mason

...but I'd be willing to debate the issue with Michael.- Bruce

Er, you just did. And, Bruce, it appears you didn't fare too well. Your defiance reminds me of someone else in power who left the senate floor yesterday after being indicted. Still fighting to the bitter end. Still trying to wrap words around a rationale for cheating that honest people can't hear.

I apologize... But... doesn't garner you any respect either. As Steve Heller says, ours is an ethical profession.

It seems as though Bruce is suggesting he was increasing his odds of developing an innovative magazine design by asking a number of firms to do work on spec instead of going with a trusted design firm such as Pentagram from the beginning. I believe this is wrong not only for the reasons already suggested in various posts above but, also because it is wrong to assume that establishing a relationship with a reputable firm is not an innovative process. I would point Bruce to Pentagram's extremely innovative dynamic signage design for Bloomberg as one small example. This design grew from a trusted relationship between Pentagram and their clients and could not possibly have come from a spec competition due to the deep relationship between client, content and design which reiterates others' feelings about trust. This is also why an established relationship can and often does consistently create innovation.
jt 3

I recall a magazine that is available currently and devoted to innovation, design and how it applies to business.

Its called @issue. And its free!
Joe Moran

Just glanced through INside Innovation at the newstand (free) and noticed that an executive featured therein mentioned Design Observer as one of her preferred blogs. I wonder what she thinks of this roiling debate.

While I appreciate Bruce's feeling ambushed, his argument is specious. If his reader audience is primarily in the business world, is he really suggesting to them that design on spec is the optimal way to get innovative results?
Marty Blake

Being a fellow who is starting a new design firm and despite having adequate experience, i have already run into these pitfalls with our account executive.

I have told him No Spec Work. Our current position does not allow us to be burdened by the ridiculous potato melter inventor or the crocheting ballet dancer who needs a website. Especially as a young firm that is developing its backbone we need to stand tall, shoulders back and be ready to take a shot in the gut if the client doesn't respect our No Spec Work clause.

It's not a very beautiful quotation, but i have been saying recently to my partners that "there is alot more potential clients then there are people to provide service for them".

Young or old, there are plenty of opportunities to toot your horn, deliver the strongest "brand truth video" and create a beautiful working relationship with clients galore. Just remember that people who think spec work is okay might be the same people that think that one last quarter is going to win you the slots jackpot as well.

And to the students who tried to derail the conversation with unpaid internship comment, I support you 100%. There should never be unpaid internships(C'mon it's not like you are even paying them a fair wage in the first place).

New York, magazines, architecture firms...you should be ashamed.

Can someone from the business world please clarify for me how often business consultants take on positions on spec? I mean, when Hewlett Packard was searching for a CEO to replace Carly Fiorina, did they solicit 3 business executives to work one month for free to in order to evaluate their "innovative performance" before deciding which executive got the job? Or are graphic designers the only ones too willing to give away their services for free?
David Cabianca

@Issue may be free but their adminstration is pretty much out to lunch. I received it from the time it launched, turned on many clients to its great pieces, built up a nice library of 'em. Moved addresses once, and then a few years later, moved again. I changed my address with them. No more @issue.

I wrote them. No response. For months. I wrote again. Months later - we're talking like most of a year, I got a brief response saying I would be getting an issue. That was well over a year ago. It's been several years and many issues (I realize it doesn't come out THAT much) and I'm obviously never going to see it again.

I don't know what I did to fall off their qualified subscriber list, but I can't get anyone's attention there and I can't @issue.

So don't talk to me about @issue.
Steve Portigal

I smell something rotten here.
Bernard Pez

Bruce, you say that if you didn't have this bakeoff, you "probably would have gone with... or some other large, established magazine design shop." And you say you would have missed the opportunity to get to know and work with some wonderful other people.

Hogwash. If you are, as you say, truly interested in innovation you should have made a truly innovative move instead of hosting a bakeoff and picked a proven innovator, rather than magazine designer, and dedicated your budget and trust toward working with them to produce this innovative magazine on an innovative model. Done that way, with all involved beholden to one another, the results would likely have been extraordinary and truly innovative.

Here's the thing about design and innovation: nothing inspires dedication, motivation and even inspiration itself like trust. When we designers are offered trust worthy of the grave responsibility we've been given, we invariably move heaven an earth to produce worthy results. That's how you commission inspired, excellent design; you invest your trust and offer responsibility.

By your non-committal approach you communicate a lack of trust and you imply little to no responsibility. The result of such paltry investment is usually irresponsible design. This is neither innovative nor admirable. So kindly don't use demagoguery to explain away your lack of trust and lack of commitment to innovation. It just rings hollow.
Andy Rutledge

Shame on IDEO , Stone, Modernista, and any other participants. If you allow companies to distroy the financial structure of our profession, you will do just that.

It is a reckless exercise in an industry where efforts to commoditize professional practice has undergone devaluation at many levels.

If we support this process we are in affect, incouraging the devaluation of talent, intellectual property and the deterioration of a "value relationship" between designer and client.

If one does not pay "fair value" for a thought product or design outcome, it will have little value in the end. Beyond the ethical discussion it is human nature and common sense witnessed time and again.

Competing for contracts in advertising and architecture has large commissions and fees or a substantial financial relationship tied to them which makes long term projects "of scale" a more understandable practice versus the design of a magazine. If the contract resulted in significant royalties in perpetuity to the designers chosen, that would be another story. Product designers are paid for the conceptual development of new products, furniture etc, and then receive royalties on all sales.

And how will vast majority of the profession benefit if this becomes a mainstream process that every client or publishing company participates in?

I have not seen the magazine but I will say that Nussbaum has been true to his positioning that this process has become "a deep, deep dive into the innovation/design/creativity space." I encourage boycotting the magazine so it might continue its dive.
greg samata

You are kidding me? Did bruce just try to justfy what he did and just tried to tell us spec work is good? Does bruce even know what the definetion of spec work is? The simple fact is IDEO and Y.S. was NOT paid. Furthermore he goes on to say he had a great time leaning their strategies and concepts implying ALOT of work was actualy done.

I dont really know who is the more stupid?

All right thats enough from me, please all of you lets all not boycott the magazine, PLEASE by all means, just read it at the shop.

For what it's worth (relative to thoughts about limited budget for IN), I see that at least one page , looking like a column, is one of Bruce's blog entries, with the comments from that blog pulled out as semi-sidebar thingies.

This doesn't speak to the spec (that's hard to say out loud) issue, but does provide some insight into what their approach or mindset was with this...
Steve Portigal

Dear Observers,

I tried to make a comment to Mr. Nussbaum's blog yesterday and it was never posted. I'm going to assume it was an error on my part and not intentional. Unfortunately I didn't save it anywhere. So today I posted the following at Business Week (and typed it in a word processor before attempting to post it):

I had a conversation with a non-designer friend who made a pretty good point. While what Business Week did in the development process of its newest imprint might be "unethical" to us design types, designers should really be upset with the actual designers who participated -- and not the publisher or the journalists involved.

And I can see her point. What business / consumer isn't going to try to get the best deal out there? (Look at the success of Wal-Mart.)

However, I'm thinking about my profession / business in the future.

I've been doing this for about 10 years now. I still consider myself to be starting out as a designer.

What if I want to start my own firm someday? How is the ripple effect put in motion by this process and subsequent article ( and highly publicized in a high-profile business magazine & blog ) going to effect my ability to negotiate fees 10 years from today?

Imagine this scenario: Some future business owner (industrialist, telecom, healthcare, investment analyst, etc.) just starting out, reads about how INside INnovation was developed. They think to themselves, "Why pay designers some 'ungodly fee' when we can hold a contest and only pay one firm to actually do the creative work? We'll get more input for less money out of pocket. A real win-win situation. A 'great deal.' "

What if this practice is seen as innovative? Most business people I know don't consider design and innovation until they can see a direct benefit to their competition's bottom line, let alone their own.

So, I'm disappointed in creative firms who have cheapened their own profession and craft in the eyes of the non-creative business community by giving away their creative talent. Also, I'm disappointed because the firms involved weren't thinking long term for their fellow designers -- only short term for their own business's bottom line. I've lost respect for them and that's not a nice feeling.

IDEO, SYP, Modernista, etc., will probably all retire very happily. I'm going to be dealing with the repercussions of their actions.


Joe Moran

After first being knee-jerkedly insulting, I must recognize that Bruce Nussbaum is doing what any smart manager would do—keep costs down. True, I find it unseemly, like CEO pay that's 400x the average worker. But excoriating him is/was gratifying but pointless. As I and many others have said, it's the designers choice to play. And it's on this side that change must happen to get change.

The mistake that designers constantly make is that an expressed advocacy of design (like Nussbaum's) means a respect for designers. They can be—and often have been/are— mutually exclusive. Again, as many others have pointed out, there were surely other actors in Nussbaum's magazine project that he'd never consider asking to work on spec. But he knows that designers require clients and his project is highly desireable to ambitious design firms,

In this specific instance, I think there's another impulse at work to explain this curious spec deal. As a consultant trading in "innovation," Nussbaum is under constant economic pressure to demonstrate he's bold and unbeholden to those hide-binding "rules." So when his art director was aghast at the spec idea, Nussbaum knew he'd hit pay dirt. He gets great design, saves $, and keeps the innvovation aura glowing.

For those interested in a fun and enlightening look at the biz of management consulting, I recommend Matthew Stewart's "The Management Myth," in June 2006 The Atlantic Monthly.

Really lastly, when I read about "Rules that try to legislate equity and fairness," I only think of the Golden one.
Kenneth FitzGerald

Bruce: "value is not created by rules or prohibitions but by what one brings to the game."

That shows a bit of business naiveté: in the real world there are all kinds of "rules or prohibitions" such as those against price discrimination, collusion, predatory pricing, dumping, etc. There are many good historical reasons why these rules have been created to level the playing field for all. Countries that allow child or prison labor, for example, could bring much better "value" to the pricing game, but in our society we don't condone that.

Since this issue revolves around corporate appreciation of design and innovation, it's also important to realize that if design is to be considered a fundamental value creator, then it will be appreciated in proportion to its perceived value by business owners and managers.

When accountants, consultants, lawyers, etc., charge hundreds of dollars per hour, those who get paid nothing (designers) are not going to be taken seriously as fundamental decision makers by those long trained to measure value by money.

That is, designers will be relegated to being implementors as opposed to being the very originators of direction and strategy. In the long run, we value less those things we get for free.
Ziya Oz

in the real world there are all kinds of "rules or prohibitions" such as those against price discrimination, collusion, predatory pricing, dumping, etc. There are many good historical reasons why these rules have been created to level the playing field for all.

Speaking of which: One of those rules against collusion is that, at least in the US, it is illegal for a group to set forth pricing practices for nominally independent businesses. It is legal for the Mobil station on the corner to note that the BP station on the other corner has raised prices and respond accordingly. It is illegal for oil companies to meet and decide that they will or will not give away glassware, check your oil, or raise their prices. So when the AIGA tried to require a prohibition against spec work, they were violating anti-trust laws since that was an attempt at standardizing pricing practices for design firms that are suppose to be independent businesses.

There is nothing legally wrong with restaurateurs' gathering on a website to condemn participation in two-for-one coupon books or barkeepers complaining about happy hours cheapening the image of drinking. If, however, a hospitality association "suggests" that everyone should "voluntarily" adhere to a pricing code and offers incentives to doing so, then that is a weasel attempt at circumventing a just law. Editorializing against a practice is reasonable and honorable; attempting a circumvention of fair and legal business practices is not.
Gunnar Swanson

So when the AIGA tried to require a prohibition against spec work, they were violating anti-trust laws

Do you know any case law whereby what's essentially a non-monopoly guild (not specifying pricing but) recommending specifically a no-spec policy was found to be colluding in the U.S.?
Ziya Oz

Ziya—How is a "no spec policy" different from a "no half-off day-old bakery goods" policy or any other pricing policy?

I didn't say that "recommending" a policy was illegal; enforcing the policy is clearly illegal. I haven't looked up case law but the AIGA did get threatened by the Federal Trade Commission some years back when they first put "no spec" in their "ethical guidelines." The AIGA took it off the table for a while then put it back in as "voluntary" but has slowly been upping the pressure to comply: First ambiguous directions on their site made it appear that full access to the members listing depended on it; Then they instituted an AIGA logo listing for those who agreed; Then they started suggesting the use of the letters "AIGA" for advertising purposes but only for members who agreed to the standards.

(One could defend them against charges of trying to weasel their way around the law by claiming that the use of "AIGA" is worthless but I doubt they'd want to endorse that stance.)
Gunnar Swanson

Ziya—How is a "no spec policy" different from a "no half-off day-old bakery goods" policy or any other pricing policy?

What I asked for was case law, not conjecture. Can you cite a case? If not, you should stop calling it "clearly illegal."
Ziya Oz

Brace yourself for a long post, explaining AIGA's position on spec work.

For years and probably decades, AIGA members and the communication design profession have articulated the case against "spec work", often on two grounds: it denies the client the benefit of the value designers create in working with clients to address their specific needs, hence it is against the client's interests, and also that it is unfair to designers or fails to respect the role the designer plays as a professional in working with the client.

Consistent with the approach professional associations around the world have taken, AIGA memorialized this principle in its statement of professional standards. In fact, Icograda, the International Council of Graphic Design Associations, holds firmly to this principle in its own model standards.

In the US in the 1990s, the Federal Trade Commission launched a broad based campaign against the ethical statements of any professional associations prescribing fee structures and had notified AIGA that a professional standard that strongly discouraged designers from working without fees would amount to restraint of trade. In the past three years, the FTC renewed this quest with unusual zeal. As a result, AIGA has removed the no-spec work principle from its Standards of Professional Practice, which many consider an ethics statement, while continuing to advocate it as part of the ethos of the practice of communication design, in the interest of clients.

It has never been judged to be illegal in court and there are reasons why the FTC arguments do not make sense in this case, but in the absense of the unrestricted legal budget which the FTC has, AIGA has taken what it believes is a reasoned approach to maintaining a commitment to this policy.

The ethos of a group is the fundamental and distinctive character of a group, social context, or period of time, typically expressed in attitudes, habits, and beliefs. Just as lawyers and doctors avoid spec work without defining it in a formal ethical statement, AIGA encourages designers to do so as well and explains its value in the AIGA Design Business and Ethics series of brochures available at www.aiga.org for designers to share with clients.

The bottom line: AIGA continues to argue strongly against the practice as critical to strengthening the value of what clients can expect from engaging a professional designer.
Ric Grefe

In the US in the 1990s, the Federal Trade Commission launched a broad based campaign against the ethical statements of any professional associations prescribing fee structures

Thanks. So can we say that no similar professional association in the U.S. has been found to restrict trade on the narrow issue of no-spec rule?

If so, perhaps we can leave the legal distraction aside and focus on the economic and strategic effects of clients establishing spec work as common/best practice.
Ziya Oz

Ric posted his statement during the time I was typing mine so while I'm pausing to read his, I probably should reiterate that I think spec work is, for most graphic designers in most situations, really bad business practice and usually reflects naïveté or desperation rather than sound reasoning. I think the particular case at hand includes some interesting questions that have been, unfortunately, obscured by the moral posturing of too many of the writers on this thread.

I also should state that I raised the question for two reasons—to challenge statements that seemed to me to be misinformed and to question the general promotion of the attitude that for graphic designers, ethics and self-interest were essentially the same thing. I am a member of the AIGA and have been for most of the last two decades, am a member of the board of my local chapter, and hope that Ric knows me well enough to know that my comments were not meant as a general attack on the AIGA. I do, by the way, support the AIGA taking a strong stance against spec work even if I object to it being called an "ethical" issue and even if I object to some specific efforts to promote the anti-spec stance.

I would be interested in hearing Ric's "reasons why the FTC arguments do not make sense in this case" and as a graphic designer who thinks we'd all be better off if spec work were restricted, would love to be wrong about all of this. Anyway, here's my pre-Ric post:


I suppose I should have already put in my standard disclaimer—Anyone who takes legal advice from a graphic designer is an idiot—but since I think the maxim should apply to political and scientific advice, half the design blog discussions would shut down if anyone took it to heart.

You asked for something specifically about spec work. I have no idea if such a case has ever come to trial. Most professional associations end up fighting about advertising restrictions. Medical organizations (and, in the more distant past, bar associations) don't want their images sullied by advertising in general and by price-based advertising in particular.) Do you really think that spec work restrictions are unique in some way? (That's a serious question with legal importance rather than a rhetorical question. I'll get back to that.)

In addition to my not being a legal researcher and having neither time nor inclination to do legal research, there's a problem with asking me for case law. It's a bit like asking for case law to indicate that murder is, in fact illegal. That doesn't really tend to come up much. Anti trust case law is more likely to parallel the defenses in murder cases: "you can't prove I did it" and "the guy had it coming." The latter seems to be what is relevant here.

The question in such cases seems to be whether the restraint of trade is an illegal restraint of trade. If the restraint is incidental to some worthy goal that has nothing to do with restraining trade then it may not be illegal. It's the parallel to self-defense or other justifiable homicide defenses. Massachusetts Board of Registration in Optometry, 110 FTC 549 (1988) seems to be the case people use to determine reasonableness. Here are a couple of things I cribbed for my own edification but didn't keep track of sources. Sorry for the sloppy research:

In Mass. Board, the Commission condemned a state optometry board's regulations restricting several types of truthful, non-deceptive advertising, including advertising of price discounts. In assessing the reasonableness of the restrictions, the Commission asked a series of questions regarding the nature and effect of each restriction. The first question is whether the restriction is "inherently suspect" -- that is, does the restriction "appear[] likely, absent an efficiency justification, to 'restrict competition and decrease output'?"

If anyone is really interested in looking up info on the case, here's a footnote from something else I didn't keep track of:

Mass. Board, 110 F.T.C. at 604 (quoting BMI, 441 U.S. at 20). Generally, an agreement is likely to restrict competition and reduce output when it restrains some significant aspect of interfirm rivalry. Kevin J. Arquit and Joseph Kattan, "Efficiency Considerations and Horizontal Restraints," 36 Antitrust Bull. 717 (1991).

[I'm assuming "bull" in "Antitrust Bull" stands for bulletin rather than being an objection to the Sherman Anti-Trust Act or something.]

So I would guess that your objection lies in your phrase "what's essentially a non-monopoly guild." Sorry. Most doctors aren't AMA members. They've lost a few. A guild doesn't have to be a monopoly to go down in anti-trust cases. Restraint of trade is restraint of trade. Would you want to argue for AIGA that, if they tried to enforce a no spec rule, that it carried no weight, that AIGA membership had (contrary to normal legal presumptions) no commercial value, and. . . huh? Why would they be doing this?

Maybe I'm displaying a lack of imagination but what reason is there for a no spec rule except specifically to restrain trade?

In the end, I rely on legal advice from people who know the law. Here's a case remarkably like the AIGA having non-optional ethical standards that include no spec work: the AIGA having non-optional ethical standards that include no spec work. The FTC lawyers thought the no spec rule for the AIGA was illegal and that the AIGA had to comply with the law. They ordered the AIGA to cease and desist. The AIGA's lawyers could conceivably believed the FTC to be mistaken but that they didn't have the resources to fight the feds. I never heard that from anyone at the AIGA so that seems unlikely to me.
Gunnar Swanson

Our friend Nussbaum says, "What a loss for anyone in the field of design, magazine, graphic or otherwise [If not for his design bakeoff]." The only loss I can fathom is this invaluable conversation. The community has spelled out a great case for the no-spec position. It has been very informative for designers developing their opinions on this issue, and useful in offering up compelling arguments for us to present the offending clients. I imagine it will also serve as a deterrent to designers/clients considering this model. After seeing these arguments and the public backlash to Nussbaum's contest, I'll be damned if I sign up for any spec projects.
Kristin Johnson

There are lots of kinds of capital that designers work for: money, cache, experience, portfolios, etc. How many of us have not worked for cheap (free is just the extreme of this) in exchange for a grand opportunity. If we all looked honestly at ourselves we might find that pro bono is a veiled version of this. Granted we feel better and someone benefits as a result of the "cause', but we have just traded monetary capital for another form.

Having spent my entire career refusing to do spec work or to respond to RFP's - so I can tell you that some project offer more opportunity than others. How often do we work over the hour budget to bring in a portfolio piece or case study?

I do find it odd that IDEO was willing to participate, but they are amongst the best PR opportunists out there.

To ask the client (Nussbaum/BusinessWeek) to bear the lion's share of blame (if there really is any) is ridiculous. We work for less money (right after school with the high profile firm on the coast) all of the time.

I understand that the AIGA has to form these sorts of standards, but in a free market supply and demand determine value and cost. My guess is that the exchange of value here was huge, in spite of the small or lack of fees.
Mark Schraad

Gunnar: Restraint of trade is restraint of trade.

You are referring to things that may seem logical and reasonable to you, but that doesn't determine legality. Laws/rules are written, people break them and they are prosecuted. When they lose, a precedent is established. The narrow and the only point I've been making is that in the case of no-spec work, specifically, such a precedent hasn't been established (unless somebody's willing to cite one). Therefore, you shouldn't call it "clearly illegal."

Mark: in a free market supply and demand determine value and cost.

Yes but markets are rarely free, which is why I said all sorts of laws (child/prison labor, dumping, anti-trust, etc) exist to keep the field relatively even. These laws weren't written for nothing, they are the results of abuse of power to tilt the market. They had become necessary.

It comes down to this: do you want clients to establish on-spec work to be the norm, or not? Is this ultimately good for clients, designers, the profession and the society? Who benefits from on-spec work?
Ziya Oz

Have you seen Mr. Nussbaum's blog lately? Check out "A Lost Client's" post.

Additional: I wrote Mr. Nussbaum or his IT team about the fact that I posted a comment on Friday afternoon, didn't see it and posted again Saturday. Now there are two comments by me on the BW design blog. ( It was weird. Sunday, all these new post's just "came on." ) So I guess he's not watching or his people aren't. I'm not going to look at his stuff anymore. Too disappointed.
Joe Moran

Several people asked why I felt that the FTC comments on AIGA's statements against spec work were inappropriate. Here are the reasons.

First, I believe the fundamental issue is not a pricing issue, it is a professional issue. It is a means of signaling that design involves a thoughtful, purposeful process for creating value for clients. In a sense, it is a threshold interview question in deciding which clients are worth taking on: if you want outcomes without engagement and paying for them, you are probably asking for something other than the best contribution this profession can make.

In this sense, it is part of a client education process.

Second, I believe that the FTC concerns are really meant for professions where the standards and pricing restrictions relate to licensing of the profession. In the design profession, even the professional standards are voluntary and there is no formal means of sanctioning those who violate them. So they are guidelines, not restrictions, regardless of what they are called. However, AIGA does not have unlimited legal resources to test this issue (and we would not ask a lawyer to take on the case on spec).

So this returns to the issue of "ethos" that I mentioned in my earlier post. It is critical that the design profession develop consistent, principled practices that are widely understood and followed as a way of building understanding of the profession and its value.

It can be done without certification, licensing, restraint of trade or sanctions.

Just think of what the medical profession has been able to do by tacit agreement. Clients call and beg for an appointment, but take what they can get. They then wait in the lobby endlessly. They are grateful to see a principal of the firm (a doctor), who nonetheless asks them to remove their clothes and wait in an empty room. The client listens aptly to what the principal says, believes him, thanks him, then pays cash on the way out the door. This is part of an evolved ethos of medical care (once it was house calls), not that we want to replicate it.

All we are suggesting is that designers not demean the quality and value of their work by entering into speculative competitions for work because the client will benefit.
Ric Grefe

because the client will benefit

I think it can be shown that clients may not necessarily benefit from on-spec work. Given full attention without compensation is not sustainable for designers. So, likely, clients will get less-than-full consideration. Other industries have already figured out that burning out suppliers is not a smart way to build and maintain a business.

BusinessWeek may be temporarily in a position to demand and get work done for free. What happens 2-3 projects down the road? More importantly, what happens if all magazines, newspapers, really, every other client begins to demand on-spec work? How does the design industry support that? What happens to the diversity in the design community when only the largest shops can afford to blow off resources on speculative work?

We've already seen the adverse impact of hyper-concentration in the media/content business, which, incidentally, rendered them relatively disadvantaged when the competitive terrain changed with the Internets.

In the end, it's short sighted in the extreme for clients to consider on-spec work as simple cost-reduction, and forget about the value creation side of the equation.
Ziya Oz

Design debacle
Mac Wilson

I just finished reading most of the comments here. And when I got to the bottom, I just hit "print" so I could take it with me.
On 8.5"x11" paper it took up 43 pages. Clearly, this is an important topic, but doesn't anybody have any WORK to do??


As a former designer and then account rep, I had occasion to struggle with the spec work issue, and you newly- graduated designers are familiar with the "opportunity" to do free work to build up your portfolio. But it is disheartening to observe that successful and highly respected designers still cannot help themselves re. spec work... the challenge of creating a new, in this case, magazine is irresistible! More disappointing is the fact that Bruce Nussbaum is very savvy and hardly incapable of choosing an excellent design team. This "competition" is not only exploitive but clearly indicates a lack of respect for the profession that we believed he championed.
linda cooper bowen

A long time ago I did an internship at MetaDesign in Berlin. I was paid and while I didn't get much I happily didn't have to work for free. Actually, I probably would have worked for free if it came down to it. As it was I never really understood how much I was getting because it was in DM and exchange rates confuse me (still to this day!).

In addition to paying their interns, MetaDesign had a policy regarding spec work that I really admired. I can almost hear Erik Spiekermann's voice say it now - "Other firms show their clients WHAT they will get, we show them HOW we will get there".

It was something like that anyway. Bear in mind I didn't speak any German when I was there so I may have missed something. Occasionally they translated something for me and this is one bit that really stuck.

I think this method may be less effective these days as pretty much every designer has a diagram to describe what they do, and they are usually vague and help to conjure up more questions than they answer. In my fantasy world though, designers would figure out a way to describe design thinking - what it is and how it works - so that non-designers would understand it and be able to appreciate how ridiculous spec work is.
Matthew Beebe

Where are all of our gutsy design business journalists? Where is next generation design business journalism?

For those who hunger for important stories, there are likely numerous options to consider here. In the heat of the "Work for Free" debate story it would be easy to miss the proverbial forest for the trees. The essence of this story was really never just about working for free or who is the latest to "jump into bed" with the aspiring new business press in America. I wish it were that simple. Entangled in what happened here can be seen at least three other stories that are much more complex and likely more important to the future of design.

1. The stratification of the design industry story.
2. The surrender of design discourse story.
3. The design journalism missing in action story.

Each deserves much more attention then any of us have time or space for here!

It does not take a rocket designer to see that underneath the "Work for Free" story are the gigantic shifts underway in the design business. Like it or not, the ecology of what design is becoming is in motion like never before. In this debate the word "design" is being used to describe not one, but many forms of business that now exist. If one gets caught up in the old meanings of the word "design", the old forms of "design" practice, and the old arguments about "design," you will miss the deeper story of what happened here and what it probably means. To miss that would be to miss not only the guts of this thing, but all of the many entertaining elephants sitting among the comments already posted here...?

Why some among us would give away Design 1.0 work takes on a different meaning if we consider it in the context of what is already underway in the marketplace. Why such things will likely continue to occur has little to do with whether or not AIGA has written guidelines for "professional conduct". Unstated, and tactfully avoided by most of the players in the "Work for Free" story, is the reality that such a give-away now makes business sense if what you are really after is the higher paying Design 2.0 and 3.0 consulting work. (Some call that innovation consulting work.) It makes sense because although the 1.0 and 2.0 work may be interconnected, the fee structures are worlds apart. The metamorphosis or stratification of design ecology is a marketplace reality that we have been writing about since we launched NextD Journal. (Yes, it's free!)

Clearly for some of those firms involved in the "Work for Free" story, the print magazine design job was never the real prize. If one carefully reads the many comments posted in this public debate the larger story emerges. Evidently the "intellectual property" of so much interest to Business Week was not Design 1.0 knowledge, but rather knowledge from the Design 2.0 and 3.0 space. The tie-in that the business publishers wanted was evidently not with 1.0 clients, but rather with those signing up for 2.0 and 3.0 services. As painful as it might be to some on this list, that is more about organizational innovation services in the new sense of the word and less about design in the old sense of the word. Some might say the good news is that within a reconstructed design industry we now have such innovation enabling knowledge. In the earlier "Innovation is the New Black Box" thread on this site, some from the old guard innovation industry were suggesting otherwise. OK, enough about that story.

The "Work for Free" and the stratification of the design industry stories are entangled in an even bigger story that is certainly worthy of our attention. It is among the most significant stories to occur in the design community in the last ten years, but coverage from a design industry perspective is virtually nonexistent. Don't expect to read about this story in the new business press.

Entangled in the stratification story is the design discourse leadership shift story. Visible in plain sight within that story is the continuing lack of awareness in our own knowledge community regarding what happens and what it means to surrender the discourse leadership in your community over to those from another knowledge community who have ambitions of their own and who may or may not have interests in alignment with your own community. Although this is stuff that nobody in the traditional press wants to talk about, it is a story that likely has profound implications for the design community today and in the future. What is design discourse today? Who owns design discourse? Who owns discourse leadership? Who owns the future of design?

However we may choose to parse the words, it has been clear for some time that the future of "design" is inseparable from the future of "innovation". To state this another more direct way: Bruce Nussbaum/Business Week just created a magazine that is already actively engaged in "covering" the future of design. The present and the future of innovation is the present and future of design. It has taken them several years to do it, but the new business press has essentially moved in, front and center into the realm of design discourse, and by the look of things they plan to stay for a very long time. In fact there is already considerable expansion underway. In spite of their penny pinching ways they seem to have big plans! Many in our community believe this constitutes increased "coverage" of design. Others believe this constitutes a central role in "shaping" design. To some it has already become clear that the version of the future that the new business press has in mind for design is not likely the future that design has in mind for itself.

The truth is that the leadership in our own community has been largely asleep at the wheel for the past five years while the discourse leadership universe has shifted. Take a wild guess who owns that universe today. How that happened and what it means is a big, but largely invisible story.

Now some of the consequences are beginning to emerge into view. Now we see our folks lining up to do free work in order to try to secure a very small place at the table in that reconstructed universe. That is not a pretty picture, but it is one that the design community has allowed to happen in the spirit of embracing the new business press and several graduate business schools that are involved with them. Ah, but what kind of embrace makes sense?

The good news is that outside the United States the picture looks quite different and frankly much better. Elsewhere, the future of design marches on in diverse directions. Having just returned from Europe, I was reminded that there are, in addition to lots of optimism and hope, many alternate directions underway out there. At the new Zollverein School of Management and Design in Germany, everyone is talking about the marriage of design and business. From scratch they are creating not just a new program, but an entire school around this union. Clearly there are many ways to construct such a marriage, some more fair then others. The great thing about Zollverein is their belief in a model of mutual respect. It is a model in progress, but it is already one that others can certainly learn from.

Perhaps the good news is that Michael's post and this debate will finally awaken the design community in the US from its deep enabling sleep.

Wherever I travel around the world to talk with designers, I always encourage them to step up, speak up and become involved in the discourse within their community. This is often difficult, time consuming work, but especially now it is important. With the traditional design press missing in action on most of the important strategic issues of this era, others in the community have to step up as Michael often does here. Don't sit back and assume that all the ground is covered by traditional forms of press or even their blog off-shoots. Nothing could be further from the truth. The new business press represents only one of many editorial points of view on design and innovation. That is not our holy grail. There is a huge need for more diversity of perspective. Suffice it to say that there has never been a more important time for those with design backgrounds, knowledge and insights to speak up!
GK VanPatter

Perhaps Mr. VanPatter could reduce his argument to one or two paragraphs, include a glossary at the end so that I, most certainly stuck in Design 1.0, can best understand what precisely he is talking about, and, though I think I discern his position in the discourse, define what his position actually is about giving away services, and hence IP, for those that do not emerge winners in these "Hello, I'm available free for services" postures/RFP requests.
Bernard Pez

Doesn't anyone want to talk about the garbage content of the insert - particularly, the comments from Melissa Mayer and the "innovative" keep the change program from Bank of America (Was it innovative when banks gave away televisions forty years ago)?

What is Design 1.0? Or 2.0? And I'm really baffled by design 3.0.

Joe Moran

Did Mr. Nussbaum not get his money's worth? It might seem like the underwhelming design of the insert (along with its contents) is irrelevant to the previous 10,000 posts, but perhaps not. Upon review, it seems as if this is all posturing, on the part of Business Week and the participating design firms. Truly interesting design and editorial work turns out to be extinguishable, not with a bang, but with expediency, in the guise of innovation. How sad that so many leaders in these weird and desperate times of ours have lost the ability to distinguish between them.

So, after all the gnashing of teeth, the innovative design magazine (insert?) really isn't. Maybe design without a heart or soul just ends up feeling that way in the end? What a bummer.
Dave Mason

Darlings, sorry I came so late to the table on this. I am now painting a giant 'L' on my forehead.

Quite simply, anyone who does spec work (note I was careful not to say 'anyone who is dumb enough to do spec work' because I am trying to be nice) gets what they deserve. Or doesn't get, as the case may be.

I was sad to hear that Business Week is so strapped for cash. Either they haven't been reading their own publication or have been lax in their reporting or both. So I am sending them $100 cash to help pay for the redesign of 'IN Innovation', whenever that time inevitably comes.

Hold me,

Chip K

PS: If this Bruce Naussbaum person of which you speak is such a big fat deal, how come I've never heard of him? Until now of course. Bless you Michael. You rock (Beirut, I mean).
Chip Kidd

I couldn't read all 140 comments, so I may have missed something, but I had to comment on the ridiculous profession I've grown up in, architecture. We do spec work all the time, and it's usually for jobs where you WON'T get rich if you get them. Architects aren't known for getting rich.

An exception is an architect I worked for who had been mainly a business partner in architecture offices but who wanted to build his own firm. He now has over 600 employees. One of his methods for getting work was to offer to do a "study" for anywhere from $0 to $10,000. He's a nice guy and a great salesman and he almost always parlayed the study into work. But how many of his clients would have offered to work for free?
john massengale

Why don't we do work for free? Tough question (apparently). In my opinion there are compelling reasons to spurn such 'offers'. First, our current economic model doesn't work if you add major costs to client acquisition. One post here covers that well. Ad agencies simply have a larger and more sustainable revenue stream to balance massive pitch costs. If we all begin to routinely create spec work for limited projects, we will drive up our costs while driving down our revenues. Not a pretty equation. Given our encouragement, more prospects will demand unpaid competitions.

Someday that economic equation may change. Many of us strive to foster long-term relationships with clients. Our services have expanded to allow for sustained revenue streams rather than occasional project-based work. I imagine that's part of some larger firms' decision to take on Business Week's challenge. Acquiring the right client can be worth greater investment if you know how to retain them. But is it ethical to change the 'rules' of our profession to favor the large and well-capitalized? The idea makes me uncomfortable. But that's not all that's at stake.

What's at stake isn't just our integrity, but the integrity of our work. Even if we're willing to give it away, we shouldn't be willing to let random acts of strategy and design go to market under our signature. If (when) it fails, will we say, "what do you expect for a job done with no resources and limited access?"

Let's face it, clients that make free work a pitch requirement are either broke, don't value what we do, are coercive, or just don't know how to find the right firm.

I think that finding the right firm is the only righteous justification for wanting to see a team in action before committing.

From the client's point of view it isn't always easy to know what and who you're hiring when choosing a firm. It only gets harder when evaluating the larger, storied companies. Their portfolios span decades. Who really did what? Are the practitioners still there (or alive)? What will it really be like to work with the team in the room? Will the people in the room actually do the work?

So what's the solution?

Maybe we're driving good, ethical, and wealthy clients to bad 'procurement' processes because our pitches are too canned, too presumptive, too sterile. (And paid competitions are often just thinly-veneered spec requests. A few bucks to quiet our disquiet but not nearly enough to cover our costs.) I liked Rick's approach. He showed the prospective client that he was thinking about their project—in his example, how a slight adjustment could save enough money on production to pay for great design. Clever and engaging.

I think we can safely do even more. Clients want to talk about their issues and opportunities. They hope to gain a sense of our creative affinity for their project, not just the great ones that came before. They need to know who we are, not just what we've done. We can share more than technical insight in pitch meetings. Why not strategic and design insight? Not complete solutions, but enough to communicate a vivid sense of how our team thinks and creates. A taste of the passion and personal investment we have for that client's work. We keep our dignity and clients get what they need--a way to chose the right partner.

I know, I know, it's a gray zone. But there's a big difference between having a big bully demand your nice brown-bag lunch and choosing to share a small taste to get closer to one of the really cool kids.
Scott Lerman

Late to the table, I fear my post will fall on deaf ears, or blind eyeballs as the case may be.

If I can address a point from Michael about being lucky enough to work for a big firm so that he can do pro bono work for free, I would say that in some cases that's almost as bad as spec work.

And this comes from someone who has done a lot of pro bono work over the years and absolutely thinks it's a great thing.
But living in a city with not much work and tons of creatives, there are many large nonprofits with big budgets that never need to pay for design work. And many of the people doing the work are at firms who can afford to pay their designers while work is done for free.

The majority of designers rely on paying work from such nonprofits. But as long as designers are giving it away, why should the work be paid for?

As someone mentioned earlier, these clients have to pay for electricity, paper, etc. I have even experienced having to compete for free work!

On principle, I have decided to do pro bono only for very small underfunded nonprofits or totally cheritable organizations. For my own sanity, I have a hard time doing pro bono for a multi-million dollar budget nonprofit, even if it would be a great portfolio piece.

Jobs | July 23