Double standards from the design industry

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

Design Week carried a story last week about some reaction to Kingston Council (outskirts of London) asking potential design companies to take part in a free pitching process. The story continues today:

The Design Business Association and the Chartered Society of Designers have both responded vociferously to free pitching, following the recent revelations reported in Design Week.

Transport for London is currently running an open competition to design a new bus for London. While the top three ideas will receive prize money totalling £45 000, none of the other entrants will be paid for their work.

‘Designers will want the prestige of having their name attached to the new iconic bus for London,’ TfL director of surface transport David Brown told Design Week by way of justification at the launch of the competition on 4 July.

The DBA says it wrote to the Mayor of London Boris Johnson ‘on this issue’ last week. ‘The Mayor has been illadvised on this,’ says DBA chief executive Deborah Dawton. ‘Both the DBA and CSD have extensive experience in running competitions that meet industry requirements.

This one is so far off the mark we’d have to go back to the starting grid. Prize money of £25 000 goes nowhere near covering the design investment.’ She continues, ‘I think we’d all rather travel on a bus that was designed by someone qualified to do it.’

CSD chief executive Frank Peters is calling on the Design Council to take a lead in stamping out malpractice. In a letter published in this week’s Design Week (see page 11), he urges the Design Council to ‘educate clients away from such practice. As a Government body, they should be wellplaced to ensure that no Government department adopts this practice [of free pitching]’. Meanwhile, Kingston Council has received at least two letters of complaint from designers angered by its unpaid tender to fill its graphics roster.

The latest, from Watershed Design managing director Paul Widdup, argues, ‘If you are tendering for accountancy services you would not ask them for an audit to prove their credibility.’ Kingston Council wrote back to Widdup, claiming that, ‘The council is not seeking “free” design work. To identify the most suitable candidates we need to be able to establish the quality of services that potential partners can provide and the value for money they can offer taxpayers. Our experience of procurement is that businesses are well versed with tender processes and see it as an opportunity to win work and develop their client base.’

Dawton believes that getting public bodies to observe best practice would be a major achievement.

‘A commitment from Government to drive up best practice in [its] procurement of design would benefit the whole country in one fell swoop,’ she says, adding, ‘Why should small commercial businesses subsidise it in this way?’ The DBA intends to start showcasing examples of best practice on its website. ‘We hadn’t thought about doing that before now,’ says Dawton.

Now think about this for a moment. The design industry is opposed to free pitching. Paul Widdup makes the very good point that accountancy firms are not asked to carry out a free audit before being given work.

So why does the very same industry allow many of its members to ask graduates to work for free before offering them a job? It’s variously called ‘work experience’ (I call it ‘work’ just without pay, so not really the full ‘experience’ wouldn’t you say?) or an Internship, which seems to give it a bit more credibility. This is an industry which claims to contribute billions to the UK economy, but thinks it acceptable not to pay its own staff. They may say that they need to do this so that they can employ ‘experienced’ staff but you know what, other jobs pay you while you gain your experience.
Imagine if every other industry operated like this – doctors not being paid until they’d done a series of two-month placements at different hospitals; policemen not being paid until they’d arrested 100 villains; teachers not being paid until they’d seen three whole classes through their SATs.

I heard a story the other week about a graduate who’s been doing the internship round for so long he’s currently on his second stint at a rather well-known agency, working on real briefs for real clients, but for no money. How does he live? On income support (i.e. the taxpayer) and his parents’ re-mortgaged house. Since when was advertising a state subsidised industry?

Asking someone to carry out creative work for no pay is wrong. So long as it’s called free pitching. But call it an internship and everything’s okay.

Double standards.

Why isn’t the Chartered Society of Designers doing something about this? And why isn’t Design Week reporting it with as much concern as a bloody meaningless ‘design a bus’ competition?

This US comment from Graphic Design Rants (20/4/07) sums things up pretty neatly, if somewhat ineloquently:

But the current trend where and INTERNSHIP is your first real job out of school instead of a Summer job. Rather SUCKS with your degree, $80,000 in Student loans, dropped $10,000 on Computer gear and Pro-class $oftware, and paying rent in NYC with four psycho roommates. And entry level salaries have slipped back to less than what a decent receptionist makes with a GED and a push-up bra.So I rather have an issue with our profession being not-so-gently-hammered down to working class.

5 comments on “Double standards from the design industry

  1. Frank Peters FCSD says:

    Jonathan – I agree with much of what you and Graphic Design Rants say.My letter to DW was to point out that we are in a FREE culture and designers demand and willingly accept many of these services – free legal consultancy – free IP consultancy – free business consultancy – free training – and so on. Many of the providers of these services are publicly funded and for those who have to invest their own resources in providing competitive services it is a serious issue – as serious as for designers.Some universities, RDAs, Business Links, partnerships of any, etc also get involved with providing free design consultancy – or heavily subsidised – so how can design consultancies compete? and as a lot of this is public money – they are even paying for the competition!If universities set up such schemes – and compete with consultancies – then were do they think their graduates will get jobs. Are we soon to see all design services being provided in this way – what next – will the Design Council be setting up a design consultancy department offering services to government departments?The design sector needs to ask itself some very critical questions as to embracing FREE – and these questions will raise serious issues as to the workforce development and design education.Nearly all of those providing FREE are in some way funded from the public purse – and even some trade bodies and initiatives benefit from partnerships with these entities – and those who pay the piper call the tune.Guess what – and I make no apologies for saying it – designers should join CSD – their professional body – if for no other reason than we will maintain our independence and integrity in being self funding as we have for nearly 80 years. That allows us to provide a forum for honest and open discussion and debate. With a professional body of critical mass – we stand a chance of benefiting from what we do – like those professionals who practice in law, medicine, architecture, finance – none of them work for FREE – perhaps we should stop envying them and start emulating them – and guess what – they all have professional bodies and they all join.We are ready to stand up for design – are designers?

  2. Jonathan says:

    Frank, thanks for taking the time to respond.At undergraduate level, many courses get involved with ‘live briefs’ and some even set up design studios. The impetus to do this comes from industry itself which says it wants ‘experienced’ graduates. This sets up the bizarre scenario of students working for free on real jobs instead of being students. Industry can’t have it both ways, either we teach them and it recruits well taught but inexperienced graduates, or we train them and it recruits experienced but badly taught graduates.I happen to think most ‘live briefs’ are awful and educationally unsound, and many (most) amount to nothing more than free pitching. We should follow industry’s stand here and say ‘no’, but when you have that same industry breathing down your neck to provide ‘experienced’ graduates – well you can see where this is going.But I can’t believe you think these piddling little jobs are a reasonable excuse for immoral employment practices by many in the design industry? Or that they are so draining the coffers that companies can’t afford to pay a decent wage? Either I’m reading you wrong or this is the worst argument since the pitch for Schindler’s List on Ice.However there is another type of consultancy which universities can, and do, offer to external clients via research outputs – it’s called knowledge transfer and <>it’s what universities do<> and I may be misreading what you’re saying but if the suggestion is that we shouldn’t be, then I have to disagree. We do it at Dundee, The University of the Arts does it, Goldsmiths does it. Like I say, it’s what universities are for.We aren’t establishing unfair competition in the same way that when one of my colleagues in Life Sciences develops a new technique for detecting cancer cells, she isn’t competing with the pharmaceutical industry, she’s contributing to it.But I do hear this ‘universities are unfairly competing with us’ argument a lot at this high end of the market, especially in interactive and product design – less so in graphics. It’s rubbish.And it boils down to the fact that the design industry hasn’t quite cottoned on to what universities <>offer<> to the design community. In fact we’re not seen as members of the design community at all, simply as providers of employees. This is wrong, and threatens our (meaning ‘design’s’) competitiveness as a sector.Take the common use of the term ‘real world’ that is used in discussions of HE by leading lights in design. The insinuation being that university is in some way less ‘realistic’ than a typical design studio. And this is used to force ‘change’ on us in terms of what we teach and who teaches it.You wouldn’t catch anyone in life sciences, medicine, law or physics using the term – to them, universities are a valued member of the community, not outside it. Indeed, compare the rhetoric employed by CCSkills when it discusses HE with the language used by their peers in health care and legal SSCs among others. The difference is refreshing and the results are too.Universities exist to innovate and transfer knowledge back in to the wider world – this may be industry but it may not. The ‘it’s public money’ argument is misguided because < HREF="" REL="nofollow">we turn each £1 of public investment into £5 given back to the UK economy<> – if anything we’re subsidising you! 😉Show me one example of a consultancy losing out to a university at the high end of knowledge transfer as a result of unfair competition. I’m not sure you could.However, I can show you dozens of examples of designers, agencies, clients and communities who <>have<> benefited from such links. (In fact, < HREF="" REL="nofollow">just Google it<> for some)So I can’t agree with the general complaint that universities are competing unfairly with design consultancies. It’s simply not true and ignores the enormous economic and strategic benefit that academics bring to the design community.But at the lower end, the ‘live briefs’, I agree. They’re wrong and have little educational benefit. But I have to say in the last ten years I have never seen a live brief come from a company that wouldn’t have found some cheap 11-year old Paintshop Pro-wielding designer, or simply done it in-house. The ‘loss’ to the design industry is minimal and we may actually be doing you a favour by attracting the time-wasters!But it would be an interesting area for research. Care to fund it? Or should that come from the public purse? (joke!)However, I don’t think you’ve addressed my central point: what is the CSD’s stance on unpaid or low-paid placements in lieu of formal contracts of employment? Or who offer no formal training or career reviews?Or companies that insist new employees supply their own laptop and software? Address these questions and show that my central complaint of double standards among the industry (or at least by CSD) is unfounded.It’s no good suggesting people join CSD on a promise of representation unless your attitude to these practices is clear, and you can demonstrate that you are recognised by the industry and have some clout to penalise offenders.You said: <>With a professional body of critical mass – we stand a chance of benefiting from what we do – like those professionals who practice in law, medicine, architecture, finance<>The difference between graphic design and those occupations is that they have a healthy relationship with universities, which lends deserved professional credence.There are other differences, of course: a common core body of knowledge, risk of harm/injury to others, requirement for postgraduate training etc – but graphic design doesn’t have these either. The way the industry treats design graduates, I’m not sure it will ever lay claim to be ‘professional’.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Free pitching gives unknown talents an opportunity to have a go in a very competitive and money driven industry. I’m suprised that so many designers feel threatened by this!

  4. Jonathan says:

    So does paid pitching – in fact it gives more people a better chance because they can devote the proper time to the process instead of fitting it in around paid work.Free pitching isn’t hated because it means established companies are in competition with unestablished ones – if anything, only established designers can afford to take part in the process – but because it is working for free. Which other profession does that?(Don’t say lawyers working pro bono, as designers do that too, for deserving causes. But a client that has money, looking for design work to make it more money, should pay).

  5. Anonymous says:

    DBA should be doing something to lobby government about free pitching within their agencies rather then bitching at designers. As far as i have seen, councils and government departments are the worst offenders.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: