Cover design and voting contest suspended, lesson learned

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Just hours ago, I announced a contest to vote for and, if desired, even design the cover of my book due out next year. This contest had been suspended, please do not submit designs.

Here is why…

My sole goal in creating this contest was to take a creative process that was usually reserved for a small number of in-house designers and open it up to anyone else who wanted an opportunity to let their creative talents be considered for the cover of a book. And, I wanted people to be able to have a voice in then choosing what covers most appealed to them.

I genuinely thought it was a nice thing. Designers would get exposure through the public display and voting process and everyone could have a voice.

I was blown away by the response, though. Many people e-mailed excited about the opportunity, but then a post on a design website about the contest revealed something that, honestly, horrified me.

It seems there is a practice in the design niche for certain entities to run contests that, though they are dissimilar in many ways from what I was doing, are designed largely as a means to exploit designers, take the work product from large numbers of people and use all the creations in many different ways without having to pay for any of it.

I was mortified, especially to think that what I was doing could be in any way construed as exploitation. That is so very far from what my intention was. I shared how I believed what I was doing was different in the comments on that blog as well as below.

But, here’s the deal…I do not want to be associated with even the “perception” of exploitation, especially because I am a creative professional, myself.

Respecting those with whom I work and associate is ciritically important to me. It’s been a touchstone of everything I do.

So, I am discontinuing this contest, effective immediately, in an effort to demonstrate my sincerity and strong desire to distant myself from the practice of exploitation. I thank all those who’ve shared their voices on the topic and engaged me in conversation, without jumping to any conclusions about who I was.

And, of course, I apologize for any discontent or unease this has caused anyone. And, I thank everyone for understanding what began as a good-intentioned attempt to let people have a voice, but went astray.

Wishing you all, as always, a wonderful week ahead

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35 responses

35 responses to “Cover design and voting contest suspended, lesson learned”

  1. Aw, Jonathan… That’s too bad, and it’s a shame that the world has come to such a place where something fun can be perceived as something crappy.

    Knowing you, I know your intentions were great, and I commend them. I’m sorry to see the contest closed.

  2. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ James – Thanks for the support, my friend, that’s nice to hear after the day I’ve just had! 🙂

  3. Helen South says:

    I haven’t read the competition post, but it’s an interesting and unfortunate situation. I struggle with some of these issues myself: as a freelance writer, I can’t afford expensive photography, but using cheap stock sites has a negative effect on the market for photographer’s work. And I know how hard it is to earn a living in the arts.

    Once I’ve used up my account with stockexpert, I’ll be looking for a more ethical alternative – possibly commissioning photographers via iFreelance, so that a reduced ‘middleman’ cost can help keep it affordable.

    It’s a pity you’ve closed the competition, as it might have been a great opportunity for an unpublished artist, but I understand why – when things get so contentious, sometimes it makes more sense just to walk away.

    It’s encouraging to find people making ethical decisions: you feel more inclined to put your own money where your mouth is, when you know that it isn’t just a futile gesture.

  4. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Helen – Thanks so much for your kind words!

  5. CSI Seattle says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    I thought your design contest was a great idea. It’s a shame that those who might take advantage of others ruins the fun for the rest.

    Perhaps you could meet your readers half way and let them vote on any proposed designs you may come up with while working with a designer. Just a thought to keep your readers involved with your new book.

    Either way, I appreciate you looking out for all of us.

    Thanks,

    Brian

  6. I just happened to stumble onto FWS and saw why you felt it necessary to close the contest down. Now it all becomes clear.

    I’m pretty angry at the comments people left there. Ripping into someone sucks as a behavior, and no wonder you had a bad day because of it.

    I showed the post to Harry (a graphic designer) as well. He was disgusted. When did the world become so suspicious of everyone’s actions that no one can do a good, fun thing any more? I’m so pissed off.

    Jon, chin up. People who paint others black with a tar brush and open their mouths before thinking things through aren’t worth it.

  7. shane says:

    Dude – that a touch tragic. Though sometimes bad press isn’t all bad (just posted this article to sproutwire: http://www.shoemoney.com/2008/02/21/why-you-should-embrace-negative-press/). It made me think a bit about the topic.

  8. Oh no how awful! Its such a shame you have to close the competition down my design skills are no way good enough to compete but I was looking forward to seeing all the awesome designs and voting on them.

    Some people’s negativity really sucks – and ruins things for the good guys.

  9. This is a damn shame indeed, and frankly, I’m a little surprised you let the few whiners destroy something that could have been really fun. But, I understand your reasoning.

    Cheer up bud, like James says, those with black brushes gets no love. ;o)

  10. […] 2: I guess all the haters got to him. The contest has been discontinued. What a shame. Share and Enjoy: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can […]

  11. What’s the monetary value of national exposure? Of having a nationally distributed book in your portfolio? Of making contacts in the high-end of the indutry? Of that, plus $1,000?

    Now you can write an entry on how people will pass up opportunities if it happens to be ‘packaged’ differently than what they think an opportunity should be.

    Btw, what is ‘spec’ work?

  12. sharon says:

    aww..so i can’t stand next to you with a sign that says “i’m the book cover designer” and with a big sign pointing to the books (not you, mind you_/ when you’re out doing book signings…

  13. […] As he commented here, Jonathan Fields has dropped the contest mentioned below so as to avoid the appearance of exploitation. I applaud him for that move, and apologize if my […]

  14. Where’s the fun? too bad. Geez, what happen with this world?

    In my point of view, competition is competition. Anyone could enter or not by their own willing. There’s no relationship between spec-ulative work & a competition.

    I am sorry to see the contest closed. It’s too bad. Most of all, I am losing one more fun. Gosh.

    Good luck for your book!

    @Hayden :
    Speculative work, my friend. Means that we do something without getting paid. This often happen to freelance web developer.

  15. Linda says:

    Jonathan, I’m sad that you had to close a contest that you were so excited about. Thank you for doing this, though, and for your understanding about why people react to this kind of contest.

    Design is real work and a process, and this kind of contest (even with good intentions) can really devalue it and distort people’s expectations. I wouldn’t hold a contest for people to fix my car sight unseen or to diagnose an illness. Designers are skilled professionals who team up with the client to explore concepts that communicate ideas and solve problems. Contests throw that careful process right out the window.

    Designers who react negatively to this kind of thing aren’t whiners or meanies. We are professionals who put effort into building and perfecting our skillsets. Contests used in place of a real design process can really cheapen what we do and say to us “In spite of all of your work experience and training, we’re just going to treat you on par with some art school kid futzing around with Photoshop for fun. Now come and beg for opportunity!” Also, they create the idea that this is an acceptable way of paying for work. Why would anyone hire a designer when their peers are just putting up a contest website and paying minimal fees in prize form?

  16. Niki Brown says:

    To all those who do not know what spec work is or think that design contests are a good idea –

    Visit this website http://no-spec.com/

    This is a problem that is RAMPANT within the design community and DEVALUES designers work – You cant get things for free (asking for a selection of designs from people who will not get paid is FREE WORK). It makes our clients think that this is an acceptable practice.

  17. Niki Brown says:

    No guarantee

    In essence, Visual Communication designers (graphic, web, illustration, etc) sell two things – ideas and time. Speculative presentations, by definition, require a designer to invest both their ideas and time without a guarantee of compensation.
    Unprofessional

    Most professional-level designers won’t participate in speculative presentations since they take away time, a non-renewal asset, and resources away from bona fide projects with guaranteed revenue. The result is designers who participate in spec presentations are typically less experienced.
    Lack of professional research

    Successful design requires an investment in time to appropriately research the client company, its competitive landscape and the audience for the project. Since many speculative projects are run on a compressed schedule, adequate research cannot be done, resulting in designs that are more “pretty pictures,” rather than strategic design backed up with facts.
    Needs of the client not met

    Speculative requests are often a result of “I’ll know it when I see it,” thinking on the part of the client. The problem here is that it’s self-centered point-of-view rather than a position serving the needs and wants of the audience.
    Myopic

    Spec projects are often myopic. They tend to be “one-off” pieces that don’t fit and may erode a company’s overall branding efforts.
    Reduces value

    Speculative projects reduce the value of the client/designer relationship. In point of fact, there is no relationship. The process becomes a competitive environment that often hinders a designer from doing his or her best.
    Undermines consultive benefits

    Spec requests tend to reduce the potential of design down to a commodity. Professional Communication Designers provide highly specific services which typically build upon each other to solidify a brand. Spec requests undermine the consultive benefits of the client/designer relationship.
    Undervalues the profession

    Designers who participate in speculative work are undervaluing their profession and encouraging the behavior. These are often neophytes who are lured in by the “dangling carrot” of more work down the road or payment if the client likes what they’ve done. Often that additional work never materializes and payment is well below industry averages.
    Pitches and design don’t mix

    Historically, it’s been a common practice for advertising agencies to create “pitches” that are typically punctuated with fully developed creative. However, the potential return on winning the business is significantly more than the return on investment a designer would receive from a single brochure or even a logo. Ad agencies, particularly larger agencies, generate much of their revenue from media commissions. In the past, commissions were their only source of revenue. The creative was “built-in.” A designer working on spec does not have the benefit, in most cases, to reap the financial rewards of a multimillion dollar campaign.
    Red flags

    Designers approached for spec work should ask themselves why a client is making the request. Is it due to a lack of understanding of the industry? Perhaps there isn’t enough money in the budget? Is the client fuzzy about their goals and objectives? Any of these should throw up a red flag.
    The lack of a contract does not a professional make

    Speculative work is often done without contracts, thus removing any clear representation of “rights” to the artwork between the client and the designer. The result is that clients may feel they can pick and choose from the ideas the designer has presented and either do the project themselves, or take the ideas to another, cheaper designer — either option being a violation of the law. However, despite being a violation, the lack of a contract will make it difficult for the designer to prove his/her case, resulting in either an outright loss for the designer or a long, drawn out legal battle that is good for neither the designer nor the client.

    Clients should ask themselves why a professional level designer would take on a spec project. Are they in fact professional level? Do they have the experience and abilities to do justice to the project and help it reach its goals? Is their heart and mind going to be committed the project? If they have so much time on their hands that they’re willing to work on spec, why?

  18. Dave Navarro says:

    Jon –

    Kudos on taking the high road.

    Sucks that the climate demands it though.

  19. Anthea says:

    Hi Jonothan,

    I don’t think the retaliation is against you personally at all, it’s against competitions in general.

    Some designers do in fact enjoy the oppurtunity to work without the pressure of an actual client. A competition provides a rough brief to work towards, where you get the chance to do what you want – rather than follow the (sometimes) awful suggestions of a stressed client.

    It’s simple to see how the door swings both ways.

    I like CSI Seattle (Brian)’s suggestion of hiring a designer and letting your readers vote on the final cover.

    Perhaps you could take applications to become the hired designer, instead of a competition?

    My respect for you hasn’t changed at all, and I’m sure the people who actually matter don’t hold anything against you either.

    Keep doing what you do!

    Anthea

  20. Dave Conrey says:

    As a graphic artist, I must admit, I had some of the same feelings about offering up spec work, but I guessed your intentions were in the right place. You just weren’t aware of the reprecussions, which is why I didn’t respond to the contents announcement. If I felt you were doing it to avoid paying someone for the work, I probably would have lit into you about it.

    Spec work, in general, devalues the whole of the graphic design industry, just as much as designers who charge way too little for their work in order to get any crap projects they can get their hands on

    The problem with spec work is that it’s a two way street. Not only are the folks that offer up these opportunities in order to get some highly valuable design at no cost doing the design industry a disservice, but those hungry and naive designers will jump at these contests just for the chance to possibly be considered. Of course there are always gray areas, but overall, nothing good comes out of it.

    I would sooner give my design away for free, as a personal favor, if you came to me directly and asked for my help. No harm, no foul though Jonathan.

    @Hayden – Spec work basically means doing the design for free in return for the potential of some reward, whether its a contest or eventual payment.

    The only competitions designers should be entering (ethically) are ones where you submit work you were already paid for, like what you find in design annual like Communication Arts Magazine.

  21. sharon says:

    Anthea is right.

    Besides, a good idea will always have it’s opposition.

  22. Jennifer R says:

    Awwww shucks! I was looking forward to the challenge.
    Integrity is everything, my friend. Thanks for having our backs.

    Jen Rinehart
    Rinehart Design
    Everett, WA.

  23. Jillian says:

    Sounds like you ran into the same problem as Trent from the Simple Dollar: http://www.thesimpledollar.com/2007/09/19/the-simple-dollar-morning-roundup-if-youre-an-artist-pay-attention/
    It seems there are a few extremely vocal protesters out there who think they speak on behalf of everyone else…

  24. Shama Hyder says:

    I am so sorry Jonathan. I know you had your heart in the right place.

    It was a pleasure meeting you at SXSW!

  25. I am sure you could have and would have done this in a classy way. AND, if this is not an embracing negative press kind of time for you, moving on frees you from dealing with the naysayers. In my book this comes under the heading of “judgment call; other fish to fry.”

    Speaking of which, I see that today you’ve found time to review Leon Babauta’s Handbook For Life. Perfect. 🙂

  26. I’m in agreement with Anthea that the objections raised over at FreelanceSwitch were not objections to Jonathan personally, but to a) the spec-work structure of the contest and b) the insistence of FSW staff that it was not a request for spec work when it clearly was.

    Jonathan is well respected by the readership of FSW, and that hasn’t changed. People – myself included – were objecting to a behavior, not a person. Jonathan simply stepped on a landmine because he didn’t understand the nature of the spec work issue, and why would he be? He’s not a freelance designer or developer, and it’s an industry issue. Sadly, exploitative forces have long ago ruined the fun for folks like Jonathan who might think that a design contest is just good clean fun.

    I can tell by some of the comments here, referring to objectors as “haters” and “whiners”, that some of the readership here does not understand the spec work problem that the freelance design industry faces. Again, not surprising, as most of you are probably not in the industry.

    “Btw, what is ’spec’ work?”

    Well, to paraphrase the description found at http://www.no-spec.com:

    “Spec” is how we refer to any work done on a speculative basis. That is to say, any requested work that lacks a promise or guarantee of being paid for. The heart of the problem is that spec requires the designer to invest time and research into producing work with no guarantee of payment. Nobody should ever be asked to create work product for free.

    There are several reasons why spec work is a Bad Thing, and they are summed up rather eloquently by the AIGA here:

    http://www.aiga.org/resources/content/3/5/9/9/documents/aiga_standard_specletter.doc

    The long and the short of it is that you get better work from better designers and do so in an ethical fashion without devaluaing the efforts of the designers themselves when you avoid requiring spec work to be submitted for a project.

    “What’s the monetary value of national exposure? Of having a nationally distributed book in your portfolio? Of making contacts in the high-end of the indutry? Of that, plus $1,000?”

    There is no monetary value in any of those things unless they actually happen. Remember, only the winner walks away with the $1000, the national exposure, etc. The rest of the designers who submitted work have simply created work product for free and now are out their time & energy. That’s hardly a position we should ever expect a professional to willingly put him or herself in. Even the gallery display graciously proposed by Jonathan does not erase the bad of dozens designers (or more!) performing work for free. It’s just not an ethical thing to ask of people.

    I also agree with Anthea that a great idea would be for Jonathan to solicit portfolios from the FSW crowd, and select a designer that way. That’s the best of both worlds; he’s selecting a designer in a manner that is both more effective for him and more ethically appropriate for the designers, PLUS he gets to include the crowd. Win-win gets ’em every time. 🙂

    Keep on rocking, Jonathan, we all step on the occassional land mine. You handled this one well in the end.

  27. […] was faster. He canceled his contest. And I think that’s a bloody […]

  28. None of the people who are ‘anti-spec work’ have managed to convince me that what Jonathan proposed is a bad idea.

    “There is no monetary value in any of those things unless they actually happen. Remember, only the winner walks away with the $1000, the national exposure, etc. The rest of the designers who submitted work have simply created work product for free and now are out their time & energy. That’s hardly a position we should ever expect a professional to willingly put him or herself in. Even the gallery display graciously proposed by Jonathan does not erase the bad of dozens designers (or more!) performing work for free. It’s just not an ethical thing to ask of people.”

    Contests exist in every arena and, if you follow the above logic, you should just get rid of contests everywhere in their entirety. Even at a state fair, people put their heart and many manhours into creating a quilt or growing a prize vegetable that may never win a thing.

    Which leaves the point that it is the contest organizer that is ‘profiting’ unfairly from the contest. Jonathan already stated that his publisher was reader to hire their own people, in-house, which is the typical process for a major publishing house. However, he argued for the opportunity for people he knows to be involved in the process.

    I think what set this particular contest apart was the NATIONAL EXPOSURE. Also, Jonathan comes from a sales background and in sales you could spend months working on a client before they agree to a sale. In sales, weigh the risk to reward ratio and, if the risk is big enough, you go for it.

    It sounds like the designers are a much more conservative bunch, which is fine for a specific work culture. However, the arguments that have been raised against Jonathan’s contests are not black and white, like the designers seem to feel they are.

    Contests are contests. Period.

  29. “Contests exist in every arena and, if you follow the above logic, you should just get rid of contests everywhere in their entirety. Even at a state fair, people put their heart and many man-hours into creating a quilt or growing a prize vegetable that may never win a thing.”
    No, following the logic of spec work does not lead to getting rid of contests entirely.

    In your example, unless the contestants earn their living from making quilts or growing vegetables professionally, it’s not spec work and therefore it doesn’t apply here. A contest is not a contest – for example, the contest that you describe is not a contest to win a professional engagement. Jonathan did not hold a “let’s vote on the prettiest book cover in a vacuum” contest, he held a “everyone create a book cover for free and then I’ll pick one designer that gets paid for his work” contest. That is a totally different beast. And you know it. I understand that you disapprove of the stance the design community takes WRT spec work, but please…try to argue with some intellectual integrity, willya?

    “Which leaves the point that it is the contest organizer that is ‘profiting’ unfairly from the contest. Jonathan already stated that his publisher was reader to hire their own people, in-house, which is the typical process for a major publishing house. However, he argued for the opportunity for people he knows to be involved in the process.”

    No…no, actually it *doesn’t* leave the point that the contest organizer is profiting unfairly. In your hypothetical example that doesn’t actually apply to the discussion at hand, maybe the organizer is profiting unfairly, but that’s not the objection that was raised with regard to Jonathan’s contest.

    Nobody said anything about Jonathan profiting unfairly. The objection being raised was that designers were being asked to work for free. That’s all. Designers were being asked to work for free. That is the ONLY issue that anyone had with this contest. The fact that the person asking people to work for free *could* have simply hired someone instead is irrelevant. You’re not doing people a favor by asking them to work for free instead of hiring someone.

    “I think what set this particular contest apart was the NATIONAL EXPOSURE. ”

    No…no, actually the national exposure doesn’t set this contest apart from any other request for people to work for free. The fact that the contest offered national exposure is irrelevant. National exposure is worthless unless something comes of it. Exposure alone does not pay the bills, and to ask 100 designers to work for free on the off chance that one of them will get some money and exposure…that’s just silly. Now you’ve hosed 99 professionals, congrtulations. Can you really feel good about that?

    “Also, Jonathan comes from a sales background and in sales you could spend months working on a client before they agree to a sale. In sales, weigh the risk to reward ratio and, if the risk is big enough, you go for it.”

    Certainly you’d never expect a salesperson to close a sale without getting paid. So why would you expect a designer to complete a design without getting paid?

    “It sounds like the designers are a much more conservative bunch, which is fine for a specific work culture. ”
    You’ve made it abundantly clear that you don’t respect the value or contribution of designers, I get that. I suspect that’s the only reason you continue to argue. So, if by “conservative” you mean “expect to get paid for working” then yes, the design community is very conservative! 🙂

  30. :sigh:

    I am not sure how ‘continue to argue’ applies to one comment’s worth of ‘argument’. The first comment was a question.

    Up front, I don’t appreciate being accused of intellectual dishonesty OR of having disdain for designers. Until this post, I never really considered designers as I work in the legal field.

    As far as your argument for ‘spec’ you would have to cross-apply that to any contest that involves intellectual property by people who make their money off of their intellectual property. Yet people in other fields (writing, filmmaking, blogging) do not have the same vitriolic response to this type of contest.

    As to your example with the salesperson, you NEVER know as a salesperson that you will make a sale. You can spend months working on someone, only to have them walk away. Not only that, but salespeople work on commission. So all of their ‘work’ goes unrewarded.

    I was simply trying to point out that the ‘designers’ come from a different mind-set than Jonathan.

    Chill out and stop accusing me of things in error. Factual mistake? Fine. False line of logic? Ok. But ‘intellectually dishonesty’? Shame on you. And to accuse me of an attitude towards all designers is just silly.

  31. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Everyone – Thanks so much for sharing your heartfelt thoughts, feelings and ideas. Just a quick reminder that conversation is great, but please keep it constructive, kind and respectful, even if you you don’t agree with another’s opinion. Thanks so much! 🙂

  32. Dave Conrey says:

    @Hayden – At the end of one comment you said, “Contest are contests. Period.”

    That’s awfully black & white considering the point you’re trying to make. I think what hasn’t been mentioned here is that the $1,000 is a fair price to pay one designer to design a cover, but it’s not a fair price to pay, say 100 designers to make the attempt and 99 to fail.

    I don’t believe Jonathan feels this way, but its not much different than a client asking me to design something but then saying they’re not going to pay me if they don’t like it. That’s just not how the business works.

    Something that also hasn’t been pointed out much is that Jonathan probably plans on making money with this book he’s writing. The likelihood that any designer will get even a modicum of “exposure” for doing this design is extremely remote, more so for anyone that comes in 2nd place or lower. Could it happen? Yes, but it’s not likely. We designer equate this to those clients that come to us and say, “Give me a deal on this design and I’ll bring you lots more work”, which of course never turns out.

    Keep in mind Hayden that this idea of No Spec has been around for decades in our industry and was put in place in order to keep designers from getting shafted, which happens more often than you can imagine. We’re just trying to protect our creativity from those that would take advantage.

  33. Carrie says:

    I don’t really see a problem with contests like this. When I was in college I regularly participated in design contests, since they make a wonderful edition to my portfolio even if they were not chosen as the ‘winner’.