Concepting Greatness… (& where Spec Work Fits In…)

The contest culture has boomed with shows like The Apprentice or Survivor and other shows like Project Runway and Chopped for instance. The interesting wrinkle of this is given that they are shows (and even in other contests), there’s no need to account for the rights of the people involved. (Like creating a fashion line on Project Runway may mean it is owned by the show… I dunno). But my larger point is that in the knowledge economy, it’s important for designers to be conscious of the economic value of giving away work (I argue for a strategy like planned giving is better than giving every dollar away to every cause, etc.), pricing work based on copyright ownership, corporate size and use. An example of the retention of rights is that the ad agency for GEICO (The Martin Agency, I think) retained the rights to the cavemen and at one point, optioned them to a television show.

Regardless of how people felt about the spec work issue, I’d like to see designers thinking more about the possible value of copyrights of created materials, which may have little value in this case, but as an overall point is a point of entry for discussion in this enormously weighted, but perhaps undiscussed issue.

I ran by an RFP by an ad agency the other day where ostensibly the company would hire them at good money and the first thing they would do is hold a contest to design the logo for a company. Thinking about that i realized that many folks grow up with an eye to the ad world where the idea and art is used to “sell” the product and bring in the client. Of course, now we see that weekly with Mad Men and for those who know the agency background, we are accustomed to the notion of “paid-for” pitches. I think what designers need education on is the notion that they need to be more fastidious with their rights when entering contests here and yon.

I came away from the RFP thinking there is a number of camps where logo design (and good design, in general) exist. (Not counting the camp that doesn’t see the value of design or presentation, at all). There’s a commodity camp that feels design, printing, marketing et. al is good enough to be like everybody else and the type of business relationships those folks pursue are a confirmation of that thinking. I mean, most of the modern world recognizes the value, of say packaging, or letterhead on a minimally-functional level. This group doesn’t realize the gulf between one product and the next is very little nowadays. this group reminds me of Stalin’s famous quote: “Quantity is a quality all its own.”

A second group that recognizes that creating good design is worth it for the parties involved. But they aren’t sure why. Just make it nice, but can’t assess the value of those decisions. So, they think designers, printers, etc. are purveyors of “black arts” in that they go behind the curtain and make decisions that may or may not help the product or service, all in the interest of making it “nice”, but perhaps unconnected to its intrinsic mission. This group recognizes how much “nicer” nice approaches are, but doesn’t fully trust that the clarity of great design is fully absorbed in the product’s acceptance and clarity.

I think a third group is the conceptually-focused group that thinks that the details aim the design in a particular direction, a particular approach, or point-of-view. A mitigation of that approach weakens the conceptual perspective and weakens the design. Strongly addressing the design, by contrast, creates legendary approaches (or at least aims to) that aren’t always reflected in designs and strategies that part the Red Sea, but designs that clearly answers the question, closes the sale, or makes the point in a big way.

Now, not being the kind of “walk-on-water” designer who can do that everytime out, or what have you, I am constantly making the effort to not be in the first or second group and fighting to make my clients be in the third group with me, or finding new clients that want to be in that first group. What this means is less pedestrian approaches to design work. But more committed approaches… This approach takes the kind of commitment where the client tells me this version “sucked” or that is “conceptually off” to make the product, not just acceptable, but transformative. Transformative because transformative sells… big. Highly successful means much, much more than “okay”, so much so that “okay” isn’t really “okay” anymore. My feeling is that more often than not , contests promote one of the first two than the last one.

Googling Michael Schumacher and the Apple iPod and you’ll find tens of thousands more hits and followers than googling Jos Verstappen or Philips MP3 player. If the concessions to educating designers about the rights management of their work-product were made more often, we’d have an educated community on an issue such as this. Just a thought on the issue…

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