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Why Are Designers Still Expected To Work For Free?

Doubleday is soliciting free designs for a new book by best-selling author Dan Brown. That’s not okay, as Design Observer‘s Jessica Helfand explains.

Why Are Designers Still Expected To Work For Free?

This week, a cover design competition for the latest book by Dan Brown–author of The Da Vinci Code–has illuminated an unsolved mystery within the design industry: Why are designers so often expected to take on free work?

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On Monday, the Penguin Random House imprint Doubleday announced an open competition for designing a limited edition of Brown’s forthcoming book, Origin, the fifth in his best-selling Robert Langdon series that includes Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code. The next day, graphic designer and writer Jessica Helfand shot back with a sharp and thoroughly compelling rebuke that you should read in full over on her site Design Observer. The crux of the article, entitled “Design Competition as Bake-Off,” is that design competitions like Doubleday’s devalue designers and their work by asking them to do it for free.

As Helfand puts it:

Forbes estimates Dan Brown’s net worth to hover somewhere around the $140 million mark, but the “prizes” for the chosen winner appear to offer no compensation—unless you read, as I do, that the halo effect of this achievement is to be found in the presumed parasitic attachment to Brown’s epic social media following, which is also in the millions but includes no dollar amount.

The contest appears to be targeting design students: an Entertainment Weekly article breaking the news starts out, “Budding book cover designs and Dan Brown superfans, pick up your pens.” It asks participants to design the front, spine, and back of the book using “only Modern Art and the word ‘Origin’ as your inspiration.” Brown himself will select the top six designs and promote the finalists to his 7 million fans on social media. The winner, who will be selected through a public voting process, will have his or her design printed on a hardcover limited-edition of Origin for its release October 3.

Though the competition language doesn’t make this clear, a marketing manager from Doubleday clarified in an email to Helfand that the limited print edition will not be sold. According to the email, Doubleday will print the limited edition with the winning design alongside the book that will actually be sold in stores, which will feature a cover designed by Doubleday’s in-house designer. “If it was going to be sold in stores, we wholeheartedly agree that the designer should be paid,” the marketing manager writes.

In that sense, the underlying reasoning from Doubleday is that since the contest will not directly generate any money for the publishing house and author, there is no harm in not compensating the designer. The benefit for the designers who enter is the exposure that they will get from the combined promotion on social media from Brown and Doubleday, and presumably whatever prestige that comes along with those associations.

Part of the problem with that reasoning is that it implies that if there’s no direct money transaction, there’s no need to pay out. By that logic, the marketing team behind this promotion shouldn’t get paid for the hard work they’ve contributed to it either. Doubleday isn’t running this marketing campaign purely for the love of modern art and mystery books–it’s purpose is to sell Dan Brown books.

The kicker is that Doubleday decided to crowdsource free work for one of its best-selling series—but publishers were not the ones who came up with the design competition model. They are borrowing from a timeworn design tradition; architects enter competitions for big projects all the time, and plenty of design firms do work on spec for potential clients. Whether firms, professional designers, or students should take on free work is a frequently debated topic within the design industry. In responding to this latest example, Helfand is making the point that soliciting free work from designers should not be common practice.

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In an email back to Doubleday’s marketing department she lays out why:

The visual results of what you describe as a “limited edition” that will not be sold can (and it sounds like, will) still be made public online, linked to Doubleday and to Dan Brown and accordingly, to all sorts of public-facing, high-yield social media profiles, thus collectively sharing whatever work was done for free—whether it is by real (read “trained”) designers or by those willing to offer their work for free (which devalues the work for all of us, period)—which is a lot of exposure for no money. Not a model that benefits the designers, though it seems pretty clear to me that it will benefit Doubleday and Dan Brown.

One of the most compelling arguments that has come out of the free-work conversation is that agreeing to it perpetuates a culture in which creative work goes unpaid and undervalued. As Helfand argues, it also sends a message that art and design are more like hobbies than careers. “If you are lucky, the fun and easy part is a lovely benefit,” she writes in her email. “But it is still business, and it is absolutely work—ergo, something changing hands that deserves compensation, plain and simple.”

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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