Thursday, February 23rd, 2006

The value of Canadian design

The value of Canadian design
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This morning at coffee Peter, one of the designers at our firm, noted that he had a hot topic suggestion for our ideasonideas. He wasn’t kidding, but when he sent me this link I thought that someone might be. Go ahead and read the post, and see if you agree with me. We have quoted the content below.

The call for entries

This is how the posting on the Design Exchange site reads:

My Canadian Cultural Gateway Webpage Competition
Design Competition Submissions deadline:
March 24, 2006: Web Designers Show Your Stuff!

The Department of Canadian Heritage in collaboration with Design Exchange are hosting a national design competition as part of the redesign of the gateway planned for the fall of 2006. The aim of this competition is to select a winning design that will be designed for, produced and chosen by Canadians to be representative of their values, heritage and culture. A selection committee will shortlist three (3) design concepts. The Canadian public will have the chance to determine the winner through an on-line voting system. The winning team will receive a guaranteed fee of $2,500 CDN upon delivery of the source file and the final two-page design brief. Additionally, the winning design team will be acknowledged by the Department of Canadian Heritage on

On-line voting for Viewer’s Choice Awards: April 1-31, 2006

Announcement of Winning Design at digifest 2006, the Toronto based International Festival of Digital and Media Culture: May 12, 2006

In a nutshell…

Two significant cultural institutions in Canada, namely Canadian Heritage and the Design Exchange, don’t think that the design profession deserves to be treated with more respect than a bunch of kids entering a colouring contest.

Why many designers believe that “spec” is a four letter word

Some people likely don’t understand why there’s so much hubbub around spec work. I’m sure that a few even feel that we just need to chill-out. Fine enough, but I’m convinced that most would change their minds upon considering this practice, and what spec implies.

Take your profession. Think about how hard you have worked to learn what you currently know. Now, pretend that every month or two, you have to defend what you do to your boss, and then she will pick and choose who gets paid for their work. Ultimately, that’s what spec is. When a potential client asks for work on spec, they basically negate the entire value of a profession.

Design is a challenging practice. It generally pays modestly, but requires many years of discipline before many will produce work of any significant mention. An effective design effort can mean success for a group; whereas, a poorly planned effort can result in great detriment.

A world on spec

Next time you need your car fixed, I encourage you to visit your mechanic and explain that if you like what he does, you’ll think about paying him something for his efforts. Or for even more fun, go to the doctor, and ask him to remove that hairy mole from your left elbow. Then explain that he should be grateful for the opportunity, as anyone with an exacto and some band-aids could have done it. If you want him to be really keen, tell him that he can put his name on the band-aid–it will be really great “exposure.”

Really, I encourage you to try this. See how well it works. And if they complain about it being unprofessional, tell them that they are just being too sensitive about the whole thing.

The value of Canada

I suppose the even bigger question for Canadian Heritage and the Design Exchange is, “what’s the value of this project?” First off, if they are willing to skip any proper design process in the development of this effort, what quality of work are they really to be left with?

Additionally, I have to question the monetary remuneration that they are willing to put on such a significant project. You see, the design of the nation’s cultural portal, the one that will be representative of Canadian values, heritage and culture is worth a whopping $2,500. That’s right, about the same as two months rent of a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver.

Clearly, neither of these organizations truly understands nor respects the value of our profession.

Canadian Heritage and the Design Exchange should know better

When the bowling club down the street offers fifty bucks to local kids to draw up a new logo, you can sort of understand the whole thing. No designer would get pissed about this. No one’s hurt, and really, if the drawing on Uncle Wally’s bowling shirt is a little on the ugly side, who’s to say there’s anything really wrong with that?

These folks however, know that Canada’s creative population adds vibrancy and depth to who and what we are as a nation. How they could have made such a blunder escapes me. On one hand, I thought that perhaps they were strapped for cash, but I checked… Canadian Heritage’s operating budget for 2005 was $172 million.

Here’s a thought

Perhaps my whole perspective on spec work is simply backwards. Maybe I’m one of those designers who just can’t get past that peculiar notion of being paid for what I do. How silly and short-sighted of me.

I’ve reconsidered my entire stance. Let’s make spec easier, and let’s begin with the people at Canadian Heritage. Really, why pay, when we can get it for less? Here’s my suggestion. Let’s ask the people at Canadian Heritage to do their jobs on spec.

I propose that they all do their jobs for the next month as usual. At the end of the period, they can write summaries of their activities for us to review. We’ll post them on, and all of Canada can vote on who we should pay.

The winning contestant will earn $2,500, and will be named on (Sheesh, and they said it would be tough to cut the federal deficit.)

Spec work screws us all

I can forgive the general public for not understanding why spec work is so damaging to our industry, but I feel quite differently about all of us. We’re professionals and we have a responsibility to act as such. If we don’t take a stand on this, we are the ones to blame for the challenges our industry faces.

When you or your firm does work on spec, you forever diminish the value of your work. Why would anyone pay you a fair rate, when they know that you are willing to do it for very little, or even for free? Greater yet, what are you saying to your peers, by undercutting costs so greatly, that you reduce the possibility of being reasonably compensated for your work?

Parting thoughts

In the meanwhile, I would just like to send a big thank-you Design Exchange for “promoting the value of Canadian Design.” Really, with contests such as this, you’re doing one heck of a job.

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