Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

Is Tim Ferriss acting like an asshole?

Is Tim Ferriss acting like an asshole?
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Uh-oh… I feel a rant coming on, and it’s not one of those brief ones either. It’s long and full of my own custom brand of “bitchiness”. I typically don’t address the issue of “spec”. It’s a boring topic that has been debated on countless occasions. Something recently arose, however, that demanded a response.

The term “spec” is short-form for “speculative work”, meaning a job in which the client requests work samples before agreeing to pay for them. Most designers aren’t fond of it for simple reason: it’s nice to get paid for work. Nevertheless, the industry is haunted by spec. In large part, it’s a result of some folks thinking that designers just “make pretty stuff”, and should be happy doing so in squalor. “Want to get paid? Then put down the crayons and do some real fucking work!”

Unfortunate as this is, it’s a misapprehension that many hold. As a result, spec-work and design contests will likely persist. In the same vein, herpes may always exist, but that doesn’t make it any more desirable. To the point though: This past week, author/blogger Tim Ferriss stirred the waters a little, with either a naive blunder, or – more likely – a deliberate effort to gain publicity for his upcoming book.

The scoop

Tim’s known mostly for having engineered a book success through his social media efforts. The overriding theme of his blogging and book is concentrated on the Pareto principle (or the 80-20 rule). I haven’t read the book, but have perused his blog posts. Tim is clearly adept at managing his online persona. He’s a smart guy and has achieved success by telling stories people want to hear.

Recently, Tim started a contest to design his new book’s cover. He’s awarding $250 each to the creators of his four favorite designs. All those who enter the contest waive their rights to their submission, but may receive “cover credit, fame and glory, and … the possibility of a follow-on agreement” as he describes. As Tim sees it, creating the cover design would only take a “few hours” and the “upshot” makes it worth considering. It’s also worth noting that the publisher has a team working on this project already, and that his offering of $250 is representative of a “good faith gesture”.

Why this is a problem

“So what?” you ask, “A lot of people do this sort of thing. Why are you picking on Mr. Ferriss?” Well, I think Tim knew exactly how he’d rattle cages by doing this. I’m speculating here, but I think he’s picked a topic that will create a little buzz without reflecting on him too badly. (It’s not like he’s biting the head off a harmless dove or anything.) Sure, some will get cranky and write meandering posts about it, but really, so long as he responds politely with a general “Aww, shucks, what’s the problem, guys?” little harm is done. In fact, he might even seem like the “good guy” for affording designers the opportunity to express themselves. Meanwhile those snobby designers do little but whine about the whole thing.

Sure, on the surface, Tim’s foible – or stunt depending upon how you see it – is pretty harmless. As he notes, “If you don’t participate by submitting, it is impossible for me to exploit you.” I argue this to be rather simplistic though, sort of like an advertiser saying, “Hey, maybe our ads are sexist, but if you don’t like ‘em, don’t watch ‘em.” Tim’s supposed “raison d’être” is to help people live their best lives through efficient use of time; yet, with this action he individually squanders the time of many hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of people. Additionally, he perpetuates a much larger problem that shouldn’t be ignored.

Contests are fun!

I’m not a real “contest” kind of guy; still though, I can understand why people enjoy them. Perhaps you like to see how many pies or hot dogs you can stuff in your mouth at the county fair; or, maybe you like to get your buddies together for office hockey-pools. Whatever it is, a contest is generally about “fun”. Your livelihood probably doesn’t depend on inhaling plates of blueberry pie, which makes doing so mostly an indulgence. A lot of people apply this same sort of reasoning to design because our jobs look like fun.

It’s easy to understand why people see our industry this way. The output we’re responsible for seems colorful and ostensibly more pleasurable than more traditional seeming vocations; nevertheless, it’s work just like any other. There are good parts, challenging ones, and some even downright boring tasks. Ask most designers what they did all day, and they’ll likely to tell you about meetings, strategy documents, or coaching someone through a problem. The amount of time we get to “play with our crayons” is actually quite limited.

So now, look at your job, and ask yourself: How would you feel if your work was reduced to a contest? I’d guess you’d find it rather insulting. As an accountant, could you imagine meeting a potential client who wanted you to do the work first with the possibility of them “maybe” paying you after the labor was complete? Or, perhaps we could have a “steel fabricators contest”, in which hundreds of companies would design and build “spec” bridges with the best ones getting “credit, fame and glory”. Some will argue that I carry this too far. Spend a year as a designer though, and you’ll find yourself equally fed-up by how often you’re asked to work for free.

An industry-wide epidemic

If this were an isolated incident, we’d all probably let it go. Sadly though, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Even at our firm we’ve had multi-nationals approach us with the same sort of nonsense. The misconceptions surrounding design are far-reaching and have a deep impact on the industry, resulting in countless wasted hours.

This is perhaps best evidenced by such groups as SpecWatch and No!Spec. Additionally, groups like the AIGA have formally drafted policies surrounding these practices. The need for such protests and policies is in itself testament to the gravity of the problem. Just think about how absurd this notion is: Designers need to concertedly ask to be paid. Can you imagine such a thing with any other industry? (Just think of the American Dental Association having a “position on spec-work”.)

Of course, this is a preposterous notion; dentists don’t work for free. I, and many others, believe that designers shouldn’t either. Tim argues that he’s not making anyone do so and that the choice rests with the individual. Although this is technically accurate, the truth of the matter is that these contests trivialize the work of designers. By having allowed them to persist as we have, they’ve become even more socially acceptable. Meanwhile, for whatever unpleasant circumstances they may face, someone’s always willing to work for less than they should.

Who’s really affected here?

This brings me to the people who are really impacted by Tim’s contest and others like it: Those who have few other choices. You see, smashLAB doesn’t take-on projects like these and I’m similarly hard-pressed to think of another firm or practitioner who would. Although a few hobbyists might try their hand at this, the likelihood of Tim entertaining one of these options is negligible. (Besides, for someone in their basement with a copy of Photoshop, this probably is a “fun” little exercise.) They haven’t invested anything in gaining even rudimentary design expertise, and can return to their jobs as lawyers, mechanics or pharmacists the next morning—where they will be fairly compensated for their time,

The people who really get hit by spec-work are the recent graduates of design programs who are desperate to build a portfolio. I meet a lot of these young designers, and am continually inspired by how badly they want to practice their craft. (Some seem like they’d chew through a log just to get a new project in their portfolio.) I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not take advantage of these people. It surprises me that someone like Tim would.

I’d be remiss; however, to ignore the current economy and the sorry state it leaves a great many in right now. I know a number of strong designers (and even art directors) with decades of experience that are currently out of work. These aren’t normal times and options are limited. I have to wonder how many of these folks – who would have otherwise made a reasonable living from their work – are now forced to bid on speculative work in hopes of rattling anything free. These are people with real-life demands, families, and bills. It’s still bad out there for a lot of folks. Do you really want to be part of the reason that some end-up on social assistance?

Tim and those like him take great liberties by dangling a carrot in front of a great many desperate people. The worst part of this is that there’s an awful lot of stick, with only a tiny bit of carrot.

It gets worse

Just consider the kafuffle associated with the creation of the logo for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games—they actually had the audacity to ask participants to pay $150 just to enter the contest. The debacle went on to generate discussion in the national media. Most disturbingly, however, the Organizing Committee’s CEO John Furlong seemingly couldn’t even grasp why there was an associated ethical dilemma with their contest, noting “I would think that this is something [designers] want to do for the country.” Such a statement leads one to ask if Furlong might too work on a pro-bono basis with the same patriotic zeal.

This illustrates the gravity of this situation. It has persisted for so long that designers are labeled “cry-babies” for voicing their objections to such bad practices. To each rebuttal, designers are confronted by a number of vague and dubious promises, most often culminating in the maddeningly cavalier use of the term “exposure”. In this context the term becomes grossly abused, seemingly implying great hidden currency in such a thing.

From Tim Ferriss, such a notion may be indicative of his own hubris. Do you remember who designed the cover of his first book? No. Well, how about those Harry Potter books then? Those are a big deal—we have all been “exposed” to that designer, right? Know that person’s name? Nope? Hmmm… My assertion is that even few designers, aside from those specifically involved in crafting book covers, would be able to recount the name of any book jacket designer besides Chip Kidd.

Fortunes resulting from such exposure are hardly ever as forthcoming as promised by the one dangling the carrot. Exposure of this sort simply doesn’t matter. There are many fine ways for young designers to gain experience and build their portfolios. They can work on self-directed projects, barter services, take on internships that afford on-site experience, or even take equity in projects with limited budgets.

A lot of people will think that I’m a jerk for calling out Tim Ferriss on this point. I’ll take the barbs associated with that happily. In fact, I argue that each time a designer doesn’t protest spec-work they allow indifference to build around the topic. It’s not Tim’s seeming daftness on this issue that people like me take issue with; rather, it’s the indifference to the issue that perplexes us. Few other professionals need to make such great gestures around the issue of fair compensation.

From another vantage point

Some on Tim’s blog commented that those protesting were simply “dewhiners” (clever) and that such a thing wouldn’t be a problem amongst writers. I like that train-of-thought… in the interests of good fun, let’s apply this same arrangement to writing!

Let’s say that Tim offered up this same contest for “talented” authors who might take a stab at writing a chapter for his book. In doing so, he’d define strict criteria noting his expectations and personal preferences, and he’d allow anyone to submit their sample chapter. He’d commit to little, given that it’s always nicer when you have free-license to do what you will with all of that “creative stuff”. By maintaining all of the rights, he could keep or discard any aspect of the contribution—perhaps even casting-off how you wrote and just retaining the ideas he liked most. He would keep all of the profit too, but… he’d give you $250 as a “good faith gesture”. Oh, right… and that “exposure” thing.

Think about this: Tim doesn’t just get ownership of your work: he gets the right to do anything with it. Sure, a few people might go for it; but, does that make the request any more reasonable? Just because you can dangle a prize in front of a whole bunch of hungry people doesn’t mean you should. Incidentally, some will argue that it takes longer to write a chapter than design a cover. That’s probably not wholly untrue, but I don’t think the tasks are as different as some might think. Actually, I’m doing both right now, and I’ve spent about the same time on each.

Let’s get real

I say Tim wanted some free publicity – which he got – alongside some inexpensive ideas for his cover. He’s pretty good at seeming like a misunderstood nice-guy, which perhaps he is, but his actions might lead us to a different conclusion.

Some will say that I’m making too much noise about something that really doesn’t matter. Others will argue that I’m just another designer pissed that it’s getting easier to do what we do. Neither is really the truth though. Tim’s foibles in this matter have little impact on my life—it’s not as though I’m forced to enter contests to earn a living. That being said, reading his post made me feel like he was abusing his “micro-celebrity” status at the expense of those just getting started in their careers. Standing-by without saying anything seemed inappropriate.

I’ll drop it now, as I now have to work on the cover of my book. (I probably have less money than Tim, but I’m designing this myself, instead of bribing recent graduates.) If you want a copy of the book, you can pre-order one here. Tim, since you’re apparently short on cash, I’ll even mail you a copy for free.

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