13 November 2006
Peter Giffen
Peter Giffen

Part one of two

It should have been graphic design in Canada's finest moment: A logo created for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games that would be seen by millions of people worldwide. Instead the method in which the logo would be chosen ignited a howl of protest from professional designers from Hong Kong to Halifax.

At a press conference held in British Columbia last May, John Furlong, the chief executive officer of the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC) announced a design competition to select the logo. The contest would be open to anyone. But not only would participants not be paid for their designs, they would have to pay $150 for the honour of entering.

The conference was interrupted by Matt Warburton, past-president of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada (GDC), who denounced the contest. The GDC's code of ethics discourages its 2,000 members from doing unpaid spec work, and the Olympics did not meet the society's guidelines for pro bono work.

Undeterred, Furlong went on to say he didn't "know what the ethical dilemma is," and that the honour of participating should be enough. "I would think that this is something [designers] want to do for the country."

"That kind of attitude drives me crazy," says Warburton. "There's this prevailing belief that designers are starving artists who should just give their work away. We don't expect to get paid for it but if we do, geez, we're lucky. That's not the way I look at my business of selling design. And I'm not giving it away for free."

The contest and the tempest it provoked - which received local and national media coverage and provoked designers around the world to join the protest - underscore the fact that graphic design is a profession in turmoil. After decades of TK, many clients still don't understand what designers do and the value of their services. As a result, designers are expected to do more for less with increasingly short deadlines. Many in the profession feel that they receive less respect and financial compensation now than they ever have, making work conditions that much more difficult. Casey Hrynkow, of Herrainco Skipp Herrainco in Vancouver, says it's "much harder today" than when she started in design 25 years ago. "Budgets are smaller and clients expect much more."

Gone are the days of fat accounts and languid time lines. "The people I learned from - like Concrete and Hambly & Woolly - have a very different standard of living than my [designers of] generation," adds Scott Christie, president of the Advertising & Design Club of Canada and principal at Pylon Design in Toronto. "Things are pretty tough today and you ask yourself, Is design dying? It's sad because you love what you do and would almost do it for free. But you shouldn't have to."

At the root of the designers' troubles lie the twin pressures of technology and economy. In today's competitive climate, companies have been forced to downsize and seek every cost saving possible. In a bid to stay ahead of the pack, they bring products to market far faster than ever before. The situation has a trickle-down effect on suppliers such as designers. "Clients today are very demanding," agrees Jean-Pierre LaCroix, of Shikatani LaCroix Brandesign in Toronto. "If you can't deliver the fastest designs at the highest quality and at very competitive prices, they are going to go elsewhere."

No Respect
Almost any designer you talk to has a horror story to tell about clients who have treated them like second-rate suppliers or worse.

Cindy Massolin, of Mountain Graphics in Moonstone, Ont., recalls giving a client a proof of the third revision of an identity design she had created for a new store. The client took the proof and shopped it around until another designer agreed to execute the same design for less money. "It's easy to work for less if you don't have to do any thinking," says Massolin, who took the client to small-claims court.

For his part, Pylon's Christie has been confronted with a few clients who override his printer recommendation and insist on using their own - usually someone with rock-bottom prices and quality to matche. When the job goes bad on press, Pylon takes the heat. "No matter how many times we tell clients we can't be liable for this, we still get blamed, and we've lost two or three clients as a result," he says. "Now we don't even go to press checks in these cases. We say, 'If you are taking this to your printer, please pay your bill and here are your files.' We don't want the job coming back at us."

But for many designers the epitome of disrespect is the Olympic design contest and the issue of speculative work - submitting finished designs without compensation unless they win the project. Many feel the major argument against spec work is economic rather than ethical. "The practice was established at ad agencies working on accounts worth a million dollars or more," says Casey Hrynkow. "It's just not economically viable for a job that is worth $5,000 to $100,000. The winner of the Olympic design competition may get $25,000, but most professionals would have to put in 200 or 300 hours of work to come up with something good. It doesn't make sense. I don't need the publicity myself. If VANOC needs to get this done for $25,000, they should hire someone for that amount."

Despite the GDC's stance on the practice, the association ultimately decided not to censure members who enter the 2010 Olympic Emblem Design Competition. The GDC allows members to compete for projects of "a general, community or public interest if they are of a non-profit nature," and VANOC is in the eyes of the law a not-for-profit organization.

The decision did not sit well with many in the design community. "The GDC caved in. It's really disheartening," says Carmen von Richthofen, executive director of the Association of Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario (RGD). "This being not-for-profit is a total red herring. 'Not-for-profit' doesn't mean the organization is poor, but that it doesn't have shareholders to answer to. VANOC might not show a profit but we know there are lots of ways to accomplish this, by paying fat consultant fees and so on. If VANOC right off the bat said that we want this as pro bono, there's nothing wrong with that."

But despite the huge support from the design community worldwide, the objection to spec work is not endorsed by everyone in the profession. Olaf Strassner, the Vancouver designer who created the logo for the Vancouver-Whistler bid committee, feels that the GDC is bound by too many rules and planned to enter the contest. "With the Olympics, it's more of an open contest," he said in a recent article in The Globe and Mail CHECK. "I don't get [the GDC's] argument. It's an honour to participate in this contest."

The Trouble With Technology
When it comes to a designer's working life, technology has proven to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it has revolutionized how designers operate, allowing them to create far more efficiently than ever before. On the other hand, it has raised expectations in clients that designers will work faster and do more - handling additional jobs once done by dedicated professionals such as typesetters and prepress operators - while charging less.

For Michael Wou, of Origami Communication Design in Montreal, one of the chief effects of technology has been to dangerously reduce deadlines and turnaround times. "Timelines are getting shorter and shorter," he says. "And of course, something has to give. Mistakes creep in. The quality of work goes down. I heard of one annual report where they were making changes on press. Ten years ago that was unheard of."

And then there is what one designer calls the "Command-D" factor: Some clients believe that a lot of design is handled by software. "Just hit Command-D and the design comes out." This serves to undermine designers' value as visual and strategic thinkers and turns them into computer jockeys. The next step, of course, is to cut the designer out of the loop altogether and get your secretary to produce that corporate newsletter or PowerPoint presentation. "What technology has done is put design tools in the hands of the masses," adds John Furneaux of Ove Design & Communications in Toronto. "Anybody can call themselves a designer because they have the tools to do it. Thirty years ago, not everyone could draw; it took skilled people. Today you don't need to have much training to create something that is aesthetically pleasing. But good design is not about the aesthetic, it's about the thinking. Design doesn't matter if it doesn't have a message."

For their part, developers of graphic software are looking beyond their core markets of Mac-based graphic arts professionals and targeting the huge market of Windows-based business and consumer users. "The design market, what we call our creative professional space, remains a huge part of Adobe's focus," explains Sebastian Distefano, senior business development, creative professional, at Adobe Systems. "Our core imaging technologies are for creative professionals. But in the past, that market grew in large amounts. Today the growth is a little slower. So it's safe to say that the corporate market is one of the fastest-growing markets. People are bringing things in-house as the technology gets easier for them to use."

In Part 2, find out what Canadian designers are doing to bridge the 'credibility gap'.

About this article
This article was originally published in Applied Arts Vol 19, No 5 (October 2004).

About Peter Giffen
Peter Giffen is a writer and editor living in Toronto.

About Applied Arts Magazine
Applied Arts Magazine is Canada's leading graphic arts publication, showcasing the best work from graphic designers, art directors, creative directors, copywriters, photographers, illustrators, multimedia designers and Web designers in Canada and beyond. With an average readership of sixty thousand, Applied Arts Magazine publishes six issues a year, including the Photography & Illustration Annual published in July, and the Design & Advertising Annual published in January.