08 November 2006
Julia Ptasznik, editor
Julia Ptasznik, editor

For dozens of years, we've been bitching about clients who want to "move this there, make that bigger, and change this color." We are still at it, but most grudgingly acknowledge that some things never change and move on to fights they can fight.

The reason for polling the creative community on the topic of pet peeves was that such responses could be viewed as, perhaps, the best indication of what's really going on in the industry. When we first put out our call, we expected to get back a lot of the same old, along the lines of clients still "not bloody paying for white space." While we got some of that (the jury is still out on the Mac vs. PC issue, but nobody really cares anymore) surprisingly, the overall response demonstrated a shift in what pisses us off; there is a clearly defined move away from aesthetics to business-related issues.

For instance, while this is a time when it is easier than ever to set up your own shop, many freelancers are finding out that larger businesses tend to look down upon home-based freelancers. David A. Burgess suggests that the reason for the trend is "freelancers who defraud clients or do shoddy work, thus giving other freelancers and home-based artists a bad name." Without spending more time on this here, read the spotlight column titled "Pastures New," which suggests that this perception is changing, albeit slowly.

Visual artists are also becoming increasingly aware of contractual issues. Many of us are discouraged by the process of negotiating copyright transfer, as many a client still purports the "I paid for it, thus I own it" mentality. Most artists are willing to give up ownership for additional fees, but such fees are close to impossible to negotiate. Further, many clients want to secure all rights, yet leave all the liabilities for the actual art with the creator. The creative community is responding by using their own contracts that address such issues and negotiating all of such matters before the project begins.

Another peeve is the assignment of blame game we play with our clients. Karen Horton's response is: "Give me copy that is correct and complete before giving it to me to work with, otherwise don't bitch and moan when it moves up the deadline. "It's just a little minor correction" doesn't cut it." Another reported instance is a client dissatisfied that an extra paragraph of text seems to have been duplicated in the printed version of their newsletter. Asking them whether or not they proofed the blue prints and match prints yields "Oh, we never do that." Explaining that transition from design to pre-press can, sometimes, cause such errors also proves pointless. The client decides the designer is to blame. Everyone agrees that while in some cases, instances such as these are unavoidable, clear communication, including breaking the project into stages, defining mutual responsibilities, and negotiating incremental fees and longer turnaround times for corrections to "final" copy, can help avoid much of the aggravation.

Despite this newfound awareness of client communication and negotiation, the freebie job has reached a new low. Companies are asking for work on spec left and right, and the competition mentality is prevailing. Worst yet, clients employed by large corporations who give artists lots of ongoing business are asking these artists to complete personal work for them for free. One illustrator was recently asked to do a portrait of someone's granddaughter, and did so partly because he is a nice guy, but in large part because this company gives him a lot of business and he did not want to lose a valuable account (thank you, Ron, for sharing the experience). But our favorite, by far, is "Do this project for free because you are _____." (Plug in "gay," "African-American," "Russian," or "Catholic," as appropriate.) This trend was brought up by too many people to mention. The bottom line here is that most creatives are outright refusing these inequitable scenarios, but how do you avoid blatant blackmail?

We seem to have found a new circle of Hell - clients want what they have always wanted, but cheaper and faster then ever before. Part of this is brought on by the illusion that technology makes our jobs so much easier than before, and that we should now be able to get things done in half the time. The other part is that there are now people with access to digital cameras and "graphics" software packages who semi-legitimately call themselves photographers and designers, and are, in fact, able to get a project done in half the time it would take a professional and often for a fraction of the fee. We all know the reason for that one. You get what you pay for.

Speaking of getting what you pay for, there is also the notion that anybody can build a website, which was the topic of many submissions we received. One rather eloquent submission came from Anthony Butcher, a professional web designer (, and it read: "Where did the myth of "anyone can do it" come from? I am all for people learning how to design, but there is a difference between slapping some HTML together and building a good web site. Worse still, when the results are really poor, clients start to rant about how rubbish the Internet is. If people aren't prepared to put time and money into a site, why are they expecting such fantastic results? A good analogy is a leaflet drop where the leaflets are bad photocopies and don't actually get through any doors. Would they expect good results from this?"

As these last two items point out, there is much concern among creatives about new competition coming from people who are not professionally trained to do what we do. Many respondents to our call point out that top-of-the-line equipment and six months at a trade school do not make one a designer, photographer, or illustrator. Others say that talent and experience play a larger role than education. The community seems to be divided on the issue, but here are two responses that pretty much say it all. Dave Moon's biggest peeve "are those who whine and complain about all the newbie design wannabes. If you know business, you know and understand segmented markets. So I often wonder why those who are so savvy worry about direct competition from a 15 year old kid. Fifteen-year-old kids don't do direct mail campaigns, or advertise in trade periodicals, or work industry shows, or write and submit press releases, or pound the corporate pavement looking for new work and opportunities when cash flow wears thin. Preach the quality of your work through your work: it should speak for itself. Talk is cheap." As to who is allowed to call oneself a designer, Cole has this to say: "Talented, creative, highly trained people are designers (we like them, we like to work with them, we like to think we are them). Untalented, mediocre, minimally trained people are NOT designers (we don't like them, we hate to work with them, and nobody ever recognizes him or herself as a member of that group). Surprise!" The truth is yes, now more than ever, there are a lot more people claiming expertise in various creative fields. But they are only a threat to those who are not at the top of their game.

Incidentally, one relatively disturbing yet truthful response that came from Paul Rudolf bears mentioning. His pet peeve is that the creative field is "often mean spirited. I think it's because of artists who know just enough about business to make a living, but not enough to compete in a healthy way that helps everyone and encourages new people to join the community. Art draws people who have gentle natures, and who may be turned off by other kinds of business. They seek community and encouragement. Instead of help, they find a mean-spirited sort of competition. Maybe it's a manifestation of the conflict within artists who would rather be adored as another Lenny Da V. than have to work for grubby dollars. Whatever it is, I know of no other profession that is more of a bug light, attracting then zapping young hopefuls. Arghhhh. Play nice!"

What is most interesting is how all of these responses contrast with the notion that creatives are terrible business people. This opinion is widely supported not only by our clients, but also by ourselves. However, this poll provides a clear indication of the contrary being true. Our industries are booming, spurred by the availability of many more communications mediums. The need for creatives is only going to continue to grow, and we are going to continue to adopt to the ever-changing landscape by becoming more and more business-savvy. Those who perceive us as purely bohemian should take heed. 

About this article
2000, Visual Arts Trends
First published in Visual Arts Trends 2W (winter 2000)

About the Author
Julia Ptasznik is an honors graduate (BFA) and a faculty member of the Advertising/Graphic Design department of the New York, USA-based Fashion Institute of Technology. She has written and presently teaches a course on Professional Practices to upper-class design students. In addition to being the editor of Visual Arts Trends, Julia is a freelance consultant specializing in marketing strategy development, copywriting and graphic design. Her portfolio includes work for companies and organizations such as the United Nations, Buick, Bertolli USA, Sprint PCS, The Fragrance Foundation and Domino's Pizza. Prior to starting her own business, Julia has worked on both client and agency sides, most recently as director of communications of an international trading firm, Atwood Richards Inc., which has offices in 32 countries. Her previous experience includes working on design projects for the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament, well-known apparel industry brands such as Bonjour, and varied toy packaging accounts.


About Visual Arts Trends
With offices in New York and London, Visual Arts Trends is an international quarterly "state of the industry" report for the creative professional. Focusing on graphic design, advertising art direction, photography and illustration, each report offers a brief, business-oriented, definitive and timely overview of industry developments that affect aesthetics, pricing, salaries, working conditions and client relations. Visual Arts Trends combines unique proprietary research with material gathered by monitoring hundreds of publications, companies, membership organizations, online sources, and other relevant sources of information. The reports review and analyzes professional trends by business category and by specialization. In addition, each report profiles client industries interviews with senior executives of leading companies and organizations. An annual subscription retails for US$29.99 and includes four reports available for download as PDF files. Visual Arts Trends is a trademark of and is published by Colonial Communications Corp.