99 Designs Done Dirt Cheap

99 Designs is a web-based service that provides a place for people to post “contests” in which designers can compete by creating designs for the contest briefs. The contest creator picks the winner, who gets paid for their work. The perceived benefit for the person or business creating a contest is that they get to choose from dozens of possible designs. The supposed benefit for the designers is that they can get their work in front of a bunch of potential clients and get paid. This is what we refer to as “spec work” (speculative work), and professional designers frown upon it. The practice is bad for the people participating and bad for our industry as a whole.

I’ve made it a topic of discussion in my Design Issues class the past few times I’ve taught it. Lately, 99 Designs has been advertising on the TWIT network, and it pains me every time I hear Leo Laporte lauding the benefits. Let’s do a little math.

99 Designs boasts that they have a “community” of 293,556 designers. They also advertise that they made $2,229,376 in payouts to those designers last month. Wow, over two million! This must be a great way for designers to make some dough. Let’s say every one of their designers was equally successful. That would be $7.59 per designer. I don’t think I could live on that for a month. Of course, it’s not paid out equally. Only the designers that win get paid anything. So, what is actually happening is that there are a whole bunch of designers that make absolutely nothing in a month and a relative few that make several hundred dollars. A large project, like a significant website design, may pay a few thousand, but for those, you are competing against over 100 entries. The odds of winning a contest are slim. The odds of consistently winning contests are even slimmer. Any designer is going to end up doing a lot of work that they don’t get paid for in the hopes that the next one will be their lucky day. That’s no way to make a living. It sounds more like a gambling addiction.

So, it’s not so good for the designers. What about the clients? Well, if you are really just looking for something cheap, because you can’t afford to hire a professional, then yes, this will benefit you. But know this: a professional designer is going to work to understand your needs thoroughly and tailor a solution that is specific to you, your organization, your product, etc. If it’s a book cover, they’re going to read the book, not just work off of a couple paragraphs that give a high level overview. If it’s a logo, they are going to work closely with you over the entire course of the project, not just “polish the designs over 7 days”, as is stated on the 99 Designs homepage. They aren’t going to make decisions solely based on what they think you are going to like, but consider all of the variables that will make the artifact being designed more or less successful. When you hire a professional designer, you are going to benefit from a process through which you will develop a meaningful, rewarding designer-client relationship.

Before participating in 99 Designs or one of the similar spec work services, I encourage you to read Grace’s article, How I Quit Working for 99Designs, Crowdspring and Mycroburst. Also, see AIGA’s position on spec work and NO!SPEC, a site devoted to educating the public about spec work.

Get your words out of my mouth.

As far as reasonably priced hotels go, I’ve been pleased with Hilton Garden Inn. I’ve been staying in one this week. I just happened to look at the small print at the bottom of the little folder containing my room key card. This is what it says:

“I have requested weekday delivery of USA TODAY. If refused, a credit of $0.75 will be applied to my account.” Please call the Front Desk or check here to refuse. ☐
(Please drop off during your stay)

I requested no such thing. I left the paper lying on the floor outside of my door every morning. Housekeeping brings it in, but I don’t touch it. I have no interest in reading it. I certainly didn’t request it, regardless of the quotation marks around this 6-point text that I only happened to notice by chance. Calling the front desk is hardly worth the 75 cents, but I’m going to do it anyway, just to make a point.

You can keep your paper, and you can keep your words out of my mouth! 

Designing for the Divide

Whether we think of issues of governance, religion, race, the environment, economic development, education, or healthcare, the inability to communicate, cooperate or compromise erodes social capital and weakens the ability to draw on diverse skill sets to address common challenges.

This conference calls for ideas that help bridge social divides from the fields of communication design, service design, user experience design, behavioral and social psychology and partners in civic engagement. These will include projects, media innovations and citizen brigades among others. The conference will also schedule workshops and planning sessions to jump start some of those ideas.

I’m driving down to WVU early tomorrow morning to attend Designing for the Divide, a conference on community action across lines of difference. The conference chairs are my colleagues, the design faculty at WVU. The conference is the brain child of Eve Faulkes, the professor under which I received by bachelor’s degree.

There is an interesting array of speakers, ranging from Yossi Lemel, and internationally recognized, Israeli poster artist, to Emily Pilloton, founder of Project H and author of the book Design Revolution. There will be workshops dealing with industry and the environment, religion, health issues, the economy, and the politics that surround them. It should be an interesting two days.

My students created large-format posters dealing with some of the issues as their most recent project, and I intend to share a couple of them with you next week.

It all brings to mind this passage from Richard Saul Wurman’s book, Information Architects:

There is a tsunami of data that is crashing onto the beaches of the civilized world. This is a tidal wave of unrelated, growing data formed in bits and bytes, coming in an unorganized, uncontrolled, incoherent cacophony of foam. It’s filled with flotsam and jetsam. It’s filled with the sticks and bones and shells of inanimate and animate life. None of it is easily related, none of it comes with any organizational methodology.

As it washes up on our beaches, we see people in suits and ties skipping along the shoreline, men and women in fine shirts and blouses dressed for business. We see graphic designers and government officials, all getting their shoes wet and slowly submerging in the dense trough of stuff.

These same people read the newspaper, thinking they understand the issues of the day, whether it’s the Savings and Loan crisis, the health-care crisis, Bosnia-Hercegovina, or taxes, or insurance. They nod their heads, knee-jerking to key words in headlines, but unable to tell anybody else, including themselves, the essence of any issue.

Design Issues

There’s one week left in the masters-level class I’ve been teaching. It is mainly a seminar-style course with a few complimentary projects. The semester was organized into seven units. These are the readings that my students were required to write responses to and then discuss in class. This is a good survey of the current state of design theory.

Defining Design
Beautiful Diversion - NextD Journal
Are Designers The Enemy Of Design? - BusinessWeek
In which design is subjected to Lakovian analysis - greenonions.com
Defining Design - jamin.org

Design Leadership
Design Vision
Managing is Designing? Exploring the Reinvention of Management - NextD
Design Vs. Design Thinking. - BusinessWeek
Leadership Is THE Strategic Issue - AIGA

The Design Landscape
What is graphic design? - AIGA
What is Industrial Design? - IDSA
What is IA? - IAI
Definition of IxD - IxDA
Designing for Interaction - Dan Saffer (pages 2-8 and 20-22)
Ladder of Fire: Unpacking Advocacies - NextD
IA Summit 09 - Plenary - Jesse James Garrett
What is Design? (Yes, all 10 definitions!) - Demystifying Usability
Why Does Interaction Design Matter? Let’s Look At The Evolving Subway Experience - FastCompany
10 Most Common Misconceptions About User Experience Design - Mashable
What is service design? - Design Council
Engine Service Design
Richard Buchanan Keynote – Emergence 2007 « Design for Service
An Evolving Map of Design Practice and Design Research - Dubberly

Design Methods
The students researched specific methods individually and presented them to the class, rather than having assigned readings, but I did provide the following resources as starting points.
Stories - Boxes and Arrows
NASA - Process: User Centered Design Methods
Use our methods - Stanford d.school 
Design methods - Design Council

Design & Business
AIGA Center for Practice Management - Trademark Basics for Graphic Designers
AIGA | Aquent Survey of Design Salaries
Intellectual Property: What does “Work for Hire” mean for designers? - AIGA
Why Does My Firm Own Everything I Do? Intellectual Property & You - Core77
The State of our Contracts - AIGA
American Firms Now Embrace Design, But They’re Aging Fast. What’s Next? - Co. Design
The Cost of Frustration - UIE
No Accounting For Design? - Fast Company
Dos and Don’ts for Designers Dealing with Business - Core77
On Being T-Shaped - Core77
Ten Ways to Measure Design’s Success - BusinessWeek

Social & Organizational Change
Hourschool: Learn from your network, one hour at a time. - AC4D
AIGA | Design for Good
Redesigning America’s Future
Introduction: Design and Organizational Change - Richard Buchanan
Marc Rettig - How to Change Complicated Stuff - IxDA Library
RED Paper 02: Transformation Design
The Designers Accord
Navigating a Sea Change - Lauralee Alben

Design Ethics
AIGA | Ethics and Social Responsibility 
AIGA | Logo Warehouses, Crowdsourcing, and a Lack of Understanding 
AIGA | What’s the harm in crowdsourcing? 
AIGA | AIGA position on spec work 
AIGA | Design Business and Ethics 
AIGA | AIGA urges the Obama 2012 campaign to reconsider its jobs poster contest 
What is AIGA’s position on spec work? And how are ethical standards determined?
AIGA Standards of professional practice
Ethics in the Design Field - Webdesigner Depot
The Politics of Desire and Looting - Design Observer
"This is what I have learned" by Milton Glaser
First Things First 2000
First Things First 1964
In Search of Ethics in Graphic Design — AIGA

Design Education
Design Research and Education: A Failure of Imagination? - Core77 
Why Design Education Must Change - Core77 
Teaching Social Innovation - Austin Center for Design
What this Country Needs is a Good Five-Year Design Program - AIGA

This is Personal

One of the reasons design is such a rewarding career is that the work is personal. Whether I’m laying out a gate-fold brochure for the I Have a Dream Foundation, implementing a website for my church, or designing an application that will improve the safety and efficiency of our nation’s soldiers, I know that my work is positively impacting someone’s life. I’ve particularly enjoyed participating in feedback sessions with our military customers where I’ve had the opportunity to observe and work with the men and women that put their lives on the line for our security. But even when dealing with customers of a more commercial nature, it’s important to remember that the work I do can influence the success or failure of their business. To some extent, I am helping or hindering other people’s careers and livelihood. Design certainly isn’t the only occupation that can make such claims, and there are many occupations that have more impact on people’s lives, but it is one of the qualities that stirs my passion. Design is personal.

Champions of Quality

I have a Ryan home that I had built in 2003. Overall, it’s a nice house, but when you have a contractor erect a cookie-cutter building, they are going to find ways to cut costs. Last weekend, the counter weight spring on my garage door, well, sprung. My wife called a local garage door installation specialist, and he informed us that they see this problem quite often. When the house was built, the contractor installed the cheapest spring they could get. We actually got about five more years out of it than some people do. It cost nearly $700 to replace, but the new one has a lifetime warranty. I would have preferred putting the extra for the quality spring on my mortgage to begin with, but I wasn’t given a choice.

How do you approach designing and building software for your customer or employer? Do you put in the extra time and effort necessary to deliver a high-quality, maintainable product, or do you make compromises to save time, money, or effort—compromises that may result in higher maintenance costs, poorer user productivity, or early obsolescence? I’m somewhat ashamed to say that I’ve been on both ends of that yard stick, but I strive to always deliver the highest quality product I can. Designer’s should be champions of quality, pushing their companies, coworkers, and clients to take the long view.

Design for Evil

Kaleem Khan’s Interaction 11 lightning session Design for Evil: Ethical Design seems to have created a fair amount of discussion—there has at least been a lot of Twitter traffic about it—and as that seems to have been his intent, one might say it was successful. However, I did not find the talk to be at all illuminating and was frankly put off by his overly dramatic and condescending presentation style.

Kaleem began the talk by accusing the audience of not thinking enough about ethics related to our work. Well, I’ve taught units on ethics in design, so right off the bat, I had a hard time taking him seriously. As a general rule, you shouldn’t accuse people of anything when you don’t know them, and in that particular crowd, there were bound to be people who have thought about it more deeply than he has. Then, he insinuated that we were to blame for suicides at Foxconn, the company that manufactures all of our iStuff. He did this for shock value, but he apparently didn’t do much research. According to Tom Foremski at ZDNet, Foxconn’s suicide rate is lower than China’s national average. There are many other reasons as to why this was a poor example, and J. Ambrose Little did a fine job addressing them in his blog post Are We Only Concerned with Fashionable Morality?

There is so much potential for a deep, thought-provoking discussion on this topic, but Kaleem didn’t really get into it, relying instead on theatricality and provocation at the emotional level. There was no indication of scholarly endeavor. Milton Glaser outlined 12 steps in the Road to Hell in his talk at Voice (PDF) in 2002. There are a number of articles about ethics in graphic design on AIGA’s site. There are standards of professional practice, a lot of writing about sustainability, not to mention Nathan Shedroff’s book Design is the Problem, and there are initiatives like The Designer’s Accord and the First Things First Manifesto (1964, 2000). There are many different ethical issues, such as spec work, offshore outsourcing, software licensing, copyright and patent issues, work environment and personnel problems, and the list goes on.

He wrapped up by asking if he made the correct decision when he turned down a job with a casino, even though he was out of work. That isn’t a question that the audience can answer. Ethics is, to a large degree, very personal. Perhaps it was a rhetorical question, but he seemed to want an answer. I know where I draw my line.

I was disappointed in the lack of intellectual content in the presentation, and I was somewhat offended by the speaker’s condescending, accusatory attitude. You can find similar responses by other attendees on SpeakerRate.