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Rebecca Mallett

Wanted: Graphic Designers to Work for Free

by Rebecca Mallett | Dun & Bradstreet Editor

November 17, 2011 | 7 Comments »

The Obama for America campaign is asking graphic designers to show their support for Obama and his plan to put Americans back to work. Through a contest titled Art Works, the campaign has solicited designers to submit posters promoting the American Jobs Act. However, in a move that seems ironic considering the campaign’s goals, designers will not be paid for their posters. The top three submissions will win a framed copy of their own poster signed by the President, which is estimated to be valued at $195.

The Graphic Artists Guild has aggressively criticized the poster contest in an open letter written to the Obama for America campaign. The outrage over the contest stems not only from the obvious irony of asking people to work for free for a jobs campaign, but also from the very real issue of unemployment in the industry. Between 2008 and 2009, employment plunged nearly 11 percent. Employment fell another 6 percent from 2009 to 2010. Job losses in the industry have flattened in 2011, but employment remains well below pre-recession levels.

As with many industries, graphic design services rely on a healthy economy. Spending on marketing, advertising and promotion drive industry revenue. In addition to economic challenges, the industry struggles to compete with in-house design teams and easy to use, do-it-yourself design services online. Companies also commonly outsource design work to countries with lower cost workers, instead of hiring US designers. Even prior to the late 2000s recession, the industry grew slower than other professional service and design industries. (See the First Research Graphic Design Services industry profile for a full industry description and more insights into the industry’s challenges, trends, and opportunities.)

The Obama campaign has more than $60 million in cash and can certainly afford to pay for promotional posters. Then again, campaigns also rely on volunteers. What do you think? Should designers be paid for poster submissions? Or should posters be viewed as a political contribution and not an employment opportunity?



Payment is a must for the professional. The Graphic Artists Guild is a dedicated group that helps educate and protect the value of creative professionals. The campaign should not expect professionals to design the posters for free, however, if it were a student competition, I can see the value for the winner to be doing it gratis.

Shame, shame campaign… why don’t you open the competition up to people outside the USA as to really slap the face of Americans…

100% in support of the Graphic Designer being paid. I find it pretty disgusting that they’re using emotion to persuade the artist to work for free. The Obama campaign is suggesting that the work would show the artists support for Obama and his quest to help other get work. Do they use this same idea with other’s on the campaign trail. Do they ask for free meals, a free bus, free airfare, free everything because it will show everyone’s support for his plans? If his campaign has said amount of money then what are they using if for if they are trying to get everyone to work for free. And it’s a slap in the face to the people volunteering with his campaign when it’s running on the idea of getting jobs to Americans. No better way to demonstrate his commitment to this by HIRING the people on his campaign. It at least makes his message a little more credible. Just saying.

I think this depends on the situation and nature of the campaign, but given the environment in which this request has been made would only warrant that the designer gets paid! It is at the heart of the subject matter. Now, should the person volunteering also be paid? No. Simply because the nature of that persons contribution to the campaign is different. I think if the campaign would have made an open call to ‘volunteer your talent’ as designer to create a poster WITHOUT any sort of compensation (and said poster has been valued at $195 – so it’s compensation) it would have been different. And as mentioned previously if the campaign called for student entries (or the like) it also would have changed the nature of the contribution. Whoever created this particular campaign did not have the foresight to see potential repercussions associated with this particular campaign.

Only the winner should be paid and probably more than $195. Most competitions’ entries are free or participants have to pay to register.

Thank you, Rebecca, for writing this post. This addresses a hot topic within the design community right now. This project falls under what we call “crowdsourcing”. This is when companies or individuals run a contest for a design (most commonly logos), and offer pennies for payment. This is a form of working “on-spec”, which is generally looked down upon. Graphic design is not a commodity, and crowdsourcing in any form treats is as such.

Crowdsourcing has become common, and there are websites and logo mills to be found on the web by the dozen. Not only is it damaging the design industry, but there are legitimate companies out there who don’t realize that many of these designs are hastily created, sometimes using clip-art, and often using copyrighted material.

The Graphic Artists Guild has posted a letter regarding the Obama poster contest: https://www.graphicartistsguild.org/advocacy-letter/

That AIGA also has several articles at http://www.aiga.org, search “crowdsourcing”.

Please note that graphic designers are not the only ones taking a hit from this type of contesting. Many other service-based industries are experiencing the same issues, such as attorneys, doctors, writers, and more.

Obama’s notion that professionals in this industry are either used to or willing to work for free is ridiculous, and I think it shows just how out of touch his campaign is with the very real problems graphic designers face. What about leading by example?

Thank you for all your comments. I’m sure some designers are happy to volunteer their skills for a political campaign they support, although many are upset about it. I do think because of the nature of this campaign, hiring designers could have enhanced the message. Clearly asking for free posters has distracted and maybe even damaged the overall purpose.

I should clarify that the campaign reserves the right to use any of the submitted posters, not just the winning entries. This means that many designers will not be compensated for their work. Those that are, will be compensated with signed posters. Also, the poster submissions will not necessarily be protected from copyright infringement. These are important issues as well. Whether or not it seems appropriate to ask people to volunteer their design skills, receiving credit for those skills and protecting work from plagiarism is important to most designers.

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