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Dani Nordin is the founder of the zen kitchen, a graphic/web design and branding studio on the outskirts of Boston MA. The studio aims to help clients create a brand that tells their story in a way that relates to their audience as human beings, not as just another demographic. It also helps clients communicate their message in ways that have less harmful ecological consequences by supporting sustainable printing practices and finding ways to provide more information via the Web.

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More than Just Spec: The Curse of the "Just That Cool" Project
by Dani Nordin
I should have seen it coming. I knew it would happen eventually – the more people I meet as a self-employed designer, the more well-meaning new friends end up forwarding me job posting after job posting. Some friends, as lovely as they are, send me info on full-time employment gigs, not understanding that I work for myself because I DON’T want to work full-time for someone else, as tempting as it may sometimes seem when times are slow. Others (and this is much more common) come across every person on Craigslist looking for a website or logo and forward the job listing to me, in hopes that it might beget me a new client. They’re sweet really.

The only problem with this bevy of well-intentioned job leads is this: inevitably, each and every one of them save a scarce few was looking for the same thing – great design for almost nothing. None of these potential clients had the slightest clue what contracting professional design services entails. One in particular was especially annoying: a logo contest for an online corset retailer offering the winner a free corset, valued up to $200, as payment for the chosen design.

My undying love for custom corsets aside, the fact that someone is seriously offering the possibility of up to a $200 value for their logo is profoundly ignorant, if not insulting. However, at least in this situation, there is a chance of some form of payment. In a trend I’ve seen entirely too often, someone logs into one of the various online communities I frequent and makes the following tentative request:

Hi,
I need a website for my new business venture/webzine/dog-sweater store. Flash intro with lots of graphics, an online store and a blog. I want something really cool and eye-catching, like the Nike site.

I can’t pay you now, but if this thing takes off I’ll be able to give you more work in the future. Plus you’ll get to use this as a portfolio piece.

Please send an email with a link to samples of your work to: sketchyspecguy@hotmail.com.

Recognize this one? I’m not even going to beat the spec horse here – many people, including the AIGA, have already gone there with much more eloquence than I. This type of request, as well as the corset-logo contest, represents the ultimate in ignorance: it’s the client that expects you to work for free or almost free because his/her project is Just That Cool.

I fell into this trap before, back when I was a poor and struggling designer, trying to break my way into a regular practice. Forever ago now, I decided to volunteer as the art editor of an online arts and culture webzine. I had some free time (well, not really, but I always kid myself that I have free time) and thought it would be a great opportunity to meet interesting people, support the arts and keep this really cool thing alive and flourishing. All in all, it was a great gig – most of the artists came to me, and I was happy to give good artists a venue in which to expose their work to a wider audience. The only problem? The founder of the site wanted four new galleries every two weeks. In addition, I was asked to design advertising for the site – magazine ads, Flash banners, etc. All in all, for this thing I wasn’t being paid for, I found myself putting in 10-20 hours a week, and when I vocalized my frustration at the many unpaid hours I was putting in, I was accused of not being “committed” to the cause. Finally, I realized that the job wasn’t worth the time I was putting into it and left.

I’ll be honest here – I’m generally a pretty giving person. I love helping people achieve their goals, and I’ve actually made it part of my business model to work exclusively with companies and causes that I believe in. As a result, the majority of my clients are start-ups, artists, non-profit organizations, and solo entrepreneurs. Many of these clients don’t have the largest budgets for design services, and I give them the best I can within their budget range. But there is a certain contingent, especially in the non-profit and start-up sector, that either doesn’t understand or doesn’t value the contribution that good design gives to their image, and ultimately their credibility.

Two of my first significant clients were of this ilk. The first was these two guys (one of which worked with me on the underground site) who decided to start a webzine, but could only pay me $150 for a website complete with Flash menu pages and 9-11 HTML articles per issue. I did it strictly as a favor, and as a portfolio piece, since it was my first Flash website. Ultimately, I did three issues of the site before I got tired of doing all that work for next to nothing. After I stepped down, they found some guy to update one issue, and then the webzine folded. I had the site in my portfolio for about six months before I had replaced it with better work.

The other was a woman who ran a small start-up design studio. A friend of mine, who I had met at school, had been working with her for a few months when he ended up burning out in a major way. Like an idiot, I didn’t see the red flags there and decided to work with her for almost a year. I won’t even embarrass myself by admitting what I got paid, but I will say that for the trifling amount I did receive, this woman expected SIX unique concepts for each logo project I did for her. Every project she gave me was ridiculously high-maintenance, and she refused to stand up to her clients against ridiculous amounts of revisions. All in all, I produced some really outstanding work, but I did it at a rate I still can’t believe I agreed to. When I finally addressed the fact that I was making about as much as a Starbucks barista doing design for her, she tried to tell me it wasn’t because she was asking for an unreasonable amount of work, it was because my designs weren’t “successful” the first time around, and if I wanted to take on all the work of networking and getting clients, I was more than welcome to do that. Needless to say, I did.

Why am I sharing these somewhat embarrassing (and certainly cringe-inducing) moments from my journey as a designer? Consider this a cautionary tale, both to the people who pull this kind of stuff and the hapless young designers who might take the bait. To the designer: I don’t care HOW much you need the experience, if you don’t value yourself enough to demand what you’re worth, nobody will give it to you; and to the client: get over yourself. Nobody’s project is "Just That Cool".


About the Author
Dani Nordin is the founder of the zen kitchen, a graphic/web design and branding studio on the outskirts of Boston MA. The studio aims to help clients create a brand that tells their story in a way that relates to their audience as human beings, not as just another demographic. It also helps clients communicate their message in ways that have less harmful ecological consequences by supporting sustainable printing practices and finding ways to provide more information via the Web, which reduces paper waste.

Prior to the zen kitchen, Dani spent the last thirteen years floating between gigs as an activist for various causes, mind-numbing data entry work, and a year and a half of doing prepress for a small print shop.  The last five years have been spent doing design and production work for such companies as Staples, CVS/Pharmacy, and Stanley Bostitch, all the while sneaking off to create brands for people and organizations she cared about. Her various passions include photography, cooking, yoga, most things spiritual and/or holistic, and looking for new ways to both fuel her creativity and give back to the community.
 
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