Free News & $50 Logos

Recently, The New York Times released a bulletin announcing that they will charge frequent site users for access to stories. The announcement went on to comment that paying customers will have unfettered access to the site. This approaches the aging question of how to make the web “pay for itself” is now being taken up by perhaps the flagship newspaper.

The move to web exposes the difficulty inherent in turning impressions into interested people and interested people into paying customers. Web hits don’t necessarily translate into web dollars. Patrick Coyne, editor-in-chief of Communication Arts, resounded this viewpoint on his visit to Baltimore back in April saying that the American public has been conditioned to believe that content is free.

The view that content should be free is fairly insidious. It means that you’ll put up with the nightly news being dominated by content you either could not care about or don’t care to see. Perhaps you’d like to know a bit about India-Pakistan relations—just a bit—but instead the news will heap on more gossip with a break-in of the latest in Entertainment under the guise of news. The news, for all intents and purposes, is free and often, they’ll support that they’re delivering the news you want to know. Perhaps it’s a worthwhile event to telecast three hours of snow coverage, because we need to see that we shouldn’t be out in it trying to go places.

All this obfuscates the fact that developing real news is not free. A story about Kabul written in New York is much different than the same story written in Kabul. There’s costs of sending people, training them, keeping them secure, connecting them with sources and that’s just to get there. They’ll need to break stories, embed with troops and all that for people to get an authentic look at what could be glossed over in another story in a back page news story.

This notion that content is not free is not held in only the news business. Graphic design also suffers from the same fate very often.

This came to a head for me recently (not in thought, but in figuring I’d say something about it) in a meeting where the notion of $50 logos and a stance against it was being discussed. As far as I can tell, there is no official stance against a $50 logo and I’m sure there should be.

What I do know is that designers who take themselves seriously look long and hard at projects with that type of budget—even students. I mean, what school takes anything other than money to allow you to enroll at their institution? Does your plumber take color palette suggestions in exchange for working an eight-hour day on your main-line backup? Well, why should designers not reflect the real value of their work? Because there are a lot of them is not adequate as an answer.

Design, in its ubiquity, is perceived as a commodity. As commodities grow (land, oil, water) they have the potential to be less expensive—a law of supply and demand. Yet, the right piece of land or the purified water or the properly processed gasoline have a value in that they are (or can be) solutions developed for specific challenges. Design is the same way.

A designer hired just to be a pair of hands needs to keep her resumé fresh. Because as the need shifts, the work expectation will shift or the compensation will shift. When the design is considered a commodity, the client may decide—and perhaps rightfully so—I need this cheaper now. (If you get that call, the handwriting is on the wall). If the design firm used was not effective at distinguishing the client or highly efficient at satisfying the client challenge, that gap in value will exist. Instead of competing on the value that firm can bring to the client, they’ll be hoping that the client doesn’t question the costs or reduce the budget without reducing the expectation.

To avoid this, designers need to position themselves with projects that are not cut from cookie tins. Instead, developing projects that have a laser-accurate reflection on solving client needs in some fashion or form. Whether it’s the in-house designer showing a high-level of specialty knowledge for the product of the corporate client or the solo designer showing a high-level of verve to showcase an initiative, these clients pay for what they figure they can’t get elsewhere. These designers and writers work to understand the client’s need from the inside out.

Remember not to think that the relationship ends at what you did and what you got paid, but constantly over-reach their expectation—if not to satisfy your creative needs, but to show them what’s possible. Done consistently, they’ll think twice before don’t shop the big in-house project with outside vendors (we can so do that!) or “forget” that your firm does something special that they never ask for. All that is worth more than $50.

A $50 logo has a hard time paying for the resources put into it—project management, SWOT analysis, even the time that it might take to do an estimate. While a business’s budget is on some level a true reflection of the expected capitalization of the communication goal (a teen with a yard-cleaning business v. an internet start-up), the business has the right to set its budget. Yet, it doesn’t have the right to declare that the venture be taken seriously. Instead of outlawing stupendously low budgets, let’s stick with making sure designers aren’t taking them seriously.

By AIGA Baltimore
Published January 22, 2010