I started writing this blog a few months ago and then got distracted for the usual reasons (deadlines, holiday, my wife and I are having a baby soon, etc), but I was reminded of it today and as it turns out there wasn’t that much editing that needed doing to make it intelligible, so here it is:
It’s frustrating to me that this should even be a conversation we’re having about why design competitions are wrong, but I think it needs saying again, especially for the benefit of illustrators who are just starting out in this industry.
Illustration competitions that require you to create work on spec ARE A BAD THING. What is spec? Speculative work - ie: work that you create in the hope that you will be paid for it.
But why are they a bad thing? I hear you ask. At their best, they allow me to maybe have my work used by *insert-band-name-here* or used as an unofficial poster for *summer-blockbuster-of-choice* or on a t-shirt made by *your-favorite-brand*. They say I’ll get great exposure.
(Oh God, exposure. The dangling toxic carrot of the young illustrators life. If I had a pound for every time I had heard think of the exposure then I probably could afford to work for free. But I still wouldn’t. I’m starting to get off topic, but you should read this wonderful piece by the very talented Jessica Hische about working for free.)
Back to the point I was working towards. Yes, all those statements above are true, but they all hang on you doing a piece of work on spec, for free. They reduce our industry, our studies and our skills to a hobby that can be rewarded with shiny things.
I think that one of the (for want of a better word) ‘problems’ with creative industries is that ostensibly we enjoy what we do. We might even be inclined to do what we do for fun - I would certainly be drawing even if I was doing something else because I love drawing. But it is STILL YOUR JOB and you deserve to be compensated for you time. I hate to use the plumber analogy, but you wouldn’t expect a plumber to fix your cracked pipes for free ‘because he enjoys it’ or because you would tell all your friends about his work.
If you’re thinking of running a design competition, here are some better things to try instead. Take the prize fund and use it to commission someone whose work you like. The end result will be the same - you have a piece of work you can use - but in the mean time you wont have wasted the time of EVERYONE ELSE WHO WOULD HAVE ENTERED.
But I’m only starting out you may say. You still deserve to be paid, don’t let anyone suggest otherwise. If you worked in a shop, you’d still get paid even if it was your first day.
Here are some things that are a better use of your time than entering a competition:
- set yourself a brief and answer it. be challenging (for example, if your forte is drawing owls, don’t set the brief: draw a cool owl). treat it like you would a job and then blog it - show your process maybe, sketches you tried before you settled on a final.
- practice your craft. spend some time drawing, researching. make a zine, make a product that you can sell through your website (preferably not infringing on someone else’s IP - that’s a blog post for a whole other time).
- bake a cake. personally, I find baking hugely satisfying and I do some of my best thinking when I’m doing something that isn’t drawing.
- look for potential clients and send them links to your work
- go and do some exercise. we spend most of our time sitting in small hot rooms, so make the most of the fact it’s summer and go for a walk. also, see above - if you’ve just made and consumed a cake you could probably do with some exercise.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. As long as people continue to enter competitions, there will be competitions, so just stop. You’ll be better off for it. Value yourself. You and your skills are a commodity. This isn’t a hobby, this is a job and you don’t do your job for free.
Here are two tales:
1. For about a year (seven years ago before I was a full time freelance illustrator), I was assistant manager in a shoe shop in the Office chain. I worked a 40 hour week, and I was paid monthly. In that time my pay was never late, never short, never ‘misplaced.’ I got my pay cheque on the last Friday of the month and I was happy.
2. Last May I was contacted by an advertising agency who wanted me to work on a series of posters for a beer company. The project was initially intended to run for two weeks and wrap at the start of June and was to pay approx. £12,000. Unfortunately two weeks ended up being six months of back and forth with various different parties within the company and client (and given that it was for alcohol, the legal department). This wasn’t ideal, but projects often take longer than planned, and I must make it clear that I wasn’t working on this for the whole six months - often a few days here and there and then a wait for feedback. I submitted final artwork files in November along with my invoices. Then time passed. After conversations with the client it became clear that they could not (or would not) pay as they were waiting to be paid by their client. Now as an illustrator, I didn’t make an agreement with the beer company, I made an agreement with the ad agency, and it became clear that they had commissioned work without having the money to pay for it. After more conversations an agreement was made that they would pay in instalments (at this point we are four months after invoicing, ten months after the project started). Three payments were made and then no more. After more emails a date was set for the final instalment. This was not met. Then another date was set and not met again. The tone of an email sent when a request was made for some clarity suggested that we should ‘watch our tone’ if we wanted the process to be swift. Finally, this week the last instalment of payment for a job that was commissioned a year ago and delivered as final artwork in November was paid.
I should stress - this is a worst case scenario (and the worst I have encountered in twelve years of illustrating), but i find myself in a quandary. As a member of the illustration community shouldn’t I make other illustrators aware of said advertising agency and their unprofessionalism? I would feel bad if a friend was put in the same situation, and I feel like I could have averted it, or at least advised them not to work with that particular agency.
This opened up to me a bigger question about how we as illustrators value ourselves and how we can often end up being treated. I have lost track of the number of times I have had to chase clients about late or missing payments. I look at my spreadsheet for the year and I can see five jobs (out of thirty five completed and invoiced this year) which I am currently chasing because they are late (ie: over the four weeks stated clearly on my invoice), and there have already been two on top of that have gone past the three month mark before being paid. Personally i resent spending time that I could be drawing chasing someone to be paid, or that I even need to chase at all. When I worked in the shop, I didn’t have to email the accounts department once a month to remind them to pay me.
It feels to me that illustrators live in fear of the ‘bad reputation’. Speaking out about late or non payment, or insultingly low budgets (a blog post for another time right there) or money in general will land them on a ‘black-list’ and their work will dry up.
A quick straw poll amongst twitter suggested that a lot of illustrators wouldn’t call out slow or non-paying clients publicly for fear of being considered unprofessional, but aren’t we talking about clients who are themselves being unprofessional? Another suggestion was that it was biting the hand that feeds them, but if that hand is letting you starve then maybe it deserves to get bitten? Another had taken on more work with a client despite admitting that their lowballing budgets ‘took the mickey’ and they they were still waiting for outstanding payments (and who I now won’t take work from for the same reasons). Sadly, this kind of behaviour just reinforces the fact that some clients don’t take this seriously. Maybe if they were named and shamed and their source of illustration dried up they might reconsider how they conduct their business. Even now, I find myself not naming the advertising agency who have made my life difficult over the last year - I’m no better than anyone else.
I don’t have any good suggestions about how we can redress this, but it feels like a conversation that needs to be had. We do good work, on time - surely we deserve a fair pay delivered on time.
Where do we go from here?