Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Designer Cannibalism?

Tiredly checking my email late last night, I came across an invitation to sell my logos on iStockphoto. I couldn't really process it mentally, so I left it open and gave it a second look this morning. I honestly don't think I processed it any better. WTF is this?

Confused, I read everything and then went onto the website to check the forum. I sent an email to a few esteemed designer friends to see if there was something I was missing, some positive angle that I hadn't seen right away. Because to me it looked horrible and I couldn't understand it.

Quick catch up:
In case you're not familiar with iStockphoto, they are an internet-based "member-generated image and design community." Translation: they sell people's photographs, illustrations, videos, audio tracks and Flash files as royalty-free files. They sell to designers. RIght, back to this logo thing they're doing.

The nuttyshell:
A designer submits a logo they have sitting around or a new one they come up with to iStockphoto. If iStockphoto approves it, for a limited time only, the designer receives $5. Woo hoo! iStockphoto now owns it outright. This logo goes up on the site for an asking price of 100 to 750 credits (value of each logo suggested by designer but determined by iStockphoto). If I've done my math right, this puts the logo dollar amount somewhere between $24 and $847.50. Upon sale of said logo it comes down (one-time sale), iStockphoto gives 50% in royalties. The designer walks away with $12 to $423.75 for their original logo design.

Issues that I see straight away:

One, copyright. iStockphoto is putting the burden of checking for trademarkability on the client. Dangerous, plus don't you just want to know that you are spending money on original art?

Two, branding value. Talented, professional designers have enough of a struggle trying to prove their worth without companies like this establishing "bulk pricing" for something as custom as a logo. How can one $50 piece of art tell the story of your company when it wasn't even made for you?

Three, designer cannibalism. Paying slave-labor prices to designers in order to turn around and sell to designers who then have to turn around and sell to their client. What is this saying?

On iStockphoto's forum, designers sound happier than pigs in mud and are rolling their sleeves up to start mass-designing logos for mystery companies. I am so confused! Here are comments from this morning's email that went between a few of my professional designer friends:

"Isn't it time to stop using Istock and other "stock companies" (it's not even really stock, it's really cheap royalty free)? I hope none of you all take part in this. Likewise with crowdsourcing. You can't expect everyone to understand the value of real design in the business environment, but there is no excuse for industry suppliers. Hopefully this logo thing will end up the same place the stock layouts did, nowhere."
Kip Williams []

"I agree Kip. I have a hotline set up for anyone who is contemplating Spec Work. I will talk you off that ledge. Remember, you are loved, so are your talents and design. Dont throw it all away and make a mess for the rest of us."
Andy Stracuzzi []

So, is iStockphoto helping designers in a rough economy by offering them the opportunity to put work on a site that might or might not yield them at most a few hundred dollars? Or is this yet another pin in the design industry voo-doo doll that someone out there is wickedly poking in? There are no rules for this, we have to police ourselves. If you agree with me that this sounds horrible, please, don't do it and tell your designer friends the same.

Whores don't put their goods up on spec, let's not jump on this new, designer, pimp ride either.


  1. Say "hello" to the commoditization of your professional trade. It happened to carpenters, potters, craftmen and tradesmen of all sorts through the years. So long as someone is willing to pay less for less quality work that is somehow "good enough" in their eyes -this will continue to happen.

    Hopefully, this will prove to be little more than a new effort to re-clip art level work, but given the flatening of the industry and professional rates –I doubt it.

    I wish iStock was the only one, but there are already a handful of others that have been doing this already (although, this example is the lowest compenation I've seen).

    Saddest of all is that I'm sure there are "agencies" of sorts out there making use of these resources, only to mark them up as resold design goods or sub-contracted services.

    I may start cutting lawms if there's more money in it.

  2. I fear it is a sign of the times and it won't disappear.

    You could cut a cool logo into people's lawns!

    Maybe it's time for an industry certification and a citizen eduction movement to go along with it?

  3. No, sorry, you haven't done your math right, and no, iStock does not own it outright once submitted. For a clear explanation, see here:

  4. Okay - what would the math be? I did the range based on a purchase of credits... from what's on the site.

  5. Nice article Jessi Miller! This really does come down to a sense of ethics. If you think it is unethical (I like the cannibalism analogy) then you will not participate in this activity. But like more than one person has noted, I don't think it is going away. The value you bring to your practice should be more than a monetary value in order to grow your reputation.

    This is happening to plenty of other skilled professions including those considered sacrosanct copywriters, legal professionals and accountants. Everything is fair game, at a price. Quality is subjective, aesthetics mean nothing to some.

  6. Thank you Guy! I think you're right, it's just another turn on the road we're taking... I'm interested in solutions like possible certifications or accreditations... as well as simply how we all adjust to a changing world.

  7. Royalty free stock art just that - stock (the word in itself is defined as: A supply accumulated for future use; a store). It is created for no one person in particular and the concept of royalty free is that it will be licensed over and over. Granted by definition that is speculative since there is no guarantee of sale - but again - it is a supply that is created as such. It is meant only to be elements of future designs. The artists there have had submissions rejected for being 'completed designs' because it would be worth less to customers if it was a ready template that anyone could use. The unique use is part of the designers job. The stock is only an element of their creation.

    Logos for various legal reasons need to be unique and are for only one customer. Logos do not fit the stock definition and can not even be licensed using the stock model because it is a moot point to have copyright of something that someone else will be using as a mark of their identity because once put into use, they own it, for all intents and purposes. I'm not a lawyer and that is not advice, it is just my opinion.

    Logos are not and should not be stock. That would be glorified clip art at best. And good luck trying to trademark or enforce trademark for something that has been splayed all over the internet before you purchased it.

    They are entering into an area that is a bad bad idea for various reasons and for all of the stakeholders.