Rands and your monetary worth

Evergreen © Samantha Groenestyn

The notion of value is a very important one to the commercial arts. Rather than expressing oneself, as an artist would, the commercial artist—illustrator or graphic designer, or both—solves visual problems that clients cannot solve themselves. This service is valid, necessary and skill-dependent, and for these reasons it is valuable. And when we speak of something’s value or worth, we often quantify it in monetary terms. I’m certainly not of the persuasion that everything of worth can be priced, but this is an instance where it ought to be. Solving visual problems is as relevant a contribution as any in the broader context of work, and no one else works for free.

Illustrators and graphic designers, sadly, work for free often enough that there is a name for it: speculative work. Holly DeWolf* (p. 154) defines speculative work as ‘doing work for free without the guarantee of compensation. The client basically says, “I’ll tell you if I like it when I see it.” Payment usually never happens.’ I’ve read enough books like hers to be wary of this type of work that ultimately devalues illustration and the problem-solving process more broadly. There’s even an online campaign against speculative work, NO!SPEC. I was therefore shocked to hear this spec-work anecdote from my graphic design teacher.

He told me a sad tale of a struggling photographer who couldn’t decide between the sleek, modern logo he’d designed for her and the stylish one based on her handwriting he’d provided as a second option. ‘Did she pay for two options?’ I asked, my inner Dagny Taggart doing some quick sums. My teacher explained that he simply tossed in the second one because he’d come up with a few ideas and they were no use to him so she may as well have them.

I was shocked enough at this lack of respect for the value of his own work, when he went on to explain that the photographer then lost her other job and couldn’t pay him, so he simply gave her everything—the website he designed, the posters and flyers and logo options. What I learned from this is, go cry at a man who doesn’t like crying, and he will give you whatever you want, even a free website.

‘This isn’t a cookie-cutter business,’ DeWolf (p. 154) sternly reminds us, imploring us to remember we are skilled, offering expertise and time, labours for which we should be awarded money.

Paul Rand, the designer revered by Steve Jobs as the ‘greatest living graphic designer’ (when they were both, clearly, living), and the creator of the IBM (including the eye-bee-M) and NeXT Computers logos, knew his worth. His ‘Randian’ perspective might be mistaken for the self-assured and economically-savvy views of one Ayn Rand, of whom he is no relation (though interestingly, they both adopted the name Rand in place of their previously identical surname, Rosenbaum). Paul Rand did not offer options, as Steve Jobs recalled, he offered a single solution, and demanded payment whatever the outcome:

I asked him if he would come up with a few options. And he said, ‘No, I will solve your problem for you, and you will pay me. And you don’t have to use the solution — if you want options, go talk to other people. But I’ll solve your problem for you the best way I know how, and you use it or not, that’s up to you — you’re the client — but you pay me.’

We would do well to remember this sentiment, and boldly proclaim our worth.

* DeWolf, Holly. 2009. Breaking into freelance illustration: the guide for artists, designers and illustrators. How Books: Cincinnati.
 Maria Popova has uncovered a fascinating interview from 1993 in which an overawed Steve Jobs attempts to capture Paul Rand in words.

I’ve started a series of paintings of things I have knit. This is J’s Scandinavian jumper, 100% merino wool, dapper pattern courtesy of Drops Design. When I start knitting paintings, you’ll know I’ve gone mad.


10 thoughts on “Rands and your monetary worth

  1. Thank you so much for writing this! After being taken advantage of a few times too often, I no longer agree to work on speculative projects. Because its usually my precious time (and money) thrown out the window. Recently, I had 2 “friends” asking me if I could help them come up with a “solution” for their logo. Luckily, Paul Rand’s spirit possessed me. Funny, how still haven’t heard from them. And this: ” go cry at a man who doesn’t like crying, and he will give you whatever you want, even a free website.” I used to be that man who doesnt like crying…but now more! Now to me, everyone can just go and wipe their crocodile tears clean! Another super article m’ lady!

    • I am slapping you really hard right now. You should value your work and yourself and also the rest of us illustrators or graphic designers. If you devalue yourself, you also devalue the rest of us and the industry. Now go draw. 😉

    • I know! And once you’ve set a precedent, it’s hard to turn around and demand more. I would tell people, ‘My prices have gone up since then. You’re paying for added expertise and improved conceptual and artistic skills.’

      It also wouldn’t hurt to do some research on what is a reasonable ‘hourly’ rate in your country, based how long you’ve been at it. And don’t forget to add in the hours of coming up with ideas and sketching them out, not just the painting time. An Australian graphic designer recently told me that $50 an hour is very cheap. If you’re confident about what you charge and can back it up (hourly break-down, industry standard rates), people might turn you down but they also might just believe you.


      • “It also wouldn’t hurt to do some research on what is a reasonable ‘hourly’ rate in your country, based how long you’ve been at it.”

        This hourly rate business is bad Duchess. Really bad. Dont do it.
        It is not a good system. In fact I need to write a post on it.

        I’ve been using it for ages and it basically turns any creative process into a race or just another piece of ‘labour’. Which isn’t right for a number of reasons.

        It is not about the hours at all.
        It is about the usage. (This belated epiphany only recently sunk in)

        Are they going to use your work worldwide? Just once? Sell it on merchandise? Is it a small company or a big company?

        Your price is totally dependant on that.
        You can work out the hourly rate privately and add that to the usage costs,
        but it should be a flat rate based on the clients terms of use.
        (Fine last words, now I just need to implement this new policy)

        I just recently got seriously:

        1. Underpaid with the hourly rate
        2. Then they wanted, no demanded, my copyright.
        3. Then were angry it wasn’t included in my hourly rate price even though they never asked for it to begin with and just ‘assumed’ it would be theirs.
        4. In the end they turned around and said “we told you to draw it, and anyone could do it”
        5. Won’t even communicate with me without a ‘mediator’ because they didn’t and still don’t understand the basics of copyright law

        Partly my fault for undercharging to begin with and not having a clear t&c but still. Ridiculous.

        Hourly rate is bad.


        I bought this book above, it has everything you need to know to set up a freelance business practice, include dummy t&cs and approximate industry standard prices for various usage for various things, logos, illustration etc.

        Buy it.

        I should have when I left college but I didn’t and it was a huge mistake.

      • You’re absolutely right, and my offhand remark failed to even hint at any of this. It’s scary that we’re sent into the world with hardly any concrete advice on this stuff! So thanks for sharing, because this is my point–other people don’t value what we do, and sometimes we believe them, and we shouldn’t. And thanks for the book recommendation–I will have a look, though I’m always conscious that the most practical books are either British or American and don’t readily translate to the Australian legal/financial environment. I have, however, just been accepted into Illustrators Australia, opening me up to a world of advice of just this sort. x

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