The Design Observer Group


Posted 06.04.06


Michael Bierut

The Road to Hell: Now Paved with Innovation?


Designers don't have many advocates as enthusiastic and highly-placed as Bruce Nussbaum. An assistant managing editor at Business Week, he's spearheaded the magazine's coverage of design and innovation for years, and has become an important online voice for how business can use design as a strategic tool. That influence will only grow this week with the debut of INside Innovation, his new magazine that promises "a deep, deep dive into the innovation/design/creativity space."

I'm as intrigued as the next guy about what's to be found in the dark recesses of the "innovation/design/creativity space." But I suspect there's one fact about the genesis of this new magazine that will disturb many of my fellow innovation enthusiasts: the actual design of INside Innovation was created largely through an unpaid competition.

Designers, welcome to the brave new world of spec work.

Nussbaum has described the process of creating INside Innovation in real time on his blog with his customary ebullience. Here is his account of how they sought a designer:

We broke lots of rules designing IN — and started changing culture at BW along the way. We opened the process by holding a contest and asking four players to pitch their concepts. You're not supposed to do this in mag design land. You're supposed to choose one brilliant design shop first and work with that firm all the way through to the end. Our Art Director was kind of stunned when I first proposed the idea.

But I wanted to open the process and choose among many new ideas so I opened it up. And we asked three out of four to do it on spec (OK, we didn't have much money either to launch something new). The spec thing is a no-no in AIGA but it turned out it wasn't an issue — the three players who did it on spec said they were willing to do so because the process created new IP that they could use with their other clients.

I'm sure Nussbaum knows there's nothing innovative about the urge to get a lot of different talented people to work for you for free: it's the secret dream of every client I've ever met, each of whom could make a similar claim of poverty, particularly where design budgets are concerned. As for AIGA's attitude about spec work, dismissed here by Nussbaum as a vaguely prudish "no-no," the kind of backward thinking typical of squeamish strangers to the world of innovation, here's what it says in the AIGA code of ethics:

A professional designer does not undertake speculative work or proposals (spec work) in which a client requests work without compensation and without developing a professional relationship that permits the designer sufficient access to the client to provide a responsible recommendation and without compensation.

Innovation: it's all about breaking the rules! Of course, a code of ethics isn't an "issue" for those change agents who simply decide not to abide by it, which was the decision made by three of the four competitors. Nussbaum doesn't make this clear on his site, but we can make a safe guess that it was the three large firms — IDEO, Stone Yamashita, and the eventual "winner," Modernista — that worked for free, and David Albertson, with a small three-person studio, who got paid. It's to Nussbaum and Business Week's credit that anyone got paid at all, of course, but this does point out another troubling fact of life in spec world: it's a game that only the bigger firms can afford to play for long. The official rationale of how the big three transcended any qualms they may have had about the dusty old AIGA code of ethics — their interest in generating intellectual property that they might use for other clients — is plausible, I guess, if you consider a new way of handling the page numbers on the table of contents as portable "intellectual property." More likely their reasons were the obvious, more plainly self-serving ones: an eagerness to make a deposit in the favor bank of a well-connected journalist, the prospect of some good publicity (and Nussbaum, again to his credit, has been generous in providing it for all four), and the dream of a big score should the gamble pay off.

Ah, the big score. Unpaid competitions have been a way of life in other creative fields like architecture and advertising, but they've been resisted, barely, by graphic designers up until now. In those other cases, the potential prize is big: for architects, a chance to keep a studio busy for years on an important, visible project; for agencies, millions of dollars in commissions on advertising space. Still, it's amazing how often these competitions degenerate into debacles: witness the grinding entropy at Manhattan's World Trade Center site, or read the best book on advertising ever written, Randall Rothenberg's Where the Suckers Moon, which tells the story of a bloody (and ultimately fruitless) battle for the Suburu account back in the mid-90s.

Spec competitions have been getting more popular in the context of digital communications, where working for free seems to get confused with the idealism of the open source movement. Indeed, the mothership of open sourcing, Wikipedia, is currently running an unpaid contest to redesign their site. No one has nailed the ludicrousness of this practice as accurately as creative director Andy Rutledge, who has put forward the following hilarious analogy:

I need a partner with whom to have a serious relationship but I don't want to invest any time or effort in finding the right woman; I shouldn't have to. I'm a great man and any woman should be proud to be with me, so I'm holding auditions. I'd like for all interested women to visit me and show me your "wares." I'm definitely looking for someone with a hot bod, and not afraid to show it off. Extra points for staying the night and letting me sample your attentions and enthusiasm.

One lucky winner gets a $400 wedding ring and the prestige of having me for a partner ('cause I look good). The rest of you just get screwed. Awright, who's with me?

Tempting! Full disclosure time: I was approached about working on this project. I really like, and respect, Bruce Nussbaum, so I thought long and hard about it. Luckily, my position in a large firm permits me to work for free, and I regularly do so, for a large range of pro bono clients. Moreoever, if ethics were an issue, it was made clear to me (once again, to Nussbaum's credit) that I could suggest a fee, although I was told some of the others were working for free. In the end, to be perfectly honest, it wasn't the money (or lack thereof) that made the difference for me, but rather something I've learned the hard way: I stink at competitions.

Partly this is sheer egocentricism. I like that old-fashioned model that Nussbaum was eager to discard, the process by which you "choose one brilliant design shop first and work with that firm all the way through to the end." I like being that brilliant design shop. Moreover, if I'm doing a project, I devote myself to it single-mindedly. I expect the same kind of single-minded focus from the client.

In this specific case, I was baffled by how one was supposed to create something as intricate, as complicated as a magazine design in a blind competition. Were the players just supposed to go off and concoct layouts that said innovation! in a vacuum? I've found the success of every design project depends on a close give-and-take between the designer and client; this is especially true in editorial projects, which require an airtight fit between form and content. Hard enough to do with an editor at your elbow; impossible staring a blank piece of paper in an empty studio. Okay, I suppose it must be possible. Just not by me.

Finally, I'm both really busy on one hand, and secretly lazy on the other. What motivates me more than anything else is the conviction that my clients are depending on me: if we don't come through for them, there's no back up. The responsibility is mine and mine alone. Knowing that three or four other teams are toiling away at the same challenge, rather than whetting my competitive spirit, simply brings out the slacker in me. When the players are good — and IDEO, Stone Yamashita, Albertson and Modernista are good, trust me — my attitude is knock yourself out, guys, I'm going home early tonight.

I'm not surprised Modernista won: as an ad agency, they're well familiar with the art of the unpaid pitch, and they're not just any agency, they're led by one of our best designers, Gary Koepke. Koepke is a great art director with the design of, among other things, Vibe magazine to his credit. And Bruce Nussbaum is even more excited than usual about the design that Modernista has created, calling it "modern, clean, elegant, perfect."

So my feelings about seeing INside Innovation this week couldn't be more mixed. On one hand, we desperately need a great magazine about design directed to a general audience, and I can't imagine anyone better than Bruce Nussbaum and Business Week to deliver it. On the other, the better it is, the better it will make the case for a design process that I feel is fundamentally wrong. If getting great work for free works for someone as smart and influential as Bruce Nussbaum, what's to stop every businessperson in the world from enthusiastically jumping on the bandwagon?

If this is innovation, I say to hell with it.