Current 04/2008

The ‘Design For Free’ Strategy

In the digital era these give-aways became far less 'innocent', multiplication of (expensive) digital products for instance cost nothing, so the complete product could be offered as a free sample. Distribution of digital products can also be done without any additional cost and - to top it - also be delivered at ultimate devine speed, faster than the blink of an eye. These new circumstances created a different commercial world: the price of one digital product or any other amount remains the same and to get your product delivered anywhere you want also does not add anything to its price. Digital products mark the beginning of an effectively digital economy. Also another shift took place, delivering services (instead of goods) became an increasing part of the economy and services are more and more delivered in (or heavily influences by) the digital format. Fundamental economic laws had to be rewritten. We're still busy doing so. Nobody has yet fully understood or adapted to this new world, we're still following treacherous trails and embracing ever evolving nebulous new benchmarks. The recent (nearly) collapse of the financial system is merely caused by experts losing grip on a digital reality.




Free products have become a part of our daily life as never before. Products are offered for free to attract new customers to products, and once they are used to it, they want to stick to their habits, so they will start paying for later updates. A bit like the drug dealer's commercial strategy. Digital products have also created gigantic (illegal) possessions, young people have their harddiscs loaded with digital data of all sorts and only a fraction of that is actually paid for.The sense of possession is changing, resulting in a diminishing of the natural inhibition to avoid risk.

The digital economy also changed the value of assets. Only having the potential costumer's attention is already a valuable asset. (The sizzle became more valuable than the steak). A large market coverage of a product may create an advertising income source to cover not only all production costs of the product but generate large profits too. Customers don't pay for using the product, the advertisers will. The millions using Google is the best example. Our daily consumption involves more and more free products, most read their daily newspaper for free. Having the control over a large communication stream can be a very lucrative possession on its own right. Businesses can ' mine' these data flows. Some business strategists even go as far as saying that a lot of current business success depends on who is the first to offer something attractive for free (and lure customers) before the competition occupies the niche. Offering not just a sample but a complete product for free seems to be today's starting point of later success.

Another result of the digital economy - also for (graphic) design - has been that productivity has grown exponentially. The sketch phase no longer exist in a lot of graphic design work. Design proposals are more and more print (screen) ready art work. The gain of productivity is partially eaten away by the desire of abundance, showing up with only one proposal for a design brief is considered almost an insult to clients. Today's customers are used to make their pick out of an abundant offer. Digitisation also ripped communication channels from traditional constraints: everybody is living next door and sending out one request or any other number doesn't make any difference. Commissioning design work - of almost any importance - without asking first several designers to pitch for the job is almost considered to be commercial madness. Tenders are sometimes required by law - not always very sensibly. All these developments resulted in designers being invited to do a lot of work for free. Is it sensible to participate in these free pitches and offer clients endless series of proposals ? Most probably not. Although designers are finding ways to deal with it on a reciprocal way. Some architects are dedicated participants in professionally dubious competitions, but they may hope to bank in with work lasting for years or gain even international stardom. For graphic designers both these options are reduced to dwarf size and therefore irrelevant incentives. For a while clients may hope to have found the holy grail to get quality design work for free, but that situation will never remain for too long. In the long run you always get monkeys when you pay peanuts. (Or sparrows when you spread crumbs)

Commercial competition is a cornerstone of our liberal societies. In principle, competition generates quality but it is wrong to assume that all sorts of competitions are beneficial in all circumstances. The most simple and effective way of competing is when parties walk away after the deal is done. But that is never the case with design work. In contrast, the winner of a (unpaid) design competition is about to start (and not to complete) a working relationship for which a more or less solid foundation is laid down for free, or for very little. In this follow-up phase things tend to go wrong. Winners of a competition may discover that the working relationship with the client doesn't work, because parties simply do not match. People seem to forget that it is likely to be tough to start a relationship after the baby is born. And it is certainly less fun.

Ultimately, creating a satisfactory and therefore fruitful working relationship is what design is all about. The designer is not like a person who comes in to bring a fresh bouquet of nice smelling beautiful flowers or repair a leaking pipe and then leaves, the designer is a professional who may be of help to create better (commercial) conditions for an organisation in the long run. But this work can only be carried out in collaboration with a client. The designer has to learn about specific situations to be able to do the job, the client has to learn about the unique possibilities and the limitations of the designer. The assumption that a brief made for a competition can replace all this is entirely unfounded. All experienced designers know that making a good brief is only possible after extensive communication between client and designer. A good brief is never generic. Many competitions are won by designers who effectively altered the brief one-sided. And are rewarded for this act while breaking the fundamentals of fair competition. The expectation that a creative competition on the basis of a general brief will generate the most creative - or appropriate - product is false and based on a rather bizarre assumption about the nature of design. The best designs are often the result of a long and intensive collaboration between a client and a designer.

Alas, there is little time and patience in the digital economy fuelled by freebees. The speed of light has become the norm. We try to apply this benchmark on everything we do. (Bigger, better, faster, cooler, quicker). However, there is a risk of flying pretty uncomfortably against a wall when moving at that speed. While today commercial success may explode (and fail) in a pace as never before, the underlaying principles remain unaltered. Creating something new and worthwhile takes time, patience and perseverance. There are no cutting corners here. Design competitions that primarily seek to find the most suitable partner are potentially worth the effort but only under the condition of earnest and intensive input from the client. In contrast, design competitions that intent to acquire 'the best design' (at a bargain price) will not generate what is looked after and are practically always a gigantic waste of everybodies time and money. Following a free design strategy is pointless (unless done for a good cause) for all parties involved. It will not create quality and therefore no income for anybody involved. The assertion that participating in a creative competition may add to the value of the designer's experience or the client's insight is false. Instead, both designers and clients are moving design into a peripheral activity, not serving anybody's interest. Following the opposite strategy of free design is more effective since a high price for design is likely to draw the attention and active involvement of a client. And the last is vital; designers should never forget. You cannot design on your own. It is just as impossible as having intercourse on your own. Design can be an extremely powerful (commercial) tool, but it only creates considerable (added) value when two parties are willing to built on a intensive and enduring relationship. Otherwise it will remain for the most part a self-satisfying activity, or like a one-night stand at best. Fun, maybe, but very limited in its potential to generate powerful offspring.


The Poster As Budget Art

A poster has nothing more to offer than the one image in front of your eyes, unlike the results of practically all other work of the graphic designer which has more to do with designing (visual) structures for more or less complex products or services.

The poster forces the designer to say all there is to be said, compressed in way that it can be observed in one glance. The original function of the poster was to sell products or attract people to events. It still is, but since quite some time it also has a function as visual laboratory for designers. For art's sake, to promote themselves or to sell the poster as a product. I think the Japanese started this trend. Japanese graphic designers made poster design an outlet to show their professional skills. In Japan almost a dual world exists for graphic designers, one is the professional relation to clients (the major source of their income) and the other is the professional relation to their peers (their standing in the profession). Or in other words, one part of their activities is directed to the commercial world and the other one is directed to the cultural world. Some Japanese (poster) designers are only known for work that never had any commission.They use the traditional tools of graphic design to work as artists.



Today's digital imaging software and reproduction machines has made this trend effectively a global phenomena. It is easy and cheap to print one or a few copies in a large format. Poster design has become an art form in its own right. Millions of posters are 'designed' each year solely out of the initiative of the maker. These posters advertise nothing other than themselves. (Well, often a good cause is used as a message, but that seems to be a secondary function, to make it look like a poster). This kind of poster is directed to the cultural circuit and to private collectors, just as visual art is. It has created its own global infrastructure, poster museums have sprouted everywhere on the globe. And there are numerous yearly poster contests to take part in. Interestingly, the cheap production methods to make large posters has also had the effect that posters came back in a very down to earth commercial format which can be seen in all (hotel) lobbies, shopping centres and transportation hubs, used for advertising events, sales or meals. Maybe this poster version has a chance to stay in the public sphere for the longest time. It looks as if the next wave in applying posters in public places will not be in in a printed format but displayed on screens. Large size display screens are becoming cheaper and their quality is raising. Electronic distribution of posters is obviously attractive, one can use one poster stand to show more posters in a rotating way. Updating posters is easy and it is likely that even the poster as a still image on a screen may disappear. Animation in some way or other is likely on the horizon. Anyway, future posters may never leave their digital format altogether. This trend is already picked up by the art poster dsigners. Some poster collections today only exist in the digital universe. Practically all posters have a digital version in some stage of their production life, which makes it easy for collectors to store them. And printing posters on demand must be an attractive way for distribution. Soon digital storage and transmission speed will be so fast and cheap that posters can be printed at home, or taken to the local printer. Maybe the huge screens in every household can be used to show posters as well. In any case, there will be numerous ways for poster designers to distribute their work over the internet, creating effectively an alternative world of budget art.

Bob Appleton's personal poster story


"I largely stopped making printed posters for clients sometime in the early-90's because both the demand for them and their purpose changed. No longer were they valued as works of art and communication created by individuals. They became instead objects of corporate or institutional branding created by teams of professionals. Great designers have always overcome these absurd notions of efficiency by breaking the mold and using truth and beauty to communicate more effectively than any professional formula. So there are exceptions, but this situation has largely separated printed posters from their traditional public and their valued role of contributing to the quality of our lived environment. Since the mid 90's I've been making experimental work which I consider to be poster art - but which is neither printed, nor limited to 2 dimensions. It usually includes sound and motion and unfortunately it's rarely seen. My 12 Women of Hope posters (1998) and Dialog Box (1997) were created at the beginning of this period. All the imagery was internet - derived. And each image was envisioned as a movie existing in virtual space. My hope is that as we continue moving into a new era of post-postmodernism and post-consumerism in which artists and designers take back the ownership of our work. I believe that a new generation of 'poster designers' is born in many parts of the world. I know of websites and blogs in Iran, China and the USA inspired by AGI members which show interesting experimental work. And there are student sites connnected to every Art and Design program. Not everything is called design. For me it's less important that we call it design rather than that it just exists. So New Media and Film, as well as Sound and Music programs are also producing interesting things. Some pieces are published as print, some appear on the web, some exist only as email communication between designers. I had an opportunity to teach at CAFA in Beijing for a year from 2006-2007. I made a poster called Big Type Bei Jing - as my first response to the environment. Jiang Hua has made 3 more posters in the series and I have 2 others - so now there are 6."



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