Speculative Progress

by Rob Pullins | November 2, 2011

Art Works Logo

“Make art. Make progress. Volunteer your creativity to support President Obama’s jobs plan.” That’s the presentation of the “Art Works” poster contest being run by the Obama for America campaign to promote the American Jobs Act. But while Campaign Manager Jim Messina may view the contest as a great opportunity for creatives to put their talents on display while getting people back to work, it hasn’t been received very well within the design community.

AIGA President Richard Grefe wrote a letter to Messina, urging him to cancel the “Art Works” poster contest. From Grefe’s perspective, the project encourages speculative work, a harmful practice in a country still battling a long running recession. In his letter, Grefe strongly disapproves of Obama for America’s request to the American creative community, stating:

“The recent ‘Art Works: A Poster Contest to Support American Jobs’ demonstrates a lack of respect for the design profession, violates global principles and standards for professional design practice, contradicts the intent of creating jobs for American workers and asks designers to give up intellectual and creative property rights.”

The three posters that win the competition will be sold at a retail value of $195 at the Obama for America campaign store, with no compensation or royalties granted whatsoever to winning designers. The winners will, however, receive a signed poster by President Barack Obama, and national exposure, which has potential to generate residual business for the designer but is not guaranteed. Grefe takes the position that this is speculative work in which Obama for America has no intention of compensating for, pointing out that other industries involved with the Obama for America campaign, including public relations consultants, political consultants, and advertising media, have been rightfully compensated for their services in the pursuit of raising $1 billion for the Obama 2012 campaign.

In an open letter to Obama for America by the Graphic Artists Guild, Lisa Shaftel makes an interesting point about the action the U.S. government took during the Great Depression to employ artists during hard times:

“During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the U.S. government had sponsored a work program that valued artists enough to employ hundreds of them to make posters…Under the FAP, the WPA Poster Division was charged with producing posters to raise awareness and promote a wide range of programs, activities, and behaviors that the Roosevelt administration believed would improve people’s lives…”

Perhaps this effort by FDR during the 1930s to improve the lives of all Americans in every industry is the kind of direction that the people of America that we would like to see from the Obama administration.

The “Art Works” contest is not the first time that the government has requested creative services from graphic artists and grossly underpaid the selected winners this year. The Department of the Interior (DOI) held a logo design contest this past summer in partnership with crowdspring.com. The competition attracted quite a bit of attention on the matter of proper compensation for a professional logo design. The current industry standard of a professionally designed logo ranges from $4,000-$50,000 depending on complexity and the client’s needs, as quoted by the Graphic Artists Guild’s Handbook of Pricing & Ethical Guidelines [13th edition]. The DOI offered $1000 for first prize and $250 for 2nd and 3rd prize winners.

Though this contest has closed and the uproar from the creative community has subsided, a winner has yet to be announced on a social media outlet or the official DOI site.

We are interested to see how Obama for America responds to this request by Grefe and Shaftel and what, if any, action will be taken to properly compensate the winners.

What do you think about this controversial subject as a designer? Would you submit a poster design on your own time apart from your current clients and paid projects?


Rob Pullins is a new media marketer and world traveler. In 2013, Rob was Managing Editor of NOD while he was Director of Marketing at Sessions College.


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