If you’re a science fiction fan like me, you might have heard of Harlan Ellison. He’s an award winning writer who wrote for TV series such as Star Trek, The Outer Limits, Babylon 5, and many more. Ellison is very good at what he does, and more importantly, he’s very outspoken about professionalism among writers. I use the word “outspoken” lightly here, and you’ll soon find out why.
During an interview he gave, for the filming of Dreams with Sharp Teeth, an autobiography film about himself, Harlan Ellison gave a passionate speech about something that’s important to people in the creative field, GETTING PAID. (note: the following clip contains strong language, but well justified IMHO)
If you don’t have the patience to watch the whole thing, here are some key transcripts. A woman from Warner Brothers calls Harlan up, asking to use a clip of his past interview for free.
“A young woman calls me, she says we’d like to use it on the DVD. I said absolutely, all you gotta do is pay me”.
She said “what?”
I said “You gotta pay me.”
She said “Well, everybody else is just, doing, you know, for nothing.”
I said “Everybody else may be an asshole, but I’m not. By what right would you call me and ask me to working for nothing? Do you get a paycheck?
“Does your boss get a paycheck!? Do you pay the telecine guy!? Do you pay the camera man!? Do you pay the cutters!? Do you pay the teamsters when they schlepped your stuff on the trucks!? Would you go to a gas station and ask them to give you free gas!? Would you go to the doctor have him take out your spleen for nothing!? How dare you call me and want me to work for nothing!?
“They always want writers to work for nothing. And the problem is, there’s God damn many writers who have no idea that they’re supposed to be paid every time they do something. They do it for nothing!
I don’t take a piss without getting paid. I get so angry about this, because you’re under-cut by all the amateurs. The amateurs make it tough for the professionals.
Ellison may come off brutally abrasive in this interview, but if you dig for his other interviews you’ll find out that it’s just his personality. Regardless, he’s right on the money (no pun intended).
Creatives in all fields have been fighting for their wages and worth as long as greedy people have existed. However, it wasn’t until in recent years when laws of intellectual property have been enforced, albeit moderately.
Web design is a young creative field. Already, we’ve seen designers work for free, or undercutting each other. If you follow web design blogs in recent months, you may be thinking that I’m going to talk about anti-spec work. I’m not because so many people have talked about anti-spec work in far better detail than I could.
Instead, I’m going to talk about another related phenomenon that’s been hurting web designers: the devaluing of the web industry by cheap labor.
The early years of my career as a freelance web designer were blessed by the dotcom bubble. There was very little competition because every designer, from newbies to experienced had no trouble getting paid, and getting paid handsomely. Every company had plenty to spend on their web sites, whether it was their own money, or money from their VCs.
After the bubble burst, I found that freelancing became increasingly difficult. A big part of the reason had to do with the economy. Another factor was that web designers started working for free for spec work, or worked for very little in order to win a bid. The value of web design in terms of dollars, have shifted. Admittedly, during the bubble, design value was much inflated, resulting in clients paying thousands of dollars for a few static HTML pages.
I stopped freelancing and worked as an in-house UI designer for one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. I thought that working for a corporate company would spare me some integrity (no more competing with cheaper designers) and gain me some stability. I was wrong. I was hit by the biggest cheap labor scheme ever. It’s called out-sourcing. My project team was dissolved after having worked on a high profile, multi-million dollar web project for three years.
We rarely hear about doctors or lawyers having this problem. I think they are very smart people when it comes to earning as a community. If everyone charges at the industry standard, then it’s acceptable to propose a reasonable, livable figure to the client.
Whenever we lower our price to win a bid, we’re essentially hurting the web design industry as a whole. Devaluing our service gives clients a false impression that web design is cheap. Good web design is NOT cheap. It’s more than slapping graphics with codes and calling it a web site. Web design is about providing a solution. Such creative problem-solving service mixed with technical know-how deserves a respectable pay.
Just how much should we charge? I can’t answer that with a $ figure. However, I can only humbly suggest do not go lower than what your typical rate was during the good times. Instead of thinking if you should charge less, I recommend offering more comprehensive services. In doing so, you can even charge more.
A web designer’s role is ever evolving. Simply doing the technical work isn’t going to be enough. What separates a good designer and an excellent designer? I’ll spare you with the professionalism and love for the craft talk. That’s a given. I feel, increasingly, that a web designer’s role is offering the clients a solution. This is more than creating a web site from a technical perspective. Marketing, SEO, branding, social networking are the aspects we should offer to clients pro-actively. I’ll be Harlan Ellison-like here: It’s about the money. It’s about being paid. If you don’t care about how little you get paid, then switch careers and make web sites for your friends on the side as a hobby.
Recent economic recession has prompted me to write this article. I feel tough times are happening again, and it’s important to remind ourselves not to undervalue our work.