Obama campaign asks graphic designers to work for free on Jobs poster

Good thing there are no unemployed graphic designers in America. Because if there were, it would be really uncool for our president to have asked them to labor, without pay, for a poster about creating jobs for out-of-work Americans. (Rolling Stone)


  1. Obama campaign uses Drupal platform that’s built on the backs of thousands of hard working programmers without paying them a cent.

    Obama campaign asks door to door campaigners to donate their time to his campaign.

    Obama campaign uses internet, which relies on mounds of unfunded, open source code.

    Obama campaign accepts donations instead of telling the donors to use the money to hire someone.

    Is it silly that a campaign with $60 million on hand isn’t going to pay someone for a poster? Kind of, yeah.

    Would I donate my time to a campaign I believed in if they wanted my skill set? Actually, yes. That’d be a pretty badass thing to have in my portfolio — and I’d feel more comfortable with that than donating money.

    1. Saying the campaign didn’t pay anything for Drupal is misleading. Not only did they pay several development firms to develop the site and to “harden” the Drupal code in order to satisfy government security standards, they have also contributed code back to the community. David C0le, from the New Media Team at the White House, was also in attendance at the Drupalcon SF keynote. His discussion and the contributions from the launch of whitehouse.gov on Drupal are valuable in ways that transcend monetary value.

      Just wanted to clear that up.

      1. You’re correct; I was being hyperbolic. However, there are people who contributed to Drupal who didn’t see any monetary compensation from the Whitehouse — and my point was partially that being the person who designed a poster for the Obama campaign has very large non-monetary benefits.

  2. How is asking for services to be volunteered weird?  No one’s forcing them to volunteer, and I’d be surprised if no graphic designers were in the pay of the campaign.  While plenty of professionals are paid, a campaign always has plenty of volunteers.  People from all walks of life are asked to volunteer time and effort for all sorts of political campaigns.  If only paid workers were allowed to contribute to a campaign, we’d be in even more of a plutocracy than we are now. 

  3. How is this different from not paying volunteers who make cold calls, do data entry, knock on doors to promote a candidate, or provide free legal advice outside the polls regarding election law? (All of which are types of labor that are typically paid gigs outside of the political volunteering context).

    There is no difference – except that graphic design is one of the jobs on Boing Boing’s cool jobs list. Sorry, but as a non-graphic designer, I’m playing the world’s smallest violin right now. It’s VOLUNTEER work, silly! That means free.

    1. Actually, it’s not volunteer work. As a volunteer, your efforts are being put to use. If you enter the competition, your efforts are being discarded- unless you are the winner.

      If you want to design an Obama poster, I’d say do it. Then put it up on a print on demand site, get blog attention if it’s as good as you think it is, maybe sell them for the cost of printing. Or sell them and donate it all to the campaign. Or put up the print ready pdf so that people can print them themselves. Do something cool that will actually have a better chance of being seen.

      I’m pretty sure the odds of winning will be similar to winning the lottery in this case. Usually, once you enter a design contest the entry becomes the copyrighted property of the entity running the contest. I can’t find this specific clause in the rules this time, but I only skimmed them quickly.

  4. Every once in a while we get a debate in these comments about working for spec. This can be via crowdsourcing, or take the form of a “design contest” where the winner gets a token amount (and the visibility) and everyone else who submitted gets nothing. IMO, it cheapens the designer’s work because everyone works for free except the winner.

    There is no other trade or business that operates this way.

    As a professional designer I choose not to work on spec. I will work pro bono on occasion, but I am always assured that my work will be used. I won’t enter a design competition for either paid or pro bono work.

    More on the issue here: http://antispec.com/

    1. i encountered a studio the other day that wanted versions from several artists and they’d pick the best one to be used. except they were cool about it and paid each artist for their work, even if it wasn’t going to be used

  5. Respectfully and this is not a rhetorical question: What is your take on DARPA or the X-Prize? Both are contests; one war related and the other more peaceful, but both have the requirement that you work for free. Are these contests different than the “work for free” Obama Jobs prize?

    I myself hate art contests because they are so marketing oriented and exploitive whereas tech prizes do more good then harm. IS that your take too?

  6. Also a professional designer and currently unemployed. jimh has it right – working for spec is a huge, ongoing issue within the design community that may not translate well to similar discussions in other fields, like tech. This a raging argument for us, and the campaign’s marketing gurus should have known better than to step right into it. Regardless of the fact that there are so many of us without work, it’s a rather blind move that will tick off a whole segment. It could have been presented in a different way – lots of designers will be willing to volunteer for this campaign (and probably do), but this isn’t the way to go about it.

    1. Oh that’s just dumb. It’s an opportunity. Many of you think you should get paid for everything – or you won’t do anything. How’s that working out for you?

      Didn’t JFK say something to the effect of; Ask not what your country can do for you – but what you can do for your country? Yeah, I think he did.

      1. Didn’t JFK say something to the effect of; Ask not what your country can do for you – but what you can do for your country?

        “…Just don’t ask if your country is going to actually appreciate what you do for it, because we’re just gonna throw 99.9% of that crap away.”

  7. half empty or half full…..   if I were an unemployed graphic designer I would be thrilled at the chance for my work to be showcased (for free) across the entire nation and around the globe.   I’m sure I if it were I would not be unemployed for long.  But I’m  just saying…..  I know it’s not cool to have a positive outlook  these days, but I’ve never been cool.

  8. Great idea!  
    Look, if your work gets picked up by the Obama Champaign, you’ll find yourself a job in no time. 

    1. Look, if your work gets picked up by the Obama Champaign, you’ll find yourself a job in no time.

      And if it doesn’t, you can still hope for some water squeezings at the door.

  9. I dunno, seems like it’s an opportunity to contribute in a small way to getting your country back to work perhaps? 
    “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
    Didn’t do Mr Fairey a lot of harm

  10. It’s also great to be valued as a designer and be paid for your work. 

    This may just be a touchy subject for me, because I am a designer, but asking a graphic designer to work for free on something that would supposedly create jobs is so hypocritical that I am dumbfounded with rage.

  11. Okay great, I will concede that you would get a buttload of amazing exposure, but also, why can’t they pay them too?

    And while this infuriates me, I would also jump at the chance to work for free for the president. 
    It’s just a slap in the face that they would take advantage of desperate people and not offer financial payment as well.

  12. Next it will be, Local Church asks members to work to help the poor, for free!  Gasp!  We have to put an end to this idea of asking people to work for free.  Time is money people and that is all we should worry about.  The problem is not just with those asking for free labor, but with those offering free labor.  There should be a law forbidding people from accepting work without proper monetary remuneration.

  13. I do occasional pro-bono work for worthy causes but never in situations where I’m not sure the work is actually going to be used. Why waste my time if you don’t even have enough confidence in my work to hire me for FREE? This campaign is basically following the “contest” format except that even the winner doesn’t get any prize money- just a framed print of their own damn poster valued at less than what any decent designer would charge for their time.

    What Fairey did for Obama’s 2008 campaign was completely different- he took it upon himself to design a poster and sold a limited number of prints to help raise funds for the campaign. He wasn’t asked to do it and there was never any risk that the final product wouldn’t be used because it was his plan in the first place. He spent his time on something he thought was worthwhile only because he knew it wouldn’t be time wasted.

  14. Meh it’s a free country (mostly). If you give it away you’re only devaluing your own work (maybe) and if you choose not to then be sure you can argue that your work is worth paying for. In the end there will always be someone who’ll give it away for the chance of exposure, or the portfolio addition. If I was hiring a designer and I had the choice between a ‘precious’ who was picky and had a thin portfolio and one who’d been unemployed and spent some downtime doing a few freebies and competitions in between scratching a living doing whatever else but had a lot of good variety  then I’d go for the latter. 
    Gotta speculate a bit, even better if it’s for a ‘good cause’ 
    And BTW the US doesn’t actually have ANY money or hadn’t you noticed the deficit? 

  15. Of course graphic designers should work for free. They’re just making pretty stuff on computers, anyone can do it really. Just ask every fucking person on the fucking planet who isn’t a designer.

    I’m always blown away by the quality of lay design that gets handed in to me as a powerpoint presentation, and get left wondering why I bother to spend so much time, and use professional tools. I mean two angled elipses and a company name in Times New Roman, all set in primary colours in a larger elipse, BAM! There’s the logo right there! Why pay me???!!!

  16. “And BTW the US doesn’t actually have ANY money or hadn’t you noticed the deficit?”

    Ah, so that’s why the President uses Air Force One when attending fundraisers.

  17. Who would make the better jobs poster: a hungry graphic designer looking for work or an ad agency?

  18. Kinda don’t see a problem with it. (except it now being a PR disaster). The winning designer would garner a lot of publicity from it (even with the PR spin)- not a bad deal for time spent.  The design will probably be fresher, and winning things like these tend to make connections that pay down the road. There are too many people who got their break doing things like this to discount it. 

    Now, the campaign should license back the design to the designer for portfolio and PR efforts. Have you seen the Tea Party’s logo? They should have done anything except hire the firm they did to make it. As for a designer-working-for-free (gasp!) angle, sorry. Fee for services as the only model died around 1999. Being a designer today requires much more flexibility with hybrid income /pr structures- especially if you want to work with people whose passions you follow. 

    1. The winning designer would garner a lot of publicity from it (even with the PR spin)- not a bad deal for time spent.

      Seems like they’d get that even if they were paid.

      And how about all the other designers who didn’t win?

      1. And how about all the other designers who didn’t win?

        That’s the part that bugs me the most.  Like it said in TFA, “You’ve not only lost the contest, you’ve also surrendered your intellectual property. ‘All submissions will become the property of Obama for America,’ according to the fine print.”

        That’s what makes it seem like a cynical grab for a shitload of free design work.  The contest to design the poster in and of itself isn’t a horrible idea at all.  But laying claim to the rights of every last submission, while “paying” for exactly one of them with a signature and a $30 frame from Aaron Bros, is some pretty arrogant assholery.  Doing so in the service of a “job-creating” campaign makes the assholery of a particularly thoughtless, tone-deaf, and epic level.

        Jesus H. Christ, can we seriously get going with a primary challenge already?!  I nominate Beschizza.  Is he 35 yet?

  19. What seems to be missing from this discussion is an assessment of the number of times that “artists” (graphic or otherwise) get asked to do things for free. I get approximately 45 requests per year, and famous artists get even more.

    I happily work as a sign poster, phone caller, driver-to-the-polls for my chosen candidates in elections.

    I don’t give them my artwork for free. 

    My neighbour, the lawyer, also puts up signs etc for his chosen candidate. He sure as h*** doesn’t give the candidate free legal services.

    And, more importantly, no candidate would dream of asking a bunch of lawyers to submit whatever their legal advice was on a question as part of a competition.

  20. I’m guessing Shepard Fairey has finally dissented. I wouldn’t have a problem with this really. Whichever design wins out may earn that person something to put on a resume or whatever. I would even submit something for this myself. But there is one problem I have with that actually: I’m too busy trying to find freaking design work, or any work for that matter! 

  21. Publicity doesn’t pay bills.

    Anyway, I was going to go off on a rant about how people think “anybody” can do graphic design or any other non-performance creative profession, and it’s just about getting our names out there so we should just be happy to have the opportunity–nay, the honor–of doing something “anybody” could do and calling it a job, but I think David Thorne put it best:


    And this is what everybody who assumes creatives should just do stuff for free should get:


  22. I want to hire 50 different accountants to do my taxes. I’ll agree to pay the one who gets me the largest return. Or, even better, I’ll just agree to tell everyone about him or her! This will create lots of new business for them. They should be grateful for it!

    I need a new garage. I am famous, so please enter the celebrity garage contest! Build the garage, and if I like it I’ll keep it. I will tear down all non-winning entries. When people admire the winning garage, I will tell them who built it as a form of compensation. In addition, I will pay the winner for materials, but not labor.

  23. BBrrrrrrppppppp – what?!

    At the very least if they want to run it as a “competition” of sorts, make it so it is at least worth the winner’s time with a decent payout. Jesus – they are so clueless.

  24. whoop-dee-shit.  It’s a contest, not a Request For Proposals.  Most contests of this ilk have similar rules.

  25. I don’t see anything wrong with inviting people to volunteer their services, or with holding a contest under the usual terms. The problem seems to be that the campaign has inadvertently hit upon an existing sore point in the design community—spec work, which, in that field in particular, is widespread enough that it threatens designers’ ability to get paid for their work.

  26. If you become famous for doing a great design for free, do you know what kind of business you’re going to get from that publicity?  People looking for free designs. 

    I’ve done hundreds of hours of graphic work and web design for local non-profits, specifically for those that I founded or belong to.  I never put my name on anything that I do for charity.  No good deed goes unpunished.

  27. Awesome. This thread is full of great comments and respectful criticism. My mind is kind of blown by all the great points which have been made and it is kind of exciting that just a single observation can raise so many issues but also possibilities. I really think we are on our way to huuuge chnages in the way we arrange our affairs. Of course ‘spec work’ is the captive market approach to commissioning work, it is exploitative but I totally love the potential solution which is market your own obama campaign poster outside of the official campaign, but then we get into IP/copyright /trademark- is that correct?

    1. In 2008, there were massive amounts of home-brewed posters, bumper stickers, T-shirts and other materials supporting Obama’s run. Shep Fairey’s now iconic poster was part of this movement.

      It would be PR suicide if his campaign were to go after people for distributing “unofficial” posters and the like. One would HOPE that they are smarter than that.

  28. come on, it’s a donation in-kind. as for the “probably won’t get used”-angle, that’s just intrinsic in intellectual work. the donation is in the doing. if you don’t like your odds, then don’t enter and let someone more idealistic but less good have a chance. comparative advantage is a scary thing.

    also i reviewed the documents extensively (apparently more extensively than rolling stone) and, although the submission becomes property of Obama for America, they also assert that Obama for America gets a /non-exclusive/ license to use the content. in light of this, i think what they mean is that only the physical submission becomes theirs (since it would be a nightmare to mail back all of the entries). this is not the same as claiming full IP ownership, music industry-style, of your work. correct me if i’m wrong here.

  29. But, at the risk of being repetitive, it’s a _political campaign_ … not a private citizen hiring an accountant or a carpenter.  Like thousands of other lawyers, I worked as a volunteer attorney for the Obama campaign and was not paid for my time in that capacity (even though attorneys’ hourly rates are similar to, or higher than, graphic designers’ rates).  I wasn’t surprised because providing your labor free for a cause you support = the whole point of volunteering.

    Reading these comments, you can tell very quickly who grew up being involved in community groups that involved volunteering (e.g. – church/other religious groups, political/social causes, non-profits, co-ops, Boy/Girl Scouts, Habitat For Humanity, etc.), and those who have never had any exposure to them. It almost validates that Bowling Alone book that dominated political science discussions for years (but I had thought had been proven wrong by the socially-connectedness the internet has created).

    1. I worked as a volunteer attorney for the Obama campaign and was not paid for my time in that capacity (even though attorneys’ hourly rates are similar to, or higher than, graphic designers’ rates).

      The key difference is that you knew your time wouldn’t be wasted when you chose to volunteer– it wasn’t a “contest” to see who could offer the best legal services. Would you have spent all those hours working for free alongside other attorneys if you knew there was only one chance in a thousand that your efforts would actually be put to any use?

    2. It’s an incumbent _political campaign_ with more than $60 million in cash on hand. I donated some of it. So, yeah, not a private citizen hiring an accountant or carpenter, at all.

      I grew up being involved with church groups, and have donated my time and efforts to many causes during my life. You can cast aspersions all you like as to my character, call me greedy, etc. This is a matter of business ethics, and that works both ways. When you volunteered your legal services, you weren’t working on spec. There is a difference between a design contest and volunteering.

      At the risk of being repetitive, I will make telephone calls, host community get-togethers, knock on doors, etc. As a matter of principle, I won’t enter a design contest where thousands of people spend time, effort, and energy to create good ideas and then only one is chosen. Others may, but I’ll go on record saying that they’re actually devaluing the work that we do.

  30. Why not put all this rage to work against the Obama campaign by designing a poster that tells exactly what kind of asshole he is for asking for this kind of ‘free’ labor?  I’m sure that many talented, smart designers could come up with something that at the very least would shame the campaign staff for their thoughtless call to ‘support’ Obama’s ‘jobs’ bill.  Set up a Tumblr, and give them a piece of your mind.  

  31. I’m a graphic designer. We have to pay bills like everyone else.
    I’m tired of people asking me to do church fliers and ads for their shitty wedding photography business.

    We need to get paid for OUR trade too.

  32. If you have any good photos of out of work graphic artists send those in too.
    (we don’t pay photographers either)
    PS Don’t worry if they are out of focus, since we don’t pay for photos, we’ve lowered our quality standards and don’t mind if they’re low quality cell phone shots.

  33. As a graphic designer, I agree with the above comments that yes, we do need to get paid for our work. Having said that, this contest is more about self promotion than getting paid (and any up-and-coming designer would be a fool not to submit something). Sure you are giving away your skills and free time, but in return you have the potential to get recognized as the guy/gal that made the jobs poster.

    On the other hand, they are going to get thousands of submissions (many of which aren’t even going to get more than a glance) and the “winner” will more than likely be picked by committee (read: a group of people who know nothing of design, let alone good design). The resulting “winner” will be the lowest common denominator of design; a bland piece of shit that poorly illustrates the ideas behind it.

  34. A way to run this that is ethical would be to invite people to submit three samples of work they have done in the past. No new work is to be created. Based on a review of these samples, one or more designers are chosen to create posters. The designers who are chosen are paid fair rates for their work. If it is to be pro bono, at least the designer is assured that the work will be used.

  35. Common, accepted practice: asking different artists to do a sketch for a poster and give one of them a proper assignment. 
    Unacceptable, no matter what the purpose is: make different artists do a complete design job and reward one of the with honor and a small prize.

    This is just killing the market. Period.

    …and in response to yearofplentycard: like it was said before… when I do volunteer work, I like at least to be sure that my work WILL be used and not discarded. When I do volunteer work, I mostly ovoid publicity for myself as, exactly like Antinous says, this will most probably result in more people wanting you to work for free/a ridiculous fee.
    What many people obviously don’t get: many designers aren’t so hot for “fame” at all. We are SO used to people trying to trick us with expectations of large coverage. We are used to have our work displayed widely just like we are used to getting miserable rewards. What’s the use of it if you can’t pay your bills at the end of the month? Most designers I know would rather live a humble life without the constant hassle and struggle with people who think your job should be free than having to crave for a bit of fame in order to get more valuable assignments. 

  36. I think asking for volunteers is fine, there is no promise or potential for some sort of prize or reward. It’s just a volunteer job. If they were running a crowd-sourcing contest, then I would take issue with it. As it stands, I don’t see it being any different than asking for other types of campaign volunteers.

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