The Cause Does Not Justify The Means

Under the rubric No Good Deed Goes Unpunished a recent request should have pressed some warning buttons.

I received this from a very respected old acquaintance (Some of the names in this parable have been omitted for personal reasons):

I am in contact with a local version [not New York] of Occupy Wall Street. . .  One of the leaders came up with [an idea for a logo]. He knows that this is not satisfactory and asked me if I could get professional help. It is a very worthy cause. Obviously, no money. Decisions are made by consensus so it might make sense to offer several variations. Can you suggest one or more designers who are good at logos and who would see the social dimension of it whom I can try to get involved?

Although I already expressed my feelings in this blog about NOT jumping in too early to brand the Occupy Wall Street “movement,” I nonetheless recommended one – and only one – designer who I believed would do an excellent job – Felix Sockwell.

I was not told, however, that the leadership already had a preconceived “idea” for a mark that included a landmark building.  The desire to show the building was not unreasonable. But was it an ingredient for effective design?

This was the marching order that Sockwell received. In addition to the building . . .

My contact, “A point person,” wants a nude figure, a symbol representing anarchists, etc. You’ll see his drawing.

Sockwell responded:

I don’t have any desire to render the committee’s decision . . .  though I see where the usefulness of having it comes into play. For me, the first rule of order is that it has to be useful and makes uses of some of the stencil language already in play.

To his credit, my acquaintance has an eye and brain; he understands that designers have something to bring to the table. He responded:

Your solutions are much much better! Thank you very much. I will return later in the day to present them to the media committee.

The committee’s response came that same day:

I presented your designs. They did not buy them. . . .  So, I will find someone locally who can do that.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished! While in a commercial client/designer relationship the designer is bound to be as creative as possible within the client’s proscription, in a pro-bono or volunteer relationship those rules do not apply. Sockwell, to his credit, gracefully accepted the rejection. He told me “committees don’t make decisions, people do.” He added half sarcastically, “anyhow I enjoy doing free work. I made this bed a long long time ago. No complaints (today).”

Nonetheless, it troubles me. The committee had a fixed idea that was impervious to Sockwell’s logic. Indeed, good or bad, that is their right. But clearly, because the designer offered his services for FREE, no value was attached and no value was returned. Sockwell’s mark was dismissed as though it were a doodle. For any movement to be worthy of a designer’s energy and effort, there must be respect.

The “cause” does not always justify the “means.”

[See tonight’s Nightly Daily Heller for Robert Grossman’s “Occupy This.”]

[And see all Nightly, Weekend and Daily Heller posts in the Archive here.]

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26 thoughts on “The Cause Does Not Justify The Means

  1. Felix sockWell

    There is a “movement” called the tea party that is funded, in no small degree, by lobbyist dick armey/ freedomworks. There are countless other pacs and anonymous corporatations that support the tea party and the other two parties. Not so much for OWS. There is no “candidate” for OWS but if it had one I’d bet he/ she would be in the libertarian party.

  2. John

    My post is not against OWS – which unlike some movements, is not monetarily supported by opportunistic special interests…To what other movements are you referring, Mr. Heller?

  3. Rebecca

    Unfortunately I find that the respect I get from a client is often directly proportional to the amount they are paying me. It’s too bad that those who often are in direst need of good design don’t understand the process of working with a designer. Design by committee rarely works well, especially when the solution usually is to try to appease everyone by throwing in everything including the kitchen sink. The strongest, most powerful designs are usually the simplest ones, and that simplicity comes from stripping away elements and refining them to their essence, NOT from trying to include everything.
    Usually it’s a bad sign when a client tries to bring me the solution instead of the problem. There’s no point in me wasting my time trying to make a concept work if I know it is fundamentally flawed. Not that I’m above being a hired hand, but only if they’re paying me. For pro bono work, it has to be on my terms: it has to be something I will be proud to show as my work, and it has to be fun to work with the clients.
    I also need to know up front everyone who will be involved in the decision-making process because I’ve had too many experiences where we have to go through additional rounds of designs because someone new has weighed in with an opinion or constraint that was never mentioned before. Also, whenever possible, I prefer to make the presentations myself rather than trusting someone else to guide the clients through the thought process involved in coming to a good decision. Conference calls and screen-sharing technologies make it possible to do that fairly easily without leaving my studio.
    Love the photos of the OWS screen printing. Nice designs! And love the democratic ideal of putting designs out there and letting people vote with their feet.

  4. Steven Heller Post author

    “OWS is  just a bunch of bored, spoiled trust fund babies playing at radicalism.”
    I beg to differ: Frustration motivates many of the demonstrators who, incidentally, are by no means wealthy or spoiled. They are afraid they’re futures and those of their children are being continually and greedily devalued. The middle class is at risk – and so is the nation. Capitalism should not be a ponzi scheme. Greed should not be a national pastime.
    If the only way to garner some kind of redress is to protest in this manner. Then that is telling us something
    My post is not against OWS – which unlike some movements, is not monetarily supported by opportunistic special interests – my post is in favor of understanding that design can play a role if the designers are respected as integral participants. Its a learning curve that demands discussion, not attack.

  5. Joshua

    [Apologies moderator – posting this one last time to fix broken URL from copy/paste!]
    The expectation that the traditional client/provider relationship would work here fails to take into account just how unique this movement is. That much is made obvious by simply observing the media frustration with a lack of concrete demands, the city’s frustration with not having a leader to negotiate with, and the wonky way in which decisions are made at the Zuccotti Park site. Pretty much everything generated by OWS is by virtue of an individual taking initiative and others jumping in to support that effort if they agree with it – in essence it is a democratic form where you vote with your effort. This is more reflective of a social media age where popularity is dictated by the social group rather than dictated by a designated decision-maker. Is this the best way to conduct “business”? Who the hell knows, but it is certainly a movement reflective of the refracted, flattened world of design that we currently inhabit where a teenager in his bedroom with an open-source graphics program can design an image that can virally span the globe on the social networks in a way that might make a corporation green with envy.
    I’ve put in a lot of volunteer time with #OWS in NYC helping start up the screen printing lab that now cranks out designs made by a number of different people who had the gumption to roll up their sleeves and do the work. The designs that get printed the most are the designs that people ask for the most. We give the shirts away for free and take donations for materials. If someone wants to help us print or bring a screen, they simply step up to the plate and do it. The fact that your acquaintance was approached by “leaders” about making a “logo” says loud and clear that the paradigm being followed by that group is very much the traditional client/provider scenario with all of its attendant problems and expectations, minus the compensation that usually makes the hassle worth it. Nobody approves our designs, we just print.
    I’d like to personally invite Felix to burn a screen of his design and come down to print with us. I can guarantee that the other volunteer printers will welcome you with open arms (as long as you promise to help cleanup!). There is honestly nothing quite like getting your hands inky and giving people a piece of history that you designed. Here are some pictures of the volunteer-run screen printing lab in action:

  6. Chris

    Susan: Why don’t those who need us to contribute value what we bring to the project?
    Perhaps the value of the project has nebulous issues. In many ways, this discussion has more to do with the integrity of the organization than anything else. IMHO, OWS is only the beginning, there will be much bigger fish to fry.

  7. felix sockwell

    Thanks for the flattering post Steve. Being a designer isn’t too different than acting; you’re going to go out on some casting calls and get laughed at and kicked off the stage daily. Rejection is key. Enjoy it.
    What I try to do (lately) when I employ sure disasters is give the getter a statement or rationale or some bit of advice on presenting the ideas. If they can’t act, persuade and be vigiante about it’s purpose no one will stand up and cheer.

  8. Rich Hollant

    The client outlined the following: preconceived ideas, committee approvals and a sense of urgency which goes along with the Occupy(fill in the location) movement. That Felix was gracious about the client’s decline makes sense—especially since they didn’t offend. Sounds like all parties were clear and upfront about their intentions in this scenario. It would be great if all relationships were this straightforward. 
    It seems this article hangs on one statement worth a discussion: While in a commercial client/designer relationship the designer is bound to be as creative as possivble within the client’s proscription, in a pro-bono or volunteer relationship those rules do not apply. I think if the designer is clear about this perspective from the beginning (sounds like Felix was when he stated he had no intention of rendering their idea), everyone is on the same page and aware of the risk. In this scenario, I think it’s ethical and legitimate to disregard the proscript. Outside of this specific, verbalized statement of intention, I think to accept a job, whether pro-bono, lo-bono, fairly- or well-compensated, is a defacto agreement to be as creative as possible within the client’s proscription. Our first agenda item should be helpfulness. That’s doubly true when we are in support of a movement. Probono, lo-bono and cause work pays in social profit. We need to consider this a value in line with monetary compensation.

  9. Susan

    Regardless of the worthiness of any cause (the first two posters should stick to the subject at hand), the issue Steven raised is a common one when working on many pro bono projects. It is valid to expect the client to give input, that’s not the point. However, what happened here is so typical, and it results in the worst mediocrity. I get more respect from those who pay for our design skills. Why don’t those who need us to contribute value what we bring to the project? That’s the part that ALWAYS puzzles me. In addition, it makes me less and less likely to want to donate. Lately I’ve tried telling organizations that come to us that besides supporting their cause, we will insist on producing something that we will be proud to include in our portfolio. Let’s see how that fiies!

  10. Reen

    This particular “cause” doesn’t justify anything at all.  I’m sorry Felix wasted his valuable time on such nonsense. OWS is  just a bunch of bored, spoiled trust fund babies playing at radicalism. If you really want to make a difference, boys and girls, go get your hands dirty by digging wells in Africa and stop whining about needing a logo for your pricey t-shirts.

  11. John

    The longer this OWS foolishness stretches on, the more laughable it becomes. Watching them contort themselves into ethical pretzels is more fun than watching Harry Reid try to pass his President’s “Jobs” bill.

  12. David Lesh

    Someone recently posted a “call for entries” for a logo for the Jobs Act…..submit five concepts for use across a number of applications and the “winning” artist/designer will receive a poster (for which the printer is, I’m sure, paid) signed by the President. While the Occupy organization may be a worthy cause I wonder why its committee can’t see the irony in asking a designer for free work in a day when many creatives are struggling to make a living. Pro bono work is one thing…we all do it for our own reasons…..but asking Felix to turn out something that doesn’t meet his high standards is a real head scratcher. It’s their loss.