The Question of Credits

While having dinner with a former teacher of mine (turned great drinking buddy) we discussed designers’ websites, the different ways portfolios can be shown, and what made some sites memorable. The topic of using credits on sites, or rather—lack thereof—came in to question. It seems a good amount of designers don’t have credits on their sites. He and I asked, why?

A couple years ago when I entered work in for Print’s New Visual Artists issue, the staff at the time had reservations on whether or not they would make my feature project the CNN Grill (something that was created between five of us at COLLINS:) or instead showcase something more personal and singular in its authorship, like a book jacket or an illustration I did.

The concern? Big projects, with big budgets, and lots of people, tend to get sticky in its authorship. My colleagues and I, obviously with different titles and levels, all simultaneously and collaboratively bled together for that project. It’s been rightfully made clear by the senior members of the team that it’s just as much mine as it is theirs. So, while I respectably understood the staff’s concern, I was strangely confused when it was brought into question. I wondered, do other people feel this way, too?

The complication? The objective of many design studios is to maintain the integrity of the leader’s voice. Sometimes a designer is simply given an idea to make, perhaps left out of the ideation process, and ultimately creates work that feels like The Studio. That’s where things get tricky with authorship. At COLLINS:, the theme is about partnership and collaboration; there’s no “one” person. The staff is small, senior, very opinionated, and eager to push one another to do their best. You’re expected to have a voice, to exercise that voice, and to do so, eloquently, in a variety of ways. And because we work so closely, and in such a rapid way, the work becomes incestuous.

Recently, my former creative director, John Fulbrook, and I were discussing our roles on the many projects we’ve done together—and more questions arose on this topic. When somebody sees a project he and I did, do they consider it John’s work because his title was Art Director or Creative Director? Or do they consider it mine because my title was Designer? He suggested the latter. I suggested the former. These questions undoubtably arise for me while looking at a designer’s site (even with credits). And I’ve had my fair share of questions by peers.

But what about the designers who don’t put any credits on their site? Why is that? Entitlement? Insecurity? Spite? And what influence does that have on the viewer? Does it give the suggestion that they might have done the work in the corner of their own genius, without anyone’s help, collaboration, or direction? And if so, do they do it in order to help them get the work they want from potential clients? Credits can definitely muck up a site, so perhaps it’s purely an aesthetic choice? While I think it’s important to put credits on a website, and just as vital to make them observable, I do agree that the appearance of credits can “dirty” a site up.

Feeling stumped, I asked a friend who, coincidentally, is undecided on whether or not she’s going to put credits on her new site. Her argument in favor of putting credits: “Do I do it just out of principle? And if so, is that a good enough reason?” I tend to think it is. There are too many designers not crediting, and too many designers not getting the credit they deserve. If nothing else, doesn’t it spread the positive karma that the graphic design gods might send us? Why isn’t it good to show the “love” to our peers in the industry? Don’t we want them to get work, too? And don’t we want to maintain good relationships with our peers, colleagues, and clients?

I have so many questions! However, I can’t find one good reason not to credit appropriately. Designers, illustrators, art directors and everyone else—I would to love to hear your thoughts on this sticky and complicated subject.

[Ed. note: This article originally appeared on Tim’s blog.]

20 thoughts on “The Question of Credits

  1. Tim Belonax

    For design students, I think it’s also wise to credit professors when work is submitted for competitions or publication. The TDC (Type Director’s Club) is the first example that comes to mind in terms of crediting professors and institutions. It’s smart and gives context to the work. Above everything else, I think we have the obligation to give proper context to our work, wherever it is placed.

  2. Chanel

    I have just started a product line and went to a friend designer for some design suggestions.  He suggested that I use a color theme and is going to trasfer my PDF file to Illustrator.  I have created all text, product concept , logo, on my own.  He now wants credit for reworking my work and wants to add it to his portfolio.  Is this right?  I am not a designer and have no issues with giving credit BUT I am a firm believer in giving credit where it’s due.  How can I give him credit for the suggestion…is that even credible?

  3. Marcus Leis Allion

    An attribution sign.
    “So, we have restriction and we have permission, for pay and for free. Yet, easy attribution is missing. We have no symbol to conveniently say “thank you” to others we recognize as our personal thought leaders. After all, we choose them to inspire us, and on their work we build a piece of our own new world. People like to share freely and general thanks are in order, but outside of web tools like blogging we have no convenient back link, no universally understood pointer or TrackBack to our thought leader’s prior art”

  4. Jenny Ma

    Something to consider is The Economist’s take on authorship. They leave names out of articles whether it was written and edited by one or three people in order to give content the most importance. I think this would be appropriate for design agencies that like to showcase a style unique to their brand.

    When it comes to personal portfolio sites, there should be no question regarding giving credit where credit is due. Credits don’t need to noisy up a page. If there are too many, then they deserve their own page as if in a book or at the end of a movie.

  5. Patricia Mace

    Tim, I think your line – However, I can’t find one good reason NOT to credit appropriately. – wraps up this discussion.
    ” Credit where credit due ” may be terribly old fashioned now, but surely it is an easy concept.

    It’s interesting there is need of so much dialogue on this subject.

    One has to be old enough, however, to be aware of the fact that when the computer plus scanner first arrived in the mix, any art work existing in the universe was up for grabs to be used in any way desired.

    Anyone with actual hand and creative design skills could be instantly replaced with someone with computer skills.

    Is this a contributing factor for a sticky situation.

  6. Fay-Lisa Jensen

    Great article, great discussion!
    I agree that giving collaborators mention on a portfolio can be tricky, and can definitely muck it up some. I also do this, however, on my own portfolio, when describing what part I had in the design/implementation of what I’ve created.

    It was less about how to say it, in the end, and more to do with giving my co-workers and our programmers the credit they deserve. Karma that I do hope will spread through a sometimes very wolf-packish mentality among the best of us.

  7. Timothy Goodman Post author

    Thanks for all your comments! As Trevor explained, I don’t think there is a “right” answer. It’s just a topic that needs more exposure. Keep the dialogue going!!

  8. Daniel Dittmar

    Great article Tim!
    Giving credit where credit is due is a must. It helps creatives grow together, and I’ve found always leads to more opportunities. Think about the people you collaborate with, and the potential clients hunting them down. If you index your site properly you’ll pop up in the search results too. Everything helps for exposure, but first and foremost being respectful to your peers goes without saying.
    I think the whole ‘you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours’ comes into play a lot with collaboration.

  9. Drew M

    Much like Trevor, I don’t use “credits” per se on my site, but I try to always clearly describe my role in every project. I think that longer-term or large-scale projects often have such convoluted processes and so many hands involved that credits would be excessively long and confusing. A short description of your role in the process (and others’ role if prominent, like a creative director) is a better way to go.

    Just showing the work as “yours” without a description or credit of any kind isn’t cool though.

  10. Trevor Barrios

    I am glad to see this topic receiving constructive discussion. Not because I have always wondered what the “right” answer was, but because it’s a subject that needed more attention than it was getting. I rarely see credits on personal work and that’s too bad. While “mucking up” a portfolio with credits may be a real problem sometimes, I think as creative problem solvers, it’s expected of us to find a way to include such info without making the presentation less attractive. The rule I have always followed is simply notating what I was responsible for. It certainly isn’t the only right answer or even the best necessarily, but it clarifies what aspect of a project I contributed to and often requires less space for copy than listing out other names (especially if on a large team).

  11. Jera Batten

    I love to credit my team! Giving honor to those who help us via a credit line is a fast, convenient way to display your mutual respect and working partnership. As a front-end developer, I name the designer and back-end engineer on each project in my portfolio.

    I agree with the earlier poster who states how important it is to credit team members to avoid the very awkward question of, “So…. what part of this did you do?”

  12. Marcus Leis Allion

    Great to read your article on this subject, and hear of your own experiences and perceptions.
    With today’s technological capacities (work can be tagged with multiple criteria rather than designated by a single stand alone title) and the nodal working practices (e.g the job for life no longer exists) it’s strange that attribution of credit has remained located in old hierarchical models, still attuned to notions of the individual genius, rather than the collective nature of all design work. McLuhan talks about the need for identification and says that a lack of recognition often led to acts of violence (e.g. When an idenitity is not recognised it will make itself appear through acts of violence). Violence itself can be enacted at many scales and levels of intensity and need not ways be levelled against those that induce such an emotion. Violence can be directed towards the self, those perceived to be weaker, strangers etc. and may be purely verbal, veiled, implied (see the opening scene of Hanke’s film Funny Games as a prime example), or overtly physical, or both.

    I would also be interested in developing much more thoughtful recognition for the non-human input (the tools, machines, codes we work with) as well as the role of influence and inspiration, which our practice usually derides as plagarism or rip-off.

  13. Christopher Lehr

    I’m currently putting my newest portfolio (both print and web) together and have included credits in both. First of all, because it’s what I would want others I have worked with to do as well. Another reason, it shows who I have worked with, which from time to time can be helpful. As a personal reason for this choice, I feel like it shows the kind of person I am; someone willing to give credit where credit is due and not the kind that has to be the credit hogging “design rock star.” I actually have several more reasons but I haven’t quite figured out how to articulate them yet.


  14. Timothy Goodman Post author

    Totally! I agree. Having credit can be a vehicle for showcasing your talent. And not showing credit can be a decoy for your weaknesses. Good point.

  15. Tanner

    Credits go beyond simple ethics or favors.

    Consider this: if an agency is hiring a designer based on her portfolio of work, yet no credit is given on the portfolio, how are they going to know which ideas were entirely hers and which were part of the collective group working on the project?

    If I say “I created this part of the design” then potential clients or hiring agency’s will know exactly what my strong points are.

    Or maybe not?