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Poster design by @DavidAirey

Once again the Twitter-sphere is crackling over a controversial spec work story—this time originating from a somewhat surprising source: the Obama election campaign. The campaign posted a call for “poster submissions from artists across the country illustrating why we support President Obama’s plan to create jobs now, and why we’ll re-elect him to continue fighting for jobs for the next four years.” The irony here is rich.

Clearly this is an ethical misstep by the Obama campaign, but one that seems borne from ignorance rather than malice. As with other recent examples like the Huffington Post logo competition, I tend to favor the rhetoric of opportunity rather than the rhetoric of shame. I would encourage the campaign to view this moment as an opportunity to connect with an important constituency—the community of professional designers—and engage in a healthy dialogue about the value of design and the importance of strong, mutually beneficial professional relationships (not to mention paying jobs). Likewise, designers should seize the opportunity to sharpen our articulation of the value of what we do and to reconnect with our own networks using this as a living case study.

AIGA has a clear position on the issue of spec work that states that professional designers should be compensated fairly for their work. However, I also believe that designers must be careful to focus on the value of design rather than getting distracted by a debate about the evils of crowdsourcing and social media. These forces are here to stay, and this is a battle we will never win.

I’m one of the “straddle generation” of designers who have felt the full impact of Steve Jobs in our work and life because we launched our careers during the pre-Macintosh era. I entered the profession of design in 1988 when the tools of my trade included X-acto blades, waxers, and spray mount. In order to do my work in that era, I had to be sitting at a drafting table in a fully equipped design studio. Now I do my work on an iPhone, iPad, and MacBook Pro, and I do it wherever I please. Oh, and I listen to my music, watch movies, and stay in touch with the world around me using all of those devices too. Steve Jobs engineered this work and life style transformation. It’s increasingly rare that a single person can have this type of effect in our fragmented modern culture, and it’s a poignant moment to reflect on a figure whose vision, drive and influence has fundamentally shaped my professional life.

Jobs’ influence stretches far beyond the “doing” of design—the devices and tools that help us do our job. His elevation of design as a central strategic component of business has opened a seat at the corporate table for designers of all disciplines. While we still face a tall challenge in making the case for the value of design in the business setting, Apple—led by Jobs—has become the case study that we’ve always lacked. Now the C-suite demands to “be like Apple,” and they know that designers are the ones to make that happen.


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