No fairy story by Garry Emery

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Published:  October 6, 2011
No fairy story by Garry Emery

In celebration of our 25th anniversary, we asked Garry Emery to tell us his favourite design story from the past 25 years.

Here is a cautionary little tale.

It’s about design and the value that’s placed on design ideas in Australia. Maybe it’s a story that could only be told in Australia? I don’t know if this is the case. But I know it happened here, and it has an authentic Australian ring to it.

We’d probably all agree that the Australian national character can be summed up as pragmatic. As a people, we are straightforward, unpretentious, informal, friendly, down-to-earth, anti-elitist and egalitarian.

To that list of attributes, and for the purposes of this story, I will also add ‘dumb’. We can be dumb. This is not a quality we intentionally reach for. But sometimes it is the inevitable outcome of our typically pragmatic, down-to earth, anti-elitist attitude to ideas.

We Australians don’t really like or trust ideas. Ideas are just too abstract to make us feel comfortable. Instead, we prefer tangible things you can actually see and handle.

Like sport. We put real value on sport. It’s not abstract. The skills involved in bouncing a ball while running are even worthy of national celebration. This is not the case with a lot of other skills, such as design skills for instance. Design skills don’t make the news every night like sporting skills do.

Our little story begins in the boardroom of a successful enterprise. It is the sort of organisation that is hugely profitable, rolling in money. The boardroom table is dominated by business leaders, as is right and proper. And they devise the scenario that has now become my favourite Australian design story.

It goes like this. The successful enterprise proposes to invite a selected few designers to participate in an unpaid competition to design marketing communications materials to serve a commercial purpose.

This is a not-for-profit gig.

The invited designers would propose ideas for review by the chairman of the board, who would choose their preferred option. The successful contender would then develop and realise the selected ideas and donate their professional services. That was the pitch to us.

Image courtesy Garry Emery.

‘Hmmm…’ I thought. ‘Compete to do free work? I don’t get it… although I can see it’s a novel idea. Maybe I have missed something? I am confused. I’ll check with Bilyana, my business partner. She’s younger and smarter, and has a good business brain as well. Whereas I am getting on in years… Maybe I’ve lost it, and I don’t know I’ve lost it because I’ve lost it?’

“Nope! Not at all. You have got it right. You clever little devil,” she said. “Can you believe it! They are asking us to give away our ideas and be rewarded with more work for free! I am wondering who’s dumb here? Them or us?”

“Bilyana, do you think disrespect is a deeply embedded characteristic of Australian business practice?” I asked. “As designers, should we be expected to give away our ideas? Aren’t they worth something?”

“I don’t know, Garry. Please go back to sleep. I’ve got the billing to do. Although there’s not much to bill this month. We must have been really busy on ideas again…”

You will not be surprised to know that the ending of this story is that we declined the invitation of the enterprise to participate in its competition for free ideas.

I was left to mull over the implications of this episode. It is true that there’s no copyright on ideas. But intellectual property is not just ideas floating in the ether, ready to be plucked by anyone. Someone has to develop ideas in the first place. That takes time, intelligence, lateral thinking and expertise. But if no one is prepared to pay for this work, where do we go from here?

If there is no value in design ideas, why do we bother stealing them? And if there is value in ideas, why don’t our clients want to pay for them? I’m still confused.

Bilyana interrupted my dreaming with another thought. “Just before you nod off, Garry, have you heard about the growing awareness in China of the value of ideas? They want to protect their thinking from the rest of the world. Ironically, they don’t want a flood of knockoffs from the West. Can you believe it? We’ve been doing all this work in China and they have got just about every idea we have ever had, and cheap. Now I’ve lost respect for myself…” she trailed off, lost in thought.

But I figure that our ideas are constantly sparking and changing. “You know, good ideas just don’t grow on trees,” I reassured her. But then again, what about Apple?

From desktop magazine.

3 Responses

  1. Che

    Well said.

    So we end up working for the clients who value our ideas. But this doesn’t necessarily change peoples perceptions of our profession in Australia.

    Our industry and expertise should of course be valued and rewarded in-turn like any other service based industry.

    It begs the question, what went wrong in the beginning? how were the foundations laid so poorly? what can we do to rectify this?

    This has bugged me since day one of entering the design profession. I will do all I can to educate… and promote the value of our ideas here in aus.

    Thanks Garry

  2. Paul Williamson

    Nice summary of the Australian character, Garry.

    The execs you mentioned are doing what they do best – weighing up supply and demand and acting accordingly. As designers, we are competing with a great many other designers, and as such, need to get our work and name out there like any other artist or indeed business. I guess they (the execs) only took the first step in the mental process here and approached just a few designers (and then those who were possibly already established in the scene) instead of going to a crowdsourcer directly, where students would be more willing to give up their ideas. It is the digital age after all. Ideas are prolific and readily available, but they will only serve those who know how to apply them effictively and develop them to the point where it becomes difficult to replicate.

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