In this age of ever-changing design, what applies to one kind of
company may not fit another. If you are involved in print, you'll
have an entirely different group of suppliers than those supporting
a design firm specializing in Web pages or multimedia. Some design
firms are part advertising agency and part direct marketing
company. Some are corporate or government in-house design groups
using outside design consultants. One common denominator links us
together: high ethical standards. Business ethics aren't as easily
taught as selling techniques because ethical questions are often
complex and vary from one situation to another. In selling, there
are tried and proven approaches that work for any business, whether
it's graphic arts or insurance. An ethical problem, on the other
hand, doesn't always offer a clear solution and each needs to be
approached on a case by case basis. Because two cases are never
alike, each needs to be analyzed carefully. If you feel you don't
know the correct answer to an ethical question, call a respected
peer. This will usually provide you with the right solution.
A company without suppliers is like a person without food and
will starve. As people need nourishment, designers need businesses
that support them. We must realize that, because they support us,
they are no less important than we are to our clients. There is an
old saying, “We are only as strong as our weakest link.” If our
suppliers let us down, we will let our clients down and,
ultimately, we become the real losers. It is important to forge a
strong relationship with each of our support businesses. The most
successful companies include their suppliers in their successes.
Many companies use holidays to send gifts of appreciation to their
suppliers. They feel that this is as impor- tant as sending gifts
to clients. If you think about it, clients come and go, but
suppliers are always there for you.
When we think of our suppliers, we often take a lofty position
in the food chain of design. After all, we're the important folks.
We make it all happen. The buck stops with us, or does it? Aren't
we suppliers to our clients? The U.S. government labels designers
as vendors. Our clients often see us as a necessary evil-suppliers
with an attitude. As a rule, we abhor spec work. We are in disdain
of any client that stalls in paying us for services rendered. We
want to lynch anyone reselling or reusing our work without due
compensation. In essence, we feel we must be treated fairly for
work we have produced in good faith and through due diligence.
Unfortunately, we don't always see our suppliers in the same light.
We think to ourselves, “They're there to make us look good or they
won't get anymore of our valuable work.” It's human nature to view
things from our own perspective. Successful designers realize that
they must be respected as good business people. If we are anything
less, we will lose the respect of our clients. After all, if we
can't control our own bottom line, how can our clients trust us to
help them control their bottom lines? In this age of “partnering,”
clients don't want vendors. They want a more interactive
relationship with design and their designers.
If we are a part of our client's team, then our vendors must be
part of our team. We need to know the rules of doing business the
right way. If we don't, we may end up with a bad reputation among
our suppliers that will be irreversible. To think they don't
communicate with each other is to forget how much we communicate
with other designers.
Asking for a low price to receive potential work is a prime
example. You hate it when this carrot is dangled in front of you by
a potential client. If no lucrative work follows, you'll only make
this request once because you will have lost the respect of the
vendor. And, more than likely, lucrative work won't follow. Even if
made in earnest, this promise is a jinx.
Asking freelancers to do what you would never do-speculative
design-plays on their need for work. Some design firms will only
pay a freelancer if the work that is done is accepted by their
client. No other industry would think of asking a worker to do
Asking a printer for free work for future projects is an example
of “work for ransom.” For example, you ask a printer to print your
company brochure because of a big project in the offing or the
promise of an account you really don't have control over. This is
just another form of asking for spec work.
An example of this is a finder's fee. This fee should be a
onetime commission agreed on in advance and paid to you for work
you've brought to a supplier. Let's say you are purchasing printing
for a client or referring a client directly to a printer. You tell
the printer that you expect a commission for finding this project.
The fee should be agreed on in advance, not brought up after you've
referred the printer to this account. You also should not expect a
finder's fee to be a continuing royalty for future work. Just like
it sounds, it is a fee for finding a client, not for keeping your
client happy. We all know the names for unethical commissions
given: under-the-table kickbacks, payola, hidden commissions.
Ethical commissions are added to the top by the supplier or taken
as a markup by you, if you are purchasing the service for your
client. A good rule to follow is, “If you can't explain your
commission to your client, it's wrong.” And, you shouldn't always
expect a commission; suppliers don't have margins of profit large
enough to make sure there is always something in the job to pay you
An example of unfair advantage would be a design firm coercing
an inexpensive printer into a team situation on a design and
printing project. For instance, a magazine is sent out for bids to
three designers and three printers. The design firms are all
competitive in pricing and caliber of work. Two of the printers are
known to be expensive and the third will most certainly be low. One
of the design firms controls a substantial amount of work done by
the inexpensive printer. The design firm forces the printer to
agree not to offer a quote to the magazine publisher without
including a quote for its design work. Other design firms and
printers bidding separately stand less of a chance of staying
competitive. The “combined only” bid makes the design firm look
good, but severely limits the printer.
This is deliberately asking a vendor for a price, knowing that
you have room to get more from the vendor than it would normally
give. An example of this is confusing a photographer or illustrator
by minimizing the actual assignment which, for them, will mean more
time than they've included in their estimate. If you are sincere in
your RFQ, do your homework so there are no loose ends. We as
designers are often given vague specifications by clients out of
ignorance. Creativity is hard enough to price, but open-ended specs
can be disastrous. A good example is an RFQ for the design and
production of a publication with no mention of the number of pages.
The bidding firms aren't mind readers and, unless the scope of work
is defined by the client, a bid is useless.
Stock photography is often a victim of cavalier designers. For
years, advertising agencies would use stock photos as images for
major campaign pitches without paying for them. They would order
the images for consideration, use them for layouts, and then return
them. Now, stock houses charge a research fee to protect themselves
from unscrupulous designers. Other unscrupulous design firms scan
the images right out of the catalogs, or know that if they use the
actual images they can lie about the extent of use.
Paper merchants are often also victims of misuse. Typically, a
designer will request paper samples or dummies and make up a layout
for the client. The finished work is then turned over to the
printer, which is when the problem can crop up. Paper mills
typically let more than one merchant carry their products, which
allows printers to shop price. The friendly merchant who helped the
designer may never get the final sale. Designers can do several
things to alleviate this situation. One is to let the printer know
that a certain merchant has been a great help, and you would like
them to be considered. Another is to let the paper merchant know
who the printer is. This at least gives them a chance to approach
the printer. The optimum is to make the paper merchant part of the
bid process. This can be done by simply including the merchant
within the printing specifications. In your RFQ, tell the bidders
that your paper merchant will be the only supplier used on this
specific job. You may get some disgruntled printers, but at least
they all have the same restriction. While you may be in the
minority of design firms doing this, you'll have the undying
gratitude of the paper merchants.
When it's always been assumed that you'd be invoiced, telling
the supplier to bill your client at the end of a project is taking
unfair advantage of a situation. The better your relationship is
with the vendor, the worse the sin. If you know your client is slow
in paying,this procedure is unforgivable.
The opposite of building in time so that there will be a cushion
for both you and the supplier, a false schedule is one that you
know you will have to compress later on. If the supplier knew the
real schedule, overtime would have to be a factor in the quote.
Clients often provide false schedules to designers to get a quote
for a normal turnaround, after which they compress the schedule.
Doing this to your suppliers is not fair play.
If you know you can't live with thirty-day terms, be up front
about it. Your suppliers are not in business to finance your
business. Never agree to credit terms you know you can't adhere to.
This is false representation and will come back to haunt you when
you need this supplier. Your word is your credit and vice
Printing is often a vehicle for this type of abuse. The scenario
is: a printing job is commercially acceptable, but the designer or
client has made a mistake. Because of a minor printer's error, the
designer then demands a reprint and asks for additional changes or
corrections. Most printers will not make any changes other than
correcting their own mistakes, and designers should not ask them to
correct more than that. In fact, because reprints are often a way
for a customer to correct their own mistakes for free, printing
trade customs specify that printers should only correct their own
mistakes. Unfortunately, some printers may be hungry enough to
break this rule. Fortunately, most won't.
Take proper precautions when the property of suppliers is in
your possession. Some materials won't need to be returned while
others may be originals that require insurance coverage on your
part. Stock photography is a good example. If lost or destroyed, an
original transparency from a stock house is worth $1,500, and you
are responsible for insuring it. A designer I know once ordered
stock photos on different subjects from several stock houses. The
eager stock houses sent the designer more than 500 transparencies.
When all was said and done, the designer had $1,500,000 worth of
original material with his normal business insurance covering
one-tenth of that amount. A small fire, a disgruntled employee, or
an unfortunate accident could have wiped the designer out. By
calling his insurance agent, the designer was able to get a rider
on his business policy that would increase and decrease as the
transparencies were accumulated and then returned. The best way to
cope with unforeseen loss or damage of materials like stock
photography is to list every scenario and every type of valuable
paper in your possession, or that could possibly be in your
possession. Then find out from your insurance agent what coverage
We will get far more positive response when we offer our
suppliers the professional respect and consideration we expect from
our clients. If we don't, we'll get more than just bad service,
we'll also acquire a bad reputation, which may be irreversible.
Think about the suppliers you've been warned about and remember,
word travels quickly.
These are some, but hardly all, of the ethical abuses that may
tempt designers as well as their clients. To better understand
business ethics and liabilities, ask questions first. Every facet
of design has experts available to answer your questions. While you
can't go to jail for abusing ethics, you can ruin your reputation
with your suppliers and impede your ability to compete
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inspire, support and learn from each other, at every stage of our
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