Has Sharing Gone Out of Bounds?

Editor's note: The title of this article was revised after publication, as it placed undue emphasis on the community site Dribbble.com. The article has prompted numerous comments and illuminated more issues that we aim to explore in subsequent articles. AIGA encourages an open discussion and welcomes your feedback.

Designers like to share. If we were honest, many of us would admit we also love to brag. Sometimes a tool comes along that enables us to do both simultaneously. Brilliant.

Basketball illustration by Steve Zelle/idApostle

Basketball illustration by Steve Zelle.

What is Dribbble?

You likely have a Dribbble account, are desperate for an invitation, or have elected to turn a deaf ear to the latest online-community-sharing-feedback-design-tool. If you use Twitter, you have almost certainly had a “sweet shot”—a screenshot in Dribbble's basketball-themed parlance—come through your stream.

The site describes itself as:

… show and tell for designers, developers and other creatives. Members share sneak peeks of their work as 'shots'—small screenshots of the designs and applications they are working on. It's also a place to talk design, give and receive feedback and iterate toward better work.

Membership is by invitation only, and invites, like the latest Christmas toy craze, are hard to come by.

Those “sneak peeks” are typically closely cropped teasers posted by designers to show what they are working on and to generate interest. Designers are also using the site to show client work in progress, something that is also occasionally done through other tools like Twitter and blogs. It seems, however, that designers have embraced Dribbble as the tool of choice to share work in progress.

As a curious person I can understand the titillation of seeing someone else's work in progress.

As a designer, I am interested in how another designer has successfully reached a goal. I love to see how a final product was achieved through sketches and an explanation of the creative process.

But if I were a client who saw sneak peeks posted of my project, I would pick up the phone and fire the designer responsible for sharing with the world something that does not belong to them.

So, what's the problem?

It all seems innocent enough at first glance. Designers can show something they are proud of, and in return receive feedback they can use to tweak the design. However, dig a little deeper and it isn't too difficult to come up with a lengthy list of how this kind of sharing harms the design profession and paints us as hypocrites.

We can't have it both ways

Graphic design is a strategic exercise in problem solving targeted at a specific set of people. Like most designers, I spend a lot of time developing an appreciation for graphic design with my clients. Every new client means discussions about building trust, the value of appropriate feedback, understanding of project goals and our individual and shared responsibilities.

My Twitter feed is loaded with links to articles about the importance of these subjects—a continuous flow of advice, opinions and experiences. Much energy is being spent to foster a better understanding of what we do as professionals.

5 Reasons Why Client Work in Progress Should Not Be Shared

1. It's a matter of trust

Client to designer:“I know we agreed that by doing the last job for me at 50%, and throwing in all the revisions, I would find the budget for this new project. Well, it's just not going to happen”

A breach of trust guarantees a difficult relationship.

As a designer, your client has entrusted you with information not freely available to the public. The client is authorizing your use of the information with the sole intent of protecting their best interest. If you do not honor this agreement, you have failed to fulfill your promise, and have engaged in a breach of trust.

Your client might not have asked you to sign off on a confidentiality or nondisclosure agreement (shame on them), but doesn't common courtesy dictate that the work you are doing is for their eyes only?

Some designers have no doubt received approval from their client to post work in progress. I suppose the client has either been told the feedback provided will improve the design, or (more likely) the client does not trust the designer to make the right decisions on their own.

Trust goes both ways.

2. Not all feedback is valuable

Client to designer:“My wife likes both designs. She had a great idea. What if we took this part and put it on the other design and change the color to fuchsia? Oh ya, she saw something phallic in the negative space here. Other than that, she loved it.”

While your experience might have involved a different color, every designer has had this happen after presenting concepts to a client. This is why designers learn to explain that valued feedback comes from individuals with an understanding of the project goals, or who are the target audience. We explain that the client's, as well as the designer's personal preferences are best left out of the decision making process.

Once you have opened the doors to feedback, you have to do something with it. If twenty people on Dribbble say a design does not work—as unfamiliar as they may be with the project—do you have a responsibility to provide this information to the client? Once your client knows the feedback, does the information have a better chance of improving or damaging the work?

Asking the next passer-by their opinion is either an act of insecurity, or a request to have your ego stroked.

3. Potential of property theft

Client to designer:“Hey, what do you think of my wife's new business cards? I had them done up with one of the rejected logo concepts you presented to us last year.”

Creatives are notorious for protecting their property. Photographers watermark images or post small versions to avoid misuse. The design community frequently bands together in disgust at the discovery of a stolen design. Bloggers are frustrated when they find their articles on other blogs without any credit. We try very hard to protect what is ours.

Posting client work in progress shows little or no respect for the client's property. How would a client react if they:

  • Were planning an official launch campaign around the new design?
  • Had excluded staff from the process?
  • Hear clients or competition speaking of the yet-to-be-released work?

Closer to home, how would a designer feel if the writer he or she hired for a self-promotional brochure decided to post in-progress and unapproved content online for all to see? I suspect that designer would quickly be looking for a new writer.

Designers should never steal a client's thunder.

4. Danger of design by committee

Client to designer:“We can't decide. We like both designs so we will bring the entire staff in and have them vote on what they like best. Sound good?”

Creativity requires focus to be successful. It must have a singular voice to communicate clearly and with purpose. Design by committee almost without exception results in watered-down solutions drowned by conflicting feedback.

The goal of graphic design is not to have everyone like the result. The goal is to have the target audience love it.

5. Ethics

Client to designer:“Look at this really cool ad. It's exactly what I want. Can you pop our logo in, change a few words and have it to me by noon?”

Whether or not you are a member of an organization like AIGA or the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada (GDC), you manage your business using a code of ethics. Your moral philosophy defines what you will and won't do—the responsibilities of a graphic designer.

For instance, we don't steal from each other but borrowing influences is okay. Designers universally know this as part of our code.

These decisions are made not only for the benefit of our own karma but the protection of our clients' interests. We also have a responsibility to consider how our actions impact our profession. Are your actions benefiting or harming the future of the design community?

Professional organizations strive to help all designers through the creation of standards. These standards define expectations that every graphic designer should consider adhering to—member or not.

Section 1.3 of the AIGA Standards of Professional Practice states:

A professional designer shall treat all work in progress prior to the completion of a project and all knowledge of a client's intentions, production methods and business organization as confidential and shall not divulge such information in any manner whatsoever without the consent of the client. It is the designer's responsibility to ensure that all staff members act accordingly.“

Richard Grefé, AIGA executive director, adds:

”Designers consistently question, among themselves, why they do not earn greater understanding for what they do and respect for it from clients and community leaders. This drives AIGA's highest priority, which is to strengthen the understanding of design, designing and designers and the value they create. Central to this effort is to strengthen the professionalism of the discipline—the manner in which it is perceived by clients and others. At the top of the attributes must be demonstrable integrity, respecting the rights of clients. Only with a client's confidence in the integrity, as well as the skill, of a designer will her role gain respect and influence.“

Sharing is caring

All designers should share, it can benefit everyone involved—clients, designers, design students, design organizations and the public. The number of design blogs continuing to sprout up illustrates our eagerness to help each other out. We are most definitely a community.

The word 'community' is derived from the Old French communité, which is derived from the Latin communitas (cum, 'with/together,' + munus, 'gift'), a broad term for fellowship or organized society (Oxford English Dictionary via Wikipedia).

There are ways to share that protect our clients and provide more value than a shotgun approach to posting client work in progress.

  1. When showing work in progress, make sure you have the client's permission and are approaching the exercise in a strategic manner in line with the project goals and the creative brief.
  2. Ask specific, targeted questions to appropriate people. These are typically the individuals involved in the project from the development of the creative brief onwards, or the target audience (focus group).
  3. For feedback on technical issues that require a designer's critical eye concerning issues like balance, white space, kerning, etc., ask specific questions to a select and closed set of designers who have been pre-approved by your client and who you trust will provide value.

Dribbble is not the problem

The problem is how some designers are beginning to use it. New behaviors are emerging as a result of tools like Dribbble. Now is the time for designers to question these behaviors before they become a commonly accepted norm in the industry.

To borrow Dribbble's basketball metaphor, we all have a vested interest in the accepted rules of conduct in which the game is played. What seems like a benign act damages the work, the client and your community. Professionalism should always outweigh the desire for feedback and sharing.