As the open source philsophy continues to make sense to me, I wonder how I should be applying the same principles to my own work.
“Openness” isn’t generally a concept you’ll find as a driving force in graphic design. Which is interesting, as today a designer’s output has parallels to the world of software, perhaps more than to the world of art.
A few decades ago, a designer’s final product was almost exclusively a physical item, such as the pasted up art board, created manually using actual tape and rulers and paper and the like. The originals would (presumably, since I wasn’t around then) be retained by the designer, for the sake of extra commission when it came time to revise or reprint.
In the last decade or so, the move to online publishing has made that artboard a digital item. Anyone still working in print will ultimately go on to create a physical final product, but those of us working with the web are creating purely digital work, from start to finish.
So when I see interesting articles on the adoption of open source in the world of software, as in Steven Garrity’s The Catch-22 of Open Format Adoption series, I have to start thinking about my own creative output, and how open or closed it should end up being.
It’s probably important to make a distinction here — when I say I’m considering openness, I’m not saying I want to see my work re-used by those who haven’t paid to have it developed. So I’m concerned exclusively with the openness between myself and the client in question, not myself (or my client) and the general public. None of this should be seen as carte blanche to re-use work I (or any other creative studio) have done for a client.
That said, there are two major forms of output I produce, the original source material (in the form of PSD and AI files), and the coded HTML/CSS templates that I end up handing off to the client. In my contracts I outline that the final code becomes the possession of the client, to do with as they please. Though I make sure to grant myself limited promotional rights for the sake of displaying previous work — an important thing to ensure, make sure to do so if you aren’t already.
This means they can take the HTML/CSS and apply it to the site I designed it for, in any way they see fit. By extension, this also means they can potentially modify or reuse the templates on other sites under their control, resell them to other companies, open them up for general use for the public, or whatever else they wish to do. Some designers will inherently bristle at this level of openness; I’m okay with it, for now.
What I’m left wondering, though, is what about the source files, the PSD and AI files themselves? Should I hang on to them for the sake of charging an extra commission the next time they need to change a graphic or two? Should I give them the same access to the source as they have to the front end code, so that they can do it themselves? And if I do, how much will the quality change once someone other than me is modifying my source?
By limiting the openness to final templates, I’ve (intentionally or not) added a bit of a barrier for re-use. The images need to be re-created in order to change them to something else; the quality will inevitably suffer for that. By providing the originals, I can ensure a higher level of quality when changes are being made.
It’s a bit of a Catch-22. Either I give up my working copies to ensure quality remains high (and therefore lose my control over the re-use), or I hold on to them tightly and just accept that quality will suffer when the files are re-used. Some will argue that work for hire means all materials produced should be handed over to those who commission them, regardless. I’d agree, provided that’s in the contract; if the contract says otherwise, then it’s a moot point.
I’ve been writing about this issue rather inquisitively to consider the options, but I’ve long decided my take on this issue. I agree that work for hire should mean that those doing the hiring get the full results of the work. I believe it’s in both mine and the client’s best interests to make source available to them, if they so desire. I’m willing to give up small amounts of control to keep the relationship open, and I’m willing to place a bit more trust in their hands that they won’t drastically mess up the design in the process.
What I’ve found, though, is that this opens up a whole series of time requirements. Naturally, offering my input along the way can do wonders to ensure the quality remains high. But where does that input start and end? Should I be giving Photoshop tips to help them recreate the graphics in question? Should I split up each individual GIF and JPG for a site into its own PSD, so they don’t need to second-guess the image-slicing process? Should I be documenting and cleaning up my PSDs in order to make them easier to understand?
I’ve been discovering that the time I spend supporting the source is a not-insignificant factor. While I think those hiring my services deserve to have access to my work, I also prefer not to spend half my waking hours supporting that work when I could just do the updates myself in a fraction of the time.
So what’s the actual solution here? I’m still not sure; I’ve been trying various things to make it worth the while of both myself and the client. It may be releasing the work as unsupported source, or it may be charging a nominal fee for giving them access to the source and some of my time to support it. I’m pretty sure there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, at any rate. Some will need the extra support, while some clients will have design departments with Photoshop users who are probably more knowledgeable than I am when it comes to working with PSD files.
What do you do? How does it work for you?