illustration by Karol Banach

Last year designer Marc Hemeon, formerly a designer at YouTube and Google, launched Design Inc., a company that aims to connect designers with clients, and goes one step further than Behance or LinkedIn by curating its community of writers, designers, illustrators, animators, and developers. This past October, Hemeon polarized the design community when he wrote an article about how to make a logo for free in five minutes. It’s not surprising that his advice on how to “throw together a logo without hiring a designer” offended, infuriated, or confused his readers (and us), but many also worried about how much damage Hemeon may have caused by undervaluing the design profession on the whole, (unwittingly or not) undoing years of hard work spent educating clients, moms, and the non-design world of the important role designers play. Why would anyone follow Hemeon’s next piece of advice and “hire a professional designer” (through Design Inc., naturally) if they can cobble together a passable logo all by themselves in just a few minutes?

Then, not long after Hemeon received a beating from hundreds of online commenters, Design Inc. released a new feature that allows its users to bid on work (similar to sites like Thumbtack)—another move that’s prompting some difficult questions from the design community. It’d be only too easy to write Hemeon off as a quack and watch him take it on the chin on Twitter, but we wanted to know why a designer who understands the value of good design (he does, trust us here) is creating products that seem to work against the very things an organization like AIGA was founded to protect? So we asked him.

You’ve taken a lot of heat for your blog post showing people how to create a logo for free in five minutes, opening up a debate about how design is priced and valued. What message were you trying to send with that post? 
I’ve come to learn that the dollar amount someone pays for design work has nothing to do with the quality of the design. The way I measure the quality of the design is simple: Does it solve the need of the person experiencing that problem? With that criteria, Craigslist is good design. It’s ugly, but it solves a problem and it does that through UI, through text, and through market share.

Now let’s say I meet an entrepreneur who has a tomato soup company, and she makes the best tomato soup there is, but she only has a budget of $200 for design, so she reaches out to neighbors and friends, or maybe a designer like you. You love her tomato soup, so you just throw her a bone to be nice, and maybe you even take the $200, but the reality is you saw a person who needed your help, and you helped them out.

We can talk about whether the logo is good or bad, and anyone who makes a logo from my “five minute” Medium post—well, it’s not good; it’s average at best. But quality is in the eye of the beholder. For this young lady running a soup business, if you create a logo with the name of her business, written in Gotham, in color, you’ve come down from heaven and saved her life. She’s stoked because she doesn’t have the same level of taste and experience that you and I might have. Now, you and I can look at that logo and say this isn’t gonna be memorable, it’s not gonna look good on packaging,” and when you put your soup in the store with everyone else it’ll look generic, and people may think the quality isn’t very good because of that.

That article was threatening to designers because they felt like they were being underserved. They’re thinking, “Wait, I put a lot more thought into what I do.” But it also hit on a truth: Many designers have phoned it in this way, finding a font no one else knows about, typesetting a logo mark, rearranging some shapes in Illustrator, and charging $5,000-10,000 for it. So I touched on something there.

What’s your goal with Design Inc.?
Our North Star is simply bringing great design into the world. We believe that designers can really make a difference in the world, people who can see problems in new ways and have wonderful tools to solve those problems. If you believe that, then wouldn’t it be cool if there were a platform where anyone in the world could access some of these people to solve their problems?

At Design Inc., we get people asking us for design help all the time, and there are many people who I want to tell, “Don’t hire a designer, you’re not ready yet. You don’t have a budget for it, you’re kind of a hot mess.” And I wrote the article so I could email it to people like that: “Do this and call us back in a month when you [have proof of concept], and you’ve made some money, so you have a budget to hire a real designer. Because you may be hiring a designer to just do a logo, but they’re going to ask questions like ‘Have you considered the packaging? How will you photograph the meals? If you add an illustration here, it’ll feel friendly and personal.’

“If you work with someone who’s really good, you have no idea what you’re missing. It’s like an archaeologist [at a dig]; you think you found a little dinosaur finger, but there’s a giant brontosaurus under there. A good designer will help you uncover it and help you understand what you actually need to get done.”

According to your new model, Design Inc. is becoming a sort of “Thumbtack for creatives.” Potential clients can post projects for free, then you share those projects with your curated creative community, and people can pay $5 or $10 to offer their proposal, based on a credits system. It’s free for potential clients, and Design Inc. doesn’t take a cut from creatives—you just collect the bidding fees up front. Once a project has received five quotes it’s locked, so you’re only making a few bucks off of every project. How is this new model working so far?
It’s going fantastic. We’ve recently had projects from Facebook, StubHub, and others, with really good budgets from $10,000-20,000. We’ve also had some small projects like brochures and help for clients’ Instagram feeds, for $200‑800.

We’ve found that when you ask designers to pay a small fee, you add a little bit of friction, and quality tends to self-select quality: the designers who want these big-budget projects don’t even look at the smaller projects, and the opposite is also true—and that’s great. When I see designers snubbing each other over the price of the work, I think, “Who are you to judge someone for doing a job for $500? Good for them. If it doesn’t work for you, don’t do it. But don’t tell someone it’s wrong to take that work. Many times nonprofits ask us to volunteer our time, and is that bad just because you’re not getting paid?”

One young designer in San Francisco told me, “I can’t put food on my table with these kinds of budgets; I don’t want any part of it.” And I was thinking, “Your personal expenses have nothing to do with the amount of money you should be paid. You should be paid according to your skills, your point of view, and your reputation.” If you’re Jessica Hische, a well-known letterer and typographer, then you get to do a deal with Barnes & Noble to recreate covers for classic novels and get paid thousands of dollars—and you’ve earned the right to do that. We all go through those ebbs and flows—sometimes we can get those big jobs and sometimes we can’t. But as a community, we’re a bunch of crabs in a bucket, and we have to be more kind and respectful to one another.

I can see why people were upset about your “five-minute logo” because it does cheapen the process and imply that anyone can do it. Even so, giving away industry tips in a blog post happens all the time, and the assumption is most readers ultimately reach out to you for paid work. But the new bidding process feels more like gambling, and I can see why people would immediately dismiss it.
That’s good feedback, but I don’t feel bad charging designers $5 or $10 to bid on work when I see them paying $3,000 to go to [conferences like] Epicurrence. I’m asking them to pay for a cup of coffee to get a lead that will create $5,000-10,000 of value. That’s a great trade.

“How is the gamble any different than wasting an hour of your time on the phone with someone you don’t know?”

At my last agency we spent hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars putting together decks and pitches in response to RFPs [requests for proposals]. But there’s something about giving that money to a third party and having no idea if there’s really an actual client on the other end. That’s one of the complaints about Thumbtack—people had no idea if they were truly being considered for jobs. Last week, Design Inc. sent me this copywriting project to bid on: “Turn 32 videos into Medium posts.” No mention of the content, the goal, or the audience, which meant I had no idea how complicated the task would be, and no idea how I might stack up against the other writers bidding. Not worth my time or money; I passed.
You’re right, we’re going to have to figure out a way to minimize the risk, so if you put in $5 and no one even considers your bid, you get your money back. Or we make proposals so clear that you have all the data you need. There are things that Thumbtack does that are terrible, and you hit the biggest one: people want to know why they didn’t get picked. So we’re trying to notify the designers who don’t get chosen; I’m even asking the clients to let us know who they picked and why so that I can provide designers with that feedback. Because it’s true, in a way you’re betting $5 or $10 that you’re going to get the work—almost like a slot machine.

In a way, Design Inc. is becoming the Match.com or OKCupid of the design world. A while back OKCupid released reams of data illustrating how and why people picked one another, which was fascinating and, one would hope, helpful. You must be collecting all sorts of data as you’re watching clients make decisions. Would you consider releasing that at some point, as a way to help designers learn more?
That’s good advice. My co-founder actually worked at Match.com, which now owns OKCupid, and he’s helping to inform some decisions. Turns out people get married after meeting on Match.com, but they generally just hook up on OKCupid, and the main reason is you have to pay for Match.com, so the users are essentially curating themselves. We may eventually ask companies to pay for the right to connect with designers, but if we go that route, you won’t see any $200 projects on the site, and there are designers who want that work.

And hey, I reserve the right to change my mind. I’m notorious for learning new things and then changing the approach. Three months from now we may say it was right to use Thumbtack as a model, or it may turn out that designers are getting screwed and we’ll change it. Ultimately, I share [some] of the same concerns that you have, and I hope we can build some mechanics into our platform to help alleviate those concerns, and hopefully we can get good projects for more designers out there doing good work.

Illustration by Karol Banach
Corrections: An earlier version of this article included a false speculation by Marc Hemeon about Jessica Hische’s early-career logo fees. This statement has since been removed.