Designers Incognito: why are clients preventing designers from publishing their projects?

From NDAs to gag orders and the direct stifling of press, clients keeping designers silent about their work appears to be becoming an ever-more present feature of the industry. But just how do they go about it? And what is the real impact on the creatives in question? We speak to four studios to find out their perspectives.

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There is a common line of thought throughout the design industry that you’re only as good as your last project. On the surface, this seems like a pretty steadfast rule to work by. It takes into account many creatives’ mindsets; that of always striving to be on an upward journey of learning, discovery and betterment, applying the lessons and skills they’ve learnt throughout previous projects to their current work. But, what happens to this thinking when the work you’ve done, or your role in a long-running project is suppressed by your client? Sometimes served under an (often reluctantly) pre-agreed contractual Non Disclosure Agreement (NDA), or sometimes under no guise at all, it’s a sticky situation and a particularly hard one to navigate – especially when you’ve already posted the work on your social platforms and contacted a number of creative outlets.

Over the past year here at It’s Nice That, we found ourselves experiencing an increasing number of designers and creatives – predominantly in the design sector – contacting us asking to pull the work they had sent, or even asking us to take down already published articles after backlash from their clients. In some cases, we’ve even been contacted by the client themselves. This pattern led us to reach out to four designers and design studios whom we knew this had happened, keen to understand their experiences and how such suppression affects their practice.

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Copyright © Lucia Pham

With such an expansive issue, the situations in which it occurs vary immensely. To begin with, one New York-based production studio we spoke to had completed work for a very major public figure, and its PR team had spent weeks landing “some really amazing coverage” – the project was perhaps its biggest yet, and one the studio was incredibly excited about. But, when the coverage went live, the client caught wind and “we got slapped hard on the wrist and had to back pedal, asking each publication to remove the content and take down any of the work we had posted on our studio and personal accounts,” the studio explains. Despite feeling “terrible” about the situation, the studio put the situation down to a confusing contract, of which it “misunderstood the language”.

In some cases, there isn’t even a badly worded or confusing contract, simply a blind expectation. In another story, a London-based graphic design studio told us about completing identity work for a UK government-organised global event before it was then delayed for another 18 months due to Covid-19. In the run up to the rescheduled event, the studio realised just how significant the event was going to be and started organising press. After numerous articles went live, the government body contacted the outlets – It’s Nice That being one – telling them to take down the articles. The design studio was asked to desist. At the crux of the matter, however, was that the design studio – being fairly established and long running – had purposefully never signed over ownership of its work. So, after a number of lengthy discussions, the team decided to quietly ignore it. The government body, quite simply, had no legal leg to stand on.

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But, for many smaller and younger studios – that rely on taking large commissions to simply make it through to the next pay check – dissecting a contract isn’t always an option. One such motion studio explains creating some animations for one of the world's largest tech brands, and signing some “pretty intense NDA’s” that prevented it from personally publishing any work at any stage of the process. As the project progressed, the sheer magnitude of the work reared its head. “The intensity of the work was so high, we had to commit our time solely to this project for months,” the studio outlines. “We technically had nothing to show for ourselves during this time – almost, in a way, it looked as if our studio was closed.”

“We technically had nothing to show for ourselves during this time – almost, in a way, it looked as if our studio was closed.”

Anonymous

So, why do the designers experiencing the NDA’s, the suppression of press and general inability to discuss their work think their clients put these sort of stifling measures in place? A recurring point from those we interviewed was the impression that the clients want to control and dictate their own narrative. Confirming this suggestion is the fourth studio we spoke to, a London-based organisation that specialises in branding that has experienced such suppression a number of the times. “Sometimes it seems like a risk limitation: where the stipulation is written into the contract, you often get the sense that there is no reason for it other than that it’s preferable for brands to be in control of their narrative.” This is corroborated directly by the New York-based design studio’s situation: “They informed us that the production company had a pretty intense approval system in the contract that they had with our client. So their argument was that this production company would need to OK anything and everything that was published about the work and it would be a nightmare for all involved.” While this reason, as a number of the designers identify, may be easy to understand in some ways, instances in which people are unquestionably and completely silenced – without any discussion or an agreed copy or image usage – only removes agency from creatives.

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Copyright © Lucia Pham

Perhaps the most worrying suggestion from the creatives, however, was the idea that these clients simply want to present the work as their own. “I think for a large company like this, it’s all about legal ownership of the work,” muses the motion-design studio. “All of the ownership automatically goes to them by default – almost as a way of protecting themselves from usage rights while, from the outside, it looks as if it’s produced in-house by the company, instead of crediting external collaborators.” In a time where digital culture has already brought into question the idea of ownership, and with more creatives losing credit and having work passed off as someone else’s, this procedure sets a worrying precedent. It gives such practices of profiteering off someone else’s creative property an immovable legal standing and credibility.

“To be seen as producing zero work for long periods of time between projects means you’re less likely to get more work in the future.”

Anonymous

These reasons, while some may certainly be more understandable than others, come at the expense of the creative work. Meanwhile, the impact of not being able to speak about projects has a wide range of effects on creatives’ practices and their careers. After its experience, the New York-based studio talks of both a severe knock to the team’s confidence, and a perceived loss of work. “Unfortunately, I think the experience ruined our relationship with the client,” the studio says, “we’ve not been asked to work on anything with them since this happened, and we had been working regularly with them prior to this. It really sucks.” And, for young studios, these outcomes have the potential to severely stunt growth. “The saying ‘you’re only as good as your last project’ applies more heavily to small studios,” the motion design studio details, “to be seen as producing zero work for long periods of time between projects means you’re less likely to get more work in the future.”

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But does it only affect the creatives? Or, does the client end up unknowingly shooting themselves in the foot too? Two of the studios we spoke to couldn’t see how greater publicity could be a bad thing for the projects, especially – in their cases – when the press was so positive. Moreover, the inability to discuss the work arguably diminishes its “value”, states the London-based branding studio. This stance is also evidenced by the small motion studio that outlined how such approaches have the potential to severely affect the quality of the work being produced. “I believe that if you’re working on something that you get absolutely no credit for and you’re unable to put your name to it, your heart can’t be fully in the project [...] it’s hard to feel truly passionate about something you inevitably have no official ownership of,” the studio argues. “Why would you want to hire a team of creatives who are all half-heartedly working on something that ultimately they can’t talk about?”

When working with big clients and coming up against (probably quite purposefully) intimidating legal proceedings, such situations can feel near impossible to navigate. But, luckily, one studio had a few tips and tricks to offer. The London-based studio, which completed work for the government body, detailed its years of experience with tricky contracts and the actions it now puts in place to prevent such situations. “People have tried to burn us several times, so we’ve had to become quite tough, and so when someone tries to bully us we know the design law fairly well.” The studio’s advice to smaller studios, therefore, is to get yourself clued up on design law, always read the small print, and – if possible – build your own contract and make it watertight. If there is no contract involved, or no mention of ownership in the contract, the studio also adds that under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act of 1988, the work still officially belongs to the creative – no matter what the client may suggest. From its learnings, the studio also states how there needs to be a bit of give and take, and suggests sending your copy and the images you intend to publish to the client both out of “politeness” and allowing them to make a “few tweaks and give you their opinion” if necessary.

“Why would you want to hire a team of creatives who are all half-heartedly working on something that ultimately they can’t talk about?”

Anonymous

Without question, the discussion at hand is a complex one. As we at It’s Nice That have learnt, the situation affects designers from those earliest in their career to those who’ve been established for years. It appears that with an increasing reliance on online culture, clients – especially larger ones – have exploited the emergence of less face-to-face contact and the greater expected speed of content creation, which seemingly results in uncredited work going unquestioned. This is having an increasingly damaging effect on potential visibility for designers, impacting their careers and the ability to make a name for themselves. But, as we have further discovered, such practices are cyclical, and often end up affecting morale and then the work itself. So, in the end, who does this silencing really serve?

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in illustration, photography, ceramic design and platforming creativity from the north of England.

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