Release the Files
“My client wants me to send my PSDs. What should I do?” Visit a design forum and you’re bound to find some variation on this question. A common response is, “Don’t do it. Those are your working files, and not a deliverable.” There’s good reason for this thinking—and, in some situations, it still makes sense. Most times, though, it’s an outdated policy that’ll stress you out.
Moral and Economic Rights for Dummies
The brunt of this issue comes down to moral and economic rights. Let’s say I commission you to paint something for me. Once complete, I get to hang that painting in my house. That said, if I decide to make prints of it—and keep the proceeds for myself… well, I’d be a dick. I’d also have violated your economic rights.
Similarly, if I scratched your name off the bottom of the painting, and replaced it with mine, I would be a double-dick. And I’d have infringed on your moral rights.
I’m not a lawyer, so my summary here might be overly simplistic and incomplete. For the sake of this post, though, I think you get my gist. Artist’s rights need to be protected.
Such rights are often infringed upon—not out of malice, but out of misunderstanding. Most folks wouldn’t steal something they could hold in their hands. However, they might not realize how this applies to something less tangible. For example, some don’t understand that buying a DVD gives them the right to watch the movie on it—but not make and sell copies of it.
This ain’t art
Let’s get back to the initial topic: the client who wants your files. This can be a cloudy matter, but it needn’t be. First, start by asking whether you’re an artist or a designer. If you’re an artist (i.e. you produce unique and largely original creations) you should probably think carefully about your rights. The Graphic Artists Guild Handbook provides a lot of insight on such topics. Taking the time, now, to create clear policies and contracts will save you from unnecessary conflict in the future.
Alternately, if you’re a designer (i.e. you help others plan and implement design solutions), you can take a simpler path. Frankly, most of us imbue our work with more importance than we should. This is a common problem among designers, who tend to become myopic in their pursuits. The fact is, the UI files you built in Sketch aren’t art—no matter how good they are. Similarly, the logo you made isn’t art—even if it’s wicked awesome. And that design vision you helped with? Well, that’s not really yours, anyway.
Design tends to be collaborative, even if you’re the one who brings it all together. And you know that “iterative” term every designer loves to throw around? Well, it applies here, too. That identity system you helped with will evolve over time. Marketing managers will change it. Other designers will refine it. Such things are rarely ever locked in one state–the way an illustration or painting would be.
Holy moly, I carry on. That was supposed to be my intro paragraph, and somehow I turned it into 8. Oh well… serves you right for reading the words of another long-winded, self-involved, blow-hard designer asshole.
“I helped you out, and now you’re screwing me?”
I’m not trying to pretend that I’m an I.P. lawyer. Instead, I share this to save you some entirely unnecessary headaches. I’ve run into some weird situations in the past. For example, one client didn’t have a photo budget. As their designers, we helped out by shooting some photographs. Later, they moved on to another design team, which used the same photos, and claimed copyright over the photos we provided for free. This was strange, and it pissed me off. Nevertheless, I was focusing on the wrong things.
I shouldn’t have thought twice about those photos. (They weren’t that good, anyway.) Instead, I should have asked myself what was most important. Did someone else claiming credit for those images change my life? Did it really matter that they used those materials without asking? Would anything good come from making a stink about the situation? The answers were: No. No. And… No.
Sure, it sucks when someone oversteps like that. And if you’re just starting out, such things seem important. In time, though, you realize these things don’t matter that much. For most designers it’s better to find steady, interesting, and profitable work, with clients you like. Hit all of those points, and what happens with a file isn’t so important.
Some will likely cringe as they read the above. They’ll claim that working files should remain the property of the designer—and that this affords the designer necessary negotiating power. I’ve heard this argument many times. I say it’s a short-sighted one.
You are greater than the sum of your files
The moment you treat the thing you made as paramount, you lower the perceived value of your counsel. Worse yet, you introduce fear for your client, and establish sides. These are big concessions to make—just to protect a file.
You are your client’s ally. You’re a trusted partner, whose value is in your knowledge and advice—more than in any one thing you produce. That logo? Sure, it’s nice; but 100,000 other designers could create something equally effective. The part that differentiates you, is your knowledge and your unique insights into your client’s situation.
That client needs to be able to pick up the phone, call you, and know that you’re on the same side. Yeah, you need to get paid fairly. (If you don’t, you’re not much of a team.) However, so long as you are properly compensated, you need to put all of your focus on what’s in your client’s best interests.
This mindset is crucial. You can’t become an obstacle. You can’t stand in the way of your client and a better solution. If you can’t afford the best service, you should recommend someone better suited to the task at hand. If you see a lower-cost option, which is equally sound, you must note it. (I recommend reading this post as a sort of gut-check on what you should be doing, as a designer.)
And if the client wants the files, give them the fucking files. Who are you anyways? Rembrandt? Nah—you’re working a job, just like me and all the rest of us. There’s no need to get all precious about it.
Once you loosen up a little, you realize that most people won’t overstep. In fact, they’re likely to respect you more—because you’re not squabbling over little stuff. Most importantly, you give your client power and choice.
My wife and I remain married to one another not because we’re contractually obligated to. Rather, we keep making the decision to stay together, because doing so is mutually beneficial. (Given how much I fart at night, I’m surprised she makes the choice she does.)
I urge you to find a similar bond with your clients. Make yourself so useful that they wouldn’t want to lose you. This doesn’t happen when you hold their files hostage. It happens when they know that you’ve got their back.
Plus, low-stress engagements are easier for everyone. Put yourself in your client’s shoes. Would you prefer a 3 year mobile phone commitment, or one that lets you come and go as you please? Does a 10-page legal document fill you with confidence, or would you rather shake hands on a deal? Would you rather work with a salesperson who needs you to “act now or lose this chance… FOREVER!” or one who offers you a fair price and encourages you to take your time.
After a long stretch of being sort of rigid, at our design studio, we started to relax. This led us to rethink a lot of our approaches. Doing so made our lives infinitely easier. I talk about some this thinking in this post.
It’s not always that easy
Sometimes things go wrong. There’s little you can do to prevent this. How you respond, though? That’s entirely in your control.
If a client is unhappy, start a conversation. Don’t hesitate—such problems tend to fester over time. Go for lunch, get on the phone, or schedule a meeting, and ask: “I have this feeling I’m making you unhappy. What am I doing wrong? Is there anything I can do to fix this?” Then close your mouth, and listen. Odds are, there was a simple misunderstanding you’re unaware of—that you can remedy immediately. Most times, the relationship will be stronger for you having asked.
What about when it’s truly irreparable? Let’s say your client has lost faith, or is just unscrupulous. So long as all work to date is paid for, simply hand over the files, and wish them the best. Better yet, return any funds they’ve paid, for work not yet completed. Doing so calms an otherwise stressful situation, and might even reduce any ill-will they feel toward you.
There are plenty of other clients who can benefit from your service—and no one benefits from staying in a bad relationship.
Want more? Check out the full list of articles, learn about this blog, or grab a book. Here’s what I’m doing now, and what I don’t do. I hold free weekly office hours. Alternatively, you can hire me for more involved engagements, via smashLAB.