Stop the press! Design costs money? | March 7, 2011
The most recent guardian technology podcast opened with these headlines…
“On this week’s podcast, we’re looking closely at why a 32×32 pixel digital icon designed for the UK Government’s Information Commissioner’s Office cost £585 of public funds!”
To discuss this topic of national importance, Margaret Manning, the Director of the design agency responsible was bought in and grilled as to why the creation of an icon could have cost so much.
Margaret stated that the actual design and production work would have taken a couple of hours, and the bulk of the cost was actually administrative. At this point Margaret was interrupted by the interviewer, Charles Arthur, who exclaimed with incredulity, how he’d heard that icons could be done in a matter of minutes.
Hearing this I was genuinely gobsmacked. I’ve long been a fan of both the Guardian newspaper and the tech podcast. However It was as if they had somehow been hijacked by the Daily Mail on a slow news week. They just seemed to have no clue what they were talking about.
For a start I couldn’t believe that this story was considered newsworthy, let along lead the headlines. With some Government IT projects costing tens—if not hundreds—of millions of pounds, quibbling over a few hundred pounds seemed trivial by comparison. It reminded me of a story from a few years back where Ashley Highfield from the BBC was criticised for buying two iPods for testing purposes. Oh, the horror of it all!
I also took exception to the fact that just because the interviewer had heard from one web designer that they could create an icon in a couple of minutes, that meant all icons took a couple of minutes. I know somebody who can design a whole website for £100 but that doesn’t mean that all websites costing more than £100 are therefore a rip-off.
Good icon design is a detailed and methodical process. As such it’s perfectly reasonable for an icon to take several hours to create. Add to that the feedback and revision loop and £585 inc Vat doesn’t seem unreasonable for a company charging £600 plus Vat per day.
Even if you were to quibble over their day rate or the exact number of hours it should have taken, it’s not like we’re talking about a clear and premeditated attempt to rip off the UK tax payer. Some times design and production costs money. Deal with it.
The thing that really annoyed me about this story was that it was another example of the appalling way the news media treats the digital sector. On one hand they fawn over big money startups while in the same breath labelling all SXSW attendees as money grabbers. They congratulate costly white elephants like the government’s Tech City initiative while at the same time force a company director to justify why a small piece of design work cost £585 instead of £350. I honestly don’t think that this is a mature and healthy way for the news media to cover what is an increasingly important part of both our economy and our personal lives.
Implying that web designers are systematically over charing their clients is just wrong. Sure there are bad agencies out there with bad practices, but the majority of people I’ve met in this industry are nothing but honourable.
I also think it’s wrong to imply that all government design jobs need to be done as cheaply and quickly as possible or you risk being interrogated by the national press. I personally believe that good design takes time and that taxpayers deserve to be given the same quality of design, and treated with the same level of respect, as any other user.
Note: This article is about the way the Guardian Technology podcast positioned this story and not about the story itself. The actual story was about the wastefulness of government bureaucracy, which I completely agree with. Interestingly this story was sparked by a freedom of information request from a web designer who felt that the creation of an icon should take no longer than 5 minutes. Something with I firmly refute. There’s an interesting discussion over at Hacker News about whether the cost in this particular case was fair or not. The fact that there are 84 comments, with a fairly even split of opinion seems to indicate that it’s not as clear cut as the Guardian makes out. It’s also worth noting that this freedom of information request probably cost the UK taxpayer more than the contested icon itself.
Posted at March 7, 2011 11:42 AM