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


Rich said on March 7, 2011 3:57 PM

This is completely unreasonable. It’s almost like they have nothing better to do!?

Sreeraman Mohan Girija said on March 7, 2011 4:20 PM

Same old story. sigh..

Mr T said on March 7, 2011 4:26 PM

I understand what you’re saying and I agree your the basic point, but let’s be honest unless it went through dozens of revisions, £600 for one 32×32 icon is still too much. Even if most of that cost went on admin (as they say) in my opinion that highlights some sort of mismanagement somewhere along the line and it’s therefore not too much of a stretch to suppose that wastefulness has been endemic to government IT projects as a whole. I’m sure there are plenty of firms/individuals which could provide a comparable service at a better price.

Paul said on March 7, 2011 4:28 PM

In general, I whole-heartedly agree with your opinion. However, I do believe that you need to make a clarification.

I associate an “icon” with a logo mark. Icons that represent the identity of a brand can easily take hundreds of hours to create.

Mark Bowen inquired about the cost to create and implement a “favicon”. It is interesting to note that the entire identity redesign cost £28,520.00.

Assuming £100/hour, I would also question why a favicon would cost £585 to implement from an existing logo mark.

Bowen’s question is perfectly reasonable, but the way in which the media portrayed the ICO question was completely and totally irresponsible. In the end, the cost of the favicon is a pittance.

graham said on March 7, 2011 4:41 PM

I’ve not heard the podcast but did see, and share, the FOI request and blog post the story came from (which was weeks ago, com’on grauniad, keep up).

It’s more a case of how poorly written the invoice was. I didn’t read it as a creation/design of an icon but of creating a favicon from an existing logo which is, in most but not all cases, a reasonably quick job - like with Google droppping the ‘oogle’ and using the ‘G’ (already designed and created) as their icon. That’s where it seemed like a crazy cost.

Obviously if it had been worded as ‘logo creation for site’ then, especially by government standards, it would seem like a very reasonable, possiblly cheap even, cost.

There clearly is a separate billing cost for logo design and, looking at the site, there doesn’t seem to have been a whole lot of extra work adapting the favicon from the main site logo.

What’s more strange from that invoice is the £2k for ‘web colour costs’ which, to me at least, sounds like setting Photoshop to RGB. At least they must have had some nice refreshments for the staff launch.

Mark said on March 7, 2011 6:16 PM

I know a lot more time and effort goes in to designing than most people know, but almost 600pounds is still way too much for something based of an already existing design. 250 at best.

Andy Budd said on March 7, 2011 7:06 PM

As I mentioned at the end of my post, this was more a comment on the way the article was positioned on the podcast, rather than the details of the story itself.

In this particular case it doesn’t look like significant effort has gone into the creation of the icon in question. However I have no idea how long the designer actually took, the number of different versions they created or the number of revisions they went through. This is because it’s impossible to tell the complexity of the process from the finished item. As such it’s entirely possible that the agency billed correctly in this instance.

In my view the fact that it’s a favicon is meaningless. It’s still a 32×32 icon and could easily find itself being used in other situations. So while you could simply shrink it down from the original artwork, a good designer would almost certainly want to create it by hand, one pixel at a time. This can be time consuming and painstaking work which could easily take a day of your time to perfect. In fact I know several icon designers who would consider a day per icon as pretty quick going.

One of the reasons this story annoyed me was the fact that even if this specific instance wasn’t complicated, the creation of a 32×32 icon could be complicated, and the time spent justified. Just because something is small, doesn’t necessarily make it quick or cheap. In fact some of the smallest parts of a project are also the most time consuming because the devil is in the detail. As such I took umbrage at the association between the physical size of the work being associated with the cost. I was also annoyed at the idea that designers should be accountable for every minute they spend on the project and judged by their volume of output.

What if I wanted to spend an hour or two sketching the icon out on graph paper first? What if I tried out 10 different versions only to come back to the first and most obvious option. Is this exploration unnecessary? As designers do we need to shy away from discovery for fear that somebody with a clipboard and an axe to grind will pick up on the smallest detail and ask of to cost justify every minute of our time, 6 months after the fact. If so, this is not a world I want to inhabit as a designer!

Paul said on March 7, 2011 8:24 PM

The issue isn’t one of the world we inhabit, but of the world designers created for themselves.

Mr T said on March 7, 2011 10:34 PM

I just listened to the relevant part of the podcast, it was interesting to hear the agency try to justify their costs and to be honest it was unconvincing (particularly having seen the icon). She made one good point in defence about the time taken to gather and process assets, which unfortunately is clearly inapplicable to the ICO icon. I agree with your argument that an icon could potentially take days, depending on its importance to a brand and it’s complexity and certainly any good designer would create these at pixel-level detail (not the case for the ICO icon). However, the salient point in the discussion is that this is a government contract (i.e. something the public personally pays for); in which case one might strive for a certain level of efficiency and dare I say, ‘design economy’. Of course a designer should be allowed to do the best job they are able and should not have undue restrictions on their creativity, but this is almost always tempered by budgetary concerns. As a supplier, you will always put in time and effort proportional to your remuneration. If a private company wants to pay over-the-odds for a masterpiece of brand identity then fine, go crazy. What is objectionable is that public money was funnelled into something that is arguably frivolous and/or poor value. This is certainly not the biggest offence of its kind to be fair, a drop in the ocean. This said, I think it’s still valid to be raising concerns about this kind of spending as it highlights a greater problem in a simple, visual way which the technically illiterate may find easier to grasp. It is all too easy to obfuscate big IT spending behind technical jargon and get away with it (i.e. bore people into apathetic submission). The layperson hears the word ‘database’ and thinks “ooh, that sounds expensive” (and it is, in the world of government tendering, but for all the wrong reasons). It’s certainly true that design work should be seen to have the value it deserves, though I think where public money is concerned there should be close scrutiny.

Ali Driver said on March 8, 2011 6:54 AM

I certainly have spent a whole day on creating an application icon. Although this icon is specified at 32×32, it was most likely designed at multiple resolutions also. As Andy rightly says, one would want to touch up a reduced image or logotype to ensure clarity and crispness in the final icon. Who’s to know what kind of nonsense the client he was working for had to say thoughout the process, but you’d imagine some iterations in there too. Although all too often, corporate clients don’t really have a brief, and give you ‘free reign’, as soon as something is produced, they’ll be the first to pipe up. I’d imagine this contributed to the cost too.

AlastairC said on March 8, 2011 3:00 PM

I heard the interview, and whilst I think you are right about the time needed for an icon, my impression from the interview was that it was a short time to actually “do the work”, and most of the time on administration.

I’ve been involved with big Government contracts, and the overhead is absurd in some (many?) cases. However, Margaret Manning was pretty spot on when it comes to why this is: the risk-adverse nature of Government.

For that, I would point to the usual media coverage of Government. A silly mistake (of the type you might get when using a more cost-effective development approach) can garner national news coverage, and impact someone career.

People who are buying from a risk-averse Political standpoint will create so many hoops to jump through that being cost-effective is impossible.

Joey Brannon said on March 8, 2011 3:51 PM

I’d like to bring the comments back to the issue of how GT handled the reporting on the issue of wasteful government spending rather than argue about the cost of the project. If GT feels like the government is wasting money it needs to interview the government. Customers (in this case the UK) have a duty to perform due diligence before claiming they were ripped off. One doesn’t give the mechanic a blank check and then moan about the eventual bill, and one shouldn’t hire designers without some sense of the budget and project cost up front. It was the UK’s choice to hire this designer, the job was done and the fee paid. The only thing the UK could change about this situation is the choice of designer. Therefor any scrutiny of the issue at hand needs to be brought to the process of making that choice. Arguing, as GT has implied, that the responsibility to steward government resources rests with the design firm is a little like ordering off the menu at your favorite restaurant and then arguing over the bill because you failed to review the prices beforehand.

Andy Budd said on March 8, 2011 9:38 PM

Joey, I could not agree with you more!

Web Design Dan said on March 12, 2011 9:02 AM

Come on people as I see it both parties are a bit responsible. I agree that it’s probably not the agency that should have been grilled over the cost, one would have though they will have been chosen to do the original work from a number of tenders so that responsibility does lie with the people / persons at the government office who gave them the job in the first place. However, the agency could have put that icon together in 5 minutes considering that they already had the id to work with. Anyone who says it takes even more than an hour to do a job like that is either lying or not very good at what they do so from that point of view they have taken the mickey.

Markus Diersbock said on March 15, 2011 11:23 PM

A better response would have been “if the government made the icon it would have cost 50,000, so we saved the taxpayer 45,000”

Antony Quinn said on March 24, 2011 2:43 PM

Regarding the digital sector being “an increasingly important part of … our economy”, a recent Boston Consulting Group report found that the “Internet economy now represents 7.2 percent of U.K. GDP, more than construction, transport, or utilities” [1]. This was picked up the Stephanie Flanders, the BBC’s Economics Editor, who noted that this figure of 7.2% is just 2% behind the financial sector.