Should people get paid to speak at design festivals?

This week, non-profit D&AD was hit by controversy when it emerged that it had paid some of its speakers a fee and expenses for its upcoming festival in London, but not others. We investigate whether creatives should be remunerated for presenting and discuss whether the story changes depending on if it’s for a charity or a commercial business.

The identity for D&AD Festival 2019, taking place 21-23 May at the Truman Brewery in London

Design organisation D&AD is best known for its awards programme, but for the last three years, has also run a festival in London, which sees workshops, masterclasses and speakers from across the world come to talk about their work, with notable past presenters including Erica Dorn, graphic designer for film Isle of Dogs, and Pentagram partner, Naresh Ramchandani.

This year’s edition of D&AD Festival kicks off this month, and the organisation is also running its annual New Blood Festival in July, dedicated to up-and-coming design talent.

D&AD Shift for those without uni degrees

D&AD is a charity, with profits made from event tickets and award entries mostly going towards subsidising its more charitable arms, like New Blood, its awards scheme for new designers, and Shift, its programme to help young people without university degrees get into creative careers.

This week, the organisation received some bad publicity when it was revealed, through Twitter, that it had decided to pay some of its speakers to talk at this month’s festival, but not others.

Liv Little, founder at Gal-dem, a magazine on women of colour, announced on Twitter that she was no longer speaking at D&AD Festival, after finding out she was not being paid but others were.

“Simply not good enough”

Following this, the two founders of Black Girl Festival, Nicole Krystal Crentsil and Paula Akpan, who had been offered payment after asking for it, also pulled out, on the basis that the organisation “[doesn’t] champion accessibility or create spaces for our community”, said Crentsil on Twitter. She added that asking people from minority groups to work for free was “wrong”.

Crentsil tells Design Week: “We decided to pull out of D&AD when we discovered that a number of black women creatives involved were not being [paid] for their time.

“When a festival positions itself as built on fairness, diversity and accessibility, and approaches people — particularly from marginalised backgrounds — to share their experiences, it should remember that these individuals are being asked to do labour and must be compensated.

“While Paula and I were offered a fee, many others were not and that is simply not good enough,” she says. “We refuse to align ourselves with any organisation that does not see fit to pay all of us our worth.”

D&AD to review speaker fees policy

D&AD responded to the revelations by posting a statement online, which says that the organisation’s current policy is “not to offer speaker fees”, adding: “On very rare occasions, we have entered into negotiations and some have resulted in fees or expenses being paid. [Most] speakers are not receiving any remuneration for participating and choose to join the festival to use D&AD’s global platform.”

It adds that the organisation will review its speaker fees policy for future events and will try to communicate its policies more clearly.

Tim Lindsay, CEO at D&AD, also tells Design Week that he “sincerely regrets upsetting people”, and that the organisation had contacted the speakers involved directly to apologise and “learn from its mistakes”, adding that there needed to be more “transparency” with fees.

Money not for “highly paid executives”

“Any money we spend on speakers is money we don’t spend on New Blood and Shift, and other things fulfilling our charitable remit,” he says. “We’re a charity so we don’t hand money over to shareholders or highly paid executives, it all goes back into the industry and serves the community.

“But we want to put this right and equally put this behind us,” he says. “There was absolutely no malice here, but unfortunately this has happened as we have not clarified our speaker policy or been transparent about it.”

D&AD Festival 2019 runs 21-23 May 2019 at the Old Truman Brewery in Shoreditch, East London.

What do designers think?

Non-profits like D&AD prop themselves up on the good will of high and low-profile creative people happy to spend time and effort supporting them for free – but equally, through its charitable endeavours such as Shift, the organisation helps to diversify the creative industries and make them more accessible, as well as offer unknown talent exposure.

Is it profitable or is it charitable?

Ben Tallon, freelance illustrator, says the decision of whether speakers should be paid should be based on whether the organisation is making profit purely for itself or contributing to the creative community.

“If it’s a commercial event, I would expect to be paid properly, both fee and expenses,” he says. “If it’s not for profit, I will always consider giving my time to support work that benefits a good cause.”

But he also says that, particularly for freelancers and those with a less steady income, having to fork out for travel and accommodation can leave people “out of pocket”, so adds that it’s important for creatives in this position to ask large organisations to at least cover expenses.

Payment increases the quality of talks

Sarah Hyndman, freelance graphic designer, typographer and founder at Type Tasting, says that she thinks all speakers, regardless of experience, should be paid to talk at all design conferences, given the “time that goes into preparing, rehearsing and attending”, adding that this is essentially unpaid time for freelancers.

“Those who are self-employed aren’t receiving a salary for the time they spend preparing and delivering their talks, but they still need to pay their bills,” she says. “I earn my living from talks and workshops, so being asked to talk for free because it’s ‘good exposure’ is in the realm of free pitching.”

She adds that, if all speakers were paid, this would allow festivals and conferences more scope to curate high-quality talks programmes with original content, rather than speakers “repeating the same self-promotional, portfolio talks”.

“This raises the calibre of the conference because each talk is fresh and focused on engaging the audience,” she says. “Ultimately, I think that paying speakers improves the quality of an event and gives new voices the opportunity to be heard.”

Those who can’t afford unpaid work lose out

Lucienne Roberts, graphic designer and founder at LucienneRoberts+, agrees with Hyndman that speakers should mostly be paid — otherwise, the system favours privilege and only gives opportunities to those who are well-off enough from their paid work to afford it.

But she acknowledges that many “valuable” organisations would not be able to exist without free contributions, so thinks that if they need to ask people to work for free, they should be more transparent about this to the public.

This could be realised through the addition of a credit added to speaker profiles, such as online and on the programme, who have agreed to work for free, showing that they have helped to subsidise the festival through their services. This is known as “in-kind sponsorship”, where a person or organisation offers goods or services for free, rather than money. “People should be aware of what unspoken subsidies are at play,” Roberts says.

Could large businesses foot the bill for freelancers?

If not-for-profit festival organisers cannot afford to pay speakers, negotiations should be made to cover the expenses of individuals, so that nobody is left out of pocket, Hyndman adds.

One way to do this is for the festival organisers to make it an option for large, global design consultancies and businesses to cover the expenses of their staff travelling to speak. These savings the festival makes could then be used to fully cover the costs for creative freelancers, who do not have a business to fall back on and only rely on themselves.

“Large agencies could be encouraged to sponsor their speakers, leaving the event budget for independent speakers,” Hyndman says.

Consistency — pay for everyone or no one

While creating different options for large businesses compared to individuals in terms of covering expenses could help bring more voices to the stage, many designers are adamant that, if a conference can afford to pay speakers, this pay should be consistently applied across the board.

Katie Cadwell, senior designer at Supple Studio, says that the rules should be the same for everyone — so if a festival decides to pay some speakers, it should pay all of them, regardless of “age, level, ability, gender, race, orientation or political views and opinions”.

She adds that the onus is also on speakers to be consistent – are they happy to speak on stage “for the love” of it, or do they want to get paid for their time and efforts? That is an individual decision to be made.

Tallon adds that, while it should be all-or-nothing in terms of paying speakers, it is fair for fees to differ depending on a person’s experience. “I have no issue with someone with greater experience or reputation than me commanding a bigger fee, but I feel that if one person is being paid to speak on top of expenses, everyone should be — even if it’s nominal.”

Does it fit with your values?

Cadwell adds that speakers also have a responsibility to decide if a conference is right for them, depending on the factors that they personally find important, from the fee paid to the gender and racial diversity of the line-up.

Merle Hall, CEO at KinneirDuffort, agrees, and says that if entrance or ticket fees are being charged to visitors, speakers should investigate where this profit is going and whether “it’s something you want to align with”.

Ingrained across the industry — so why target D&AD?

Gordon Reid, graphic designer and founder at Middle Boop, says that, from his experience, most design conferences have not offered him a fee to speak, adding that it is “naïve” to assume that everyone would get paid at an event like D&AD.

He says that, while he thinks in general people should get paid to talk at events, this should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and weighed up against the mission of the organisation, adding’ that D&AD’s money “goes straight back into programmes that help nurture the future of the industry”.

“Programmes like New Blood and Shift help provide a stepping stone for people to proceed and start brilliant careers,” he says.

Can exposure outweigh payment?

He adds that, for him personally, sometimes the positives of speaking for free at a high-profile event can be greater than the negatives – as long as he is not actively losing money doing so.

“I recognise the value of speaking at a festival can sometimes outweigh a fee,” he says. “As long as my expenses are covered, then I’ll probably do the talk, as who knows what it could lead to.”

It’s common knowledge that work, time and effort in the creative industries often goes unpaid, whether that’s compiling a presentation deck for a client, or curating a 45-minute talk for a design conference.

Unpaid work can never be encouraged, but charities or non-profits may rely on the generosity of others to keep afloat, and ultimately help the creative community through other means. While they may not always be able to pay speakers, the onus must fall on organisations like D&AD to make their processes transparent, fair and consistent, regardless of their means.

Do you think designers should get paid to speak at conferences? Let us know in the comments below.

Hide Comments (2)Show Comments (2)
  • Nick Corston May 19, 2019 at 1:22 pm

    Interesting debate but really don’t think anyone should paint it as a ablack or white picture and be so prescriptive.

    Or is it free self promotion. Many events now charg ea feee to present.

    And re. Ben Tallon saying:

    “I feel that if one person is being paid to speak on top of expenses, everyone should be — even if it’s nominal”

    Really? So if a non-profit event organiser paid a struggling young freelancer to speak at a conference they should also pay somene like Sir PauL Smith, if he were on the same bill?

    My biggest concern here is how people seem to disregard the challenge for many non-profits organising events like this, being totally dependent on sponsorship (near impossible to secure now without lots of strings attached) or entrance fees, which few can afford or will pay, particularly in our work to attract parens to events promoting the importance of the creative industries. And creativity itself.

  • James Gilmore May 24, 2019 at 6:28 am

    Is the problem, that if these forums continue to pay speakers who they deem to be ‘of value’ or ‘worth it’ because of their high profile, we end up with the same people doing the rounds giving the same opinion and this becomes a blocker to new and diverse voices entering the conversation.

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