The Players: The Huffington Post and its business model of letting contributors write for free; AntiSpec, an organization of designers that is against "working on spec" or "working for free in hope of winning a project," and the Design Community
The Opening Serve: On August 4, The Huffington Post put out a call to designers to enter The Huffington Post Politics Icon Competition. "As the 2012 election news cycle revs up, we're looking to spruce up the look of our social media channels–and we'd like your help," wrote HuffPost. "Do you know your way around Photoshop or other design programs? Have a cool idea for a logo that screams 'awesome politics coverage'?" Comments trickled in ranging from "Spec work is the devil," to "They are hard-pressed to pay their writers. Why would they bother paying their designers? What a joke." The post also caught the attention of AntiSpec–a design organization that frowns upon speculative work–who launched a campaign against HuffPost and the contest. "The Huffington Post was bought by AOL for a reported $315,000,000 back in February 2011," reads the AntiSpec campaign. "Plenty of cash on the table to hire a designer to create a logo, right?" Ric Grefe, the executive director for The American Institute for Graphic Arts explained why the contest was offensive. "To ask designers to work for nothing suggests that design has no value," he said in an interview with Poynter. The differences in quality are akin to “someone saying ‘I am sick, so I’ll go into a pharmacy to get something to feel better,'"said Grefé, "versus saying ‘I am sick, so I will go to a doctor.'"
The Return Volley: HuffPost closed the contest yesterday, but not without a statement. "We asked fans of HuffPost Politics to submit suggestions for social media icon designs as a fun way of enabling them to express their passion for politics," said HuffPost spokesperson Mario Ruiz to Poynter–his statement also appears on the updated original post announcing the contest. "So while AOL Huffington Post Media Group employs an in-house team of more than 30 talented designers, we felt this would be a lighthearted way to encourage HuffPost Politics users to express another side of their talents." Mark Collins, creator of AntiSpec, was not satisfied. "There is nothing ‘lighthearted’ when it comes to the serious task of branding your business," he said in Adweek. "To allow your online identity to be created by anyone with a copy of Photoshop is utter madness." Collins later noted the small victory on his website, "It seems a complete retraction from HuffPo isn’t going to happen. However they were forced to respond which is something we can all be proud of. More importantly maybe they will think twice before asking for free design."
What They Say They're Fighting About: If HuffPost's "contest" was unethical. The design community thinks the the contest was a cheap ploy to take advantage of designer and get hours of design for free. HuffPost claims the contest was a fun way to interact with its readers.
What They're Really Fighting About: The difference between the design and journalism community. The design community and Collins make it clear that the free-for-branding business model the Huffington Post has worked with in journalism won't fly in the design world. Conversely, HuffPost is having trouble shrugging off the editorial reputation it has built.
Who's Winning Now: The designers. The contest has ended and we imagine that HuffPost will have to be careful about announcing its winner (who might even incur the wrath of his or her fellow designers). While some may have entered the contest and HuffPost may have a new, free logo, many of the comments from HuffPost readers and the Twittersphere have veered into vitriol over the website's practices, also perhaps suggesting the wounds over the February acquisition by AOL haven't healed.