Imagine this scenario: a man goes to a restaurant and orders a meal. He loves it. So much so, that he asks the server to have the chef come out to the table. They have this conversation:
Patron: Sir, that was a magnificent meal. It was everything I was hoping for!
Chef: Great! I’m glad you enjoyed it.
Patron: I really did. So much so, that I want to make it again myself. But I may want to tweak it a little bit. And I might try to sell it to other people, too. Please give me your recipe.
Chef: I won’t do that.
Patron: What? Why not? I paid for it!
Chef: You paid for the meal.
Patron: But paying for the meal entitles me to everything that goes into it—the recipe, the ingredients, the cooking techniques, everything!
Chef: Look, I’m not going to give you my recipe. Especially since you just said you were going to further benefit from my work!
Patron: Why are you being so unreasonable?
This conversation probably seems ridiculous, but I guarantee you that a designer is having a very similar conversation with a client at this very instant.
The core issue in this scenario is the difference between “deliverables” and “work product” and, most critically, who owns what.
A quick side note, this article touches upon some of the concepts that surround “intellectual property” or IP, a convoluted and complicated issue. We’re going to keep things very high level to avoid getting into the weeds of legal definitions and other matters better addressed by a lawyer, not the Creative team at thunder::tech.
In a marketing context, a deliverable is the end result of a project. That could be a new logo, a brochure, a website, a print ad or any of a million other things an agency creates for a client. Further, work product is everything that goes into creating that final deliverable, including research, rough drafts, planning, internal meetings, etc.
Using a brochure as an example, a designer will typically start by researching the client and the industry, any competitors, as well as the state of the industry in general to understand the visual aesthetics at play. Then additional time might be spent looking within and without the industry for design inspiration, trends, and clichés to avoid, etc. All of this will be referenced before the designer ever begins the design.
For that first round of design, he or she will develop dozens of options, some quick pencil sketches and some fully rendered layouts, before finalizing with the Creative Director which options to actually show the client.
All of that preliminary work is critical to the success of the project, even if it’s largely behind the scenes and invisible to the client. Most clients take this work for granted and don’t ask to see this part of work product. But where issues arise is on the topic of “native files.”
Native files, in this context, refer to the files the designer creates in professional design software such as Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, After Effects or many others. In comparison, the actual deliverables to the client are most often presented in a static, non-editable format, like a PDF.
Where conflict often arises is when the client asks for the native files. Usually this is because the client wants the flexibility to edit documents themselves, without having to go back to the agency for minor revisions. And on the surface, this makes sense, why pay for agency time when you can do it yourself?
Native files unquestionably fall under the work product umbrella.
There’s many reasons why an agency wouldn’t want to give the client native files. So in no particular order:
Designers spend an inordinate amount of time fussing with tiny details like kerning, alignment, tracking, color matching and more, all to make the design beautiful and effortless to consume. These are details that non-designers might not fully understand, resulting in a final product that’s sloppy, disjointed and distracts from the message it’s trying to convey.
If the sales brochure is attractive and easy to read, why not just repurpose the same template for your company overview or HR benefits hand out? When clients attempt to do this, without a proper understanding of design theory or execution, it can result in a confusing, hard to follow and off-brand document that is more confusing than it is useful.
I can only speak for thunder::tech, but we are very proud of the work we put out into the world. Our name and reputation is on every piece of work we create—forever. We’d much rather work with a client to change something than hand over native files and lose total creative control of our work.
Agencies use modern graphic design software that doesn’t come pre-loaded on most laptops. Native files can only be opened by compatible software, both type and version. In other words, your copy of PageMaker 2.0 circa 1987 isn’t going to open the latest version of InDesign CC files. Often the cost to the client to upgrade their software and learn how to use it isn’t worth the hassle.
Finally, it would be disingenuous to not acknowledge that agencies rely on repeat customers just like any other business. If the agency hands over the native files, clients can reuse the agency’s work again and again in ways that were never agreed upon in the original scope of work.
However, there are a couple simple steps that both client and agency can take to avoid this issue.
Like most things, good communication solves a lot of problems. If a client divulges up front that they want a template that they will use in a variety of different ways, the designer can take that into account and create a document that meets the need.
A business should look at the resources and capabilities they have in-house and realistically decide if they can take the ball and run with it, or if it will save a lot of headaches to have the agency continue to make design changes.
To revisit the opening metaphor, work product is the recipe behind the delicious dish. And the diner you’re paying for is the food in front of you, not the work that went into getting it to the table. It is both proper and understandable that the chef, or the agency, would refuse to give anything more.
Reach out to learn more about how thunder::tech can help your business not only succeed, but accelerate.