erik lundegaard

Microsoft: “Why Can't We Just Hire a High School Kid and Pay Him Peanuts?”

This is a story that's both personal and political. It's personal because it's about Patricia, my Patricia. It's political because... Well, keep reading.

It's a post from illustrator Robert Neubecker on the creation of Slate, and how the look of Slate came about.

In 1995, Patricia moved from New York, where she'd lived for 20 years, and where she'd been, among other things, art director at Newsweek magazine, to Seattle, where she grew up, and where she'd just gotten a gig with MSN. Bill Gates also wanted to start an online-only magazine as well, to show that it could be done, and he'd hired Michael Kinsley to get it rolling. Kinsley moved in across the hall from Patricia, Patricia introduced herself and suggested she help on the art side. She pitched a couple of primary illustrators: Mark Stamaty, Philip Burke and Robert Neubecker. Here's Neubecker:

Patricia bought a few of these drawings and, when they were developing a look for Slate, showed them to Mike and the Slate editors. The idea was to use simple black and white drawings that could download quickly on the old, slow, dial up modems. I had newspaper experience, and had worked extensively with Patricia when she was design director at Newsweek, so she knew that I could produce on short deadlines. So far so good. But, then the Microsoft people suggested, why couldn’t we just hire a high school kid who could draw, pay him peanuts, and come up with our own cartoons?

They hired the high school kids. Of course they didn't work out and Patricia kept pushing toward the professionals. Eventually they decided on Neubecker and Stamaty, but the contracts, as Microsoft contracts are, sucked. Patricia kept pushing in this area, too. Neubecker again:

I worked all summer without a contract or a paycheck while Patricia patiently, persistently moved the contract from WFH to the normal one time usage, artist copyright, that is the ethical norm.

Eventually it worked out. Because there was a Patricia. If there wasn't a Paticia, Slate's design would've been as screwed-up as any Microsoft design. Patricia's sister-in-law, Jayne, has a phrase for when she buys something cheap and it doesn't work: “I hate getting what I paid for.” That's Microsoft. It often gets what it pays for. 

(Sidenote: I'm in the midst of something similar with Microsoft. Well, “midst.” Almost two years ago, I wrote a piece for MSN on “The Dark Knight” and I haven't been paid for it yet. The contract with MSN was different than the contract for MSNBC, for which I wrote for many years. At MSN, they'd broadened the NDA, the Non-Disclosure Agreement, to such an extent that the signer couldn't write about Microsoft. Ever. So I didn't sign it, and I told them I wouldn't sign it, and there was a flurry of activity for a few days afterwards and then silence. Apparently if you don't sign their contract they have no mechanism in place for a one-time fee. So I haven't been paid. I'm sure there are others in the same boat. I'm sure there's a good class-action lawsuit waiting to happen. Maybe it's already happening. Here's hoping.)

Neubecker, a talented man, is more optimistic than I am about the way things are going for people like him: people whose value lies in the quality of the work they do; whose work can't be quantified:

There was an explosion of illustration being used online in ’99 and ’00 before the tech bubble burst. This is gradually coming back and with the advent of the I-Pad and similar devices I expect this to open up more. Long columns of grey type is always boring—even in the New Yorker, bless them. Photos all look alike after a while. I have two web illustration jobs on now, series of drawings.  One of the nicest jobs I did last year was a web animation I did for a pharma company. I teamed up with Rob Donnally from Slate who made the drawings move. I expect to see much more of that as time goes on. And print, like radio, I don’t think will ever go away. They say video killed the radio star. Tell that to Howard Stern.

Except the radio star in mind was a musician, a singer, someone who raised the spirit. It wasn't what Howard Stern is. Or what Rush Limbaugh is. You can't look at what radio has become and not be saddened.

Neubecker's story is a nice story with a happy ending, but it reminds me of Michael Mann's “The Insider”: it's about a battle being won in a war that everywhere else is being lost. And there are fewer insiders like Patricia fighting for us.

Posted at 08:23 AM on Fri. Apr 30, 2010 in category Microsoft  
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