Spec Work: Are We Missing the Point?

Alexander Tesselaar via Flickr

Photo credit: Alexander Tesselaar via Flickr

I recently read a good article about crowdsourcing and spec work, and while I found myself agreeing with the author I couldn’t help but think at the same time that he was missing the point.

If you’re not familiar with the terms, crowdsourcing means recruiting many people to make design propositions and picking the best (whether it be through a contest, or a site like 99designs.com), and is a form of spec (“speculative”) work (i.e. work for which you are not assured of getting paid).

The common criticisms against spec work are that it’s unfair to the designer, and devalues design work in general. And also results in very poor design.

And I agree completely. In fact, I personally would not work with a client who engages in spec work or crowdsources their logo through 99designs.com, because to me that means they don’t value design.

But that’s their prerogative, and there’s nothing inherently wrong about it. And I dispute the fact that it hurts other designers. You can buy $100 Nikes, or you can buy $20 no-name sneakers. Someone who doesn’t value good shoes will buy the cheap sneakers, and nobody will think that what he’s doing is wrong or hurts poor Nike’s business.

Of course if everybody started buying $20 shoes instead of Air Force Ones then Nike might go out of business. But we would probably consider that Nike’s problem, not the $20 shoe maker’s. Nike is the one who has to justify their higher price point through branding and product quality.

So why, when it comes to design, do we take a stand against cheap (or even free) offerings? Nobody’s forcing designers at gunpoint to enter design contests, so you can’t really say they’re unfair. Crowdsourcing might result in bad design, but some clients want bad (but cheap) design. We could try educating them to see the value of good design, but what if they simply don’t have the resources to hire a “real” designer?

What’s more, in the case of design contests (especially coming from well-known brands), the real goal is often not to get a logo at all, but to generate free publicity. Telling those brands about the evil of spec work misses the point entirely: they don’t care, they just want their free advertising.

I think the success of 99designs makes it clear that spec work is here to stay. We shouldn’t caution it, but at the same time I don’t see any point in acting like it’s going to destroy the industry. Spec work might be bad, but it’s not wrong.


30 Responses to Spec Work: Are We Missing the Point?

  1. Tyce Clee says:

    I think you’re bang on the money with this Sacha.

    Spec work has been a point of contention for a long time, and I think unnecessarily. If you’re not a designer that wants to fight to get a design approved against countless others, then simply don’t partake.

    The flipside of this argument is that I think it’s healthy for designers to strive to be better at what they do. For far too long now certain designers have elected to be on this pedestal where they’re the greatest at what they do, and none could do better. That’s bullshit, and it’s great to see new blood come through to give the other guys a run for their money.

    In the end, it’s great to keep skills fresh – and if that means pitting your work up against others with an end goal, then do it.

  2. Spec work might be bad, but it’s not wrong.

    Sorry Sacha but I have to disagree with you on this. Consider the following:

    Would you get different IAs to create 10 versions of your website information architecture and then pick the one you like?
    Would you get different programmers to create 10 versions of your application backend and business logic and then pick the one you like?
    Would you get different business development managers to create 10 versions of your sales strategy for the next year and then pick the one you like?

    I don’t think so. The only reason crowdsourcing visual design is so popular is that it’s so easy to package into this format and it’s so easy to choose the “winner” based on arbitrary, subjective preference without any proper selection criteria. But that doesn’t make it right.

    Just my $0.02.

    • Sacha says:

      If programmers did agree to do spec work, then I’m sure that there would be plenty of people out there ready to take advantage of it.

      The only reason why your examples sound implausible is a lack of offer, not of demand. So I don’t think they disprove my point.

  3. Cheers for your reply Sacha.

    If programmers did agree to do spec work, then I’m sure that there would be plenty of people out there ready to take advantage of it.

    Well I’m glad they don’t, and to me that’s the whole point. This is why we need initiatives like NO!SPEC to educate designers not to do it either.

    To me demand doesn’t justify the existence of something. To put this into a blunt example (and I can think of blunter yet), there’s heaps of demand for dirt-cheap goods, which in some unfortunate cases translates into the use of child labour to meet this demand. This most obviously is not right.

    This is ultimately a question of ethics, not just demand and supply.

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking post.

    • Sacha says:

      I agree with your point. I’m all for educating both designers and clients actually. I just think we should educate them with rational arguments like “spec work will results in a lower quality product” and not with moralizing talk.

      Child labour is obviously wrong in a moral sense, but I don’t think the same can be said of spec work.

      Unless of course 99designs is powered by child labour, which would at least explain why most of their logos look like they’ve been drawn by 7 years old…

    • David Airey says:

      Sadly, yes.

      Spec websites don’t really care about who their “designers” are (unless it’s bad PR, obviously). To them, it’s simply a numbers game — how many “designers” have registered on the site? What total figure can we advertise to potential contest holders? How many contest entries can we get our “designers” to submit for free?

      One of the main issues here is that young designers (not the 11-year-olds who submit designs, but soon-to-graduate or recently graduated designers ) don’t realise that they’re drastically undervaluing their skills by supplying free work in the mere hope of payment — payment that on many, many occasions won’t even materialise, regardless of the number of contest entries). I think the topic of spec work needs to be addressed more in colleges and universities, before designers-in-training fully enter the marketplace.

      Can you imagine any other profession where there’s a need to educate people that they deserve to be paid? Plumbers, for instance, don’t need to be told to ask their customers for money.

      Spec websites will often tout an “education” or “honing of skills” as a benefit of contest participation, but the feedback is non-existant, because what business owner has time to critique 99 designs?

      These sites are wrong on so many levels.

      Here’s how I respond to requests for spec work:


    • Sacha says:

      First of all thanks for taking part in the debate here, I’m a regular reader of your blog, and know your stance on spec work.

      To address your point, those young designers make a conscious decision to engage in spec work. Unless the client is actively deceiving them or lying about the conditions of the work (and if that’s the case then I completely agree with you), I think the blame rests equally on both parties.

      So by all means, we should address this topic to make sure that designers (and clients) who engage in spec work do so knowing what they’re signing up for.

      I just don’t think it’s necessary to demonize it that much. If two (or more) adults engage in consensual spec work, then I don’t feel I have the right to tell them it’s wrong.

    • David Airey says:

      You’re very welcome, Sacha. Thanks for reading my blog, too.

      There’s certainly a conscious decision from young designers to engage in spec work, but that decision is taken on the basis that there’s a glimmer of hope they’ll get paid for their effort. When the payment doesn’t materialise, contest attempt after contest attempt, young designers become disillusioned about the profession. I’ve received many emails saying just that.

      Spec websites don’t focus on protecting designers. They focus on receiving their cut from each contest, offering contest holders a money-back guarantee. Because of which, thousands of contests don’t pay the carrot that’s used as bait, instead resorting to a token $100 “kill fee” (regardless of the initial “prize” amount). Have a look.

      That’s a simple Google search that shows 6,620 results for contest holders asking for a refund, and that’s only on one single contest site.

      Additionally, and here’s the kicker, thousands of contests simple remain unpaid, left in the abyss of wasted effort.

      4,750 results of a “project pending,” many of which go back years.

      Designers who complain about such non-payment risk having their user accounts deleted:


      I’m sure a lot of designers are left feeling sick.

      It makes me angry, and I don’t even participate.

  4. Dexter says:

    It’s not a question of whether you decide to get involved or not. That’s a very arrogant tone to take – you can only make that choice if you’re in a comfortable position. I think the problem with the increasing prevalence of spec work thanks to sites like 99 designs is that through their reach, they are establishing a new norm. They “move the free line” so far that people barely expect to pay at all, and this affects the industry in general, not just those who “choose to be involved”.

    • Sacha says:

      Well, if some designers can’t stay ahead of the “free line”, maybe they should consider another career? After all, does the world really need that many designers?

      If a designer is struggling so much that he has no choice but to take on spec work, then he’s either 1) just starting out (in which case I agree education is important) or 2) not very good.

  5. The questions to ask here should be this – “is spec work exploitative?” (particularly for younger designers as illustrated a few comments back). Whether someone does something voluntarily has nothing to do with whether it’s exploitative or not. One of the main types of economical exploitation is (courtesy of Wiki) “Short-changing people in trade.” Spec work, by it’s very definition “short changes people in trade,” so by definition spec work is exploitative. Accordingly, spec work is not only bad, but wrong as well, at least if you believe exploitation is wrong.

    Simply “not participating” is seldom seen as an effective stance to take against anything – think child labor (which contrary to Western standards is often accepted practice in other countries), whale hunting, dolphin hunting (both accepted practices by certain governments), etc, etc, etc.

    In terms of overall effect on the design profession as a whole, spec work (especially design contest sites) is a classic example of “Tragedy of the Commons,” an economic theory that sees (courtesy again, of WIki)”a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen.”

    When you also factor in the rampant copying that goes on (as participants realize that entering a multitude of contests will up their chances of winning), the number of unpaid and abandoned contests (as illustrated by David’s links above) and the general lop-sided abuse of power that contest holders are granted, one can begin to see that spec work is terribly, terribly wrong for designers.

    • Sacha says:

      It’s true we have laws like minimum wage to protect people. Some might argue that nobody is forcing people to accept a low salary, and so we shouldn’t try to regulate wages, but that’s not my position. So I’m all for fighting exploitation when it comes to salaried work.

      However I’m not entirely sure the same kind of argument can apply to spec work. I view a freelancer as a company of one. Just like a company will invest and often lose its money, a freelancer invests (and loses) his time. Spec work is essentially a bad business decision, so to me it’s not any more exploitative than investing in a bad stock.

      Note that I completely agree that we must educate people that it is a bad decision. I’m just debating the “exploitative” point.

    • Thanks for the reply Sacha

      “I view a freelancer as a company of one. Just like a company will invest and often lose its money, a freelancer invests (and loses) his time.”

      That’s not entirely correct. There’s quite a difference between a company and a freelancer when it comes to expenses. A company can deduct whatever time they paid (their employees) from the bottom line at the end of the year. A sole operator cannot expense out their time. Accordingly, and leaving any ethical discussion to the side for a moment, it could be argued that a company can work on spec with little monetary loss (at the very worst, any hard costs involved would be a tax deductible expense), while a sole operator would be out the time without any way to recoup. I believe that time would better serve promoting their services.

    • Sacha says:

      You’re probably right, but I feel like we’re going off on a tangent related more to fiscal matters than to spec work itself.

      But I do agree that compared to agencies, freelance designers are probably the ones with the most to lose from taking on spec work.

  6. Dee says:

    I get the beef with speculative work. But I think the spec-work-is-evil-and-you-should-never-ever-ever-do-it-at-all crowd is building somewhat of a straw-man using the most egregious examples of un-ethical behavior by these “contest” sites, and the companies/businesses/individuals who use them to get design work on the cheap. If designers feel disillusioned after participating in these sites, I feel for them, but maybe they’ll learn to do their homework before participating in the future. If you want to do freelance work, you’ve got to have a little bit of sense, even if you have to earn that sense the hard way.

    There are examples where spec work has not resulted in the apocalypse of design.

    I work for a company, and have been asked to create spec advertisements, which 95% of the time don’t lead to a sale. But if I’m still getting paid my hourly wage, and they think it makes good business sense to do spec and pay me for what amounts to wasting time, then I really can’t be bothered. I don’t feel my designs have suffered for it. In fact, I think my skills have improved, and in some cases spec work has allowed for more creative free-reign. For what that’s worth.

  7. To Dee’s point — I think the fundamental difference with a traditional agency model of pitching for big accounts and the spec work that designers and the NO!Spec movement fight against is the fact that as Dee notes, she gets paid a fair hourly wage regardless of whether her company gets the pitch.

    In advertising, the “cost” of doing a pitch or preparing aspects of a spec campaign is worth it because even if you do lose out on 95% of those pitches, that 5% makes up the rest. It’s like the movie business. 9 out of 10 movies released don’t make a their money back at the box office. That 1/10 that does ends up funding the rest.

    Plus, in advertising there are often added incentives for landing a client like ad-buy percentages and other recurring rates of payment. On the surface, yeah, it’s spec, but it’s not the same as what happens with smaller agencies or (most commonly) individual designers.

    • Sacha says:

      Thanks for clarifying that. But I don’t really see that it makes a difference to Dee’s point.

      If I take on spec work as a freelancer, I can very well apply the same model of 5% of projects funding the rest. In the case of the freelancer, an individual bears the costs, and in the other case it’s a company (i.e. multiple individuals). But to me it’s not a fundamental difference.

    • On a basic level, yes, it’s spec — but the difference of scale is one that I don’t think can be dismissed. Fundamentally is it the same? Sure, but in practice I think the scale and scope of what is at stake makes one a standard business protocol (and one that is disappearing, I might add) and one that is not.

      If I’m WPP or CP+B and I’m pitching Microsoft, yes, I’m likely going to have to do some work on spec. The difference with what you see with things like 99designs and Crowdspring and other spec sites are that:

      * The competition pool for these BIG clients (and that’s something I should have stressed, in the agency world/model it’s basically only spec when you’re talking about major, major clients) is MUCH smaller. That’s a big difference than the “everyone and their mother send in an answer to the brief.”

      * It’s a pitch, not a full set of deliverables. My biggest problem with most spec sites is that designers are asked to basically provide a finished product or logo. That’s not the same as a campaign pitch, which would be for a theme of a campaign and a direction, but not final deliverables. Agencies would never, for example, create a logo on spec.

      * It isn’t uncommon for companies to pay an agency to pitch. This is the model that is often used in architecture: X people are chosen to submit a draft/pitch. Everyone is paid fro their time, whether they are chosen or not. That’s part of the due diligence on the part of the client.

      This architectural model is actually something that Behance and The IdeaLists are using. Both companies have a unique (and I think designer friendly) approach to highlighting unknown/unrecognized designers and giving them a shot at landing real, paying clients.

      I wrote this up about Behance’s competition approach (http://mashable.com/2010/10/15/behance-competitions/) and I’ve spoken with the founder of The IdeaLists at length and have a profile of them coming up.

      In other words, I think there are viable models out there that can utilize the best of what is promised by companies like 99designs and Crowdspring — helping connect clients with designers — without relying on speculative work.

      I should also note that an area I fundamentally think that spec work is bad — especially with some of the more popular sites — is that designers risk losing their IP simply by entering a contest. This is something David has covered at length (I believe — sorry if I’m mis-attributing David) and it’s something that is detrimental to the profession if it becomes a standard business practice.

  8. Cathitude says:

    Spec work is another form of gambling. If you are the kind of person who likes to roll the dice with your career, have an unstable income and ride the roller coaster of some great wins and a bunch of losses, then go for it. Free country and all that. But if you a in this business for the long haul, value the training and education you have worked hard for, and like to maintain your self-respect, you won’t let your work be judged whimsically by people who don’t care enough to take it seriously. Dignity, people, dignity.

  9. Michael says:

    Sacha, I recently wrote an article for Speckyboy on Spec Work too.

    The main issue for me with spec work is that a lot of young people who are new to the industry are being sucked into a style of working and doing business that is bad for them and exploits their ignorance.

    If you know the risks, you know what spec work is, and you still choose to do it, then fine.

    The issue is that a lot of the people doing it are not aware of what they’re doing, why it’s bad, and why they should at the very least consider not doing it.

    If new designers are growing up with this notion that spec work is “how it’s done” then that can only be damaging to the industry as a whole. We need to make sure that everybody who comes in to the industry is educated and knows the choices they’re making.

    • This.

      It’s one thing for a professional to make a decision to do speculative work. I may disagree with that choice — but it isn’t mine to make and I’m not going to say that it isn’t a choice.

      To me, like Michael points out, the problem is when this becomes the norm. What it ends up doing is commoditizing something that, in my mind, shouldn’t be a commodity. Design is a profession. That isn’t to say everyone who calls himself or herself a designer is a professional, but it is a profession.

      My biggest problem with many spec programs is that the designer is asked to produce the full deliverable. It’s not merely showing a portfolio or a sampling of work — it’s the final product. For something like a logo or identity piece, this is really troubling.

      I also agree with Michael about the importance of education. It would be one thing if everyone understood the trade-offs, risks and downsides of partaking in spec work. Everyone doesn’t know that.

      Enjoyable discussion and even if we disagree, I respect your point of view. I do agree with you that ultimately, it is the artists choice. I just think it’s important to educate young designers about their options and to also educate would-be clients about what they are really going to get out of these spec services.

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