Design Geek: Say No to Spec Work!

Last week I attended a design conference, or rather an un-conference (The Stack Un-Conference to be exact) that had an unusual format. The attendees set the topics they wanted to discuss, and then broke out into groups to discus those topics. You could decide which group/discussion you wanted to participate in. It was a great networking opportunity and a great way to learn more about what you are interested in.

One of the groups I participated in was on the topic of spec work in design. This is a topic that I’ve dealt with in the past, and it frustrates me (and most designers) to no end because of the way that it devalues the profession.

No Spec Work


So what exactly is spec work?
Essentially, it’s when a person or company requests to see work with no guarantee that they will ever pay you for doing that work. I know, it sounds ridiculous. Who would spend hours and hours on a project with no guarantee of payment? And who would think that is a legitimate request? But it happens… all. the. time. There are even websites out there that allow you to submit a request for things like a logo design with the price you are willing to pay and anyone can submit logos for your consideration. You pick the one you like best and that person gets paid for their design. The rest of the folks who submitted design are out of luck.

What the problem with it?
As a business owner, this might sound like a fantastic idea (other than the questionable ethical . You get a bunch of options to pick from but only have to pay once. Well, as with anything that sounds too good to be true, there’s a catch. When you hire a professional designer, you are not just getting someone who knows how to work Photoshop or Illustrator. You are hiring someone to research your company and industry, help you build a brand, make recommendations based on training and experience, and ensure that you use your budget as efficiently as possible, to get the best marketing bang in your industry.

When you buy a logo online, however, you are trusting the representation of your company to a complete stranger. Someone you will never meet and who knows nothing about your company or industry and likely doesn’t care. So what? Well lets say that you really don’t care about research or recommendations. Maybe you just need a logo. Going to one of these websites might not be the most ethical way to go, but you still get a logo, right? Well yes and maybe no. You will end up with a logo, yes. Will it be a good logo? Doubtful, but maybe that’s a matter of opinion. Will it be your own logo? That’s the gamble you’re taking. There have been several instances in which so-called ‘designers’ have ripped off trademarked or copywrited logos and submitted them to these kinds of websites, just to make a quick buck. Even sites that may look trustworthy, like this one, have been caught up in copywrite infringement accusations. (Here’s a great blog post on that same subject.) How are you to know if the logo you just paid for is an original, or if you’ll be hearing from the lawyers of a national brand that owns it? And is the hassle and cost of a rebrand (ie. new business cards, stationary, signage, collateral, etc.) a risk you’re willing to take?

From a design side, the problem with doing spec work is that it encourages the idea that design isn’t worth paying for and that anyone with a computer and editing software can do it themselves. It also undercuts your fellow designers who are trying to work ethically and fairly. But a scalpel doesn’t make you a surgeon and a calculator doesn’t make you an accountant. (Neither does that basic math class you took in college.) We all know that good work is worth paying for, whether you’re the one paying or charging. And successful business people know that trusting experts is what helps make them a success.

Why would a designer ever do spec work?
The easy answer is that a good designer wouldn’t. Or at least not the type of spec work described above. Occasionally design firms will do concepts in advance if they are competing for a large client who has requested it. This is usually internally justified by the hope that if they get the contract it will more than pay for the time spent. If they don’t, the company eats that cost.

Side note, no company enjoys doing spec work, so if you’re thinking of asking for it, please don’t. It is insulting and insinuates that you do not value their time as professionals. Think of it this way. If you are the quarterback of the football team, you may have lots of girls chasing you, but would you say, “I want to kiss each of you, and I’ll take the best kisser to homecoming”? No. You wouldn’t. Because that would make you a creep. A gentleman would pick the girl he likes best and build a relationship with that girl. Maybe that’s based on how pretty she is, but it should also be based on the chemistry they have, and so should your decision. Because your designer should not only be someone with a portfolio full of great work, but also someone you trust and have a good working relationship with. Someone who has the best interest of your business in mind, and not just their next paycheck.

So who’s doing speck work?
That’s hard to say. Lots of times it’s young, inexperienced designers who don’t know any better and who just want some client work to put into their portfolio. Sometimes its just someone with Microsoft Paint who thinks this will be a fun way to make extra money or break into the business. You really have no way of knowing who you’re getting.

What’s the solution?
This is the difficult and frustrating part. This is where the conversation stalled at Stack, because there really isn’t a feasible solution right now. The best we can do is to educate. That means educating both young designers entering the field and educating the general public about why spec work isn’t in anyone’s best interest. Easier said than done, but at least now I guess I can feel like I’ve done my part. :)

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