The Growing Plague of Spec Work

Sep 22nd, 2009 | By | Category: Recommendations

I like to design websites.  I like it so much, that I occasionally take on a pro bono project provided it’s for a worthy cause (either that or if a friend of mine has a good idea that’s just for fun).  I have a list of friends who are also designers with whom I converse about design related things and the state of the profession.  We even trade work and referrals on some occasions.

Why would we trade work, you ask?  It seems, on the surface, that giving your potential client to someone else is silly, but look at it from the perspective of the client.  Have you ever met someone who you just knew you couldn’t work with?  There are many reasons you might not be able to work with someone, from the person just rubbing you the wrong way to irreconcilable differences of opinion.  In the design realm, it helps to be adult about those cases.

There are a whole slew of reasons to recommend a client to another designer, not the least of which is style.  No designer is everything to all potential clients.  If my style doesn’t match your business model, attitudes or direction, does it make sense for you to hire me?  Networking with other designers gives us an opportunity to make sure the client gets exactly what is asked.  As any decent designer will tell you, style is vital, especially where a company identity is concerned.  A good image can make a company as surely as a bad one can sink it.

Not all logos send the right message

Not all logos send the right message

Have you ever seen a logo and thought, “What was that guy thinking?”  There is a question of style that was never asked when you see things like that. The client either didn’t think through what was needed or didn’t understand that a logo is one of the more important decisions that a business can make.

So what’s the deal with spec (speculative) work?  Firstly, we’d have to define it.  If you come to me and say, “Design me a logo and if I like it, I’ll pay for it,” what should I say as a rational person?  I can think of a few monosyllabic replies which would apply, and the only one which is proper is “no.”  If you were a home builder and someone came to you with a proposal like that, I’m sure you could relate.  That’s what spec work is.  Do the work, and get paid if it is accepted.

You can see how shirts could be lost with this business model.  So, why would anyone chose to do it this way?  Well, the answer is simple.  Many would be designers join the various websites which promote this concept and start cranking out work for people they’ve never met and businesses they know nothing about.  They usually do it to start a portfolio, but some do it to see if they have what it takes to be a designer.  Either way, somebody loses, and usually both sides.

Personally, I think spec is a blight on the design industry.  Not only is it unfair to the potentially hundreds of other submitters (the poor saps who didn’t win), but who ultimately owns all that work?  Does the creative who came up with it, or the company to whom it was submitted?

What about plagiarism?  In the spec community it seems to be rampant.  Let’s say that you have a spec contest to design a logo, and award goes to a 14-year-old kid in Plano.  Did he steal that logo or portions of it from a local company?  Maybe.  You’ll find out when the lawsuit papers show up.

Most good designers don’t want to get a client specification followed by a paycheck.  They want to get to know you, your business, your clients or customers and find out what will appeal to everyone involved.  Speculative work cuts out that personal part of the process.  There is no way to nail a design of any kind on the first try, and believing it should go that way is only going to hurt the client.  Most designers will have an open loop, gathering feedback from multiple sources as they go through the process.  That 14-year-old kid in Plano…  Not so much…

I support initiatives aimed at ending speculative work, but at the same time, I know that those initiatives will not completely eradicate it.  There is obviously a market for it, or there wouldn’t be so many places to have it done.  The only way to stop this unfair, unethical practice is to educate would be buyers of the dangers.  Potential lawsuits, potential missed opportunities and potential business failure are all inside the realm, because design and branding aren’t things to just get off the plate.

Think about that when you shop around.  I’m biased against spec, naturally, but if you look past the surface and into the heart of the matter, you would be too.

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