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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