Spec work (short for speculative) is defined as any job for which the client expects to see examples or a finished product before agreeing to pay a fee. This also includes competitions and contests from major companies, usually with a reward of prizes or recognition.
The topic is one that almost every designer has an opinion on and tends to spark controversy and discussion. The following articles are written by members of our community expressing their opinions of spec work: Work not for Hire by Jay Gerard and Go Spec Yourself by Martin Ringlein. The ADCMW Board and Full Bleed remains neutral on the position of spec work and encourages you to write us if you have some thoughts to share that you would like to see posted. Email us at email@example.com.
Work Not for Hire
by Jay Gerard
“Insert Institution Here” has sent out an APB requesting artists and designers to enter a contest. The winning prize is not money: the reward is to be “the glory of seeing your work professionally printed” and also “bragging rights.”
This latest “invitation to create” echoes a request that was made two years ago by the National Endowment for the Arts to submit an RFP that included their visual solution (a.k.a. Logo) for the NEA’s new tagline: “art works”. The winning submission, after perhaps a bit of input and refinement from the NEA, will be awarded an actual contract as expressed in each submission’s RFP. It seemed apparent that every student as well as designers of all levels of expertise would be proud to create a new identity for the NEA. It also seemed apparent that – as cost is always a major consideration when choosing between any few designs of supposedly equal quality –cost would be the final decider. It also seemed that some talented and eager student sitting in his dorm or studio apartment would have a much better shot at winning than a full blown design department/studio/agency would have, as the disparity in overhead and pricing structure is gigantic. In fact, the obvious happened: a sole practitioner won, taking away the dollars he had bid (which were no doubt very modest), as well as full bragging rights. It was not a level playing ground.
This whole scenario came from the nation’s supposed and anointed leading supporter of artists and their rights, which took this situation from the ridiculous to the nearly criminal, and was certainly disrespectful of those very same artists whose right to earn a living IS the NEA’s mandate and mission.
This sample “invitation to create” is among the many, many that creative professionals receive throughout their entire lives; “Family and friends” rates, pro bono donations to worthy and other causes, “could you just…” (fill in the blank, “sing at my party?”, “write a paragraph for my church publication?”, “have your group play at our gala?”, “design a card for my new business?”, “tell a few jokes at my company’s holiday party”, “teach my grandmother to tango?” ) Into this pile goes “spec” work as part of an otherwise legitimate Request for Proposal.
Here’s a newsflash: spec work, as well as all the other instances of “could you just…” take exactly the same amount of thought, energy, materials and time as doing work for hire! Even more – because spec work means that you are working totally without the input from the client or potential client, which is always a huge part of the best solutions.
I offer this last piece of information in the hope that knowing this will help put an end to what might or might not be innocent requests So, let me repeat: any given work of art takes thought, energy, cost of materials and time, , regardless of the compensation to the artist.
That is the lesson.
Go Spec Yourself
by Martin Ringlein
Spec work, it’s a dirty term regardless of how you feel about it. It goes by many names, takes many forms and while it was debated yesterday, it’s debated today and it will most certainly be debated tomorrow, it’s all about perspective. I don’t advocate on behalf of spec work, but I most certainly don’t demonize either; I believe it’s more misunderstood and misused than anything else. But, it is all about perspective.
I believe that somewhere down the line we all got old and as a result, we all got serious. Our experience is our own finite value that is the distance between youthful ambition and aspiring passion. We forget often what it’s like to be a young designer, to have no experience in an industry that only evaluates you based on experience. No one will let me design for them without seeing what I’ve designed for someone else; it’s a perpetual cycle that can be infuriating, and seemingly impossible to break out of.
Simply Impractical Before Unethical
I by no means am looking to get into the debate or even truly express an opinion one way or another; the truth is I have pretty mixed feelings on the topic. Fundamentally speaking though, it isn’t about wanting to do spec work or even believing in the idea; it is just something I can’t do more than something I’ve arguably decided not to do. I’m a web designer at nclud; to do “web design” the way we do it (the way we believe it should be done), spec work just isn’t possible; it isn’t feasible or appropriate.
“Web Design”, or any design process for that matter, is the summation of parts, of critical elements that together make a unique, usable and stylish experience reflective of the organizational objectives with respect to the audience. To truly accomplish that you’ll need much more than a creative brief or a requirements document. You’ll need a competitive market analysis, content inventory, business objectives, audience segments, use-cases, user-personas as well as a plethora of additional information that begins to define the basis for a problem before articulating a solution.
A website, or any creative, is much more than a pretty picture; every product manager, information architect, usability and user-experience designer out there will defend and articulate the importance of understanding the entity before designing the entity. We simply can’t draw the picture without knowing the subject; and in the context of web design, the subject is very complex. Design is not about art, it is about visual communication – visual communication as a strategy. This is a strategy that can’t be articulated over a word document; it is one that involves stakeholder and executive interviews, one that involves an understanding of the organization, their objectives, their constituents and that relationship.
Speculating Spec; A Simple Misunderstanding
Many misunderstand how spec work is used (for the most part). For most large-scale organizations, spec work is nothing more than early design research; think of it as low-fidelity common-sense based mood boards. Many organizations will seek out spec work only as draft conceptual ideas for the basis of a real design conversation. Essentially taking many early non-strategic “visual” ideas and using them as a spring-board for conversation when developing a strategy; getting the common-sense lowest-common-denominator ideas out and in front early. Spec work is rarely real work (work meant to be final and utilized), and in that context it really isn’t appropriate work for most. Most are not in the business of creating design drafts for other designers to create design solutions; that is where the misunderstanding of the use of spec work resonates the most. It is when spec work is utilized to find and execute design solutions without the consideration of the critical summation of parts, the all-inclusive entity that is web design, that the concept fundamentally fails. It is that failure that prevents us from participating in spec work to begin with. Spec work typically asks for a pretty picture and we know web design to be more than that; that is why we can’t do spec work.
A Spectacular Start
Whether you believe spec work to be unethical, impractical or simply just unjustifiably wrong … it kick started my career, and, that’s something I’d never take for granted! I was a University student who realized that the life of a computer science major wasn’t for him. I struggled to find my place, somewhere that my inherent design sensibilities and ever growing passion for visual communication would somehow merge. So, I took every design and business course I could handle, from Art History to The Language of Advertising.
And one day, in one course, the Creative Director of Discovery walked in; I was impressed and lingered to every word he had to say. When he mentioned he had one internship spot available, nothing else seemed to matter … I knew it was mine for the taking. But, there was a catch! No, wait … there was an opportunity! He was independently working with NIKE (you know, that little shoe company) on a project … and it needed a logo. The terms were simple; every student had the opportunity to submit a logo, best logo would not only be used by NIKE, but to the winner went the internship.
It wasn’t about winning, it wasn’t about designing and it most certainly wasn’t about monetary profit. It was about having one hell of a story to tell. I was nineteen at the time and really had nothing to show other than the same cookie cutter class projects that everyone else seemed to share. In an industry that values uniqueness and creativity, the student that presents work that is just some variant of their fellow student’s portfolio, it’s them that become the lowest common denominator; the bottom of the applicant pile if you will.
I won that contest, and I got that story to tell. My work was now being used by one of the biggest and most popular brands in the entire world; it’s a story worth telling. They didn’t promise to use any of the logos as-is, but they did, and the story got that much better. While a handful of designers put their best foot forward, devoted their time and talent to something that ultimately gave no return, I can tell you from personal experience … it was most certainly worth the effort, the risk. Because, the one winner walked away with more than money could buy; a story, an experience!
If you ever thought that the concept of spec work devalued design, you’re so monetarily focused that you’ve completely lost touch with the term “value”. It’s an opportunity. And, sometimes it’s simply an opportunity for an opportunity. But, for many, that’s priceless; like perhaps, a nineteen-year-old aspiring designer with no story to tell.