Spec Work Analysis: Here To Stay –But Not For Everyone

Note from Jeremiah: I’m publishing this post as I walk on stage at SXSW on a panel that will debate “Is Spec Work Evil” I’ve gone to a great deal of time and experimentation to understand this issue, please carefully read my post before making a judgment either way.

Defined: speculative work “specwork”
What’s specwork? “Specwork” which is the process when a buyer or pays designers to create designs. AIGA, a design association, defines it as ” work done without compensation, for the client’s speculation—seriously compromise”. Multiple designers will submit, but only one will be awarded with money –the rest don’t get paid. Critics to this labor dispute suggest it marginalizes the design industry, and is even unethical. There are two social websites that have emerged 99designs and crowdspring that offer brands and designers a place to do spec work business, I’m primarily viewing this topic in the scope of these social sites –as I’m an industry analyst for the social web.

[Specwork will only increase during a recession. Although the initial upsides of cost-savings and rapid prototyping are obvious, it has equal downsides with quality and time management. Buyers should remember that specwork is a tactical process with drawbacks —never crowdsource your design strategy]

Economics: specwork here to stay, and will increase during recession
It’s very hard to stop the movement on the internet. Social media is both a threat and opportunity for designers. With many personal brands that need help, and many websites and startups launching, it has created a new market for designers. Whether you agree or disagree with specwork is right or wrong, it’s here to stay, here’s why:

Demand side: buyers need design work
From an industry perspective, we know that specwork is here to stay and will increase during a recession on demand side: 1) More individuals and small businesses will want to build personal brands 2) They are cash strapped during a downturn and will seek lower-priced goods and services.

Supply side: some designers want to do specwork
On the supply side, it will also increase as: 1) and more designers will be unemployed and will seek work. 2) non-designers who are seeking work, will try their hand at design. 3) the global workforce is empowered by the internet, making designers from anywhere in the world seek work. Keep in mind a “small” award at even $99 in China and India can go a long way. 4) Designers that have moved into management want to keep skills fresh, or even desire so extra cash will be interested in doing some specwork moonlighting, I’ve heard of a few cases of this happening.

Enabling Technologies in a global market
CrowdSPRING and 99designs (and istockphoto for the photo industry) enable anyone with an internet connect to be involved in this global marketplace. With an increase of highly educated white collar workers in China and India, expect those delivering services in the Western market to compete with a global workforce. The combination of tools and the fact that a $250 can feed a family in other countries will increase the supply of designers, other industries that tried to stop the internet have been left wanting.

The strengths and weaknesses of specwork
Using specwork for rapid prototyping of logos, banners, is a good use of specwork as you get a variety of work and examples in a short period of time. Specwork is good for very tactical work but you have to know what you want.

Specwork strengths:
Specwork is here to stay, here’s when it may be good to use:

1) Specwork helpful for individuals or small business that are cash strapped There are many individuals and small businesses that need to get a branded site up quickly –granted their efforts will be focused on running their businesses and the design will come second or third in priority.

2) Specwork is good for rapid prototyping –but only if you have a design strategy If you’re seeking lots of ideation and want to quickly iterate designs, specwork can be helpful if you’re short on time. Warning, this would only work if you have a design requirements, strategy, and really know the direction you want to head. Nate Westheimer recently did a logo using one of the sites and found it helpful in the ideation stage of the design and says it’s like “throwing spaghetti against the wall for is great for logo design”

3) Specwork great for fresh creative If you’re not getting fresh designs from your current design and want to see a variety of work, specwork may be a good way to get samples from dozens of designers.

Specwork weaknesses:
There are plenty of ethical and emotional responses against specwork, but becuase those have been outlined so well, I’m going to focus on the industry and buyer perspective, here’s where specwork doesn’t work well:

1) Specwork isn’t right for upper tier design. True design requires scoping, understanding and a well thought out process that maps out the brand, web and other mediums, simply putting it towards spec work won’t be sufficient enough for most large companies and brands.

2) Specwork isn’t a substitute for a design strategy. If you don’t know what your brand and marketing goals are, creating a logo isn’t going to fix your business goals. Specwork is tactical and is on the deployment side of the project, it only works if you know what you want.

3) Specwork good for buyers with limited time. While specwork can rapidly product a lot of variations, it requires manually management from the buyer. As a result you’ll have to provide a lot of feedback –this is the exchange for not paying a tremendous amount of money to a designer that may be intuitive.

4) Specwork isn’t for buyers who need quality work all the time. Granted, specwork can provide rapid designs in a short period of time, but the quality of designs can vary rapidly, in fact some designs, you may cringe at, as amateurs submit content

Recommendations: Specwork has upsides for the lower tier market –but is not for everyone
Specwork isn’t polar, it’s neither evil nor good, black nor white, it indeed is very gray. Without a doubt, Specwork (like crowdspring or 99 designers) is here to stay –economics will drive this forward. A new ‘lower tier’ of design needs are here, (bloggers, small businesses) and specwork will help meet this new design –while keeping the upper tier intact.

However, buyers should beware, while the short term gains are very apparent, the long term impacts could be damaging. Specwork is helpful to brands that want fresh creative designs in a short period of time, however will have to spend time filtering and responding to submissions. It’s important to remember that specwork is a tactical piece of your overall process, if you’re going to use it, remember that it’s not a substitute for having a true design strategy. In the end, like everything else in the market, you get what you pay for, and Specwork is a cheaper alternative to having a true design solution.

Related resources used for research

  • As an analyst, I experimented first hand with specwork to learn what works and what doesn’t, and used crowdspring for my banner redesign, read my first post on the topic, then about my experiment
  • A ‘starving’ designer/artist wonders why we’re still debating specwork –it’s here to stay
  • The Logo Factory makes some comments on why Specwork is bad, and about the panel.
  • Jeffrey, who is on the panel states his position that it’s gray, I tend to agree.
  • Jeffrey from Threadless (on my panel) discusses the difference between laziness and crowsourcing
  • Some designers are calling the panelists (me) evil.
  • Andrew Hyde, the most vocal opponent of specwork suggests that it’s an evil ponzi scheme
  • Specwork examples

  • Twitter has crowdsourced the ‘bird’ logo for $6 or less. One of the top blogs in the world has announced a
  • Mashable, the 8th most popular blog (says Technorati) has a spec work design contest for it’s upcoming website redesign and has over 1000 entries.
  • When you look closely, the much celebrated Threadless, a design contest for popular tshirts, is a form of speculative work.
  • Related are eLance and Odesk, who offer outsourcing for a variety of services to workers around the globe.

  • About me: A former full time designer turned industry analyst
    There’s a lot of folks that are coming to this blog that may not know me, so let me introduce myself. I’m a former full-time UI designer for over 3 years, in the midst of a blog redesign, and now industry analyst watching the social web, this controversial topic truly resonates with me. I’ve hired a blog designer for my upcoming redesign, however there was a designer who was not chosen, and voluntarily paid him for his time –even though I did not hire him for the design. My job as an industry analyst is to spot the trends, conduct research, tackle the tough questions, and provide answers to what’s happening now, and what’s going to happen. I tried to understand all sides of this issue, spoke to designers (even Andrew Hyde –twice) and experimented.

    I hope you found my viewpoint to be balanced and fair.

    Here’s two photos from the stage I just took

    My view, fantastic panelists.

    yeah, I was watching the tweetstream –and responding in real time

    There were quite a few tweets, this is just half of them, tagged crowdsource09

    Rebecca live blogged the very heated panel.

    AIGA asks for you to submit your comments to them about specwork

    Josh discusses this thoughts on Specwork –as a designer.

    SXSW has transcribed the whole Spec Work debate

    Our panel got rave reviews for excitement and content, thanks