Designers: Why Spec Work Is Not Going Away –How You Should Respond

Update: I’ve now experimented with Specwork to better understand the issue, and will be sharing the good –and bad –on stage on SXSW, read more

To some, this topic is going to be controversial, but before you leave an emotional comment, please understand I’m approaching this challenge from a business perspective and have thought this through from multiple angles.

“Spec work” is a proof of concept design that a designer may provide to a prospect. If it’s accepted they get the deal, if not, they are usually unpaid for this spec work.

Backlash Against Spec Work (Proof of Concepts)
Recently, my former colleague Charlene Li received some negative flack for her choice to crowdsource logo design for her unfunded startup. She used crowdSPRING which resulted in many logo designs that were created for her that she could then choose from and refine. Obviously most of the designers never got paid for this, yet one designer received the payment of a few hundred bucks. This was the right choice for her, given her focus on social, and her very young startup, she goes on to rightfully suggest that the larger sized design firms would never be in this space, and that crowdSPRING serves the need of the untapped long tail.

She’s not the only one, the talent company Aquent also crowdsourced the design of their website by using a contest for 99 Designs resulting in mixed opinions. To hear the perspective of crowdSPRING, the co-founder Ross Kimbarovsky shares his thoughts on 37 Signals, both debating the good and bad of this service, be sure to read the comments. Update: As seen in the comments from Lucretia, Andrew Hyde tells why he thinks crowdSPRING is unethical and evil.

Designers: Why Spec Work Is Not Going Away –How You Should Respond

Spec Work and Proof of Concepts a Common Business Practice. Buyers of designs are often buying creativity and flexibility, as a result, buyers will want to see this demonstrated. Furthermore, spec work occurs each and every day in the market, software, agencies, and beyond not only submit their existing portfolio and customer references, but also provide proof of concepts to brands –this is an expected behavior. Take for example the community platform space (one I cover as an analyst) they often provide proof of concepts for their prospects at no charge, often they have to also demonstrate their flexibility as they may integrate with the prospects website or systems in an unseen ‘sandbox’.

Crowdsourcing isn’t anything new, and will only increase, especially during recession. We’ve heard this same argument against the crowds before, towards journalists, encyclopedias, photographers, music artists, classified ads, retailers, service professionals, towards recruiters, and on and on. While these social technologies allow for innovation, they do cause disruptions to many, what remains is the higher quality services, they don’t go away. This is progress, and it’s not going away, As the market dips, designers will go the extra mile to get business, expect an increase in spec work

Crowdsourced Design Meets the Needs Of Long Tail Market –But May Lack Quality. Like every other industry I mentioned above, the ‘amaterurism’ of media and knowledge results in an increase of demand, but increase in lower quality work. As a result, the need for higher end services will continue to be in demand, as buyers want to stand out. In theory, there is enough room for each. Read this long post by 37 Signals that suggests that most designers cannot live on Spec Work. In the comments you’ll read that those that participate in spec work may be looking for work, just starting off their design career, or are amateurs looking to get hired.

Designers must realize this increases demand for their services. Crowdsourcing designs injects new revenues into the industry that previously were not there. Now that many can create a blog using free or cheap software, you should expect an increase in demand for personal brands. Those that truly want to stand out will find low cost design alternatives. The web has created a new market for design, increasing demand, and growing the pie. Disparaging crowdsourced design is counter intuitive as it’s meeting an increase in demand.

Designers should not embrace No-Spec –instead know the right and wrong time to do spec work. An org called “No!Spec” which is much like a union for designers is rallying professionals not to do unpaid spec work. They’ve an active blog, have grassroots movement, and are gaining steam. Considering the economy is getting worse, designers will be hungry, yet the demand for personal brand projects will increase, designers should not join the no-spec movement. Instead, they should make the decision when it’s appropriate to demonstrate their creativity and flexibility with their prospects, and know when to walk away.

As a result, designers just getting started will embrace crowdsourced design and specs, they can reach a larger prospect base, and will get more exposure. Designers that deliver on strategy and long term relationships will continue to engage in high value engagements shouldn’t shy away from specs –esp as the economy tightens. Of course, focusing on existing portfolios, customer testimonials, will be a great starting point, but demonstrating creativity and flexibility through spec work will set them apart from competitors.

My Experiences With Web Design and Spec Work
I started off my career as a UI designer, I understand the challenges, thrills, and passion to this career and craft, believe me, I have empathy for the job. Recently, I have decided to redesign my blog, and have sought after web design services. I chose to hire a web designer that can give me soup to nuts design and implementation, and really understand the strategy of my blog rather than crowdsource it in pieces. I had two designers in the running, who both provided specs (non paid to me) this makes sense, as I was hiring them on their creative and flexibility. Of course, I reviewed their existing work and portfolio but decided not to go with one of them, they were certainly experienced and professional, but I needed a specific focus, as a result, I voluntarily wrote him a check for his time, this is just as a professional courtesy as he worked so hard on the specs. It wasn’t a huge amount, but certainly enough for a steak dinner for one or two. Keep in mind, all of the money for the redesign, and tribute check for the comps is coming out of my own pocket, this is a personal project.

Your Thoughts?
I hope you found my perspective and recommendation to be balanced and fair, I’ve tried to look at this from all viewpoints. Still, I’d love to hear your opinion, knowing that the increase in demand for personal brands will increase, and that more social software will appear to make crowdsourcing design possible, and the recession causing designers to seek more work –how should designers respond?

101 Replies to “Designers: Why Spec Work Is Not Going Away –How You Should Respond”

  1. A few of thoughts on this:

    1) I think you’re talking designers not agencies, where rigorous and proven processes have been developed to consistently deliver strong, if not inspired, creative. There are several differences in this distinction:

    * with a designer you need to know what part of the ideation they delivered and if they have the goods. With agencies, remove or replace one part and you should still have the same outcome if their process and culture is strong.
    * with a designer your investment is some time and, although that’s what you get paid for, if you’re doing it right you also earn a premium for delivering the solution, not just the hours. That means you’re likely to have some of those hours available that you should be investing in new business/marketing, and spec may be part of pitching.

    If any part of the work or thinking is used by the client, some kind of compensation should be provided. Providing compensation voluntarily as you did, Jeremiah, shows respect and for companies involved in this process, can clean up any misunderstandings that may arise from the final product that may hunt in the same conceptual territory. Often RFPs requiring spec work include a stipend and indemnification terms.

    With an agency, you’re most likely hiring a team and their process. As such, most spec work circumvents that process and is likely a beauty contest, chemistry test, fools errand or lightening in a bottle. As such, spec work rarely sees the light of day and is generally a waste of madhouse time and marketing theater for clients and agencies. The portfolio should demonstrate the abilities of a rigorous process. We highly advise cleints and prospects against the spec path for reviewing agencies and at the same time realize that it’t part of the procurement dance you need to perform on occasion. The fewer the better, IMHO.

    One final thought. No one’s forcing you to take the job or money. If you belly-up to the spec rfp watering hole, show up ready to pay.

    Good post, Jeremiah. Thanks. Cheers! silva

  2. Mark

    Good points, you clearly have been in and out of this process Mark.

    Thanks, yup for clarification, I’m mainly focusing on designers, not so much mid sized or larger agencies. This focus is due to the impacts of the social technologies like crowdSPRING and 99Designs –it impacts the freelance folks more so than larger agencies.

  3. Interesting post Jeremiah as I think it touches on some controversial topics. As a designer I wouldn’t have any issue whatsoever pitching a prospective client on where I can take their brand using spec deliverables. Especially if this potential new client has need for a ton of creative work and would provide a stream of income far exceeding the time and energy involved in producing the spec work. Doing just a logo on spec? Hell, I gave away my creative work when I was just getting started (I had lots of time on my hands). I gave it to non-profit orgs though but that is another topic.

    So in essence I agree with you, spec work is right for some but not for others. I think that the spirit of No!Spec is a good one (to protect designers, their intellectual property and overall quality of creative work) but I feel like dictating that everyone should adopt this approach is a bit myopic. What about those designers who are working at Starbucks trying to break into the field? or live in countries where they make far less and do far worse jobs? They need opportunities.

    I think that the folks behind No!Spec should act as a watchdog on spec-design sites like 99designs, Elance, Crowdspring. Emerging designers are definitely vulnerable. But to try and stop spec work altogether on the web is kind of a futile gesture.

  4. Such a thorough post, I couldn’t help thinking of design friends with small shops; most don’t like spec work and feel a bit used if they don’t get the gig – and I can’t blame them, especially when you see some of their ideas employed in the final results. Larger shops have more room to give, so it doesn’t sting as much. What happens is some aren’t able to provide their best work, balancing the need to do billable work or offering concepts for “possible” billable work, it’s a slippery slope. I think every designer needs to decide what lets them sleep at night, what lets them pay the bills. @bizcoachdeb

  5. I agree with you, spec work will increase and it will challenge individuals and agencies.

    There’s an old seafaring saying “No one cares the storms you went through, they only care if you brought the ship into port.” Likewise, customers don’t care about your process (if your an agency) or what you’ve done previously, really they care about whether you’ll solve their problem.

    Competition is a wonderful thing. It motivates people and produces better results. If agency processes truly produce better outcomes, they’ll win contracts and do very well in this downturn. If creative, capable and motivated designers are really what produces the best products, the most creative, capable and motivated designers will do well.

    Long live competition and may the best designers win!

  6. 1995(you could select a year): SpecWork –> set your rates –> win the project –> win $ 900 (the speculative effort is paid)
    2008: SpecWork –> You adjust to the offer –> win the project –> win $ 150 (any idea where is the business? at least for the designer?)
    Lose the ability to put a price on your job, you lose income level, then you become a commodity. Then you are treated as such.
    Whoever wants (as designer) live with that?
    Well, this is just my spec

  7. One of the issues with NO!SPEC is that they suggest using RFPs to get bids from potential designers. However, there is not a centralized place for someone to submit an RFP to invite and manage proposals in the same way that crowdSPRING provides a centralized place to invite spec work submissions.

    Frankly, it’s a much easier process to use crowdSPRING than it is to try to 1) identify designers, 2) write a RFP, 3) distribute the RFP, 4) manage the incoming proposals, 5) select and pay. Perhaps there’s an opportunity there for NO!SPEC to create such a place (or even for crowdSPRING to do so).

    (Full disclosure: one, I consider Ross a friend and they’re a Chicago startup, so there’s a natural affinity there.

    Our experience with crowdSPRING: We tried to use crowdSPRING to make some banner ads for, and the quality was not at the level we were looking for. We felt fortunate that our project did not meet the minimum 25 submissions that would result in our project being automatically awarded – but that was a risk that we took up front.

    For the 10/08 redesign of in conjunction with our coming out of beta, we found a designer that we knew we wanted to work with and had to convince him to take the gig. He delivered a new logo, great creative design, and fantastic cross-platform CSS, but it cost us in the high four figures. It was worth every penny.)

  8. Great timing for me to come across this post. I’m running a project in my spare time to help under-appreciated blogs. There’s no plan to ever make a dime off it at this point.

    Designers, thinkers, developers, and others have volunteered to help out, but I’m personally still working through how to balance my need for unpaid work with my desire to reward, appreciate, and somehow compensate the hard work of the contributors.

    Thanks for giving me something else to think on.

  9. I think spec work might work well if one is looking for decoration rather than design. And with some small projects that’s all there is. But actual design is as much about research, process, and problem solving as it is about the actual visual result.

    Spec work has been around for as long as I’ve been in the design business and became a very prominent discussion back at the beginning of the desktop publishing revolution when everybody and their sister could by the tools. Now it’s just new tools and different request forums.

    Since design is more than the visual, then or now, I personally don’t know any designers that do spec (good times or bad). That doesn’t mean they aren’t willing to spend considerable time discussing and fleshing out an assignment with a potential client but the visual and the process behind it doesn’t come until one has been hired. As with agencies (as Mark mentioned above), the whole process ensures a successful (or agreed upon) result for both the designer and client. It’s not a crap shoot.

    From my experience, most people/companies requesting spec work have neither a clear picture of the problem nor their goals and just end up fishing for decoration.

    I do sympathize with those designers just starting out that have neither been through the process nor have a portfolio. But the good designers are generally in even more demand as the economy tightens as a company/client can no longer take a chance on the unproven. Can no longer afford to throw their brand and visual identity out into the crap shoot spec world. At least that’s been my experience.

  10. Hi Jeremiah,

    Thanks so much for writing about this issue. It’s an important subject not just here in the U.S., but around the world. For years, many industries, including the graphic design industry, erected barriers to entry. Before the Internet and modern software, these barriers largely worked to keep the industry insular.

    There is little question that great design is often influenced by experience and education. But as we’ve all seen in industry after industry, that is not always true. Talent is talent and creativity knows no bounds. The internet and modern computer/software have collapsed barriers in many industries.

    As you saw in the 37signals post, we spent a great deal of time dealing with the issue of spec work. Unlike many others, we didn’t dismiss it – we agree that it raises some very important concerns. In building the crowdSPRING marketplace, we developed policies, tools and procedures to address those concerns.

    At the moment, nearly 11,000 creatives from 130+ countries work on crowdSPRING. Some are students, but we have many experienced designers, including many members of the AIGA working on crowdSPRING. We’ve worked with them to improve our policies and continue to work really hard to make sure that crowdSPRING remains a level playing field for all.

    Quality has always been and continues to be an important factor when buying design. But I’ve always rejected the notion that experience or the title “professional” means you are buying great design. I’ve seen poor designs from designers with 30 years of experience and great education, and great designs from 16 year olds. For many startups (nearly 500,000 in the U.S. alone every single month), there are few options for creative services. They simply don’t have the budgets to afford higher prices and their alternatives traditionally were limited. crowdSPRING bridges the gap by offering custom design from very talented designers. Sure – there are some who are just starting out in their careers and are learning and others whose skills aren’t quite up to par. But many are really talented, as evidenced by the fact that they’ve continued to do follow-on work for clients they found on crowdSPRING, including for major ad/marketing agencies.

    At the end of the day, we think, like you, that crowdSPRING expands the industry – for clients and creatives. There’s room for everyone, and while we openly invite everyone to crowdSPRING, we recognize it’s not for all.


    Ross Kimbarovsky

  11. Spec work, proof of concept, and other un-paid work is here to stay. I share my knowledge on my blog about running lean startups. That is my spec work. If I want to land that next COO gig, I will have to show to people how I think and how I would lead.
    Heck, Forrester gives away free reports their well compensated analysts spent hours researching and writing. We don’t see them joining “no-free-reports”. In a globalized economy there is a huge supply of talent, therefore new competitive climate requires you to invest extra in the relationship. You have to show prospective client how you would take care of them.

    As I mentioned in one of my posts, there is no room for union mentality in startup world. Period.

    So instead of getting angry, “educating the consumer” (where have we heard that BS before… ah yeah, cigarette industry and now “clean coal” clowns), I will spend the time showing people “the barn”, investing in relationships, which will land me again in another phenomenal organization.

    C’est la vie!

  12. @Mark – You raise a good distinction. You’re right that spec is part of the pitch for agencies. It’s part of the pitch for most professionals (I can certainly speak for law, having done that in my prior career). And you are correct that it’s a choice. For both sides. For example, we are currently running a project for Guy Kawasaki’s Alltop – to design their t-shirt. We can probably agree that Guy can hire any designer he wants. But he believes in pure competition, and he is giving designers around the world an opportunity to design Alltop’s t-shirt.

    @Miguel – We share your thoughts about the need to protect designers, intellectual property, and overall quality. Those are three of the core issues (with spec) that we addressed when we were building crowdSPRING. And we’ve worked hard, including with AIGA members on our site, to look for other ways we can educate and protect. We’re quite serious about these issues.

    @Deb – You are absolutely right that it’s a personal choice. Let me also offer this – some small designers who work on crowdSPRING have already built very solid design shops through crowdSPRING projects and follow on work from those clients. We not only don’t discourage follow-on work, we believe that’s one of the benefits of working on crowdSPRING.

    @Andrew – That’s a great quote! And we’re in full agreement. We’re all for competition – as long as it’s fair. And that’s why we built crowdSPRING.

    Interestingly, even in the spirit of competition, there’s lots of good. For example, our community was discussing ways to educate designers on crowdSPRING and the result was our Give Back program, where designers will, for no pay, work for a worthy non-profit or charity. Our first project is for a UK based group supporting fathers of autistic kids. Nearly 50 designers from around the world are working on logo concepts for that non-profit without ANY expectation of pay by anyone. And they’re collaborating, providing feedback to each other, and helping. We’re really proud of that effort.

    @Antonio – That’s a good point. But NOT about crowdSPRING. Traditional marketplaces (Elance, Guru are two examples) let designers compete on price. You can get logo designs for $50 (let’s ignore quality for the moment). crowdSPRING does not allow price competition. Buyers set their price. Those who can afford more (we’ve had many $1000+ projects) pay more. Those who have smaller budgets, pay less. Our average price per project is actually trending UP, not down. You are correct about design becoming a commodity – and that’s the problem we wanted to fight by taking price out of the mix.

    @Sachin – traditional marketplaces let you submit an RFP and designers bid. That process works for some but not all. And it’s pretty difficult and time consuming.

    As a young business (we launched May 2008), we are still learning. Sometimes, the work isn’t up to par (that’s a key reason why we offer a simple guarantee that you mention – we guarantee that clients will get 25 entries to their project or their money back (including our fee)). There is no fine print. We were disappointed that we could not help you with your banners earlier this year when our marketplace was smaller – but we’re quite proud that we’ve grown quite a bit since then and the level of talent has exploded.

    Your 10/08 Dawdle redesign is outstanding – and is testament that if a client can afford to pay a higher price and is comfortable working in the traditional way – the outcome can be excellent and worth the price.

    @Chuck – sounds like a great project. Good luck!

    @PXLated – I am happy to hear that you and your friends continue to see lots of work. Unfortunately, we are hearing from many experienced designers that they are very light on work and struggling.

    While it’s true that design is more than just a pretty decoration, you are implying that designers working on spec ignore research, process and problem solving. They don’t. Moreover, I’ve seen $100,000 logo projects by major agencies who spent a lot of time on research, process and problem solving that frankly, sucked.

    I agree with you that it’s impossible to design something without the client-designer interaction and research. As I wrote above, many clients simply can’t afford to invest the amount of money necessary that would merit investing lots of time on those things. Many experienced professionals working on line told us they wouldn’t touch logo projects for less than $1000. So where can the smaller businesses go to get help with creative?

    @Apolinaras – Well said. And let’s not forget that people like Chris Brogan, Guy Kawasaki, Seth Godin, and Jeremiah Owyang write blogs (on spec) in an effort to promote their core “businesses”. It’s something we all do – as you’ve correctly recognized.

    BTW – liked your post about What can startups learn from MythBusters!


    Ross Kimbarovsky

  13. This was a wonderful post and brought to mind several thoughts. I loved the way Clay Shirky talked about the development of Linux in “Here Comes Everybody.” It allowed lots of people with small amounts of highly specialized knowledge to contribute to a product, as opposed to the traditional model of building software which requires a large infrastructure staffed by generalists. You’re more likely to get flashes of genius with Linux. The same principles may apply to the creative world of design and advertising.

    A company called InnoCentive has done a nice job of monetizing the crowd sourcing model. They have created a marketplace for scientists. Companies can post a scientific problem and offer a reward. Registered scientists who may live anywhere in the world may submit solutions and win the reward. There’s a good chance that an unemployed, or underemployed scientist, in China, Russia, or Japan has a solution. This could also make an interesting model for people buying creative services.

    There is a psychological aspect to the whole idea of spec work that affects creative professionals. It’s very hard to offer up for free what you base your personal value on. For designers especially, personal identity is inextricably linked to talent. Not quite the same dilemna, but I wrote about spec work for agencies on my AdAge blog:

    Competition is good, but I would like to believe we can find equitable ways to conduct business without exploiting disparities in power.

    Phil Johnson, PJA Advertising, Cambridge
    Twitter @ philjohnson

  14. @Phil – Innocentive was one of the businesses that inspired us (Threadless was another) when we started working on crowdSPRING back in 2006. Incidentally, your link to your blog post results in a 404 error.

  15. My wife is a top-notch designer, and when she started her firm, made the decision not to do spec work for clients.

    It’s a simple calculation really. The spec work is the work. The creative process that is required to create the overall impression is the majority of what they are paying for. Once the basics are in place, you could pass it off to a junior designer or offshore chop shop and assemble the rest. So how can you charge for the easy stuff and give the hard stuff away for free?

    When you’re working in an agency, you have salespeople and project managers and clients who can continue sending work your way. The designer is also paid for their work, regardless of whether the company wins.

    As an independent, or small shop – you don’t have that luxury. So we said no, and indeed say no very early on, so no one is wasting time.

    You wouldn’t ask a programmer to write a complex piece of code you need prior to paying them. You don’t ask salespeople to actually sell a client before hiring them. You don’t ask marketers to create their yearly plan for your business for free. And you don’t ask CFO’s to go through your books and make recommendations before you decide to hire them.

    Why is it only designers are expected to?

    Our philosophy is simple. If we do great work, we don’t compromise. If a client doesn’t get why we do great work, they won’t be a satisfied client at the end. So why waste all of our time.

    This example falls in line with what Jeremiah said earlier – which is high quality is still in demand.

    Although many times people seem surprised at our cost – it’s our job to educate and qualify them. Great design can have a huge impact on your business. We don’t complain about business we lose because we don’t do spec work, but we also don’t apologize for charging what we’re worth.

  16. Jim

    That makes a lot of sense, your wife is certainly talented, and has likely earned business from referrals and word of mouth.

    How should a young freelance designer get started out?

  17. “How should a young freelance designer get started out?”

    Work probono for a nonprofit.

    Often, those on the board of nonprofits are successful at running their own businesses.

    So right there, you have the chance to show how you work.

    Because a good designer is not just about the design. It’s about communication between client and designer. It’s about professionalism.

  18. I’m thinking I should point Andrew Hyde over here. The one time I mentioned 99designs near him I was evangelized away from spec work.

    But I could never be as passionate or articulate about it as he can. So I think I’ll link him over this way.

    I will say that it’s a very interesting post – and as usual, comment discussion.
    Making me think hard – because I’ve been looking at cost v. support of community with my own new venture. :\

  19. Hey Jeremiah,

    Yes I wrote a pretty pointed piece a few months back.

    On a very simple argumentative standpoint, spec work isn’t a longterm solution for an industry. Ad agencies in the 90’s tried it out, and the participating companies paid the price for it. Find another industry that has survived more than 5 years on spec work. I’ve asked that question hundreds of times, and have not received an answer that fits. It has been tried and failed, tried and failed.

    Here are some questions that I think makes the unethical point:

    1) You are asking, say 25 people to do custom work for you, knowing you are going to give $0 to 24 of them. Is that fair? The work they have just produced is custom to you, and worthless to them if you don’t buy it.

    2) There are certain costs a designer has, and by racing to the bottom, you are encouraging the designer to cut those costs as well. My laptop, fonts and software have cost me $8000, and if the industry standard was $300 for a logo I would have not gone about those costs by legal measures. Likewise, you have no guarantee that the designer actually owns the rights to the fonts used in the design for your company.

    3) Unethical things attract unethical practices. I know 3 designers that do work on CroudSpring with the intent to sue down the road. Charlene Li’s new startup, if successful, could have some of the designers come after her if she is successful. Can they win? Looks pretty promising to them. I don’t know if it has been proven, but can they block an acquisition? You betcha. 50 states have their own version of labor laws, it is only a matter of time until one is tried.

    Zeldman has some thoughts on this as well.

    4) If you look at ethics as “right conduct and good life” can you fairly support something that all the graphic design associations and thought leaders have said won’t work in the longterm? I fully support disruptive markets, but if we have seen spec work peek its head out and fail over and over, do we have a responsibility to say no, we won’t get suckered for that anymore?

    There is a problem with the design community, but this is far from the longterm answer. It is a short, dirty solution to a problem that forces the complications elsewhere.

    I think we are better than that.

  20. Andrew

    You bring up some good points, let’s continue this discussion.

    To your first question, ” Find another industry that has survived more than 5 years on spec work.”

    I already did, hundreds, maybe thousands of software vendors in the IT space do Proof of concepts that require customization each year. Many of them I cover as an analyst. This has been going on for years, certainly more than 5. Sure it’s not ‘design’ spec work, but it certainly is spec work.

    1) I agree thats a bad situation for the 24, but isn’t this the similar situation we’ve seen with global economics? Jobs being outsourced to the cheapest nation? Of course, there are risks, as Dell took a bad hit for having horrible customer service that was outsourced

    2) I think the setup costs are certainly related to issue 1. I also agree with you, a bad situation. This doesn’t account for the training, education, labor that the designer has to account for.

    Zeldman does point out some serious risks, good article.

    3) Exactly how will that work? I can play out a few scenarios, all which are costly to all parties. Ill be sure to inform Charlene for her protection too.

    4) You raise excellent points Andrew, I see the benefits and risks. Right or wrong, I stand by my call: spec work will only increase over the next few years due to economics and technology.

    Thank you for coming over here with some salient and logical points, I look forward to your response.

  21. @Andrew Hyde – We have discussed spec at some length, both after you wrote your blog post earlier in the year and in a 140 character debate on Twitter more recently. Making an ethical issue out of spec misses the point. It also shows that you deeply misunderstand ethics.

    There are examples of industries that have worked on spec for hundreds if not thousands of years. You know this – you simply decline to listen. Let me list a few: advertising, marketing, architecture, retail, design, publishing, film making, manufacturing of any type, automotive, chemical, comics, computer, cosmetic, fishing, food, fur, horticulture, metalworking, mining, music, petroleum, pharmaceutical, plastics, pulp and paper, textile, timber, video game…Shall I go on?

    In each of those industries (and hundreds of others), work is done on a speculative basis without a prior agreement that you’ll be paid for your work. This is how No!Spec defines “spec”.

    Your primary concern is that it’s not proper for someone to ask multiple people to do custom work (your first question). Why not? Willing buyer. Willing multiple creatives. Not fair to whom? Most reuse their work elsewhere if not bought. They continue to own 100% rights to their own work. This is a specious argument.

    Asserting that designers who charge less for their work must therefore steal is absurd. As is the implied assertion that those who charge more do not. Having represented before the Business Software Alliance numerous professional companies with pirated software (those who could easily afford to buy that software), I can confidently say that theft of software isn’t driven by the amount of price charged for a logo.

    The third question (unethical things attract unethical practices) leaves me puzzled. Anyone can sue anyone in the U.S. Having spent 13 years representing clients around the world on intellectual property issues, I’ve learned a few things about intellectual property and legal contracts. Let’s not get too fixated with labor laws – there’s nothing there and you know it.

    Your last point. Ethics is NOT the “right conduct and good life.” Ethics are rules that define proper behavior. Laws are examples of ethical systems. Do laws prohibit spec copywriting? Do laws prohibit spec design? And whose ethics should apply?

    You say that “all the graphic design associations and thought leaders have said…” Have you talked to all of them? And are those graphic design associations establishing laws?

    I suspect (and hope) that the graphic design associations – such as AIGA -that have in the past objected to spec work will discuss the issue and reconsider. Otherwise, they’re missing out and making themselves irrelevant.

    I agree with you – as I’ve said before – that there are complex problems that must be addressed with spec work. Not everyone provides protections to deal with those problems. We didn’t dismiss spec work out of hand but built crowdSPRING to directly respond to the numerous objections – such as lack of education, lack of contracts, lack of IP protections, etc.

    I am encouraged by the simple fact that most in the design community don’t have the attitude you espouse. THEY are better than that.


    Ross Kimbarovsky

  22. @Jeremiah – Zeldman’s article raises some fair points about spec – such as: it is a lot of unpaid work. But if designers know this upfront, what’s wrong with that? Everyone who runs any type of business has done a lot of unpaid work.

    The view advocated by Andrew is shared by a small minority in the design community. Plenty of AIGA members work on crowdSPRING. And plenty of professional web agencies and ad/marketing firms have posted projects on crowdSPRING. Do you want to know why? Here’s what the SVP, Group Managing Director, Interactive at Draftfcb said about spec:

    If people believe that advertising agencies don’t touch spec today – they are deceiving themselves. They do. So do architects – including major architectural firms, and virtually all other industries. They are no different from the excellent example you offered from the software industry – an industry you know deeply.

    The cries of “unethical” and “illegal” fall on deaf ears in the broader design community. Clients stopped listening years ago. Few are listening because those cries are hollow. The people to whom those cries are directed are smarter than that. They are not influenced by frivolous scare tactics.

  23. It seem to me that the whole argument behind this post and those commenting in favor is simply: spec work exists, and thus is a valid way of doing business. I’d say that’s a pretty surface-level argument.

    I completely agree with Jim and his wife. As far as small shops go, there is no return on investment for spec work. You can kid yourself that it’s a good thing because so many “designers” seem willing to participate in something like crowdspring, but I’d argue that the bulk of those people probably aren’t full-time designers.

    More importantly, though, Andrew makes some better points. Find another industry where spec work is common. Explain to me how my existing portfolio and satisfied customers are not enough to assure you that I’m the right guy for the job? You wouldn’t pick a restaurant by sampling all of the food for free or ask a doctor for some free time.

    In my own experience, I’ve never had anyone ask me to do spec work that ultimately wasn’t just someone looking for a deal, looking for something cheap and a way to use creative resources and not have to pay for them. Those are not the kind of clients I want to work with.

    My value is my creative process, not the execution once the creative ideas are on the table. I feel like my business is better off without participating in spec. I can focus *all* of my resources on my *actual* clients and the projects they’ve hired me to do.

    Ultimately, if you’re unsure a designer is a good fit, hire them for a small (but fairly paid) project and see if you enjoy working with them. Don’t insult them with the promise of a steak dinner if they lose an account based on spec. That communicates their *professional services* are essentially worthless to you. Worthless.

  24. @Grant – the argument for why spec work is acceptable isn’t that it exists and therefore is a valid way of doing business. It IS a valid way of doing business, and has been for hundreds if not thousands of years.

    You might be right that many on crowdSPRING are not full time designers. So what? If they are talented and know their art, why does that matter? Our own logo was designed by someone who was and still is a full time janitor. Yes – a janitor. And our site was designed by someone who was a full time graphic design student. Both are accomplished designers. Nearly 11,000 designers now work on crowdSPRING (that’s after only 7 months in business). Thousands are full time designers.

    You have elected not to do spec work and it sounds like you have a lucrative business without spec. That’s outstanding. Not all are so fortunate. Ultimately, each person decides for themselves how to work and the level of risk they are prepared to take.

    For far too long, the design community has wrapped itself in the label of “professional.” The label doesn’t make one a professional.

    Plenty of “professional” designers do shoddy work. Others are outstanding.

    At the end of the day, design is about talent and skill. I agree with you that it’s not just about pretty pictures. Talent and skill doesn’t have boundaries or labels. When done in a fair manner on a level playing field, janitors can compete with experienced designers. That’s what real competition is about.

  25. Grant, I made no promise up front that I would pay the designer I did not choose, but felt it was the right thing to do after seeing all the hard work he did.

    I’m all for hiring folks for spec work up front, but I can assure you, most others will not, since it’s being offered for free.

  26. Good post. I’ve used crowd sourcing for design work and found it to be a good experience for all involved. I’ve formed relationships with a few designers and now go to them directly when I need work done. I would like to see the submissions made private only to the designer and the client, and all crowd sourcing sites to use an escrow and design delivery system to protect the winning designer.

  27. @jeremiah_owyang good call with software vendors in the IT space. I am assuming they are just tailoring their software to a specific client, am I wrong with this? I’m also assuming that their reward for winning those contracts are in the six figure range.

    re: 1) I have no problems with outsourcing. I would argue on this point that it isn’t an apples to apples comparison

    re: 3) I would assume that the suit would be over labor laws, with the purchaser having the intent to not to pay. If popularized, this will be tried out in the courts. The founders of croudspring are lawyers, perhaps they are just looking to try this one out 🙂

    re: 4) We will see how it plays out over the years. I think it will be very dark and destructive.

  28. @Ross – I think we just flat out disagree. Even if something is accepted/valid as a way of doing business, doesn’t mean it’s a GOOD way of doing business for someone who is trying to make it as a full-time designer.

    Reading your response, I’m afraid I might not have been clear in my argument.

    crowdSPRING is obviously fitting a need. You shouldn’t even feel required to jump in and defend it.

    My argument is against the original premise of this post: the idea that spec work “is not going away” and the implication that designers should be willing to work on spec.

    I’m offering an alternative argument: If you are looking to be an established designer, with consistent work and respect for your creative ideas (as opposed to just your software skills), spec-work probably shouldn’t fit into your business plan. I am suggesting that, eventually, if design is your full-time gig, spec work will come back to bite you.

    It might happen in an ethical way: if a client finds out you resell work they funded the creation of. It might happen in a business situation: when you put a bunch of time into an rfp that requires spec and you get burned. It might affect your personal brand as a designer: people might perceive that you’re devaluing your own creative work, and therefore not be willing to pay you as much.

    That’s all I’m trying to say. I’m trying to suggest, to a designer who may not think they have options, that they do. And one of those options is to not pursue spec work as part of their business model at all. (I have a similar policy on most rfp’s in general, but that’s a whole different discussion.)

    With regard to your remark about professionalism I don’t see how it’s relevant to this post, but I agree with you. Being called a professional at what you do is earned. I was using the term in my last comment in a more explicit sense: professional, as in, this is what I do full time.

    @jeremiah That came off sounding like more of a cheap shot than I intended. I apologize and I definitely recognize that you rewarded the designer when they weren’t even expecting a reward.

    What I meant with that comment: given the circumstances, would it have been a better move for the designer to spend his/her time on your project or pursuing paid work with a guarantee. At the end, one nets them a small conciliation prize, while the other pays their bills and positions their business better for their next project.

    Designers have to learn that on their own. I know I did early on. I know you didn’t do anything unethical in this situation, but once you have the experience of creating some spec work, not getting paid, and then watching the former potential client execute a final design that was clearly influenced by your own work, your view changes pretty quickly.

  29. @Ross Kimbarovsky

    Over and over, you move the goal posts to make an argument. You know the ethical problems you are pretending are invisible are there. You have the opprotunity to think longterm and build something to be proud of, that the industry can be proud of. But it seems over and over, you are saying:

    “Let’s forget the history, accepted practices and dangers of spec work, we can make a quick buck!”

  30. @Jeremiah – We do see clients from time to time make smaller payments to designers in their projects for the work, even though they are not buying the work. They want to reward designers for their efforts. It may not be the full rate, but it does happen.

    And, we also see buyers giving follow-on work to designers whose work they did not pick. Lasting relationships are formed on crowdSPRING both by those who are selected in a given project, and those who through their work, demonstrate their skill and talent.

    @Michael – crowdSPRING allows buyers to post projects with full privacy, meaning that only the buyer and the designer submitting an entry can see that entry and comments. This is important – the Fortune 500 companies that have posted projects on crowdSPRING have typically done so with full privacy. You can read more about this here:

    crowdSPRING also requires escrow in every single project – we make no exceptions.

    Finally, crowdSPRING requires client and designer to use crowdSPRING’s design delivery system (we have a specific wrap-up process with file transfer, including proofs and approvals) to protect the winning designer.

    No other marketplace in the world requires these things. We fully agree that they are very important. As I mentioned, we also have customized legal agreements that protect the designers – no IP rights are transferred until the designer is paid in full – and we make the payment directly to the designer.

    When I spoke earlier about thinking hard concerning some of the problems with spec work, these are some of the solutions we developed to address those problems.

    I am very happy to hear that crowdsourcing has been good for you, and that you’ve formed lasting relationships with designers – that’s something valuable and we encourage such relationships.

    @Andrew – One of the founders of crowdSPRING is a lawyer (I am). We didn’t start crowdSPRING just to try out labor laws. That suggestion – and the argument itself, is nonsensical.

    Designers on crowdSPRING own 100% of their work at all times until they are paid. If they are paid, and ONLY if they are paid, the ownership to the work is transferred.

    I don’t know how familiar you are with Labor laws. Your comments suggest that you have much to learn.

    @Grant – Reasonable people can disagree.

    And let’s be clear – What I am arguing against is an archaic practice, supported by a small minority in the design community. I argue against it because I think that view is damaging to the entire design industry. I know we are filling a need. The simple fact that buyers from 32 countries have posted over 1500 projects in 7 months and that nearly 11,000 designers from 130+ countries now work on crowdSPRING is very much telling of that need.

    As for deciding whether or not spec work is right for an individual – you and I agree that it’s a personal decision that should weigh many things. It’s not a simple decision.

    But let’s not bring ethics into the mix. Ethics have nothing to do with spec work. How many professional designers have been accused of “stealing” the work of other professional designers? Plenty.

    I actually think that you and I agree about many things. We both want to do what’s best for the design industry. We just don’t agree about what’s best. But I truly value such discussions because I learn from them. So let me ask a few questions to see if we can move the discussion along.

    1. Especially in today’s poor economic climate, how should young designers develop a good portfolio and client base if they don’t have experience?

    2. Many experienced designers have little design work. They try very hard to bring in new business without much success. What are their options?

    3. 500,000 businesses are founded in the U.S. every single month. This number is probably 1 million plus if you take into account the rest of the world. Some are funded and can afford to pay full design rates. Others have limited to no budgets. Established designers refuse to work for them. What are their options?

    4. You mentioned that you learned when you were younger (your last paragraph). So what specific things would you do differently if you had the chance to do it over?

  31. @Andrew – We are thinking long term and are building something we are extremely proud of. Thousands of people have written to thank us for the opportunity to compete on a fair playing field. We are proud of the AIGA members working on crowdSPRING, the grandmothers, students, handicapped, retired designers, creative directors, janitors, developers, engineers, and everyone else who wants to compete solely based on skill and talent. THEY are the reason we put in very long days – often seven days per week. THEY are the future of the industry and you won’t stop them with rhetoric.

    As for history…I think Henry Ford said it best: “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.”

  32. @Grant:

    In response to your comment –

    “I think we just flat out disagree. Even if something is accepted/valid as a way of doing business, doesn™t mean it™s a GOOD way of doing business for someone who is trying to make it as a full-time designer.”

    I am a designer on crowdSPRING (username “Jabraulter”) and have participated in over 70 projects. I thought I would chime into this discussion after having read this comment. Assuming that I’m understanding your contention, I agree with you. A “full-time” designer should not rely solely upon spec-work for income. It’s a gamble for any designer.

    However, having not won a single project the entire time that I have participated at crowdSPRING or 99designs, I disagree with people who argue that my time and effort has been wasted. I don’t care if you have been in the industry for 50 years or you’re a freshman in college attempting to make some money, there is always something to be learned from a design.

    As far as spec-work designers and “full-time professional” designers are concerned, discussions such as this always give me the impression that full-time designers are threatened by spec-work designers. It’s always a little confusing to me because on the one hand, some argue that much of the work completed on spec is of a lesser quality than that which could and would be produced otherwise. But at the same time, full-time designers are still threatened by this spec work. At least to me, it seems that if your work (as a full-time designer) is good enough, then there should be no worry that your potential work prospects will choose spec over hire.

    Forgive me if I’ve gone off on a tangent. I tend to ramble and am typically pretty scatter-brained. I hope I’ve made my thinking as clear as possible.


  33. “What I am arguing against is an archaic practice, supported by a small minority in the design community.”

    @Ross – What exactly are you arguing? I’m arguing that a policy of not doing spec work at all is a good option for most designers. That’s neither archaic nor in the minority. In fact, by your own argument, spec work as has been around in industries for “hundreds if not thousands of years”, so how is a policy of not doing spec work archaic? Maybe I don’t understand what you are arguing.

    “But let™s not bring ethics into the mix. Ethics have nothing to do with spec work.”

    I just can’t agree with you here. In general, ethics affect every level of work, design or otherwise. Any argument that there are ethical considerations with regard to spec work cannot be negated simply by the fact that there might be ethical considerations in other areas of design. That’s a moot point.

    With regard to your questions:

    “1. Especially in today™s poor economic climate, how should young designers develop a good portfolio and client base if they don™t have experience?”

    I fail to see what this has to do with spec work. I don’t think anyone is arguing that young designers should be able to charge the full rate of experienced designers. That’s no reason for them to do free spec work to build their portfolio. Find a client with a constrained budget and do really kick-ass work for them. Still get paid and build your portfolio.

    “2. Many experienced designers have little design work. They try very hard to bring in new business without much success. What are their options?”

    I’m not really following how an experienced designer has only a small amount of design work to show for their experience, but again, they have no need to resort to spec work to win a bid.

    I’ll use myself as an example. If a potential client is interested in me, but wants me to design in an area I have little experience in, a few things usually happen: If I like the client and want to do the project, I’m usually willing to adjust my rate to reflect my inexperience in that area and they’re willing to take a risk on me.

    Again, no free spec work was necessary. If they don’t want to take a chance on me, they move along, I move along.

    “3. 500,000 businesses are founded in the U.S. every single month. This number is probably 1 million plus if you take into account the rest of the world. Some are funded and can afford to pay full design rates. Others have limited to no budgets. Established designers refuse to work for them. What are their options?”

    Again, I fail to see what this has to do with spec work. You hold out “established designers” as if there is some magical rate we aspire to. The reality is there are designers along every point of the spectrum. Companies tend to find designers who match their budgets. There is no reason for a company to expect a designer to do free work for them simply because they don’t have a large enough budget to hire someone more expensive.

    “4. You mentioned that you learned when you were younger (your last paragraph). So what specific things would you do differently if you had the chance to do it over?”

    Thankfully this only happened to me once, before I was trying to pay the bills full-time. That said, what do I wish happened differently? I would have loved it if a more experienced designer came along and helped me realize the ramifications of doing work on spec. Personally, with hindsight, of course, I wouldn’t have taken the project at all without some actual compensation.

  34. @Jon

    “However, having not won a single project the entire time that I have participated at crowdSPRING or 99designs, I disagree with people who argue that my time and effort has been wasted. I don™t care if you have been in the industry for 50 years or you™re a freshman in college attempting to make some money, there is always something to be learned from a design.”

    If something about it is working for you, great. Keep at it. Personally, I see those 70 projects as a bit of lost time and opportunity to be pursuing other things, but if you feel like it’s helping educate you and make you a better designer, great.

    “As far as spec-work designers and full-time professional designers are concerned, discussions such as this always give me the impression that full-time designers are threatened by spec-work designers.”

    I think this is a bit of a tangent with regard to why I got into this discussion in the first place, but I’ll take a shot at it.

    Not agreeing with something is not the same as feeling threatened by it. I don’t feel threatened by spec work. But I do think that creating an expectation of free spec work in order to win a bid devalues the work and the creative process. I’m not saying there might not be instances where it makes sense, but in general, if you’re hiring me for my creative talent and how I’ll work with you, understand your company, and come up with the best solution for your project, why would you expect the most important part of the work to happen in the bidding process? How could you expect that to even be good work, or the best solution for you?

    I find that my clients learn things about their business that they didn’t necessarily see or know with every project I help them with. It happens through the length of the project. And it’s valuable insight to them. There is little chance they would have arrived at the same result by expecting several firms to do a bunch of work up front and then picking one that they liked. Maybe that works for some clients and some designers, but it’s not the consultative process that my clients go through and it’s not, in my opinion, an effective way to really help them.

    Now I feel I’m the one diving into tangents.

  35. @Grant – You’ve asked a reasonable question. I argue that fair, free market competition means that each person should have the right to decide – for themselves – the amount of risk they are willing to take.

    I certainly share your view that designers who have well paying clients and lots of work don’t need to work on spec.

    When I wrote “archaic” – I wasn’t referring to the policy of not doing spec work. For centuries, artisans, artists and others have made the choice whether or not to work on spec. I was referring to the out of date minority view held by some in the graphic design industry that it’s unlawful, unethical or improper for a person to engage in speculative work.

    I believe you and I actually agree about ethics. I am not suggesting that those working on spec aren’t impacted by ethical considerations. And as best as I could tell, you aren’t suggesting that those not working on spec are all ethically pure. However it’s one thing to say that ethics affects every level of work, and quite another to say that working on spec is unethical.

    My first question wasn’t directly related to spec work. I wanted to understand better what options are available to young designers who prefer not to do spec. It’s easy to point them forward and to say “find a client with a constrained budget…”. It’s not so simple for many of them. Moreover, that philosophy strongly encourages young designers to underbid others on traditional marketplaces. Doesn’t that merely serve to commoditize design?.

    “I™m not really following how an experienced designer has only a small amount of design work to show for their experience, but again, they have no need to resort to spec work to win a bid.”

    We hear this from experienced designers every day – including from those with decades of experience. It’s not that they have a small amount of work to show for their experience (I think you might have misunderstood what I wrote) – it’s that they don’t have enough work NOW to pay the bills and put food on their table.

    “You hold out established designers as if there is some magical rate we aspire to. The reality is there are designers along every point of the spectrum. Companies tend to find designers who match their budgets.”

    I don’t doubt that there are designers at every point of the spectrum. But we hear from many clients that they cannot find affordable design help and also hear from many established professionals that they will not work for startups who can’t pay thousands of dollars. We don’t judge – everyone gets to decide their own rates and their own risk/reward ratio. We found a huge void and believe we are filling it.

    As for the last point – thank you for clarifying. And to be clear – we don’t reject the notion that experience is important. While crowdSPRING is about fair and level competition, we value the experienced designers on crowdSPRING for many reasons – including that they can help to educate the younger designers.

    One of the most remarkable things about our own experience with crowdSPRING has been to watch people just starting out grow into very capable designers – based solely on their work on crowdSPRING and interactions/collaborations with other capable designers. And we’ve been really humbled by the many experienced designers – some members of AIGA – going out of their way to teach and help.

    I had a chance to read your blog – excellent work. I agree with many of the things you write there, but noticed this in particular (in your 12/12/08 post about Design Declarations), which I think is relevant here: “(9) Now, break the rules.” Here’s what you said:

    “Er, directives. Whatever. Anyone can know the rules of design (or any profession, for that matter). What gets us paid is knowing how and when it™s appropriate to break them, try something new, or different.”

    You are clearly not talking about breaking the rules about spec work – I get that. But I think the spirit of what you say is relevant. Just because someone wants to do something against the grain doesn’t make it improper.

    We often forget that competition can be brutal and polarizing (not just in the design industry – but in every aspect of our lives). It’s truly remarkable when people from over 130+ countries can collaborate and learn from one another – even help one another – while competing. It’s not for everyone – that’s clear. But that doesn’t make it any less remarkable.

    At the end of the day, free markets will decide crowdSPRING’s fate. If we remain committed to fair and level competition and to the protections of people’s rights, if we continue to innovate and attract great clients and designers, we will have a good chance to succeed. If we forget or ignore the problems or risks – we will fail.

  36. Jeremiah et al, thanks for addressing this issue in such depth.

    I work for Aquent and was at the center of the controversy unleashed by the contest that we ran last summer. Since we got mentioned in the original post here, I wanted to share a few of the things I learned from that experience.

    1) Crowdsourcing doesn’t necessarily save time and/or money

    We did not receive any designs that we could actually use, in the end. At the same time, we pissed off one of our core constituencies – the professional design community – and I spent a lot of time responding to their criticism.

    As an act of good faith, we ended up offering anyone who submitted a design the $500 which was at stake. Some refused the money, some accepted – but, in any event, this cost us more than we anticipated both in terms of good will and cold hard cash. It was a bust on all fronts. And I would not advocate it as a good way to get design, large or small, done.

    2) Words matter

    I did not think that we were asking for spec work by running what we called a “contest,” thinking that the open nature of the contest removed it from the realm of spec work proper, which I define as “asking someone to do work for you and making payment for that work contingent on your acceptance of it.”

    While contests have a formal similarity to this set-up, they are different, if for no other reason than that you are not asking anyone specifically to do anything. Participants choose to take you up on the offer or not. I still maintain this distinction, but my view is not shared by the community.

    On another front, “contests” have a specific legal definition and legal requirements (this issue is explored in depth here: – and elsehwere). Though I’m no lawyer, an “open call for submissions” may be more accurate and, safer, if you want to go the crowdsourcing route.

    3) Doing the right thing is more important than being right

    The word “ethics” shows up in this debate far more frequently than the word “logic.” From a business standpoint, on both sides, there may be a perfectly valid rationale for crowdsourcing design or engaging in spec work. In other words, it may be completely logical, not to mention legal, to procure design in this way. But that is not the point.

    Feelings run so high on this issue, I believe, for two reasons. First, designers feel that their livelihood is being threatened by downward cost pressures applied by crowdsourcing. As someone put it to me, if all designers have to work this way, then no one will be able to make a living doing it.

    History has made many professions obsolete (think of copyists displaced by the printing press). That’s just the way it goes sometimes. But people who have chosen a career in design tend to be motivated by a passion for it and, in fact, identify intensely with being creative. That is, it’s not about practical considerations (“designers can make a lot of money”), it’s about being the person you want to be.

    Not being able to make money is one thing. Not being able to “live your dream” is something else, and the combination generates a lot of anger and a call for adherence to an ethical code/standard that will reverse this injustice. Again, the emphasis falls on ethics because, frankly, it is perfectly legal to do this and that is not about to change.

  37. Companies used to pay and are still paying large sums for logo design and web design as they only addressed agencies in their area.
    As the Internet has opened up communications, now anyone in the world can compete with the local agencies.
    This will decrease the price for creativity.

    Thanks to the Internet the world should (will) evolve into a more uniform creativity or even work reward. Less difference in wages.

  38. @Michael – I do reach out once in a while on Twitter (, but I don’t specifically recall. We look forward to helping you with your creative needs. Thanks so much for the good wishes.

    @Matthew – it’s really great to get your thoughts on these topics. I do recall the Aquent controversy. I was disappointed you ended your “contest” early – but I did understand at the time (and now) why you did. It is not easy to foster change – and even more difficult when change is controversial.

    You are absolutely right that crowdsourcing doesn’t necessarily save time and/or money. Just like with everything else – there are few absolutes. For some, crowdsourcing saves lots of time. For others, it saves lots of money. For yet others, both. And then there are those for whom there is either no difference or who pay more/spend more time.

    Done right – crowdsourcing is very powerful. The current t-shirt design project for Guy Kawasaki demonstrates this well.

    You are also right that words do matter. In many ways, we are fighting against perception built by years of ignorance by those who built models around spec work before us. Some have executed in this area very nicely – like Innocentive (for technical R&D solutions, based on a spec model). But when we looked around in 2006 and when we look around today, no other marketplace offers the types of protections and education to the designers (and buyers) that crowdSPRING does.

    And beyond words – actions matter too. We don’t just talk about protections of IP and education. We’re doing it.

    I do think you’ve hit the right points in your summary on #3. This is precisely the anger hobbyist photographers faced from professional photographers when iStockphoto was launched. It is also the anger many young musicians face from established labels and music acts.

    I do hope that you and Aquent keep an open mind about crowdsourcing and when the time is right, consider how you can leverage it. It might take a reversal by the AIGA on spec work to get Aquent to take a second look, but that’s not so far-fetched. Organizations – especially professional organizations – must stay current to remain relevant. This holds true for AIGA.

  39. Jeremiah,

    I think whats getting lost in the discussion is your primary point: Spec work exists, because designers allow for it and clients ask for it. sounds very supply and demand to me.

    (Of course, I am not a designer, and dont see spec work as threatening my–often bloated–quotes.)

    Every service becomes commoditized at some point. More and more designers are hanging shingles and creating a surplus of available designers. Demand is probably about as steady as its ever been. What happens? Spec work.

    Happened in the SEO community. Everyone became an SEO expert, and the numbers of consultants that could demand high rates dropped to less than a dozen or so. The rest provided cut rates or died.

    Spec work is not unethical. Its not evil. Its not theft. Its a business decision. Dont like it? Dont do it. Complaining that spec work is taking clients from you? Then go after a different type of client that matches your business goals.

    Its always amazing to hear the deafening whine of an industry circle the wagons and protect itself, rather than spend time on becoming awesome, and letting the lesser members of the industry die.

  40. Writers have been working on spec for years. Probably because anyone with a pen and a piece of paper can write, so why pay top-dollar for a job when the next guy in line will do the same work for half the price. As technology improves, all crafts will become more accessible to more people, and will become less valuable as a result. One could argue that consistent quality and reliability could add value back, but only in a longer-term relationship, rather than a one-off. I’m impressed that you paid a kill fee to the losing designer. Professional courtesy or not, it was a noble thing to do.

  41. I have read thru the post and most of the replies. Mostly to see what everyone is saying. I am NOT a designer.

    So if designers don’t like or do, spec work [and I understand that to be one piece at a time?], and some of the mass-run places aren’t up to par on creativity, what do we small businesses do?
    For instance, I need a soap box designed for now. I have an idea, but that’s all it is.
    Later I will need labels designed, but isn’t this spec work? One piece at a time?

    I’ve been to 3 designers, all recommended, and have paid in the low to mid 4 figures. I have nothing to show for it.

    Jeremiah, maybe you could write a blog on what to look for in a designer? What to ask, how to determine who is and is not a good designer? Just how can one tell X is a good listener and knows how to execute the listening skills into results without soaking the client in the meantime?

    One would think by now, I would know. I don’t.
    I apologize if this is the wrong place to post this.


  42. Holy Crap, how could anyone find the time to read all those comments. Great article. People most often hire designers they like -portfolios being equal. Have an exquisite portfolio and don’t be an ass and you’ll get work. There’s always a market for quality.

    Provide more service than you are paid to deliver and you’ll have a job forever.

    Do the projects that are truly meaningful and enjoyable to you and you’ll never have to work another day again.

    How’s that?
    oh yeah, love – evolve
    (that should pretty much end the thread)

  43. Great post. I followed the Crowdspring story as it unfolded on Charlene’s blog and was caught off guard by the controversy; amazing passion behind the no-spec movement.

    This past week I ran into the President of AIGA at our SFAMA mixer and discussed this topic. We both thought it might make sense to put on a debate event on spec work. Please let us know what you think. And Jeremiah, would you consider moderating if people are interested in supporting this proposed event?

  44. Let’s look at it from a bottom-line business perspective:

    Over ten-thousand creatives work for CrowdSPRING, INC. LLC for free. You aren’t paid wages, benefits, sick leave, vacation-pay, Christmas bonus or health insurance ” whether you work part-time here-and-there or slave away 8 hours a day developing and executing custom design services on behalf of crowdSPRING’s clients. That’s one view.

    Another is, it’s your choice. Fine. Do it for the love of it. And hey, you get to choose your own hours working on behalf of crowdSPRING. But please don’t be one of those ten-thousand “employees” who gets paid nothing plus overtime. Get out of it whatever it is you get out of it. Just don’t let yourself become a sucker.

    But here’s where things break down. If you get a paycheck at all…ever…anything…even maybe approaching minimum wage for all the time and effort you put in, if you’re lucky ” the problem is you still rarely get a paycheck for your skill, ability or the immaculate suitability of your design solutions. (And sure, let’s be honest ” visual communication pros have done crap work. And sometimes someone with no training or experience does an outstanding job. But not often, on both counts).

    What crowdSPRING employees (er, “contest” “entrants”) have to bet on ” and stop me if I’m wrong ” is the off-chance that the kind of “client” who wants a last-second brand identity done in a week for $500 (sometimes based on a 200-word brief made up on the spot), STILL nevertheless has the skill, experience, time, awareness and understanding to recognize which random entry is not only the most superbly-crafted, not only entirely original and copyrightable, not only befitting the industry and right on target for the market & the business’s culture and personality ” but ALSO the best-fitting for realizing the long-term needs, goals and plans that will best position that individual company to survive and thrive in the future.

    Oh, and they’d better be darn sure they’re not utilizing a ripped-off design concept already owned by another company, or are distributing something created illegally using stolen fonts and pirated software.

    A quick look at the “contest” winners reveals that whole hell of a lot of these “clients” can’t seem to even get to the level of recognizing basic logo craftsmanship ” let alone parse through some of the other considerations just mentioned. (And why do “contests” have “buyers” anyway? Who buys a contest?)

    But I guess we should remember, after all, these “buyers” aren’t expert communications consultants. Or experienced art directors. Or brand managers. Or print production specialists. And how many times has a “client” slapped their award on some piece of (to put it politely) shudder-worthy crapola?

    As far as I’m concerned, that’s really where the model crashes.

    It doesn’t crash because the insight and guidance of an experienced and talented design professional counts for far more than these sites’ self-selected last-second “buyers” understand.

    It doesn’t crash because when content becomes cheap, quality plummets. Or because quality, though not cheap, is a much better value than “buy cheap, buy twice.”

    It crashes because you get what you put in and what you pay for is the first law of life and business:

    Fast. Cheap. Good.

    Pick Two.

    It crashes because this season’s “paradigm-busting” “rock-star” “revolutionary” buzz-fad business model is not crowdsourcing, so much as student/newbie/hobbiest/copycat/sucker/spammer-sourcing.

  45. It’s a little late to reply, but Jeremiah, I’d suggest that young designers do pro-bono work or find clients that will pay them something.

    My billing rate has increased steadily over the years as I got better at what I do, and better at selling it. I think most of us are like that.

    The problem with design is that it’s subjective. It’s difficult to say something like “this design converted over 100,000 people more than that design.” We think it’s true. We hope it’s true, but design outside of some very controlled areas just isn’t measurable the way we like to measure results.

    My wife’s secret has been to be a good businesswoman in addition to putting out good work. The client usually can’t tell that the image moved three pixels to the left is perfect, but they can recognize when the person they are working with is confident, easy to talk to, and delivers something they like.

    The problem with spec work is it’s a shot in the dark. Like any business project, it takes knowing the brand and the client to do well, and if creative is simply a matter of throwing together something cool, than there really isn’t a point in paying much for it.

    If creative is something different – if it’s an essential part of the decision-making process, then crowdsourcing it is foolish.

    You’ll get something – you may even get something you’re happy with, but as Matthew Grant pointed out – it’s not always a happy ending.

    Companies that commoditize their suppliers make save money in the short run, but they always lose quality in the long run. That may work for crackers and sugar packets, but it’s not such a smart idea when you market your products.

    So junior designers? They should work on their selling skills, and make sure they know how to get the right kind of work, instead of putting their talent into low-paying drudge work that ultimately drives them out of the business.

  46. Crowdsourcing has one merit in most cases; You make it“They make money from it. It™s a common practice and ultimately proves more beneficial to the standardized factory business model that has homogenized creative work for the sake of efficiency. And because they don’t get it or can’t be bothered to understand it.

    This type of value center is often learned on the client-side. And it takes several creatives a few lessons as martyrs, to end the process. Clients are at fault here as well. I have no qualms about saying this. But I most certainly can not condone the use of these sites either.

    This practice is disgusting and I find it very interesting that people who consider themselves specialists, with the ability to distribute, promote and communicate commodities to mass markets, would even suggest that this practice is fair. And in-effect, perpetuate it with a rationale, self-serving mentality.

    Spec, in most cases, is guess work. Which in-turn throws the self-taught or educated designer back into the perception of artisit. We all know this is not what we provide as a service. We also know the value of work with meaning and purpose. Forget passion. Everyone has that. Think of this instead; Designers provide solution that utilizes the broader visual language to communicate; ideas, products and services, clearly and effectively within a relative context.

    Guess work leads to homogenization. It cheats the creative of their talents and the client of a unique communication piece.

    In the end, remember that we all have ideas. Everyone of us. But we make money based on the amount of time it takes to execute these ideas. This involves client-education in some cases. In doing so, we see the original and innovative rise to the top much faster“naturally. Creatives who can afford to explore, reinvent and valuate their own services, will always find themselves wealthier then the other. And their book will speak“so they won’t need to.

    I suppose the only contribution I can offer to this controversial subject is this; What are you worth as a creative? What is your idea worth? What will your idea do for your client? “When you can answer these questions, you™ll figure out why it is important to value creativity. Even when it exceeds well beyond a design piece or a brand identity. The creation of value through the value of creativity.

  47. Solid and pragmatic advice, Jeremiah – nice post. Trying to regulate the industry is like holding the ocean back with a broom – ain’t going to happen.

    It happened in the photo industry with digital cameras, online tutorials and sights like iStock – it’s now happening to design.

    If this is a war between professional freelancers (like me) and part-time designers just trying to earn a buck, than it’s only appropriate I give my fellow professional designers a US Marine mantra, “Improvise, Adapt and Overcome”.

    I’ve got more insights on my blog at

    Again, really good insights my friend.

  48. Good post Jeremiah. I find that working with a designer that understands the goals of a website is important, especially for CMS – content managed sites. CMS sites tend to be more complex and need a designer who understands how Web sites work in a CMS environment.

  49. ˜work done without compensation, for the client™s speculation™
    as defined by AIGA

    a redefined strategy for this business source, & a question:

    the client would not ˜have™ speculation, as this definition suggests… work would need be done ˜for™ a client™s consideration or review relative to a specific purpose… so this definition should be revised to something such as, artistic renderings for submittal to a specific business marketing need, as for consideration to purpose

    so, first, with regard to a specification, or ˜request™ for submissions… is thought given to the client™s specific need & overall marketing philosophy… is the need then assigned to, or given success or best use marketing approach status, & then matched appropriately to a random, but select group of designers for purposes of ˜best fit,™ so that your designers are a tailored group, & the client™s need is assessed & evaluated, so that use of the ˜winning entry™ is then customized to fit the scheme.

    secondly, you™ve obviously approached this by ˜spec work™ designers™ success, or lack thereof, so, has the client™s success been a thought? have those businesses faired-well, so that your artistic talent has criteria for a portfolio of opportunity as they move forward with their body of work?

    companies such as Crowdspring should be providing a much broader scope of work, than to just bring the two together…

  50. I keep hearing that agencies will not participate in this type of arena. Really? So when a company is looking for a new ad campaign, and they publish a Request for Proposal, do people think that no agencies participate? Time for a reality check.

    Creative agencies respond to RFPs constantly. It’s their primary way of doing business. They design logos, websites, posters, billboards, even make mock commercials or write programs to win the business (“Win” is a common term in the agency game. Interesting, yes?). Some agencies (even small ones) will apply hundreds of man-hours to spec work in the hopes they beat out their rivals at other agencies.

    If you want to do work for the government, you’d better be prepared to develop and turn over your ideas, designs, schedules, etc. as part of the process. And you have no idea how many others are competing for the same business. It’s how business is done.

    Why is spec work coming across as such a new phenomenon?

  51. Quite a lively discussion that I bumped into…I’d like to add my 2 cents being an experienced designer myself.

    What’s not reflected in the conversation is the value Experienced Designers bring to the table. It’s not just about a design that’s aesthetically pleasing, but how strategic design can enhance a brand campaign and product positioning, as well as heighten a brand’s perception. Experienced designers are also strategic creative business partners for the brand and their products.

    Spec work may be a venue/channel for a new designer just starting out in the field. I believe there are other options out there, but it takes time to build. I think they need to consider the time they spent vying after spec work vs. creating and building up their personal brand from scratch, i.e., portfolio sites, WOM marketing, etc.

  52. 1) Spec happens in every industry – when is the last time you had a half dozen dentists fix your teeth before picking one you paid? Do you try Dish Network and Comcast for free to decide? How many auto dealers let you drive their cars for a week or so before buying one? If buyers want to see flexibility they can look at case studies. The fact is that there is ALOT of work that goes into design from competitive research to gap analysis. When a client pays a designer, they're not just paying for the final files they're paying for all of the above as well. Whoever is not paid has just lost a tremendous amount of money.

    2) Of course spec work will increase during a recession, everyone's budgets get cut. Unfortunately groups like crowdSpring and Zooma, by cheapening design, will continue to take work away from designers even after the recession has improved, just like salaries.

    3) I agree that quality will lack from crowd sourcing. Not to say their aren't talented people doing it, but many times the middle-management types that are in charge of these projects don't know good from bad and they need someone who is qualified to tell them. How many of those submitting spec have art degrees? How many are using legal software? How many have ANY experience with developing successful design? Not only that, but part of what leads to good design is to have a deep understanding of your client that only comes from a relationship with them. You don't get that when you're one of 100 creatives submitting for an RFP, usually one with a very short deadline.

    4) The increase should be good news. On the one hand you talk about the recession impacting costs, it seems intuitive to me that designers will need to offset these reduced budgets by taking on more work, not by welcoming in a bunch of amateurs with a bootleg copy of Photoshop. As you said: “Designers must realize this increases demand for their services”, they should also reap the benefits from it no?

    5) Spec used to be paid. Up until recently, spec work was when agencies or designers were paid a small fee to develop concepts to show direction and style. It's only since the Dot Com bubble that you saw unpaid spec.

    The point is that a given project may have a dozen to a hundred submissions. Only one gets chosen which means the design industry as a whole has lost a tremendous amount of money and time that could be spent on other clients. So, while one designer makes out, 99% will suffer. How is that helping the design industry? Even the designer who gets picked is only getting a few hundred dollars. Seriously? A company logo is their single most important visual aspect, the company makes millions around this logo and the designer gets few hundred? These payments are WAY out of scale for what the Graphic Artist Guild has published as pricing guidelines. Like doctors, mechanics, carpenters, etc. a certain scale of costs for service has been established that allows designers to make a living wage. Mixing in part-time amateurs and unqualified designers into the mix of crowdsourcing brings costs down to the point that we're all making Starbuck's wages. And now you taken an entire industry of people with $40-80,000 educations and turned us all into doodlers who need to move into our parent's basement.

    I was formerly against a bill requiring professional designers to be certified, but I've changed my mind. Then a company employee outsourcing a design project will most likely hire a certified designer to cover their ass, forcing these sites to move toward using only certified designers. This would eliminate a majority of amateurs or at least elevate them by making them improve to meet certification criteria.

  53. The AIGA says:
    “AIGA believes that doing speculative work seriously compromises the quality of work that clients are entitled to and also violates a tacit, long-standing ethical standard in the communication design profession worldwide. AIGA strongly discourages the practice of requesting that design work be produced and submitted on a speculative basis in order to be considered for acceptance on a project.”

  54. The AIGA says:
    “AIGA believes that doing speculative work seriously compromises the quality of work that clients are entitled to and also violates a tacit, long-standing ethical standard in the communication design profession worldwide. AIGA strongly discourages the practice of requesting that design work be produced and submitted on a speculative basis in order to be considered for acceptance on a project.”

  55. I enjoyed reading this article and to put things into perspective¦I am new as a freelance designer and I I am also a hairdresser. I have been charging $60 for a haircut for the past ten years and have not raides my prices. I started out 28 years ago charging $18. It was hard taking the first step to realize my value as a hair designer. There are people out ther who charge $100 plus for a haircut and get it. We also have to contend with $10 chop chops. There are alot of hairdressers who need to build skills and gain confidence before they try for the big leagues. The good ones do not stay for long. I do not feel that they have hurt my business in anyway. If anything they have helped. It seems that instead of waisting energy trying to fight something that will not go away we should find solutions to educate those that use these sights. Some may get lucky and get something really fantastic or they will settle for now and upgrade later.

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  57. This is 7 years old but deserves an answer. If your design needs are so specific and precise, offer a modest fee for roughs to several companies.

    When a furnace repair man kept not fixing our furnace despite us paying a yearly fee for his work because he wanted to sell us a new furnace, we just quit paying the fee, and my father in law fixed the problem. The same problem exists in other industries. You don’t ask for free work, like some lunatic, just because there are unscrupulous practitioners out there. Start an Angie’s List if you have to.

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