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?