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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related resources used for research

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

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

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

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

    Here’s two photos from the stage I just took

    My view, fantastic panelists.

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

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

    Rebecca live blogged the very heated panel.

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

    Josh discusses this thoughts on Specwork –as a designer.

    SXSW has transcribed the whole Spec Work debate

    Our panel got rave reviews for excitement and content, thanks

    65 Replies to “Spec Work Analysis: Here To Stay –But Not For Everyone”

    1. The spec work topic is a good one and although I am dead set against any spec work, I think it’s good to have this discussion. Having been involved with the creative and design industry for over 15+ years, I have seen it being abused by both industries (design and client side). If the creative community is being expected to start giving away our talents for free it might mean the end of the industry. Many talented designers have spend countless hours, school tuition and energy to prefect their craft and talents, this comes with a price. No different then any other employee, or other professions, working his or her skills hard-earned skills. Unfortunately, this comment does not do justice vocalizing my true feelings on this but would welcome continuing this discussion. Too bad I could not make #sxsw this year, but know Andrew Hyde represents the creative community well.

    2. Jeremiah – I think your argument makes sense, but it strikes me that this is all written from the procurement side of the equation. I don’t think you can say your argument is balanced if you are looking almost exclusively through the lens of businesses that want to procure cheap design work. Take some time to really put yourself in the shoes of the design community, imagine if your work was being spec’d to the point where you couldn’t pay your bills – how would that feel? Lastly, just because war is here to stay, as a dramatic example, does not mean that the right thing to do is sit back and accept it. We are not going to make it through this economic downturn by grinding each other down until no one can eat – we need to help each other and this case that means standing up for professionals being paid professional wages.

    3. We used specwork to create our logo and found the process to be everything we hoped it would be: fast, easy, prolific and cheap.

      Extending this to the look and feel of the entire site was more difficult so our impression would be that for simple tasks, specwork is the way to go, but the talents of a designer may be needed for higher end work.

      Regarding specwork being evil or unethical; oh please. Businesses evolve and technology is constantantly forcing people to change their offerings to remain competitive. This is nothing more than a natural evolution.

    4. Jeremiah:

      How many hours have you and other consultants spent doing RFP’s, meetings, phone calls, etc., as part of the sales process with prospective clients? I’ve spent thousands of hours in my career doing what amounts to free consulting as part of the sales process.

      And in enterprise software sales, we often had to do customized demos or rapid prototypes. Customers don’t just want to see what you did for other people — they want a visual, even experiential, idea of what you can do for them.

      I fail to see how spec design work is really any different.

    5. Having worked as a copywriter and creative director in ad agencies for many years before focusing entirely in a vertical web market I have only one response – specwork is a cruel and unusual form of mental abuse.

      In any spec-competitive environment there will be several (and in this economy dozens) of loser for every winner. What’s more it has been my experience that once specwork leads to actual work, the resulting project never fully compensates for the creative burn-out caused to the specworkee by participation in both the infrequent winning – and many losing – efforts which proceeded the token victory.

      And from the other side, once a prospective client has been spoiled rotten by the exuberant creative juices that have followed on his behalf, he has far less appreciate for the creative process, far less respect for those who competed. What’s worse, from that point on – once a specwork choice has been contracted the client will inevitable compare all paid work – always more limited in scope by client parameters – to the imagination shown by the many unpaid creators. The client will never be fully satisfied thereafter with what he pays for.

      The winner is devalued, the losers dismissed, and the industry – whatever specific design-based industry segment you focus on from ad creation to code work – well, that entire segment has now been shown to be a desperate, unprincipled, unprofessional, project-chasing collection of independent freelancers without a shred of self-respect.

      Okay that’s over the top, but sadly not by much.

      Will spec work on all fronts continue? Yes. One could argue that Google and Twitter are examples of spec work run amuck. The magic word really is “free”. And once something has been freely given, only a very few cross over into profitability.

      Principled designers, of all striped, will hope to avoid the spec-work chaos. I only wish I could be optimistic for their future.

    6. Codevprojects

      Thanks, there’s plenty of voices that I took into account that defend the designers point of view, read it in “related resources”

      Also, it’s very important to start with the buyers side (procurement) why? They drive demand.

      My advice to designers in the panel (not written above) is to be more strategic and offer much more than tactical logo work –that’s one solution.

      Lastly, in my last paragraph, I’m empathetic for designers –I used to be one.

    7. Really liked the panel; first one I’ve attended where people actually disagreed. Very nice.

      I’m not a designer, more of a client, I guess. I don’t have a vested interest in either side of the argument (I am an economist by education, so I do prefer the wisdom of the marketplace)other than to understand how to solve the problem. The question I was left with after the panel is this: what can the players in this spec work issue learn from similar events in other industries?

      Music – TV – Movies – Travel

      It seemed to me as if the panelists were addressing this issue in a historical vacuum. We have evidence of similar events. Is there anything to learn?

    8. I find this whole view of spec work as “evil” or a “ponzi scheme” to be ridiculous and arrogant. The web has brought massive globalization in the service sector – and business models change or at last can easily change. Look what happened to the traditional Stock Photography industry when sites like iStockPhoto came along. Either adapt – or maintain a unique value prop in design or niche – or go out of business. But whining about it and saying it is “unethical” is a joke.

    9. Dave

      Yes, we compared a few industries, stock photos, (istockphoto) journalism, marketing (blogs), and above Allen talks about consultants having to do this.

      I’ve yet to hear an argument how design spec work is different than other industries.

    10. Excellent discussion taking place here. Funny, if you’ve ever been near or in the publishing industry, writers have been producing and submitting pieces “on spec” forever. We all started out that way before we got the plum assignments. So, even though I am married to a designer myself, I can’t pity the graphic designers that much.

      We provide marketing services for lots of small businesses and just recently stopped offering logo design services. In this economy, and even before it turned sour, solopreneurs and small biz owners don’t have $3,000 lying around for a logo design. We started offering WordPress blog-websites for the same reason: cheaper to put together and easier for the client to administrate on the back end. I think it’s all about building credibility with your clients by finding the most cost-effective solutions for them. I write a blog post about this recently.

      I guess my point is that there will always be a market for crowdsourcing, both on the buyer and service provider sides. I don’t see that changing, even when the economy improves.

      The smart designers will be flexible, learn to diversify and address the true needs of their target population. It’s just good business.

    11. Good balance Jeremiah. Spec work is here to stay and is fairly ubiquitous if you have ever sold any intangible (consulting, software, advice, …) to a U.S., Asian, or Western European corporation.

      We get distracted by framing the discussion around the designer and preservation of her/his job. There is a new market that is underserved by design shops, studios, agencies, etc. — the start-ups who don’t have 2 nickles to rub together and the individuals now establishing their personal brands. Neither of these is a customer of the traditional agency, so this is an additive market. The question becomes whether crowdspring, 99designs or the like will grow to eventually disrupt the traditional agencies. This is the model proposed by Clayton Christensen in his work about disruptive innovation.

      I have tremendous regard for creatives. Ironically, I think I have a better chance of working directly with a creative if I use crowdspring or 99designs than I do with a traditional organization that has account representatives. This explained more here: http://executiveengines.com/2009/02/start-featherlight-get-your-logo/

    12. ‘Spec’ work, or speculative creation of active marketing provided as a service in an environ of media representation, as delivered with nominal or minimal consideration, but with abundant competition, does not serve a community, or business, or personal representation to a web-based community, since, as its name implies, it is upon speculative delivery, or ‘hypotheory;’ hypothetically derived compensatory work. The work is questionable, since the ‘lead’ generated is derived as ambiguous in nature, or more specifically, in need of market definition or better focus, itself.

      My position with regard to this community of providers of services, would be to consider the respective value of the service through a desired focal niche, & then to establish the relative level of compensatory response in your marketplace, & then to elevate the standing within a range of artistic differentiation among a ‘peer group’ as delineated, & to refine a clearer source of business… or ‘crowdsourced’ activity & through a level of sourced business, from an integral reference point, or best-case market scenario for increased market activity, thereby defining a ‘highest & best use’ scenario for all markets, businesses, & activities.

    13. Spec work absolutely is evil. There’s no other industry where people would actively create full works and then not be paid for it. Imagine if that’s how you worked as an analyst.

      It’s one thing if you can submit things that you created already, but doing spec work for logos etc that you’ll never be able to use for anything again is absurd.

    14. I apologize in advance for the double post, but I hit send by accident.

      Additionally, I believe that the reason for spec work is more the supply side than the demand side. There are far too many web designers (specifically middle-of-the-pack web designers) that it’s quite difficult to separate yourself from the rest of the pack. The reason that spec work exists is that most web designers find that spec work is one of the only ways for them to keep creating designs that will potentially be used.

      Another reason that wasn’t mentioned is the ease of use of spec design and availability. It’s really easy for a designer to enter a contest, or for a client to create a contest using spec sites. To find the right designer at the right price or for a middling designer to get more clients is considerably more difficult.

      I think the answer to spec work (if you don’t like it) is to create a better system. Create an easily-indexed catalog of developers (perhaps by region), where you can search for the right designer for you. This way a designer doesn’t have to create a number of designs that will never be useful for them later on, and a client can browse through and find the right designer for them.

      Spec work is like pirating music and games. I really don’t think it’ll ever go away, but if you create the right system that’s streamlined and nearly as easy, you can take a substantial percentage of those users (see iTunes, Steam Digital Distribution).

    15. Spec work is like being a TRUE creative artist. You throw yourself out there, work your ass off, and sometimes get rewarded.

      You guys choose to be creatives – now that the economic bubble has burst you too get to live the lifestyle of a creative:

      1. sleeping in your van
      2. working for food
      3. Buying clothes at Goodwill
      4. drinking $3 wine
      5. watching movies two months after they come out
      6. borrowing money from your mom
      7. questioning the meaning of life …

      Welcome to the club! Let me know if I can be a resource 🙂

    16. I think the beauty of our system is that we have choices. I am not against the model. Having a choice is a beautiful thing. The downfall of choices though is that there can be both good and bad choices instead of just one clear path.

      My take is that crowdsourcing designers to execute is a tradeoff at the expense of real, long-term partnership and some companies want that. They do not want to open up their brands to interpretation, criticism or even change.

    17. “Recommendations: Specwork has upsides for the lower tier market “but is not for everyone”

      This is the most important message to send to prospective clients! The maxim “You get what you pay for” is ultimately the bottom-line truth when it comes to seeking out spec-work instead of professional high-end design.

      Starting out by underpricing yourself as a new designer is not only harming your own reputation in the long-term, but it also ultimately harms the design industry as a whole, thereby, your own future prospects of earning a real income from design.

      If you want to continue earning a few peanuts here and there, go ahead. Experienced designers KNOW that the ROI in terms of time, resources, EXPENSIVE hardware, software and education simply does not justify using spec-work as a viable means of income. It is like building your house on a foundation of quick-sand.

      My question to young or new designers: Why begin your career as a designer by biting the hand that feeds you? Designers need to think about long-term success in their chosen career path, not just short-term gains. Again it is a matter of ROI of time, money, effort, experience, education, etc. None of which are easy or inexpensive. Think, think, think!

      Just remember, there are plenty of people out there who don’t think twice about taking advantage of young, inexperienced designers. Do you really want to be one of the gullible ones?

    18. Jaremy

      It’s not an exact match, but reading this blog is an example of me doing a lot of customized work for the ‘market’ with no direct pay hoping to impress clients that I can ‘win’.

    19. Jeremiah, It sounds like you had a great and lively session, judging by the Tweets and comments here. Wish I had been there.

      Two things bug me about the spec work issue. The first is that it sets a pattern with clients. If they don’t want to pay for work going into a relationship, why would you expect that to change over time? I think it’s harder to build lasting relationships between businesses if they start with spec work.

      The second is that if spec work concept is so good, why don’t we see it in other service industries. Imagine it in accounting, legal services, and others.

      This got me to write this blog post:

      Personally, I would rather see more barter and less spec work, when times are tight.

    20. Jeremiah-

      Yes, but part of your work is still marketing and networking for yourself. Many designers or companies create their own blogs (http://www.davidairey.com/) doing the same thing. The difference is it’s something that they’ve personally created and branded for themselves, which is a valuable marketing tool. Posting a graphic as spec work is a small creation with limited visibility and small reward.

      Again, it’s a market that is strongly influenced by supply. If that’s how you want to do work, then fine. However, I truly believe that there are much better ways to spend your time as an artist that will help you to gain more exposure. If you’re a talented designer, you’ll do things that will separate you from the pack, and market yourself even if it’s just in your own little niche.

    21. Jeremiah,

      You had me worried there for a minute… I thought I would have to dis-own you as a cousin :), but I feel that you did a good job of providing resources to support the professional designer’s point of view that spec-work devalues our profession and undermines the strategic process, research, time, and effort that goes into designing projects both large and small. Our clients are not buying our ability to use design software… they are investing in our brains, our experience, our ability to see things from a different perspective, and most importantly we are building the client/designer relationship that allows myself as a designer to listen and learn about their business’s past, present and future and translate that a unique design solution to solve their “design problem.”

      An important point that I don’t think has been made yet is that spec-work has a tendency to increase the likelihood of “stolen” work being presented as concepts. Great designs that have been commissioned by and created for clients with a lot of thought, research, time, and attention to detail are being ripped-off and presented as spec-work in hopes to “win” the job. As I have learned through speaking with numerous business owners, the general public does not understand the role that copyright law plays in the design industry, and I feel that it is safe to assume that the majority of “clients” using spec-work are not checking all 99 presented concepts for their legal integrity.

      If spec-work is here to stay, then thankfully there are clients with both small and large budgets that understand and value the professional design and branding process. I love what I do, and don’t want to loose the opportunity to make a living doing it!

    22. Hey cousin, thanks for chiming in. You certainly provide some excellent points on the value of strategic design.

      Having gone through spec work as an experiment, it’s clear that it’s very difficult to be strategic, look at true branding goals, and certainly could lead to intellectual property theft as you suggest.

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