The concept of “Spec Work” is one that is constantly thrown around in the design world, and became even more evident during our refresh contest, in which, despite a large reader base, we received just one entry. For this article (or more of a opinionated piece), I take a look at why people hate spec work so much, and why it is actual ruining creativity.
What is Spec Work?
To understand what we mean by Spec work, you first have to know what it is. As defined by the anti-spec work campaign No!Spec, Spec work is “the short form for any work done on a speculative basis. In other words, any requested work for which a fair and reasonable fee has not been agreed upon, preferably in writing.”
The simplest example of Spec Work is a design contest, where there is one winner, and the other entries end up going towards nothing, with no benefits to the creator. It’s speculative because you could work your ass off and get nothing for it, which would end up being a waste of time and waste of resources…right?
This is where the line in the sand gets drawn.
Let the battles begin
As a designer myself, I can totally understand why people would be up in arms over doing work they might not get anything for. When I first started out [and was a complete idiot], I spent a lot of time doing work for clients who would run away with mock-ups or stop contacting me all together after I started the design. This was never any fun, because I didn’t take down payments, and selling a custom based template wasn’t the easiest thing to do if it wasn’t generalized. So plain and simple, I ended up screwing myself over multiple times. I had then created spec work for myself, because I would get nothing or very little out of my hard work.
“…design contests devalue professional designers work…”
– 9rules member note
To prevent this, people started campaigns like No!Spec to try to deteriorate designers from taking part in such work, and to “educate” people on why they shouldn’t host such things as design contests. The topic was also recently brought up on 9rules notes, with one commenter saying so much as “No, please don’t, design contests devalue professional designers work.” after a question was asked about whether a design contest would be appropriate for someone to run.
That one sentence annoyed me, especially because it generalized all types of contests – the fair and unfair ones. There are contests that do offers fair market value prizes for the work they require you to put in, and there are others that offer you $10 to put together a full site. Obviously, they are two opposite sites of the spectrum. In our recent contest, we gave away a 30GB Zune, with a list price around $230 USD. In exchange we asked for one homepage mock-up of our next design, simply because I was strung out and stuck in a rut in terms of design ideas. I thought the prize being offered was very fair, because we were only looking for one page, which would not require all too much time being dedicated to get it completed. We had plans to showcase all of our submitted entries at the end of the week in Friday Focus, so un-used entries simply wouldn’t be thrown into the incinerator.
The fact that people would believe that contests devalue the work of a designer I found quite unbelievable. Contests are one of the easiest ways for beginning designers to get started, because they can experiment in a no pressure situation, where they have nothing to lose and plenty of experience to gain. This is why $50-$100 prize logo contests on forums became so popular and generally garnered many participants. The work wasn’t all too complex, the prize wasn’t that bad, and it gave you the freedom the experiment and see how you stacked up against other designers.
And what if you are not a beginner but a seasoned veteran? What the hell would a contest do for you if you are years past the “experimental” stage? Veteran or beginner, you would be able to have the same benefits. The ability to design without restrictions and limitations, and to try something new, would all be on the table for you. No client influence hanging over your head, no exact style you have to follow. The ability to be free – something most clients unfortunately don’t give their designers. And if you aren’t declared the winner and don’t win that valuable prize, you could add the work to your portfolio or go along and sell it. Your work would not be devalued – in fact; you’d gain even more in experience.
A contest is…a contest
When you enter a contest, you should realize that you might not win. That is after all, the purpose of a contest. No!Spec supporters believe that you have to get something for participating, so they must not play the lottery too often, because they would find themselves severely disappointed 99.9% of the time. Contests help people expose different sides of creativity that they might not be able to get out in a client orientated world. It also allows them to grow as designers, even though their wallets might not exactly be overflowing because of it. In the end, whether or not you take on spec work is your own call, and it is best to base each call off the situation at hand. Analyze whether or not you have the chance at possibly getting anything at all (because if not, that definitely helps you lean towards the “don’t do this” side), and if there is a prize, make sure it is worth the work you may end up putting into the project. But don’t, I repeat, don’t, turn away contests [or the opportunity to host one for that matter] because a portion of designers think it is wrong and/or devaluating. Your work is what you make it, and if you believe a contest is giving your work less of a value, maybe you are the one actually devaluating your own hard work simply because you are not seeing green.
Note: Please see my comment note for my view on why taking is spec work does differ and depend on whether or not you are a freelancer or full time designer. As evident (and should have been stated earlier), I am a freelancer, so this view / opinion is based on designing not be your sole source of income / full time job.
Your turn. We want to know what your thoughts are on spec work. Do you support contests and doing spec work from time to time, or are you totally against it? Please let us know in the comments, we’d love to hear your responses. This article is not intended to offend anyone who follows one view or the other, simply to present the view most people ignore.