There’s been much debate of late regarding speculative or ‘spec’ work and the associated problems (and benefits) of it. Blogs have been buzzing for a while with negative rants by some high-profile designers regarding the practice and sites such as the infamous NO!SPEC project have gained backing from some big names which in turn has encouraged designers to say no to spec work.

But what exactly is spec work? Some people don’t seem to know. Why all the hoo-ha and what, if anything, should we do about it?

What is Spec Work?

The practice of spec work is the “undertaking of work for free, often as part of a competition”. In the words of NO!SPEC:

“Spec has become 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.”

In a traditional spec situation a prospective client encourages several designers to do a small amount of design work in order to help the client decide which to employ. While this in itself has its problems, much of the recent concern in working ‘on spec’ has been caused by the emergence and rise in popularity of sites such as 99designs and CrowdSPRING that actively promote clients finding complete solutions by running competitions. Such ‘crowdsourced’ design solutions are deemed damaging to the design industry by some.

As with most competitions there’s normally only one ‘winner’ compensated for their efforts, usually at a rate of payment much lower than a professional agency would charge. None of the other entrants receive anything at all. Despite the odds, many are still keen to participate and the competition sites are proving very popular.

Not all competitions are considered to be spec work. There was much debate on whether Carsonified’s (the company behind ThinkVitamin) competition to design a holding slide for its forthcoming Future of Web Design conference should be considered spec work or not. There is clearly still a debate to be had on what spec work actually is.

Why Do Clients Like Spec Work?

There are just as many designers keen to champion the practice of spec work as there are outspoken against it. However, clients are clearly the biggest supporters of spec work since, on the surface they seem to gain most.

It’s certainly low risk for them. Some (not all) of the clients using these site are not interested in design and simply want the cheapest reasonable solution. By commissioning work ‘on spec’ there is potential to get something for nothing without having to formally engage a designer in the traditional way; contracts, up-front fees, having to pay for meetings and design iterations etc.

“…I am a potential customer, not a designer. I am looking for something inexpensive and decent-looking. I don’t need to win a design award,”

says George McC, a client commenting on Graphicpush’s Graphic Push’s post on the ethos of spec work.

1) It’s Cheap
Many spec sites allow clients to set the price that they are willing to pay and a fixed deadline for submissions. Payment is only required for the chosen design, not those which are not liked and not used.

2) It Offers Greater Choice for the Client
Rather than be tied to one agency or designer’s style and ideas, spec work means you can receive a large number of designs, styles and ideas in a very short time.

3) It’s Guaranteed
Dissatisfied clients can choose to abandon a competition and reject the submissions if they are not happy and are not therefore obliged to provide a reward.

The Case for Spec Work

It’s not just the clients who feel they’re getting a good deal from the spec arrangement. A great number of participating designers defend the practice.

1) it’s easy money.
Certainly in the case of 99Designs and other crowdsourced projects, it can be easy to make money. Granted many of the designers taking part are either students or work in countries with less-strong currencies who see involvement as potential to easily make good money. One designer commenting on the same post explained,

“I entered two 99designs competitions. It took 1hour. I won £500. I bought an Xbox 360. Sorry if I undermined all you designers out there.”- designer commenting on Graphic Push’s blog post

2) It’s Good for Developing Skills
Some designers see doing spec work and entering competitions as an opportunity to get bigger, more high-profile clients and improve their design skills.

3) It’s a Quick Way to Get Your Name Out There
As a struggling designer there are few opportunities to get your name known in the industry. Doing spec work can be one of them. Once people have seen your work and like your style, then you can start to charge for your work.

The Case Against Spec Work

There are a great number of reasons why spec work is considered inappropriate by some professional designers. The AIGA, the professional association for design, advise against it.

“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.” – AIGA.

There are many reason why designers think that spec work is a bad thing. Some high-profile designers simply dismiss it out of hand.

“Never do spec under any circumstances.” – Jeff Zeldman

While others give more detailed reasons why they dislike it.

It’s Uninformed Work
Design is about much more than individual taste. ‘Spec’ work encourages clients to look upon design as a commodity whereas good design is a process of understanding and solving a problem in the most appropriate way.

“While good design invariably has an eye on aesthetics and a concern for technical accuracy and perfected details, graphic design, (whether for web, print or screen), is essentially about solving problems. Each project has its own set of unique problems to address.” – Mark Boulton, FiveSimpleSteps

Spec work often ignores the problem-solving, considered design process in favor of promoting a ‘beauty-contest’ of finished work, with the winning entry appealing to the client and not necessarily solving the problems at hand.

It Devalues the Profession
Commissioning work for no payment could be considered immoral, it is certainly degrading and minimizes the value of the design and the value of the designers intellectual property.

“At the very outset of my career, I did several projects on spec — and I’d never do it again. Our ideas are the most valuable things we bring to the table on any project and, once given, there’s no taking them back. Spec work sets a dangerous precedent.” – Daniel Burka,

It Encourages Plagiarism
While many feel that spec work reduces the risks for the client, in fact the opposite is true. It has been suggested that many participants use stolen or copyrighted material as part of their submissions. Plagiarism is quicker and easier than designing from scratch, especially if there’s a risk that you might not be paid.

It’s Unprofessional
The client-designer relationship is largely unmoderated, thus both parties are at risk due to the potential for unprofessional conduct. Stories from unhappy designers abound who feel they have not been fairly treated by a client and from clients who have been harassed by unprofessional, unqualified designers. Many suggest it’s often more trouble than it’s worth.

Is There a Solution?

While the demand for poor quality, cheap design work prevails the problem is unlikely to go away. The only way to eradicate this from the design industry is for designers to refuse to do spec work, en mass. For this to happen though, designers need to agree on what is and what is not spec work.

Maybe what is needed within the graphic/web design industry is a global, dedicated body to educate and support clients in their search for appropriate designers. How do you think the issue should be resolved?

Further Reading:

Graphic Push – 99Designs Bullshit

Paul Boag – Why Speculative Work is Wrong

Jeffrey Kalmikoff – The Fine Line Between Laziness and Crowdsourcing

Ross Kimbarovsky – CrowdSPRING’s reply to NO!SPEC

Andrew Hyde – Spec Work is Evil

Dev Lounge – Spec Work, Good or Bad?

Main image: Kyril