Spec Work has always been a controversial subject in the world of design. Why should you work with no guarantee of getting paid? Many designers claim that it signals the end of the industry. To me, however, it’s the future of the industry.
What is Spec Work?
Spec work, or speculative work, to refer to its full name, is the process of doing design work with no contract or any guarantee of getting paid – If the client likes it, he’ll use it and pay you for it. Often, spec work takes place in the form of design contests, such as on 99Designs.
Why it’s not as bad as you think
There are numerous complaints about spec work, many of which I will try to dispel here.
Work without pay?
One of the most common arguments is that it doesn’t happen in any other industry – You wouldn’t go to a hairdresser and not pay him if he didn’t cut your hair the way you wanted. However, there are numerous jobs where spec work does happen. For example, few artists create artwork knowing that it will sell. People starting up a business don’t know that it will succeed. It’s a calculated risk that you must take – If you feel that you can do a good job on a design brief, then take it on and hope that the client will like it. If you don’t feel you can do a good job on it, then don’t do it, and leave it to people who can. The same should apply for any work, whether or not it’s on spec.
Designing for money vs. Designing for passion
In relation to the example of the artist, he doesn’t create art purely to make money, that’s merely a beneficial side-effect. He does it because he’s passionate about art and enjoys what he does. The same should apply to design. If you’re in the design industry purely to make money, well, you’re probably in the wrong place. Design should be enjoyable, and you should take pleasure in doing it. I mean, you didn’t start your design career making money straight away – You must have been doing it for fun in the first place. These days, you can do it for fun, and have the chance of making a little money at the same time.
Sometimes, if you’re guaranteed to be paid at the end of the project, you might not do quite as well as you can. Often, this isn’t a conscious thing, and you may not realize you’re doing it at all. However, if you’re in a contest, you have to do your best in order to make sure you impress the client. In other words, you have a lot more stimulation and motivation to excel, rather than take everything for granted.
To research or not to research?
As part of a paid, contracted design job, the designer will often go and do lots of research on the company and its industry. Whilst this is a useful tool, and can often be very beneficial, in the wrong hands, it can result in an overly-analyzed and watered-down design. With design contests, you usually have a deadline of about 7 days, and therefore no time for research. This means your designs are often instinctive. I’m not by any means that research is bad, and nor is planning your designs, but sometimes, for some designers, going with your instinct produces great results.
More likely to get paid?
Although it doesn’t make much sense, you are actually more likely to get paid with a spec job. Almost all designers have a horror story about how a certain client has refused to pay. In these cases, they often have a contract, but the fee isn’t enough to bring the client to court over – They’d just end up losing money. However, with design contest clients such as 99Designs, the fee is already paid to the site, and although the fees are less than ordinary design work, at least you’re guaranteed of getting it if you win.
Experience is valuable
The final, most obvious reason, is that it’s experience. During the current economic climate, design jobs are becoming more sparse, so chances are that there will be times when you have no work. Why waste your time doing nothing when you could be working on spec, and having some chance of making money. Every time you design anything, you learn at least something, which in turn will make you better placed for winning further design contests, whilst also making you a better designer and more likely to attract “real” clients. If you win a design contest, the client might pass on your name to other potential clients who will come to you directly – Everything has a knock-on effect. Who knows, you could produce something good enough for your portfolio. But whether or not it has any instantly gratifying results, your hard work won’t be entirely futile, win or lose.
I realise that some of my reasons are minor and negligible, but the small things all add up. At the end of the day, the final result is all that really matters. Here are just a few of the wonderful designs that are out there on crowdsourcing websites:
A call for tolerance
To conclude, I am by no means saying that every designer should go and create an account on 99Designs, but at least respect it as a source of income for others. I might prefer an expensive restaurant to McDonalds, but I still accept that fast food is convenient and does the job perfectly for many people. There’s a very evident arrogance in the design world towards many things. I’m guilty of that too – I would much rather use Gotham than Arial, Photoshop than GIMP. But we still need to remember that although it may not comply with our notions of what design “should” be, design is for everyone, and everyone is just as entitled to design as professional designers. Does that reduce the standard of design? No, it merely means that the professionals have to work harder to get jobs. If anything, it is raising the standards. So for that, spec work, I salute you.
What else would you add?
Before leaving, be sure to add your thoughts, concerns, questions, or rebuttals for the rest of us to read.