During the recent economic downturn, many businesses have tried to cut costs any way possible. These cost-cutting measures have resulted in some businesses bargain hunting for everything… including professional services. They’ve shopped for service providers with less consideration than they would shop for copier paper. This “save money at all costs” attitude has resulted in the upswing of spec work. “Spec” or speculative work is any work done for a client, without guarantee of compensation or publication. Personally, I consider the practice unscrupulous and will not take part.
I love what I do, but I’m in business to make money. I have overhead, expenses and my family likes to eat. I can’t afford to give my work away, no matter how much “prestige” a potential client promises. I’m also a capitalist at heart and I believe that people should be fairly compensated for doing things that I can’t or won’t do myself. That’s why I hire professionals to maintain and occasionally fix my automobile. I’m not going to call just any shop in town or every shade-tree mechanic, to find the cheapest price. No, I’m going to contact a professional, whom I can trust to do a quality job, and then agree to pay them for their unique talents.
I too provide unique and valuable services and I have experiences and abilities that not everyone has. So why would anyone expect me to just give those things away? To clarify, I’m not opposed to designers doing work for FREE. In fact, there are several forms of unpaid work, (volunteer, internships, pro bono) that I would recommend to designers of all skill levels. There may even be times when a “freebie”, for a long-standing client, is in order… I just don’t intend to make it a practice.
There are basically two categories of spec work… something which I’ve labeled “sneak peek” and online contests — more commonly known as crowdsourcing. I’ll explain what each category is and why I don’t take part in either.
This is probably the most common form of “spec” work. Basically, a potential client contacts a would-be designer and says “If you show me what you’re proposing for my “fill in the blank” project, and I like it, I’ll pay you for it.” My immediate answer, to this request, is always “No Thanks.”.
A client may feel completely justified in making this request — after all, it’s their money and their project — but the practice is totally unethical. You wouldn’t go into a local restaurant and say “bring me today’s special, and if I like it, I’ll pay for it.” So why would anyone expect a designer to commit their time and talents to solve their problems, for free?
With other professionals, it’s accepted practice to select a service provider based on a myriad of factors: your needs and budget, their experience and expertise. The same level of professionalism should be given to designers. Clients should choose a designer based on their portfolio and experience. If after meeting with a designer and discussing your project, you still aren’t satisfied, then you have the right to end the relationship.
The second type of spec work, crowdsourcing, has become very popular among number-crunching executives. Essentially, it consists of a client/buyer posting a job on a bulletin board site and designers soliciting their ideas, based on the creative brief. The “winning” submission is chosen and the designer is paid. All of this sounds like a win-win situation, right? After all, you get to see lots of designs and choose the best option, while the winning designer gets paid. I’m not opposed to people choosing the best solution for their individual needs, however I am opposed to crowdsourcing and here’s why:
1. It devalues creativity. It’s true that the chosen designer gets compensated — usually a nominal fee — for their “winning” design. But there’s no guarantee of further involvement in the project, or future work from that client or anyone else. And other than a portfolio sample, the “losing” designers receive nothing.
Then why do designers do it? Honestly, I don’t know. What I do know is that designers are enticed with promises of monetary reward, experience, portfolio samples, exposure, etc. However rarely do crowdsourcing sites hold up their end of the bargain. Most of these sites brag about the large number of submissions they get for each project. For the designer, that means that the opportunity for exposure or any real-world experience is minimal at best. The opportunity for monetary reward is almost nil. So while this might sound great for the client who wants a plethora of ideas, for the designer – especially the one never chosen– it’s a crapshoot.
2. Design is treated like a commodity. Designers are skilled professionals who offer strategic solutions for your individual needs – we don’t just paint pretty pictures. Successful design work results from a collaborative process between the client and the designer. Only after fully understanding the client’s goals, competitive situation and specific needs, can we provide a real solution. Design is not a one-size-fits-all commodity, and shouldn’t be treated as such.
3. Clients receive inferior design work. Rarely do top-caliber designers take part in these contests; they’re already in high demand and don’t need to. That leaves students, the less-experienced and thieves to fight it out. As with most things, you get what you pay for.
4. Clients are taking a legal risk. Did you catch what I said? I said that thieves are competing for crowdsourcing work and they’re putting buyers at risk. Let’s look at a couple of different scenarios:
Scenario One: Let’s imagine that you need a logo and you decide that hosting an online contest is right for you. You post a $250 prize for the winning entry and you end up with over 100 entries. Now which of those designs were stolen? Which of them uses copyright protected stock artwork? Can you tell?
While there are honest designers who take part, the opportunities for plagiarism or the use of improperly licensed artwork are rampant. After all, you’re only paying $250, for a ‘one-in-a-God only knows how many’ chance to win. So what legitimate designer is going to spend several hours developing an original concept. It’s way too easy to do an “image” search, retrace the image, add some color and voilà, you have a “submittable” logo.
Scenario Two: Many people who submit artwork to these contests are from foreign countries. Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. However, $250 goes a lot farther there than in the U.S. Thus the motivation, to participate in these contests, is a lot higher. Also, U.S. copyright laws are not enforceable around the world. Therefore, these foreign “designers” don’t have to play by the same rules. So you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that these contests are flooded with designs pilfered from other designers and online portfolio sites. You have no way of knowing where a design originated.
Many of these sites claim to police themselves, but if something goes wrong, who do you think will be held liable? The last thing you want is to be sued just because you were trying to be frugal. You may have thought that you were saving money, but this new logo may cost you more than you can afford.
Now I know that plagiarism exists in the offline world as well, but most designers aren’t willing to take the risk. After all, the client/designer relationship is built on trust. Why would any reputable designer jeopardize their relationship with a client and ruin their own reputation? I know that I wouldn’t.
5. The client doesn’t always know best. I’ve been designing for a long time. I can point to several occasions where the client signed off on a concept that wasn’t necessarily the best design. On a few occasions, I was even present to try to persuade the client’s direction, to no avail. The upside in those cases… I got paid.
I can’t always keep a client from making a poor decision. But without thoughtful collaboration between the designer and client, making an informed decision becomes even more difficult. With theses online contests, design becomes little more than a beauty contest.
Hopefully, I’ve convinced you that hiring a professional designer is truly the more cost-effective solution and will result in a greater return on your investment. And hopefully you understand how participating in spec work hurts everyone involved.
If you’re interested in having a professional designer analyze your design needs, then contact me to discuss what works best for you.