Design Spec Work is Polite Theft

Design Spec Work is Polite Theft

I’ve been a graphic designer for almost 20 years and, for the last 15, I’ve been a design teacher. While doing my first design degree, part of my classroom experience was to work—in competition with my classmates—on client projects. It was typical for all of us to pitch a completed project, with one selected by the client for execution. Sometimes the “winner” was given a small stipend (my highest reward was $150 for an identity system, logo, and brochure collection). Most of these clients were cash-strapped not-for-profits, though one of the competitions had us paint a ceiling panel for a local dentist. He wanted a more economical alternative to installing television screens that would entertain his patients. When my ceiling panel was selected, I received $25. One of my bag designs was implemented by the Atlantic Bag Manufacturers. They’re still selling the design 19 years later.

I don’t exactly bemoan these opportunities, but that’s because I won all of them. The rather unpleasant downside, however, was what they did to our cohort. Since there could only be one winner in a class of 20, the classroom became a breeding ground for competition and resentment.

I graduated with 30k in student loans, but also a solid design degree and decent experience. However, when I started freelancing, one out of two clients wanted me to do work for free because they said they couldn’t afford a “real designer” and working for them would be good for my portfolio. So, I got a dot-com job instead.

Speculating on design

Speculative (spec) design is any normally-paid job for which the client expects to see the near-finished work before agreeing to pay for it.

AIGA (the Professional Association of Design) describes spec work as:

  • work that’s done for free, in hopes of getting paid for it later;
  • work done in the hopes of winning a prize;
  • work done as a favor or for the experience (without pay);
  • volunteer work that involves educational gain;
  • volunteer work done “for the public good”.

The GDC (Graphic Designers of Canada) forbid their members from engaging in spec work. Their take-no-prisoners position is that spec work is “exploitative and unethical” and “devalues the profession of graphic design and leads to negative competitive practices.”

I agree.

Anything but creative work

Let’s imagine using the speculative work model in other professions:

  • Free work: you take a continuing education class on Excel. At the end of the class you decide that Excel is a terrible piece of software and you don’t want to ever use it again, so you don’t pay the instructor.
  • Prize: you go to three mechanics and tell them to fix your car. Who ever does the best job (in your opinion), gets $100.
  • Favour or education: you need your wisdom teeth pulled. The dentist doesn’t get paid for the surgery because of the valuable experience she just received.
  • Public good: you’re the director of an international children’s organization. Your pay, as well as staff salaries, rent, and utilities are all in the budget. However, when you need gas for the org’s van, you pull up to the Shell station and fill-up for free.

Designers should volunteer

We should gift our time, skills, training, knowledge, and experience. I strongly believe that designers are able to make (and have made) the world a better place through design.

The problem is invisibility.

Let’s say that the Walrus Rescuers of America approaches Sam, a local graphic designer and animal lover, and ask her to design a new logo. She says yes: she will volunteer 20 hours of her professional time towards the project. She also sends them an invoice, then comps the amount. In this scenario, Joan:

  • is recognized for her professional expertise;
  • creates healthy boundaries around her available time;
  • clearly communicates the value of her work (via the comped invoice); and
  • is treated as a valuable volunteer.

Whether she uses the work in her portfolio is her business.

Now let’s say that the Tree Planters of America put out a call to the community asking for submissions of new logo designs. In return, the winning logo entry and creator’s name will be published in the org’s monthly newsletter. In this scenario:

  • none of the designers get paid for their work;
  • all but one designer (if a winning entry actually does get chosen, which isn’t guaranteed) do the work with no compensation or recognition (neither as creators nor as volunteers); and
  • the org never knows how much time and effort (hence money) it takes to design a logo (1).

Some clients argue that they need to see the work before paying for it. However, the design community has already developed a mechanism for proving their worth—portfolios. Clients should choose a designer based on samples of their past work, the kinds of clients they’ve worked, and a lot of conversation.

Other clients argue that they can’t afford to pay for design. If a client doesn’t see the value of design enough to pay for it, they shouldn’t be working with a designer.

Finally, some clients don’t actually want a designer to do their design work. Their position is that a competition or a spec call is meant for the design students or amateur creators (who know the right software) and not for the professionals. Here’s the first problem: design students should be paid for their work. Their rates won’t be that of a professional designer, and they might take a little longer to do the work, but they deserve to be compensated—think how you pay a bit less for a junior hairdresser, but you still pay for your haircut. Here’s the second problem: if you don’t want a designer to do design work, ask for a random volunteer, then recognize their work. Don’t try to get good work by lottery (you never will).

(1) Check out this great article by Jacob Cass for more downsides to spec work. Also this video from Zulu Alpha Kilo on YouTube.