It’s one of those eternal debates. You know the type. Two sides, one black to the other’s white, hordes of defenders at the ready. Whenever the topic is broached tensions run high, rants and rebuttals are flung this way and that, and everyone leaves knowing they’ve had their say, but moved no nearer to converting the other side, no nearer to winning the argument.The next month the debate re-emerges, hostilities are renewed, rants and rebuttals reloaded and flung, with cross-references and back-links to the last battle, just in case the other side forgot what was said then. And another iteration passes without the changing of minds.
The debate in question is the spec work one: should designers (or any other creative professional) produce speculative work or participate in unpaid pitches and design contests, without any guarantee of payment for their time and effort? Should we submit ourselves to being crowdsourced?
I won’t rehash the actual arguments here. Others have done a much better job of it than I could.
If you need catching up, NO!SPEC has a wealth of resources. This interview with SpecWatch on Webdesigner Depot is enlightening, while Eric Karjaluoto has discussed, rather eloquently, a recent case involving Tim Ferriss. Michael Bierut, less recently but equally eloquently, covered the topic at Design Observer. This last one especially is worth a read for its comments from some of the industry’s heavyweights.
There are enough valid reasons for both clients and designers to oppose spec work, amongst them legal risks, economic sense and ethical concerns. Frankly it’s surprising any of us could countenance sullying ourselves with spec.
Nevertheless there are also enough unscrupulous, ignorant or indifferent clients and (loosely defined) designers out there happily engaging in spec work to ensure the argument can’t – wont – be won.
How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb
It’s clear spec work isn’t going away. If anything it’s growing in prominence and gaining acceptance in the mainstream, helped by its association (and confusion) with the much-hyped Internet phenomenon of crowdsourcing, and the related culture of ‘Free-conomics’.
As designers, woe-is-me-ing and pox-on-you-ing aren’t doing us any good. We’re better served acknowledging (though not legitimising) spec work and learning to live with it.
Know the enemy
The easiest way to avoid getting burnt is to not play with matches. A smarter way is to know how to use the matches. Educate yourself about spec and understand the risks. If they outweigh the potential benefits, keep away.
There will be times when the reward is high enough and the effort is small enough to be worth your while. Consider all the factors carefully, ethical as well as economic. If you’re satisfied that your participation in a design contest won’t harm you or your fellow designers, spec away.
Let it be
Accept that spec work is now part of the design ecosystem. Cheap and nasty designers have always attracted a similar calibre of client. You don’t want or need to compete with the cheap-and-nasties, nor work for them. Let the Crowdsprings and 99Designs of the world be matchmakers for the bottom-feeders while you get on with your job of being remarkable at your job.
Show why you’re a better option for a more discerning client. You know how to think strategically rather than chase trends blindly. You offer a more refined result, better suited to the client’s market. You can be relied upon to deliver professional, honest work. It’s all part of what you’ve always had to do to market your services: educate your clients. Which leads us rather conveniently to my last point…
Educate, but don’t preach
Don’t get me wrong. When I say above that we should learn to live with spec I’m not advocating ignoring the problem. It is a real problem that poses real risks to designers and clients alike.
A lot of spec work, especially in its most insidious forms, happens only because of ignorance. Clients don’t realise they’re wrong to expect free work or don’t understand the real cost of that free work. Likewise designers are unaware of the risks they face.
The onus is on those of us who know better to give the right advice to those who don’t. When interacting with fellow designers, especially those younger and less experienced than we are, we have a responsibility to educate them about the implications of getting involved in spec work. It’s as simple as pointing them in the direction of NO!SPEC or SpecWatch. If they persist regardless, good luck to them.
So too for potential clients. It’s in their interest (and ours) to ensure they understand the differences between spec work and hiring a professional designer. But if they still choose the wisdom of the crowd, they must live with what it serves up.
It’s important to present the facts without getting too excited. Clients don’t want to hear about third world teenagers whoring themselves with pirated software. That’s our problem, not theirs.
Spec is here. It’s taken its place, unwelcome and uninvited, in our industry, and there’s little we can do to get rid of it. If we can move past that and get on with our jobs we’ll be able to focus our energy on more productive pursuits and happier clients. To me, that trumps any rant or rebuttal.
The upheaval that is the Internet has hastened the departure of outmoded ways of thinking as quickly as it’s paved the way for new ones. One site that’s joined the crowdsourcing fray with a welcome freshness is Idea Bounty. They appear to have done their homework and tweaked the variables in the risk/reward equation enough to create a far happier, more successful environment for both clients and creatives. Their differentiation between ideas and actual work is important too, but I’ll leave that for another post.