On the design industry’s spec work debate

While researching my options for creating a company logo, I came across a number of articles regarding blog design and logo design (see the Points of Interest at the end of the article). One common topicwas the topic of logo contests, which is considered speculative work, or ‘spec work’. There is apparently a movement in the design industry going against the idea of spec work. It boils down to a matter of money: these folks feel like they should be paid for their time. Spec work is not paid for unless the work they submitted is accepted. In logo contests, there is only one winner, a single submission that gets paid for. They believe that when a client comes to them that they should be paid their hourly rate for all the work they put into the logo or blog that they will design for them. So let’s say I go to John Smith to redesign my blog. He charges $100 an hour and takes about twelve hours to complete the job. I owe him $1,200. But what happens when I don’t like the design?

It seems to me that these designers have quite some nerve. They’re an arrogant bunch, denouncing ‘spec work’ and logo design contests and demanding that they be paid for their incredibly profound and life-changing creativity. I’ve never been one to deny anyone a right to earn a living. In fact, I am an extremely generous man. However, it bothers me that these folks believe that they have the right to take your money on a job that’s unsatisfactory. Because you see, if John Smith creates in twelve hours a blog design that I do not like, it will cost me another four to six hours of work just for him to revise it. That’s another $400-$600 I have to spend just to get what I should’ve gotten in the first place. I’m a very finicky person when it comes to many things, especially the nuances of a website that is supposed to put forth a very particular representation of me: I could go through an inordinate (and very expensive) number of revisions. So unless the designer has a satisfaction guaranteed policy, I’d never entrust them with an hourly rate.

The argument against spec work, being that it has no guarantee of compensation for a designer’s time and ideas, is ridiculous. Turn it around why don’t you? I (as a client) have no guarantee that I will be getting what I want for my money. It’s a two-way street. I could potentially sink thousands and thousands of dollars on one blog designer from the current business model. I give Mr. Smith $1,200 for twelve hours of work, but I don’t like the results. Twelve more hours of work later, I still don’t have a satisfactory product. For all I know, this designer just doesn’t understand my needs and vision. So after billing me for forty eight hours of his time, I have nothing to show for it.

Now, I must admit that I know very little about the advertising industry. But I would find it very foolish if some large multi-million dollar company would risk wasting money on an advertising agency that may not produce any results. If I were in charge of marketing at, say Coca-Cola, I certainly wouldn’t pick out one agency to work with. What I would do is have something of a contest. I’d go to a reputable design firm, tell them what Coca-Cola is looking for, and then see if they deliver. If they do, they win our business. If they don’t, well, we go to a different firm.

Of course blog and logo designers are going to cry out that Coca-Cola has the potential for earning millions of dollars. Blog and logo designs are a one-shot deal. But really, the concept of getting paid for unsatisfactory work is insulting. Would you pay for a shirt whose seams are poorly sewn together? Would you pay for a brand new car that has an ill-fitted door that lets rain and wind in? Forget that: would you pay for a car you didn’t like? Would you pay for a T-shirt that you thought was ugly? Why would you pay for a house that doesn’t satisfy your aesthetic preferences? It makes no sense. A logo or a blog design is no different: why should I pay for something that I don’t believe is suited to my aesthetic?

I can understand that experienced and well-established designers would balk at the prospect of doing spec work. But it’s a matter of one’s ego and pride to look down on spec work. If I were a talented and renowned artist, I could understand being a little offended at being asked to, say, paint a portrait on a speculative basis. But is it unrealistic for a client to ask that of me? As good as all my paintings are, he has no clue how I will paint him. I may not be happy that my skills are in doubt, but I certainly would be satisfied in being commissioned to paint a portrait to my client’s satisfaction. So there is a guarantee of pay, but only if my client accepts my product. This puts the responsibility on my shoulders to create something that will please my client. So for example, if I value my time at $200 an hour, and it takes me an average of four hours to paint a portrait, I would charge $1000 for the portrait, building in a little extra space for possible alterations. However, should my client be dissatisfied with the final product, I should be responsible for working on it beyond the 5 hours ($1000 at $200 an hour) that I charged him.

So really, speculative work is the way it ought to be. Clearly there are proponents against such a way of doing business, like NO!SPEC. What bothers me isn’t their work ethic, but they’re attitude. Honestly, they’re a little bit condescending. They presume that prospective clients who ask for spec work are uneducated or don’t have much money. Much of their propaganda thumbs their nose at the entire idea of spec work, essentially calling designers who participate in such practices whores, sluts, prostitutes; and the clients who create such a demand johns, uneducated monsters who objectify the art of design. They say that “a prospect requesting [spec work] is ultimately saying, ‘My project isn’t important enough to hire a professional who will take the time to understand my situation and goals and invest the time needed to create a suitable solution.'” This is entirely absurd. That is far from the truth in my case. I still demand the very best of the designer, and I certainly understand that it takes time and effort to create a truly meaningful logo. However, I would request that the work be done on a speculative basis because I don’t want to end up paying for a piece of garbage. I am not going to guarantee that I will pay for a designer’s efforts. I will however guarantee that I will pay a fair and generous price for the work done if I like it. As good as any designer is, as impressive as his or her portfolio may be, I am unwilling to place a thousand or more dollars worth of faith in their ability to deliver a logo design congruent with my company’s desired image.

Additionally, when you are trying to make money off your precious art, you yourself must objectify your work. You are putting a dollar value on your creative efforts. If this isn’t objectifying something, I don’t know what is. Once you put a dollar value on something, it enters the realm of the marketplace where the rules of economy govern business transactions. I don’t imagine that any discerning consumer would gladly and blindly plunk down a thousand dollars on anything unless they knew what they were getting.

Then there’s this guy who’s ranting about people giving away free logos. He says that “it’s really sad that legit designers are forced to compete with these hacks who are willing to provide design services for what I can only assume is virtually nothing.” If you’re afraid of competing against people who are doing for free what you do for a living, then you’ve got to have an honest reflection of just how truly skilled you are.

As a writer (though inexperienced and unpublished as I may be), I also aspire to use my creative talents to make a buck. However, I would never have the audacity to demand payment for the time and energy I spent to write something. If someone doesn’t like my novel or screenplay or some article I write for them, the fault falls on my shoulders. Sure, I’d like a little bit of compensation for my efforts. I don’t deny that I wish I could get something, even just a sandwich or two, out of the work I submitted. However, I understand that the client is supposed to be paying for something they value. And if the client doesn’t value it, then they should pay nothing.

With all things creative, there is never, and should never, be any guarantee of payment. Once that guarantee of payment is established, the drive and need to succeed and surpass expectations is gone. If you want guaranteed pay, go work a regular job. The creative field is not for you. This is why retail employees do not try very hard. This is why the average office worker isn’t exactly motivated to excel. Save for chances for promotion (which usually is motivated at least in part by financial reward), why work hard when you’re going to get paid the same regardless of the effort you put in?

As a security officer, my duty is to protect and secure my principal’s assets. For every hour that I perform my duties, I am paid a certain dollar amount. If I don’t perform those duties, I do not get paid. As an outside salesman, my responsibility is to secure business for my company. For every new client I sign, I receive a commission. Otherwise, I am not paid. When you take on these occupations, you are being paid for the results you bring to your employer. Most occupations are like this: a person is paid for the results he produces (usually having to do with improving the bottom line), and NOT the time and energy he puts in. So when a client hires a designer to produce a logo or a website, a client is paying for the end product, not for his time and energy.

Who wouldn’t like to be paid for their time and energy? If I could bill someone for my sitting around and trying to do something, I would be filthy rich. I’ve tried like hell to finish a screenplay and I’ve spent an enormous amount of energy working on my novel. Should I be paid for my time, energy, and resources when I have not produced something valuable? When I’m working on commission as a new salesman, I can spend the entirety of my first workweek building up leads without securing a single client. Should I be paid for that time and energy? From a worker’s perspective, yes, I sure would love to be paid for that. But from the employer’s perspective, why should he take money from his pocket and put it in mine when I haven’t done anything for him? I value creativity, I value the design process, and I value the skill that it takes to be able to create an image. I respect artists and songwriters and writers and anyone with the gift of creativity. But I also know the value of a dollar and what it means to risk a great number of dollars.

These designers could learn a lesson or two about humility. They need to take themselves off that pedestal and realize that spec work is fair and that they should not feel threatened by its increase in popularity. My main contention with this “Say No to Spec” movement is its focus on “guaranteed pay”. Making a living in the creative industry is difficult, so if you don’t have the balls for it, get the fuck out. Guaranteed pay is for pikers who have no confidence in the value of their work, and no confidence in themselves or their skills. As someone with some insight into the creative industry, and as someone with aspirations to join the ranks of the creative professionals, I can appreciate many points of the ‘spec debate’ and the arguments all across the spectrum. But really, it’s time to man up and stop complaining about how people should spend their money.

Points of Interest

  • I’ve never heard of spec designers before. I have found several websites that have several designers enter a competition and then the buyer chooses which graphic they wish. It might be nice, but all the designers on this one website I joined, saw how amazing they were and decided not to even give competing a try until I improved my skill, knew that only one person, the best would get paid. It might be nice in theory for “spec designers” to get paid, but who is to say that they didn’t just slap something together to make an easy buck. Each designer has their own style and their own level and each thinks that their own work is the best. Along time ago, when I was just starting out, I thought my work was ace. I cringe as I view through photobucket occasionally. So all in all, I do agree with you, spec designers shouldn’t get paid just for throwing something out there.

  • Hello there. Thanks for voicing your opinion! It's good to see your designer's point of view. Maybe I'll hire you for a logo some day lol