“I’d like you to design a logo for me and give me a few choices, and if I like it, then I’ll pay you for it. I’ve also asked a few other designers to do the same thing. I don’t want to pay for something if I don’t like it.”
That’s called working on spec(ulation), and I’ve been asked to do it. Sean Lorenz of the Boston Business Journal writes, “The recent downturn in the market hit graphic-design [sic] professionals especially hard, since advertising and marketing are among the first elements to be cut from a company’s budget. With this downturn, there has been a disturbing rise in speculative graphic design projects. And it’s not just freelancers and out-of-work pros who are affected. Firmly established design firms and agencies are also using this technique to compete for business.”
A few years ago, a guy called me to see about building a website for him. He told me a few times that he didn’t have a whole lot of money, so I already had a clue as to where this conversation was going. We had a nice conversation, and then I gave him a ballpark quote.
“I was hoping that you would work for a percentage of the money I make after this venture gets off the ground.”
“Ummm, no. Because I still have to pay my rent and buy food. I don’t work for a percentage.”
We ended the conversation on a nice note, and I hung up.
The LA Times had an article about Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s “Designed/Made in Los Angeles” logo contest. Several designers and agencies submitted logos, and people were invited to choose their favorite. I’ve had a problem finding out what the designer gets out of this little exercise. Money? Huge publicity in all the major media? Or just the warm fuzzy ego boost that your work is hanging on all the clothing made in Los Angeles? It reeks of spec work.
A lesser, but just as offensive, solicitation is the “Charge me a really low price, and it could work into a lot of work for you.” It almost never does. Enough to always say no.
Why is spec work so bad?
Spec work is so offensive to most professional designers, someone even created a “No!Spec” website devoted to it. Elisabetta Bruno of ThinkCreation writes, “In a nutshell, spec requires the designer to invest time and resources with no guarantee of payment. This is a common point-of-view [sic] for many who confuse the professional with his or her tools. The process is more than simply tapping at a keyboard or clicking a mouse. It’s about understanding the nature of a communication challenge and then using one’s brain to find the appropriate solution.
“At the end of the day, there is a certain irony in spec work. A prospect requesting it 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.’”
Sean Lorenz explains, “Another reason to reconsider accepting that spec job is the safety of your work….If a company sees the spec work and decides to not utilize your services, they may still incorporate or elaborate upon concepts of your design either in-house or elsewhere. This is especially a concern for web site designers. The majority of web designers doing spec work will bring screen shots on paper for the client to look at, finding it unwise to show a spec site on live media.”
Copyright law says that copyright (all or part can be sold) must be released in writing. Did the client requesting the spec work have the designer sign a form releasing those rights? If not, the client doesn’t have the right to use those images. If so, the designer is screwed.
“Crowdsourcing” is just a dirty word
Another version of spec work is “crowdsourcing,” such as what’s presented at crowdSPRING.com or 99Designs.com. CrowdSPRING’s website states, “With a crowd project, designers share dozens of concepts based on your brief. Review and rate the designs as they arrive, and designers will revise as you provide feedback. When the project ends, just pick the one you love!” Wait, what? In other words, for the possibility that my work will be chosen, and probably a paltry fee paid, I’m going to spend time revising and revising and revising a custom logo design, along with ~60 other designers.
Am I getting paid for my time? Thank you, but I’ve already chosen my pro bono client for the year.
Why is the concept of “spec work” so offensive?
I and most professional designers put many years of expensive education and experience into our work. We join professional organizations, buy books, magazine subscriptions, training videos, go to seminars and conferences, training ourselves to be neverendingly better at what we do.
Examples of our work go in our online or physical portfolios so the client can see what we are capable of. We enter costly creative competitions to win awards to prove (to ourselves) that our work is good. The software we use is expensive. So are our computers. That’s all overhead. Not to mention what we pay for internet access.
Unlike an acting audition, where the work can’t be repurposed without the actor’s consent, design (and writing) work can be. It’s really pretty easy. Even watermarks on artwork can usually be removed with the right software and a skillful hand.
Or the client can pay for value
When you pay for our services, we spend time with you finding out more about your business, your brand, your history, your goals, your products or services. We use that information, and our talent and skills, to come up with solutions that will further your marketing objectives. Spec work doesn’t allow for those insights.
Spec work also takes away from time spent on existing clients who are paying us for our time. Those clients rightfully expect attention that isn’t diluted by a design audition.
Then there’s the “paying bills” part. Can you imagine if you went to your landlord or bank and said, “Business is a little tight right now and might stay tight for a couple of months. It looks like it’s picking up. How about if I pay you a percentage of what I make every month? Hopefully, in a few months or so, I’ll be able to pay you MORE than my regular payment.” Or, “I don’t know if I’m going to get paid for the work I did this month, so I don’t know if I can pay you. I still need a roof over my head. Are we cool?”
Imagine doing that with your car loan company, your utilities, the gas station, and the grocery store!
A filled-out portfolio is an excellent indication of your designer’s skills. Use that instead of spec work to assess quality work. Expect to pay a (nonrefundable) deposit up front, because it’s a good-faith gesture. It helps cover the time the designer spent traveling to you and talking to you in the first place, not to mention the research about your company they probably did before they met with you.
Just remember, you almost always get what you pay for.
Do you want a designer who provides value to your company, and not just free work? Contact me and let’s strategize your needs.