Spec work is a somewhat controversial topic within the web design community. In a nutshell, spec work is the term given to any piece of design work done in order to potentially win a job without actually securing it; an entrance exam, if you will.
It's considered, by some, to be unethical because the designer works with no guarantee of gaining any yield from doing so. Let's look further into it..
What is Spec Work, Exactly?
Speculative work is a piece of creative work that is rendered, partially or completely, without entering into a definitive agreement with a client to secure the work and ensure an appropriate payment. The process is often glorified in circumstances like a contest, in order to drive some competitive spirit and make designers do more to "win".
Without passing any judgement at this point, it should be made clear that spec work is not secured and is majorly done without any sort of contract or agreement. Additionally, spec work does not always have an appropriate form of compensation. In fact, a lot of spec work compensation is bolstered by promises of future work and/or presented as a great force for a portfolio.
Essentially, the designer works without payment, in the hope they will win work or gain exposure. However, not everyone sees spec work as a bad thing, since it can sometimes yield future work, especially for amateur designers.
AIGA believes that professional designers should be compensated fairly for their work and should negotiate the ownership or use rights of their intellectual and creative property through an engagement with clients. - AIGA
AIGA, the professional association for design, maintains a position against speculative work, highlighting a likelihood of reduced quality in the end product and the risk of designers being taken advantage of.
Spec Work Statistics
Some designers are pretty passionate in their hate of spec wok sites and have campaigns in place against this type of practice. Spec Watch is one such campaign that collects stories of bad encounters with spec work contest sites.
Although it's likely impossible to track every instance of spec work being done, Spec Watch does have some numbers on certain spec work-oriented sites. One, 99designs, boasts over $5,512,961 in payouts to "designers" and 2,061,258 designs submitted. If we crunch the numbers, that means each design has only been seen as worth $2.67 which is where our problems with spec work start.
Spec Watch crunches even more numbers and comes up with a figure of 232 years of unpaid designer's work on 99designs. Of course, that time includes designs for graphics and other creative work, but there's still the universal abundance of unpaid work which isn't favorable for anyone who makes a living as a designer.
If, on average, each submission took 1 hour (not unreasonable once we average completion time required from reading the contest brief, developing a concept, development and sourcing, creation and uploading to the 99designs server) that represents a total of approximately two million man hours.
That is the equivalent of over two hundred and thirty years of unpaid designer time.
Spec Work goes on to calculate a whole bunch of figures that culminates in millions of dollars of unpaid man hours which kicks off all the controversy.
72 entries and counting for a $1250 "prize".
The Risks of Spec Work
Searching Google for "speculative work" returns results that are majorly against the practice, with the top results being websites dedicated to highlighting the risks of engaging in spec work.
Let's take a look at some of those risks...
When we look at spec work and its risks, the main ones recognized focus on the designer's interests. However, spec work can also be a bad force for everyone.
Clients risk compromised quality in spec work because there's no guarantee that the work the designer is doing is in any way beneficial for them. With no assurance of compensation, the dedication to the end product's worth can be questioned deeply. Planning and thought are key to any successful design, and these can be hindered or rushed in these circumstances.
For the client, this means they end up with a sub-grade product. For the designer, it can end up being an unfortunate dent in a portfolio.
As previously mentioned, the lack of compensation is the major controversy when discussing spec work. Ultimately, spec work results in a chance for compensation, not compensation. Basically, you work for free, and who really wants to do that?
The term compensation, however, does not necessarily correlate with money when it comes to spec work. A lot of the time, compensation is offered for spec work in the form of a chance of future employment or a chance to bolster your portfolio, clearly aimed at those desperate to get started in a creative career.
When you work for a fee, it generally reflects the amount of work involved. However, when you work for free, it doesn't matter how much you work; you work for free.
Legal concerns should also be considered when either a designer or a client engages in spec work. There's a big, and somewhat likely, risk for clients that spec work might be plagiarized, especially by those newer to the design field.
The promise of unpaid work is not motivating, and probably leads to much less effort in the final piece. Taking a look at this article brings up a ton of examples where "designers" have entered contests with blatantly-copied designs that have been manipulated with a derogatory result. It's incredibly easy, without any sort of contract in place, for a contestant to copy without any of the regular, important stages of designing.
For the client, that's bad, but designers can also get hit with legal problems too. Should you actually put effort into designing a piece of work, the lack of formal agreement means there's nothing defining who it belongs to. Do you own it, or does the potential client? If they go ahead and use, or copy, your design, you're likely going to lack any type of protection on your hard work.
The Research Stage
One of the most important stage of design is research, not only into the actual design itself, but also the company or organization commissioning it. Unfortunately, speculative work doesn't really allow enough time for this, especially since most are presented in the form of a time-limited contest.
Understanding a client's needs and compensating them with the end product makes a happy client, and a rushed design with little or no research and consultation probably isn't going to turn out that great.
Finally, there's an important sense of worth. Legal and monetary issues aside, your work seems worth less when it's campaigning to win a contest. A $500 contest with 100 entries means each design is only worth $5 (five dollars you probably won't see either), which is an insult to any good designer's effort and time.
A case study listed on 99design's website where a price of $809 was offered and 87 designs were received. When we do the calculations, that means each design was only valued at $19.30.
Are There Any Pros?
We've looked at the downsides for designers and clients, let's take a moment to look at the positives.
Being completely honest and just, there's probably is only one advantage to spec work and that's for the client. The client gets a choice of a bunch of different designs from a bunch of different designers for no more than the cost of one design from one designer. Pretty great, huh? Of course, that is conflicted by the ethics, compromised quality and plagiarism risk.
It's really important we don't confuse spec work with pro bono work, however. Pro Bono, latin for "for the public good", is work undertaken with little or no compensation, very much intentionally, and, like spec work, it's done in the hope for future employment. The difference between pro bono work and spec work comes down to worth. While the latter competes with other designers for a common goal, pro bono work maintains its full worth and value, but voluntarily surrenders it.
Pro bono work can also be a great way to augment your portfolio since it allows a designer to show off their skills when paid work is dry, doing so without risking any of the points in the previous sections.
Of course, pro bono work can be a great donation too. It's how a lot of small charities get their web designs, and other smaller businesses can benefit from your talent. Both parties win, and there's no third party who loses out yet through unrewarded efforts.
Spec work is a very controversial topic, shunned by most designers because of the very reasons we listed in the risks section. Unfortunately, there is a dark truth to the world of speculative work in the countless hours and millions of dollars of unpaid work that is taken in the hope that it will ensure future compensation, but has a small chance of doing so.
In my personal opinion, the disadvantages of spec work definitely outweigh the bonuses. Even though, for "freshmen", it can be a simple way of finding new projects, it's probably better to bolster a portfolio with pro bono and/or charitable work to get some real clients in the future, not ones who take advantage of, and patronize your work.
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