Let’s get it straight, spec work damages the design profession, big time! It’s about time we creatives got together to say NO to everyone expecting free design work from us, including spec-based design contests…
For those that don’t know what spec work means, here’s an extended definition from the amazing bunch at NO!SPEC:
Basically, spec work is any kind of creative work rendered and submitted, either partial or completed, by designers to prospective clients before taking steps to secure both their work and equitable fees. Under these conditions, designers will often be asked to submit work under the guise of either a contest or an entry exam on actual, existing jobs as a “test” of their skill. In addition, the designers normally unwittingly lose all rights to their creative work because they failed to protect themselves by means of a contract or agreement. The clients often use this freely-gained work as they see fit without fear of legal repercussion.
I would like to confess, before I continue, that I have been guilty of engaging in spec work a few times at the beginning of my life as a surface pattern designer; mostly in the form of design competitions. I didn’t know better and thought that exposure of this kind would be beneficial to my budding business. I was wrong and I have learned my lessons…
For designers starting up, wanting to get out there and be seen, these design contests might seem like a heaven-sent opportunity. At the end of the day, there’s nothing to lose and MAYBE something to gain. Let me clarify, the chance of gaining something from it is very, very small… On the other hand, the companies creating these kind of contests will reap all the benefits! They don’t have the designers best interests at heart, they just want to make money out of our creative talent.
It’s going to take a lot to educate businesses and designers on this matter. Businesses see a great opportunity to get work for free when thousands of designers are willing to do it. Let’s be honest, if I run a company and need a new surface design to decorate one of my products, what sounds more profitable, to hire one designer and pay them what they’re worth or to round up hundreds of them, get to see and choose from bucketloads of designs, and pay them peanuts or with the promise of ‘exposure’? I know which one I would choose (if I wasn’t a designer myself)…
That’s why I think this has to start with us, the designers. If less and less of us turn up to these design competitions, maybe, just maybe, this trend will start to die off. If all of us decide to start valuing our work and apply zero tolerance to businesses trying to take advantage of our hunger for publicity, then this profession might have a chance. If we decide not to take action, this will probably snowball out of control, to the point where all companies will expect us to work for free and we will be facing extinction! As seen on the video below, I really can’t think of any other profession that would work on a speculative basis.
If you’re a new designer and are desperate for that exposure, to get your work in front of as many eyes as you can (and who doesn’t?), you can do this without having to turn to design comps/spec work. Maybe do some work for charities or non-profit organisations, something that gives back to the community (pro bono work). Or work on some self-initiated projects. Or do some work for friends & family, after all they have already invested in you!
Many design organisations have our backs on this. They disagree wholeheartedly with this kind of spec work. For example, this is what AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) thinks about it:
A designer shall not undertake any work for a client without adequate compensation, except with respect to work for charitable or nonprofit organizations. A designer shall not undertake any speculative projects, either alone or in competition with other designers, for which compensation will only be received if a design is accepted or used. This applies not only to entire projects but also to preliminary schematic proposals. A designer shall work only for a fee, royalty, salary or other agreed-upon form of compensation. A designer shall not retain any kickbacks, hidden discounts, commission, allowances or payment in kind from contractors or suppliers.
AIGA has also created a sample letter for speculative work. You could use this template (making the appropriate changes according to your situation) to reply to companies/organisations that request that you do work on a spec basis. You can find the downloadable PDF at the bottom of this post on their website.
Also, NO!SPEC has created a template letter you can use to contact companies that want to engage designers in spec-based design contests. Do visit their website, as it’s jam-packed with resources and very useful information about this topic.
Please join me in this cause, strength is in numbers. Take action now, spread the word, close that tab on your browser with that contest you’ve been wanting to enter, and forget it…
Don’t be shy and leave a comment… Tell me what your stance on this matter is.
And next time you’re tempted by a fabulous competition, even if it’s from a company you love and the prize sounds quite good, try to remember that your participation hurts us all…
Image credit: Spec Sucks poster by Jeff Andrews for NO!SPEC
Video credit: Zulu Alpha Kilo agency