I had a “come to Jesus” moment a few nights ago. It wasn’t planned, but I guess that just how these things go. The plan for the night was to leave work, go to my old apartment and pick up the rest of my stuff, then head over to Jake and Shondi’s house to dig on some BBQ’d ribs with our friend Joe who’s in from Chicago. Joe decided to stay up in Copper to ride, and the ribs apparently had gone bad, so the evening’s plans were off. No big deal. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but Micah and I somehow got into a spec work discussion in my office which eventually involved Heather Capri, Grant Blakeman (who actually wrote a totally kick-ass article a while back about why his company doesn’t do free spec work), Andrew Hyde, and two dudes who I can’t remember their names because I’m awesome like that (sorry).
I’m not going to recap the whole discussion because if you’ve ever had one on the topic of spec work, then you already know how it goes. What was important for me about this discussion was that it really helped me sort through my feelings on the topic. The conclusion that I’ve come to, which I suppose I knew before, but that I’m now 100% comfortable with is: I don’t exactly know how I feel about spec work.
This may be disconcerting to the people who I’m sharing a panel with at SXSW, especially because I’m technically supporting the “spec work is evil” side. The truth is, I don’t think spec work is evil, per se. The main reason I’m supporting the “it’s evil” side, is because the panel title presents the topic in black and white, and I am more against than I am for (though I’m not really for it at all, but I’ll get into that). That being the case, I’m officially stating my position of being grey.
I’ve been a professional graphic designer for a decade. I’ve been involved in the nuts-and-bolts of running a company for roughly half of that time. I’m declaring “grey pride” because I can see both sides of the issue. There’s the designer side that says: spec work is unethical, damaging to the relationship between designer and client, and signals the beginning of the end of our industry as we know it; and then there’s the business side that says: spec work is a common sense way to get previously cost-prohibitive work done for a more “reasonable” price and in a way that provides more options. That isn’t to say that I agree with both sides, just that I understand where each side is coming from.
A lot of designers who I’ve gotten in conversations with about spec work seem to fuel their passion with information about super-worst-case scenarios and over-indulgent metaphors for why spec work will destroy the universe. I mean no disrespect to the folks responsible for that link, but what I’m seeing is a trend of inadvertently creating an army of designers who hate spec work, but in their own words, aren’t exactly sure why. There’s nothing wrong with being passionate, but sadly the conversations that I’ve had with “for spec” people make me realize that this is a one-sided “war.”
Listening to (and being involved in) both sides of the conversation the other night in my office, I found myself swaying back-and-forth between viewpoints. No one was for spec work, but the question kept being raised, “why is it bad?” Regardless of what the answer was, the issue continued to be based upon ethical and moral standpoints. This was the sticking point for me. Some people may think that ethics and morality is a black-and-white issue. Those people belong to a group I like to call “wrong,” even though I’m fully aware that my idea of “wrong” is based upon my own ethics and morals. Before this turns into a philosophy lecture that I’m inadequate to serve, I’ll get back on track.
The fact is, spec work is becoming more and more common place (though keep in mind that it’s still pretty uncommon – so far). In the past, companies like Threadless have worked hard to make it clear how what we do isn’t spec work. Now, even companies who exist by mirroring our business model have dipped their big toe in the spec pond by partnering with large companies like Quicksilver and requiring the use of name and logos in order to take part in a promotion.
Clearly there’s a segment of the graphic design community who are willing to participate in open-call-style design “competitions” that clearly fall into the “spec work” category. So, is it bad? Again, this is an ethical issue. Each designer has to choose for themselves whether they want to support a company that’s willing to utilize practices that are usually seen as “evil” from within it’s own community. If a company who uses spec work has a community of designers who don’t see a problem with spec work, where’s the problem?
The problem isn’t spec work itself, but the exploitation of the model in an online setting. Without the internet, I honestly don’t believe that the “spec or no spec” discussion would be a hot topic. What makes it a hot topic is how fast the internet can be a catalyst to create a huge shift in the marketplace. Furthermore, the issue isn’t completely that spec work is being used online, but that the exploitation of it has become a niche business in and of itself. There are a good handful of companies responsible for the rise of the spec model as a stand-alone business, but for obvious reasons I’m not going to list them so as to not promote them. However, I will briefly talk about one because I’m speaking on a panel at SXSW assembled by their founders. That company is crowdSPRING.
From a purely business perspective, crowdSPRING is a great business. They have an active, growing user base; they have a growing number of projects that are posted on a regular basis; and they probably make money. Companies like crowdSPRING have successfully found a niche that pair inexperienced designers with D-level companies. Personally, I don’t see a problem with this. Beginning graphic designers need to cut their teeth somewhere, and there are tons of companies out there whose businesses aren’t dependent on how good their design is, as critiqued by the design community at large. What I do have a problem with is the lack of ownership of their actions – and this isn’t relegated only to crowdSPRING. On more than a few occasions, the founders of crowdSPRING have dodged the “why do you think what you’re doing is OK?” question by citing Threadless as parallel to them.
Of course I realize this is probably a more personal issue than a fundamental problem with the type of business that they’re doing, but I think it’s an important example. Anyone who is going to take their spec-work-based business and put it side-by-side with Threadless and not see the difference may be in trouble as far as fully understanding the nuances of the topic at hand. For us, it’s cool, because we are 100% aware of where we stand and what we’re doing. Much like Keanu Reeves in the movie Speed, I have enough confidence in what I do that I don’t mind being thrown under the bus to try to defuse the message of a madman.
The problem with crowdSPRING and all other project-based “design contest” companies out there is this: While clients may think they know what they want, they rarely have any idea of what they really need, and that’s usually punctuated with having terrible taste. Companies like crowdSPRING fool these potential clients into thinking this isn’t the case. Sure, this is based upon opinion, but it’s also based upon experience. The fact is, not knowing what you really need isn’t a crime, and it’s OK to have bad taste. Good businesses are run by people who are fully aware of their strengths and their weaknesses. Great businesses are run by people who are willing to have their weaknesses pointed out to them and not get offended by it. Truthfully, none of this really matters for your “mom and pop flower shop” that’s just looking to get something to put on a sign.
Where it does matter is when companies who “know better” (I put that in quotes because I’m aware this is an arguable topic all by itself) and who can afford professional design work and will still choose to participate in a “contest” for work simply because it’s cheap. Now, will this create the depression amongst the design industry? Does this devalue design work as a whole? I don’t know. I’m not an economist, and that level of nerdery is not in my skill set. I do know that the names of the companies participating on these sites get more recognizable everyday, and that can’t lead to anything positive for the design community for as fast as it’s happening.
Consider this: if Hollywood started allowing anyone to use their web cam to audition for any role from the comfort of their homes, there’d likely be the same backlash in the acting community as there is with designers and the current set of spec-work project sites. What’s most interesting about considering Hollywood, is that it’s an industry built on spec work. That said, is Hollywood evil?
As an aspiring actor or actress, one is expected to audition for their roles. They spend unpaid time preparing to compete for a role by learning specific lines and actions that they’ll do in front of a casting director who will decide which person’s portrayal best fit within their vision of the part. Is this spec work? Sure it is. Is it evil? I don’t know… maybe – but who’s to say? The reality is that it’s grey area, and it’d only be an issue if someone made it one. Each actor or actress is fully aware of the risks involved in spending their time preparing to audition knowing full well the possibility of not landing the part. Again, awareness equals grey area. Hollywood would not exist without this grey area.
Before this gets taken out of context in order for someone else to show support of spec work, let me be clear: I’m conveying the importance that grey area has in any industry, not trying to push the idea that spec work is OK.
During one particular part of the conversation that we all had the other night, one of the people said “people will die” in the context of what will happen if the graphic design industry collapses from spec work. My immediate response was “no one is going to die from spec work,” which he quickly agreed and said that it was a joke. Only, for some people – they’re not kidding. For the people on the far left of this subject, extreme examples aren’t uncommon.
Oddly, there tends to be an incredible lack of reality when talking to some designers about spec. As mentioned above, this likely has to do with the lack of useful information (and the abundance of extreme examples) that would allow someone to formulate a rational opinion on the subject. Sure, someone could be completely rational in exploring the subject independently and still end up as a flag waiving spec hater, but I haven’t found this to be the norm.
What bums me out the most about this sort of information, is that if there was a “war”, the designers would be losing it because of this minority of extremists. It’s silly to have hard line stance on a topic without fully understanding the other side’s point of view. The perception of the “other side” is that the people who run businesses that employ the use of spec work to complete projects are “evil.” You’ll hear arguments like “they post a project where a hundred designers submit work with the intention of paying only one person and screwing over ninety-nine.” The last bit is where we go off the deep end.
Let’s suspend our moral and ethical feelings about spec work to take a peek into what I feel is probably the most common scenario: A business owner submits a project to one of the spec-work-based project sites out there. They have $500 and they’re looking to create a logo. They get 100 submissions, choose one and pay the “winner” $500. I don’t think I’m the only designer in the world who feels that the business owner’s satisfaction comes from finding the one design they like and paying for it, and not “screwing over” the 99 designers they didn’t choose. Do sadistic people exist? Sure. Do some of them run businesses? Probably.
I think that a lot of the anger that’s coming from the design community is a little misguided. There’s nothing wrong with feeling passionate about potential rapid changes to their industry, but I feel that their energy would be better served in trying to educate the average person about the realities of the issue, and not simply pidgeon-holing every user as a monster.
I realize I haven’t even scratched the surface of the issue, and that’s OK. There’s no way I’d choose to get so involved in this issue that I’d spell out what’s fully happening on both sides. What I’m hoping you will take away from this is an understanding that it’s normal to be confused, and it’s OK to not be sure of where you stand. The only thing that’s not OK to do is take a side without (1) fully understanding your position, in your own words, and (2) fully understanding the other side’s position and motivation.
So does this mean that I’m OK with spec work? Absolutely not. Just because I see and understand both sides of the issues, doesn’t change the fact that my personal opinion is that spec work is a bad practice, especially when it’s packaged nicely as an internet business.
I am a realist, however, so I don’t discount the fact that if spec work does change the industry, but in a way that turns out to be more positive for designers than originally thought, I may change my point of view. We’ll see, but I’m not counting on it.
Ultimately, I’d like people to understand that this really is a personal issue for each person involved. If the spec topic is treated like a war, it’ll never be won on either side. To reiterate the example of the Threadless clone dabbling in spec work – if they’re OK with pushing it, and there’s designers OK with taking on a project like that – where’s the problem?
The best thing to do for both sides is to get fully educated. Spend some time researching it. Spend some time talking to people on both sides. Read about the extreme examples. Read about the ones that may-or-may-not be spec depending on how you look at it. Get informed and make up your own mind about it. Sure it’s easier to only discuss this topic with people who have the same point of view as you have, but it’s also somewhat useless. Like anything – if you really care about it, take the time to see all the angles. Besides, how’s that old saying go? Keep your friends close…