As the owner and partner of a credible, passionate, design studio, I would be remiss if I did not make a clear stand against and work to educate my readers on the horrible design contest fad that is sweeping the business community. To the design community, this is called SPEC Work. This is work that is completed before the designer and client ever meet, with the hopes of getting paid, if and only if the client chooses to pay for the work when it is presented.

Most recently this concept has been promoted and encouraged within the business community from large legacy corporations such as JC Penney and The Gap to the small business and entrepreneurs that are a staple of any local economy.

SPEC work is masked by the words “contest,” “proposal,” and “crowdsourcing” but they are all the same thing. The business posts a one page creative brief that is supposed to encapsulate all that they are and believe as a business to have hundreds of designers work on the same project with no promise of compensation. The client, in turn, gets to choose from hundreds of designs and only pay for the one that they want… maybe.

Sounds like a deal… right? Wrong!

Here is the best way for me to explain this to the non-design business community. We, as designers, are a professional service. We provide an invaluable service to your business for a fee. This is similar to doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc. Now, when you take your books to your accountant and ask them to do your taxes… do you only pay them if you think they did a good job filing? Do you hand out partial bits of information to many CPAs in the hopes that you will have hundreds of possible solutions for your taxes that year? Do you get to only pick and pay for the solution that you like, having the rest of the CPAs work for nothing? The only answer is NO! YOU DON’T!

In any situation, both the designer and client suffer from the results of SPEC Work. It is unethical in our industry and because the professional design community is a member of the business community, the NO!SPEC campaign should be supported by all businesses promoting ethical business practices.

Aside from the fact that this practice will continue to devalue our services to the business community, there are inherit downfalls for both the designer and client in any spec work situation.

AIGA, the Professional Association for Design, says it best.

AIGA’s Position On SPEC Work

“Clients risk compromised quality as little time, energy and thought can go into speculative work, which precludes the most important element of most design projects—the research, thoughtful consideration of alternatives, and development and testing of prototype designs.” – I couldn’t agree more. Our process has a huge emphasis on learning/researching the product/business and understanding the corporate personality and philosophies before we even begin sketching and brainstorming. SPEC Work doesn’t allow designers the opportunity to immerse themselves in the project to provide relevant solutions.

“Designers risk being taken advantage of as some clients may see this as a way to get free work; it also diminishes the true economic value of the contribution designers make toward client’s objectives.” - This is an obvious but very true statement. When you partner with the right designers, they ask you about your business goals and make their design decisions based supporting those efforts.

“There are legal risks for both parties should aspects of intellectual property, trademark and trade-dress infringements become a factor.” – As designers, we should always be explicitly clear as to the usage rights that are included in our service fees. Both sides should consult their attorneys. Most contests claim all artwork entered becomes the property of the client wether it is used or not.

Not all free work is considered SPEC Work. A designer may want to gift a loyal client or do a pro bono project for a cause they are passionate about. These are totally acceptable applications of free work for us designers.

Join the Conversation: OR #nospec

Get the Education:

See the Posters: NO!SPEC Posters

Check out the blog next week when look at the results of some prominent SPEC Work. We will review the process and outcome opening the discussion up to the business community about why this method of design does not benefit the end user.

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