Spec Work: Thoughts From A Designer

Spec Work: Thoughts From A Designer is a guest post that was written by MJ, a TeeFury curator and t-shirt blogger.

Spec Work: Thoughts From A Designer

Last week I posted an article titled Guy Kawasaki’s Design A Book Cover Contest: A Good or Bad Idea? It explored the use of spec work in the design and creation of Guy Kawasaki’s upcoming book, Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions. The article seemed to resonate a lot with both designers and non-designers, with both groups having very strong opinions on the issue [I highly recommend you check out the above mentioned posts, lots of great discussion within the comments section on how and why spec work is both good and bad for the design industry].

Since I had the chance to express my views as a non-designer on the topic of spec work, I thought it was only right to provide a different view – that of the graphic designer. In this post, MJ, curator at Teefury,  and seasoned blogger at Compete-Tee-Tion and Tee Magnet describes in her own words what spec work is and also explains how T-Shirt design contests can be considered spec work and yet still be beneficial to artists. MJ has submitted many a times to the ongoing design contest Threadless and has been printed at Design By Humans.

This is what MJ had to say:

What is Spec?

Spec work is a term used mainly by designers to refer to work being done without the promise of fair payment, literally “speculative work.” In this kind of scenario, a client often solicits work from a number of designers or companies, but announces that only the best will be paid. Of course, this means that the others who put in work will get nothing, and have wasted their time.

Even worse, that wasted time is not the only downside to spec work. Many would argue that the industry as a whole is also being devalued. With the rise of websites like CrowdSpring and 99designs, an increasing number of clients are crowdsourcing their projects rather than working one-on-one with a professional to meet their goals. That’s a reshaping of the traditional structure of the client-designer relationship, and the new system is thought by many to result in lower-quality results- quick work by hobbyists rather than polished, professional and well-thought-out solutions produced through collaboration between designer and client. If this is accurate, it is not just the designers losing out, but also those sourcing work this way.

Are Shirt Design Contests Spec?

In the sense that not all designers who participate will be paid, contest sites like Threadless and Design By Humans can be considered spec. I would argue, though, that since they do not typically demand custom artwork, they are a benign form of spec work- and, often, a form that is highly beneficial to all involved.

While still in some sense speculative, creating art for a t-shirt contest leaves you with options that other spec does not. Since it was not a custom solution (as, in comparison, a logo or brochure would be), it can be re-used. In fact, sites like Threadless often have a dual-use as de facto marketplaces for unprinted designs- even when you don’t win, your work can and likely will be seen by those purchasing designs for other companies.

Reputations can be made in the t-shirt contest world, largely because they’re so open in what can be submitted. There’s no limit on style, nor on subject, and there’s not even a deadline. In short, it’s very much like any other personal project… but with the possibility of 1) being paid handsomely and 2) accumulating fans. Some past participants have even gone on to build on that success by using their winnings to fund new shirt companies (Glennz now has Glennz Tees, Radiomode has launched Concrete Rocket, and FlyingMouse365.com is printing the designs from that artist’s daily design project that Threadless itself didn’t opt to produce).

Who Wins With Spec Work?

To me, this is the most important question. In some cases, such as Threadless, doing work that is technically speculative can lead to amazing possibilities – whether or not you claim the top prize. Traditional spec work, on the other hand, only has one winner- the person whose design is chosen.

Before you waste your time, take a hard look at spec. If there isn’t a substantial benefit to designs that aren’t chosen, chances are there are better ways to spend your time.

Photo courtesy of stock.xchange member zchizzerz.


  1. says

    I don’t have much to add, other than: “Well said”. I don’t think anyone has ever looked at Threadless / DesignByHumans as spec work, because in the end they take care of their community and reward the designers handsomely. Threadless has managed to redefine the T-shirt business, and in the process they have helped a lot of upcoming designers.

    The problem is with the competitions that require you to stick to a specific brief, making your work useless afterwards. On T-shirt competition sites, you are first and foremost an artist. But when Guy Kawasaki asks you to make his next book cover, you are a designer. Design should be (and is, by definition) tailored to the client. There is little or no potential for a book-cover design to be repurposed and sold elsewhere. That’s the problem with spec work, from the creator’s point of view.

    From the client’s point of view, spec work is also bad, because you get a worse result. People don’t get this, and I think that is the main point we, as designers/artists, have to convey in order for spec work to die.