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.

Guy Kawasaki’s Design A Book Cover Contest: A Good or Bad Idea?

I should first note that I do not consider myself to be a graphic designer in any way. I wish I had the skills of the artists whom I profile on a daily basis, but alas, I do not. Having said that, I’d like to talk a little bit about the controversy surrounding the Design A Cover project set forth by Guy Kawasaki on the crowdsourcing site, CrowdSpring.

Two days ago, the former Apple Evangelist, social media guru and Alltop founder, posted a call for entries for people that were interested in designing a cover for an upcoming book project of his, Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions. Kawasaki used the site CrowdSpring to open up the contest to those who were interested. CrowdSpring is a site that individuals can use to find professional designers to create things like logos, stationary, illustrations, and even clothing designs. Here’s an excerpt from the CrowdSpring About Us page:

By helping Buyers reach countless creatives across the globe, we’re changing the game for the little guy. Now small businesses, one-man shops and individuals anywhere can tap into a global pool of creatives for logo design, web design, company name, product name, packaging design, and many other graphic design, industrial design and writing projects. – CrowdSpring

Soon after Kawasaki posted the contest offering on CrowdSpring he of course let his Twitter followers know, all 258,000 plus. To the surprise of many, there was what seemed to be a backlash from a subset of Kawasaki’s Twitter followers. Designers revolted and accused Kawasaki of offering “spec work” that in effect ripped off the designers that entered and would have a negative effect on other designers within the industry. Here are a few of the Twitter comments:

“@frenden @GuyKawasaki add that up for all the people involved and that’s a LOT of free work for nothing” via @progressions.

“@GuyKawasaki If exploiting the hard work of others equals a pay off, I’ll pass.” via @frenden.

“@GuyKawasaki How about you just use your money to hire a legitimate illustrator rather than taking advantage of the inexperienced? #nospec” via @LandauArt.

Those are some strong words right there coming from experienced graphic designers (Frenden and LandauArt).

So, let’s back up a little but. Some of you might be wondering: What the heck is “Speck work?”

Spec work (short for speculative) is any job for which the client expects to see examples or a finished product before agreeing to pay a fee.

Basically, a client offers a job to any designer interested in the job. The client then, theoretically, receives multiple submissions from a variety of designers. He then picks the one that he likes the best and then pays that specific designer. The other designers who also submitted their work will receiving nothing for the work that was submitted and rejected.

Designers tend to prefer clients review the portfolios of various designers and then offer the job to a single designer that best fits their needs. The designer would then negotiate his/her rate with the client and would then design the project for that client.

Seasoned designers often hate the concept of “spec work” because:

  1. the designers commits time to a project, but is guaranteed nothing in return.
  2. the designers are forced to prove their worth when in fact the potential client can simply refer to the designers portfolio.
  3. some designers consider spec work to be a major ethical flaw.
  4. “unlike other industries is unique in that the intellectual property is put into your deliverable, and when the client asks for you everything you have to put into the project to think about purchasing.” via Andrew Hyde.

So now that you understand what “spec work” is and why many designers loathe it, let’s discuss why I think Guy Kawasaki’s Design A Cover Project is not so bad of an idea. In fact, I think it is an awesome idea.

First a few facts.

Guy Kawasaki is an established figure with a reputable background. He is respected within the tech industry and thought to be a forerunner in the social media movement.

Crowdsourcing*/spec work has become a major part of the social media movement. There are many examples in which large company’s provide an open call to designers to submit their work with no guarantee of payment. Threadless, for example, receives thousands of T-Shirt design submissions each week and only prints a handful of new T-Shirts each week. Needless to say, there are many people that submit to Threadless with no guarantee that they will receive payment for their work.

However, as Andrew Hyde has pointed out before:

“Bandwagon fallacies don’t work for a lot of things, including this. If you are talking about ThreadLess, they have done a very good job a) paying their designers fair market value b) involving a community in the beauty of design that traditionally would have been left out and c) making clear that the designs are done for the love of design, not for a 3rd party to profit off of.”

But I have seen other up-and-coming T-Shirt design contest sites use the same model and not pay nearly as much as Threadless. Some of these sites pay $500 or less. And let’s not forget that Threadless, when first starting out, did not pay market value like they do today. Hyde also notes in point c: “designs are done for the love of design, not for a 3rd party to profit off of.” But come on, at the end of the day Threadless loves design BUT they also love bringing in the money. They are a business, a multi-million dollar business that thrives on spec work.

UPDATE 1 (8/2/2010 at 10:45 am): Some people in fact do not consider what Threadless does to be “spec work.” Here’s one reason why according to Creative Pro:

Some designers believe that sites like threadless.com are a better alternative to cattle-call contests. Threadless produces t-shirts based on artwork submitted by designers. Winning artwork not only gets printed up but also bags the designer $2,000. Why is threadless different? Members of the site — designers themselves — vote on each design. It’s a collaborative community-based decision rather than the edict of a client who may not be well informed about the nuances of successful design.

However, if I am going by the definition of spec work provided earlier, “any job for which the client expects to see examples or a finished product before agreeing to pay a fee.” then I have to say that Threadless is in a fact a form or a type of spec work. It is true that the designers vote on submitted designs and the chosen designs that go to print are a combination of Threadless discretion and communities votes. But at the end of the day, though, there are still many, many people who submit to Threadless who spend countless hours on a project before they are selected as a winner and if they are not selected as a winner then they do not receive any payment. They do, however, retain all rights to the artwork and can resell or submit to other sites or even produce the product on their own. Does the community involvement not make what Threadless does spec work?

Back to Kawasaki’s Design A Cover project. Why would I do it?

  1. If you are an up-and-coming designer, with little to no real world experience then you’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.
  2. It’s not just about the $1000, but it’s what could potentially arise from you making a connection with Guy Kawasaki.
  3. Kawasaki is a big time player in the social media world and tech industry. He tweets a lot, but more importantly, he engages with his community of loyal followers and friends through multiple mediums.
  4. In fact, he is already engaging with his community in regards to this project. Submissions are already being seen by thousands on Alltop and comments and feedback are plentiful.
  5. Even if your design is not selected, there is a good chance that it will be seen somehow. In fact, this is what Kawasaki did the last time he ran a similar cover contest in 2004: Design Eye For The Startup Guy Contest. There is even speculation that non-winning cover designers may make it to the back of the cover sleeve.
  6. Kawasaki’s rate of $1000 is reasonable and competitive. This site (Alpha Advertising) offers a professional package that is priced at $1000. This designer (Archer Graphics) specializes in book covers and charges $800-$900. And there are a few more here that charge the same or similar rate.
  7. If the design is not selected, it would make for a good portfolio piece.

At the end of the day, I think Kawasaki’s Design A Cover project is an excellent idea and a wonderful way to network and build your portfolio. Professional designers may not think this and rightfully so. They have the experience, payroll, and contacts to allow them that right. They have the right to refuse work and offer their own rates. Up-and-coming designers may not have the same privilege and may jump at the opportunity to work with Kawasaki to get their work out there and rightfully so – they should not be persecuted or looked down upon for this decision.

As an outsider looking in (I’m not participating in this contest) and as a non-designer that is enthusiastic about social media, I must say that this battle between Kawasaki and a select subset of designers has intrigued me. Let’s not forget the old saying of you get what you pay for. Kawasaki may not get the most renown book cover artist to design his cover, but he is doing what he does best for many years now – engaging with his community in a positive and interactive way. He could easily pay someone $5000 to design a cover for him, heck he could pay much more than that. But that’s not what he does. He engages his community. This is him doing exactly that.

This Design A Cover project is not about ripping off professional artists, but rather, providing an opportunity to those who 1. are not as fortunate as those professional designers that are on a steady and current payroll, and 2. simply want to enter just for the heck of. If in fact Kawasaki did go the “review a bunch of portfolios” route, he would be ignoring almost all of the people that fall under type #2 (those that simply want to enter just for the heck of) – bad idea considering he would be ignoring a large portion of his rabid fans, a death move for a social media guru like Kawasaki. And of course, up-and-coming designers tend to have small network, which would theoretically reduce their chance of being reviewed by Kawasaki. By crowdsourcing the book cover design, Kawasaki is not only reaching out to all designer types, both seasoned veterans and fresh up-and-comers, but he is also extending the offer to his large fan base.

Guy Kawasaki is definitely using social media to his advantage. Is he abusing it? I don’t think. Is he making the experience interactive, fun and enticing? I think so.

What do you think? I know that I am probably opening myself up to a can of worms BUT I’d still love to hear what you have to say about the issue! Let your voice be heard and leave a comment below.

*I use the term crowdsourcing synonymously with spec work HERE because in fact, crowdsourcing as we know it is a form of spec work. It is an open call to large group of people to get a particular task done. Threadless considers themselves to be a company that thrives on crowdsourcing. However, I should note that in the case of Threadless, both the designer and Threadless retain all rights to the designs. At CrowSpring, the buyer (in this case Kawasaki) becomes the “sole and exclusive owner and copyright proprietor of all rights” pertaining to the design.

Here’s an excellent video from SXSW 2009 that looks at spec work from both perspectives:

Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions

Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions