spec-workOne of the hot-button issues in the design industry is spec work. The masses are split, and the most resolute seem to be the most vocal. This is a look at spec work and the pros and cons that make it an issue.

What is Spec Work?

Speculative work is work performed for a client before any agreement on terms and payment is made. It’s a test drive of sorts that gives the client a chance to get a glimpse of the final product before paying or committing to pay for the work. It’s most common in the design industry where projects are visual and can be very subjective.

One popular form of spec work is design contests where a company creates a contest for a design project. Designers create a design to enter the contest and only the best design (or the one chosen by the company) receives payment. This type of spec work is also known as crowdsourcing.

The Cons of Spec Work

According to NO!SPEC, a group of designers adamantly against spec work, “spec work devalues the potential of design and ultimately does a disservice to the client.” Some other reasons the group claims spec work isn’t good for the design industry include:

  • It creates a relationship based on distrust.
  • It diminishes the value of the designer’s experience.
  • Designers aren’t provided enough time to research the business, market and industry.
  • Spec work tends to be more about style (the designer’s sense of style) and less about relevancy for the company.
  • It’s an unethical business practice.

The AIGA’s long-standing position on spec work has been against it, but in 2008 they stated that their stance may need to take into account the frequency of open source work and how that plays into the industry. They have a Spec Work Task Force exploring the issue and they will be reporting to the AIGA board this month.

The Pros of Spec Work

Those in the pro-spec work camp have an equally compelling set of arguments. Some of the benefits of spec work include:

  • It gives new and less experienced designers a chance.
  • It’s inspires competition, which can result in higher quality.
  • The designer gets a chance to get their name out there and find more work.
  • It’s good practice and a portfolio-builder.
  • It gives designers a way to make quick money.
  • It presents the possibility of ongoing work if your design is chosen.

A recent article in Forbes, The Creativity of Crowds, says that crowdsourcing is a compelling concept that levels the playing field. The article claims that this type of competition model essentially helps freelancers feeling the burn from the down economy.

A post last month here on SitePoint, by Josh Catone, talks about the spec work debate, and points out some additional benefits, including the fact that design contests are the only practical option for some companies facing budget constraints, and that they are a part of the future of design. Some of the comments to that post argue against these factors, reinforcing that this is certainly an issue of contention.

I, personally, have not done and probably wouldn’t do spec work, but I am not against the idea as a whole. While it doesn’t support my business model, I think there can be tremendous value for designers and companies who benefit from it. And it encourages competition, which makes us all better at what we do.

So, do YOU do spec work and if so why or why not?

Image credit: Sanja Gjenero