Designers: Why Spec Work Is Not Going Away –How You Should Respond

Update: I’ve now experimented with Specwork to better understand the issue, and will be sharing the good –and bad –on stage on SXSW, read more

To some, this topic is going to be controversial, but before you leave an emotional comment, please understand I’m approaching this challenge from a business perspective and have thought this through from multiple angles.

“Spec work” is a proof of concept design that a designer may provide to a prospect. If it’s accepted they get the deal, if not, they are usually unpaid for this spec work.

Backlash Against Spec Work (Proof of Concepts)
Recently, my former colleague Charlene Li received some negative flack for her choice to crowdsource logo design for her unfunded startup. She used crowdSPRING which resulted in many logo designs that were created for her that she could then choose from and refine. Obviously most of the designers never got paid for this, yet one designer received the payment of a few hundred bucks. This was the right choice for her, given her focus on social, and her very young startup, she goes on to rightfully suggest that the larger sized design firms would never be in this space, and that crowdSPRING serves the need of the untapped long tail.

She’s not the only one, the talent company Aquent also crowdsourced the design of their website by using a contest for 99 Designs resulting in mixed opinions. To hear the perspective of crowdSPRING, the co-founder Ross Kimbarovsky shares his thoughts on 37 Signals, both debating the good and bad of this service, be sure to read the comments. Update: As seen in the comments from Lucretia, Andrew Hyde tells why he thinks crowdSPRING is unethical and evil.

Designers: Why Spec Work Is Not Going Away –How You Should Respond

Spec Work and Proof of Concepts a Common Business Practice. Buyers of designs are often buying creativity and flexibility, as a result, buyers will want to see this demonstrated. Furthermore, spec work occurs each and every day in the market, software, agencies, and beyond not only submit their existing portfolio and customer references, but also provide proof of concepts to brands –this is an expected behavior. Take for example the community platform space (one I cover as an analyst) they often provide proof of concepts for their prospects at no charge, often they have to also demonstrate their flexibility as they may integrate with the prospects website or systems in an unseen ‘sandbox’.

Crowdsourcing isn’t anything new, and will only increase, especially during recession. We’ve heard this same argument against the crowds before, towards journalists, encyclopedias, photographers, music artists, classified ads, retailers, service professionals, towards recruiters, and on and on. While these social technologies allow for innovation, they do cause disruptions to many, what remains is the higher quality services, they don’t go away. This is progress, and it’s not going away, As the market dips, designers will go the extra mile to get business, expect an increase in spec work

Crowdsourced Design Meets the Needs Of Long Tail Market –But May Lack Quality. Like every other industry I mentioned above, the ‘amaterurism’ of media and knowledge results in an increase of demand, but increase in lower quality work. As a result, the need for higher end services will continue to be in demand, as buyers want to stand out. In theory, there is enough room for each. Read this long post by 37 Signals that suggests that most designers cannot live on Spec Work. In the comments you’ll read that those that participate in spec work may be looking for work, just starting off their design career, or are amateurs looking to get hired.

Designers must realize this increases demand for their services. Crowdsourcing designs injects new revenues into the industry that previously were not there. Now that many can create a blog using free or cheap software, you should expect an increase in demand for personal brands. Those that truly want to stand out will find low cost design alternatives. The web has created a new market for design, increasing demand, and growing the pie. Disparaging crowdsourced design is counter intuitive as it’s meeting an increase in demand.

Designers should not embrace No-Spec –instead know the right and wrong time to do spec work. An org called “No!Spec” which is much like a union for designers is rallying professionals not to do unpaid spec work. They’ve an active blog, have grassroots movement, and are gaining steam. Considering the economy is getting worse, designers will be hungry, yet the demand for personal brand projects will increase, designers should not join the no-spec movement. Instead, they should make the decision when it’s appropriate to demonstrate their creativity and flexibility with their prospects, and know when to walk away.

As a result, designers just getting started will embrace crowdsourced design and specs, they can reach a larger prospect base, and will get more exposure. Designers that deliver on strategy and long term relationships will continue to engage in high value engagements shouldn’t shy away from specs –esp as the economy tightens. Of course, focusing on existing portfolios, customer testimonials, will be a great starting point, but demonstrating creativity and flexibility through spec work will set them apart from competitors.

My Experiences With Web Design and Spec Work
I started off my career as a UI designer, I understand the challenges, thrills, and passion to this career and craft, believe me, I have empathy for the job. Recently, I have decided to redesign my blog, and have sought after web design services. I chose to hire a web designer that can give me soup to nuts design and implementation, and really understand the strategy of my blog rather than crowdsource it in pieces. I had two designers in the running, who both provided specs (non paid to me) this makes sense, as I was hiring them on their creative and flexibility. Of course, I reviewed their existing work and portfolio but decided not to go with one of them, they were certainly experienced and professional, but I needed a specific focus, as a result, I voluntarily wrote him a check for his time, this is just as a professional courtesy as he worked so hard on the specs. It wasn’t a huge amount, but certainly enough for a steak dinner for one or two. Keep in mind, all of the money for the redesign, and tribute check for the comps is coming out of my own pocket, this is a personal project.

Your Thoughts?
I hope you found my perspective and recommendation to be balanced and fair, I’ve tried to look at this from all viewpoints. Still, I’d love to hear your opinion, knowing that the increase in demand for personal brands will increase, and that more social software will appear to make crowdsourcing design possible, and the recession causing designers to seek more work –how should designers respond?

  • I have read thru the post and most of the replies. Mostly to see what everyone is saying. I am NOT a designer.

    So if designers don’t like or do, spec work [and I understand that to be one piece at a time?], and some of the mass-run places aren’t up to par on creativity, what do we small businesses do?
    For instance, I need a soap box designed for now. I have an idea, but that’s all it is.
    Later I will need labels designed, but isn’t this spec work? One piece at a time?

    I’ve been to 3 designers, all recommended, and have paid in the low to mid 4 figures. I have nothing to show for it.

    Jeremiah, maybe you could write a blog on what to look for in a designer? What to ask, how to determine who is and is not a good designer? Just how can one tell X is a good listener and knows how to execute the listening skills into results without soaking the client in the meantime?

    One would think by now, I would know. I don’t.
    I apologize if this is the wrong place to post this.


  • Holy Crap, how could anyone find the time to read all those comments. Great article. People most often hire designers they like -portfolios being equal. Have an exquisite portfolio and don’t be an ass and you’ll get work. There’s always a market for quality.

    Provide more service than you are paid to deliver and you’ll have a job forever.

    Do the projects that are truly meaningful and enjoyable to you and you’ll never have to work another day again.

    How’s that?
    oh yeah, love – evolve
    (that should pretty much end the thread)

  • Great post. I followed the Crowdspring story as it unfolded on Charlene’s blog and was caught off guard by the controversy; amazing passion behind the no-spec movement.

    This past week I ran into the President of AIGA at our SFAMA mixer and discussed this topic. We both thought it might make sense to put on a debate event on spec work. Please let us know what you think. And Jeremiah, would you consider moderating if people are interested in supporting this proposed event?

  • vk

    I say stick with the professionals, like Bernie Madoff!

  • Joe

    Let’s look at it from a bottom-line business perspective:

    Over ten-thousand creatives work for CrowdSPRING, INC. LLC for free. You aren’t paid wages, benefits, sick leave, vacation-pay, Christmas bonus or health insurance — whether you work part-time here-and-there or slave away 8 hours a day developing and executing custom design services on behalf of crowdSPRING’s clients. That’s one view.

    Another is, it’s your choice. Fine. Do it for the love of it. And hey, you get to choose your own hours working on behalf of crowdSPRING. But please don’t be one of those ten-thousand “employees” who gets paid nothing plus overtime. Get out of it whatever it is you get out of it. Just don’t let yourself become a sucker.

    But here’s where things break down. If you get a paycheck at all…ever…anything…even maybe approaching minimum wage for all the time and effort you put in, if you’re lucky — the problem is you still rarely get a paycheck for your skill, ability or the immaculate suitability of your design solutions. (And sure, let’s be honest — visual communication pros have done crap work. And sometimes someone with no training or experience does an outstanding job. But not often, on both counts).

    What crowdSPRING employees (er, “contest” “entrants”) have to bet on — and stop me if I’m wrong — is the off-chance that the kind of “client” who wants a last-second brand identity done in a week for $500 (sometimes based on a 200-word brief made up on the spot), STILL nevertheless has the skill, experience, time, awareness and understanding to recognize which random entry is not only the most superbly-crafted, not only entirely original and copyrightable, not only befitting the industry and right on target for the market & the business’s culture and personality — but ALSO the best-fitting for realizing the long-term needs, goals and plans that will best position that individual company to survive and thrive in the future.

    Oh, and they’d better be darn sure they’re not utilizing a ripped-off design concept already owned by another company, or are distributing something created illegally using stolen fonts and pirated software.

    A quick look at the “contest” winners reveals that whole hell of a lot of these “clients” can’t seem to even get to the level of recognizing basic logo craftsmanship — let alone parse through some of the other considerations just mentioned. (And why do “contests” have “buyers” anyway? Who buys a contest?)

    But I guess we should remember, after all, these “buyers” aren’t expert communications consultants. Or experienced art directors. Or brand managers. Or print production specialists. And how many times has a “client” slapped their award on some piece of (to put it politely) shudder-worthy crapola?

    As far as I’m concerned, that’s really where the model crashes.

    It doesn’t crash because the insight and guidance of an experienced and talented design professional counts for far more than these sites’ self-selected last-second “buyers” understand.

    It doesn’t crash because when content becomes cheap, quality plummets. Or because quality, though not cheap, is a much better value than “buy cheap, buy twice.”

    It crashes because you get what you put in and what you pay for is the first law of life and business:

    Fast. Cheap. Good.

    Pick Two.

    It crashes because this season’s “paradigm-busting” “rock-star” “revolutionary” buzz-fad business model is not crowdsourcing, so much as student/newbie/hobbiest/copycat/sucker/spammer-sourcing.

  • It’s a little late to reply, but Jeremiah, I’d suggest that young designers do pro-bono work or find clients that will pay them something.

    My billing rate has increased steadily over the years as I got better at what I do, and better at selling it. I think most of us are like that.

    The problem with design is that it’s subjective. It’s difficult to say something like “this design converted over 100,000 people more than that design.” We think it’s true. We hope it’s true, but design outside of some very controlled areas just isn’t measurable the way we like to measure results.

    My wife’s secret has been to be a good businesswoman in addition to putting out good work. The client usually can’t tell that the image moved three pixels to the left is perfect, but they can recognize when the person they are working with is confident, easy to talk to, and delivers something they like.

    The problem with spec work is it’s a shot in the dark. Like any business project, it takes knowing the brand and the client to do well, and if creative is simply a matter of throwing together something cool, than there really isn’t a point in paying much for it.

    If creative is something different – if it’s an essential part of the decision-making process, then crowdsourcing it is foolish.

    You’ll get something – you may even get something you’re happy with, but as Matthew Grant pointed out – it’s not always a happy ending.

    Companies that commoditize their suppliers make save money in the short run, but they always lose quality in the long run. That may work for crackers and sugar packets, but it’s not such a smart idea when you market your products.

    So junior designers? They should work on their selling skills, and make sure they know how to get the right kind of work, instead of putting their talent into low-paying drudge work that ultimately drives them out of the business.

  • Crowdsourcing has one merit in most cases; You make it–They make money from it. It’s a common practice and ultimately proves more beneficial to the standardized factory business model that has homogenized creative work for the sake of efficiency. And because they don’t get it or can’t be bothered to understand it.

    This type of value center is often learned on the client-side. And it takes several creatives a few lessons as martyrs, to end the process. Clients are at fault here as well. I have no qualms about saying this. But I most certainly can not condone the use of these sites either.

    This practice is disgusting and I find it very interesting that people who consider themselves specialists, with the ability to distribute, promote and communicate commodities to mass markets, would even suggest that this practice is fair. And in-effect, perpetuate it with a rationale, self-serving mentality.

    Spec, in most cases, is guess work. Which in-turn throws the self-taught or educated designer back into the perception of artisit. We all know this is not what we provide as a service. We also know the value of work with meaning and purpose. Forget passion. Everyone has that. Think of this instead; Designers provide solution that utilizes the broader visual language to communicate; ideas, products and services, clearly and effectively within a relative context.

    Guess work leads to homogenization. It cheats the creative of their talents and the client of a unique communication piece.

    In the end, remember that we all have ideas. Everyone of us. But we make money based on the amount of time it takes to execute these ideas. This involves client-education in some cases. In doing so, we see the original and innovative rise to the top much faster–naturally. Creatives who can afford to explore, reinvent and valuate their own services, will always find themselves wealthier then the other. And their book will speak–so they won’t need to.

    I suppose the only contribution I can offer to this controversial subject is this; What are you worth as a creative? What is your idea worth? What will your idea do for your client? –When you can answer these questions, you’ll figure out why it is important to value creativity. Even when it exceeds well beyond a design piece or a brand identity. The creation of value through the value of creativity.

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  • Solid and pragmatic advice, Jeremiah – nice post. Trying to regulate the industry is like holding the ocean back with a broom – ain’t going to happen.

    It happened in the photo industry with digital cameras, online tutorials and sights like iStock – it’s now happening to design.

    If this is a war between professional freelancers (like me) and part-time designers just trying to earn a buck, than it’s only appropriate I give my fellow professional designers a US Marine mantra, “Improvise, Adapt and Overcome”.

    I’ve got more insights on my blog at

    Again, really good insights my friend.

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  • Good post Jeremiah. I find that working with a designer that understands the goals of a website is important, especially for CMS – content managed sites. CMS sites tend to be more complex and need a designer who understands how Web sites work in a CMS environment.

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  • ‘work done without compensation, for the client’s speculation’
    as defined by AIGA

    a redefined strategy for this business source, & a question:

    the client would not ‘have’ speculation, as this definition suggests… work would need be done ‘for’ a client’s consideration or review relative to a specific purpose… so this definition should be revised to something such as, “artistic renderings for submittal to a specific business marketing need, as for consideration to purpose”

    so, first, with regard to a specification, or ‘request’ for submissions… is thought given to the client’s specific need & overall marketing philosophy… is the need then assigned to, or given success or best use marketing approach status, & then matched appropriately to a random, but select group of designers for purposes of ‘best fit,’ so that your designers are a tailored group, & the client’s need is assessed & evaluated, so that use of the ‘winning entry’ is then customized to fit the scheme.

    secondly, you’ve obviously approached this by ‘spec work’ designers’ success, or lack thereof, so, has the client’s success been a thought? have those businesses faired-well, so that your artistic talent has criteria for a portfolio of opportunity as they move forward with their body of work?

    companies such as Crowdspring should be providing a much broader scope of work, than to just bring the two together…

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  • Objective VIew

    I keep hearing that agencies will not participate in this type of arena. Really? So when a company is looking for a new ad campaign, and they publish a Request for Proposal, do people think that no agencies participate? Time for a reality check.

    Creative agencies respond to RFPs constantly. It’s their primary way of doing business. They design logos, websites, posters, billboards, even make mock commercials or write programs to win the business (“Win” is a common term in the agency game. Interesting, yes?). Some agencies (even small ones) will apply hundreds of man-hours to spec work in the hopes they beat out their rivals at other agencies.

    If you want to do work for the government, you’d better be prepared to develop and turn over your ideas, designs, schedules, etc. as part of the process. And you have no idea how many others are competing for the same business. It’s how business is done.

    Why is spec work coming across as such a new phenomenon?

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  • Quite a lively discussion that I bumped into…I’d like to add my 2 cents being an experienced designer myself.

    What’s not reflected in the conversation is the value Experienced Designers bring to the table. It’s not just about a design that’s aesthetically pleasing, but how strategic design can enhance a brand campaign and product positioning, as well as heighten a brand’s perception. Experienced designers are also strategic creative business partners for the brand and their products.

    Spec work may be a venue/channel for a new designer just starting out in the field. I believe there are other options out there, but it takes time to build. I think they need to consider the time they spent vying after spec work vs. creating and building up their personal brand from scratch, i.e., portfolio sites, WOM marketing, etc.

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  • its seems like it. i am the owner of a startup and i got my logo designed from found it very cheap and helpful. great crowdsourcing service.

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  • michaeldurwin

    1) Spec happens in every industry – when is the last time you had a half dozen dentists fix your teeth before picking one you paid? Do you try Dish Network and Comcast for free to decide? How many auto dealers let you drive their cars for a week or so before buying one? If buyers want to see flexibility they can look at case studies. The fact is that there is ALOT of work that goes into design from competitive research to gap analysis. When a client pays a designer, they're not just paying for the final files they're paying for all of the above as well. Whoever is not paid has just lost a tremendous amount of money.

    2) Of course spec work will increase during a recession, everyone's budgets get cut. Unfortunately groups like crowdSpring and Zooma, by cheapening design, will continue to take work away from designers even after the recession has improved, just like salaries.

    3) I agree that quality will lack from crowd sourcing. Not to say their aren't talented people doing it, but many times the middle-management types that are in charge of these projects don't know good from bad and they need someone who is qualified to tell them. How many of those submitting spec have art degrees? How many are using legal software? How many have ANY experience with developing successful design? Not only that, but part of what leads to good design is to have a deep understanding of your client that only comes from a relationship with them. You don't get that when you're one of 100 creatives submitting for an RFP, usually one with a very short deadline.

    4) The increase should be good news. On the one hand you talk about the recession impacting costs, it seems intuitive to me that designers will need to offset these reduced budgets by taking on more work, not by welcoming in a bunch of amateurs with a bootleg copy of Photoshop. As you said: “Designers must realize this increases demand for their services”, they should also reap the benefits from it no?

    5) Spec used to be paid. Up until recently, spec work was when agencies or designers were paid a small fee to develop concepts to show direction and style. It's only since the Dot Com bubble that you saw unpaid spec.

    The point is that a given project may have a dozen to a hundred submissions. Only one gets chosen which means the design industry as a whole has lost a tremendous amount of money and time that could be spent on other clients. So, while one designer makes out, 99% will suffer. How is that helping the design industry? Even the designer who gets picked is only getting a few hundred dollars. Seriously? A company logo is their single most important visual aspect, the company makes millions around this logo and the designer gets few hundred? These payments are WAY out of scale for what the Graphic Artist Guild has published as pricing guidelines. Like doctors, mechanics, carpenters, etc. a certain scale of costs for service has been established that allows designers to make a living wage. Mixing in part-time amateurs and unqualified designers into the mix of crowdsourcing brings costs down to the point that we're all making Starbuck's wages. And now you taken an entire industry of people with $40-80,000 educations and turned us all into doodlers who need to move into our parent's basement.

    I was formerly against a bill requiring professional designers to be certified, but I've changed my mind. Then a company employee outsourcing a design project will most likely hire a certified designer to cover their ass, forcing these sites to move toward using only certified designers. This would eliminate a majority of amateurs or at least elevate them by making them improve to meet certification criteria.

  • michaeldurwin

    The AIGA says:
    “AIGA believes that doing speculative work seriously compromises the quality of work that clients are entitled to and also violates a tacit, long-standing ethical standard in the communication design profession worldwide. AIGA strongly discourages the practice of requesting that design work be produced and submitted on a speculative basis in order to be considered for acceptance on a project.”

  • michaeldurwin

    The AIGA says:
    “AIGA believes that doing speculative work seriously compromises the quality of work that clients are entitled to and also violates a tacit, long-standing ethical standard in the communication design profession worldwide. AIGA strongly discourages the practice of requesting that design work be produced and submitted on a speculative basis in order to be considered for acceptance on a project.”

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  • mcdesigns

    I enjoyed reading this article and to put things into perspective…I am new as a freelance designer and I I am also a hairdresser. I have been charging $60 for a haircut for the past ten years and have not raides my prices. I started out 28 years ago charging $18. It was hard taking the first step to realize my value as a hair designer. There are people out ther who charge $100 plus for a haircut and get it. We also have to contend with $10 chop chops. There are alot of hairdressers who need to build skills and gain confidence before they try for the big leagues. The good ones do not stay for long. I do not feel that they have hurt my business in anyway. If anything they have helped. It seems that instead of waisting energy trying to fight something that will not go away we should find solutions to educate those that use these sights. Some may get lucky and get something really fantastic or they will settle for now and upgrade later.

  • If creative is something different – if it’s an essential part of the decision-making process, then crowdsourcing it is foolish.

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  • JuneBelle

    This is 7 years old but deserves an answer. If your design needs are so specific and precise, offer a modest fee for roughs to several companies.

    When a furnace repair man kept not fixing our furnace despite us paying a yearly fee for his work because he wanted to sell us a new furnace, we just quit paying the fee, and my father in law fixed the problem. The same problem exists in other industries. You don’t ask for free work, like some lunatic, just because there are unscrupulous practitioners out there. Start an Angie’s List if you have to.

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