Why Spec Work is Wrong

March 26, 2009

Since the debate on spec work at the SXSW Conference, there has been a lot of blogging/commenting online on the topic. We thought we’d offer up our two cents (free of charge, but not on spec).

Spec work, in the design community, happens when a client wants to “test out” a designer before committing to purchase their finished product. They often solicit this work innocently, with the claim that they simply can’t afford to get it wrong, and need to know before committing whether or not the design is right for them.

This is similar to shopping for clothes, in that people rarely buy something without trying it on first. The difference is that the shirt you end up buying is not a one of a kind, and you are quite likely to see someone else wearing the exact same one before you leave the mall! Design is more like a custom suit. You get measured, discuss styles and colours with the tailor, and typically PAY A DEPOSIT before they begin work on it. Then,once it has been fabricated, alterations can be made to get it to fit just right, at which time you settle up your bill and move on. Imagine calling 3 different tailors, asking each of them to make you a suit (with no fitting, very little discussion, and no initial investment on your part), and then picking the one you like at the end of the process.

Spec work costs everyone time and money. Businesses need to recover the cost of soliciting new clients. If we were to engage in spec work (which we don’t), we’d be essentially asking our clients to pay for our pitches to other clients. If you deal with an agency that does work on spec, you’re paying for that every time you sign their cheque.

Design is by nature informed and collaborative. If it isn’t, it’s art. No brief can substitute for the knowledge gained by working closely with a client at the beginning of a project to understand their business goals in order to develop relevant brand messaging. Failing to identify the objectives of a design project and understand the bigger picture leads to poor design that fails to deliver. That is why most often spec work, even when it is selected, ends up in the garbage, or at the very least is heavily revised once the agency is engaged.

Many online communities have sprung up that facilitate spec work, for both designers and for the businesses seeking their services. These sites are the Napsters of design, connecting a need with a resource. The music industry is still reeling from their inability to compete with online file sharing, however the design community is positioned much better to withstand this assault. The music industry has realized that they must offer more value than just the 13 tracks on a CD to maintain relevant to a consumer that can get it elsewhere, cheaper, and faster, and are just now beginning to recover. Designers have long understood, as have those who use their services, that the value in good design is a product of strategic thinking, collaboration, and a partnership that is passionate about producing quality work. Let’s hope that never changes.


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