The Spectrum of Spec Work

Spec, or “speculative” work is defined as the expectation of a client to see examples, or even the final product without the guarantee, promise or even chance of getting paid.

Justin Kuntz

December 12, 2009

Lately, throughout miles of threads on design forums and in countless blog posts, one debate has captivated, angered and emotionally impacted pretty much everyone in the creative industry.

Spec, or “speculative” work is defined as the expectation of a client to see examples, or even the final product without the guarantee, promise or even chance of getting paid.

Who in their right mind would do that?

Well, it turns out, there is more to the topic. For instance, what if the request comes from an existing client. This may be a client that you have a long-standing working relationship with, that wants to see some artwork for a new potential business venture or even an ad. Perhaps this client is very visually oriented, but lacks the imagination necessary to envision a final product from basic sketches and ideas. In the grand scheme of your relationship with this client, if you do in fact have a relationship, this bit of spec will barely register as a blip on the radar of your creative journey together.

What about a request for proposal (RFP). Anyone who has ever done creative work for a public organization is familiar with this practice. In an RFP, the client is asking you to essentially figure out what you would do for them, possibly even with some basic design sketches, and then they will choose the company with the RFP best suited to their (perceived or actual) needs. This practice is essentially a glorified design contest and can easily be considered spec work.

As designers and developers we sell ideas, a skill set and time. Unfortunately, none of those things are tangible, and design has become public territory as we move into an age of consumer-grade image making. Anyone with a MacBook and Photoshop Elements can design a “logo” and video editing is now available on a $300 phone. The argument exists (and in our opinion, it’s a good one) that it would not be appropriate to ask 10 lawyers to write a brief, with the client choosing which one will be compensated. The most important thing to realize here is that in legal practice, and in the creative industry, the client may not have the knowledge or experience to pick the best brief (or logo) out of the bunch. The problem with this argument, and it’s resonance within the non-creative sector, is that the client knows that he or she is not capable of discerning the particulars of the law to the degree necessary to create a legal brief. The client does, however, think that he or she can do so with design.

If it has not been clear up to this point, let us clarify: We do not support speculative work that devalues design. As such, we don’t want to see it become common practice in our industry. Now we can sit here, hammering out manifestos on our MacBooks and digging the trenches of warfare against the people we set out to work with, but we don’t think that will get us anywhere. At least nowhere productive.

Instead, we implore our colleagues and friends within the design industry to both hear and be heard. We must look into our own situations, and determine the level of speculative investment that is appropriate for us, and our industry. We must build a standard. But moreover, we must move toward the debate with the whole story in hand, and the belief that speculative work is not black and white, it is a spectrum.

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