The Thing About Spec Work

21 May

I’ve noticed a phenomenon in crowdsourcing that has plagued many a campaign. Spec work is its name, and after seeing it so often I thought it would be a good idea to share my thoughts on the matter.

To start off, spec (speculative) work is any work where you are expected to put forth a commitment to your time and resources without the guarantee of getting paid. A good example of this is the contest model of crowdsourcing, where several hundred teams of creatives may put forward a product only to have one of them selected to receive payment.

I’ll admit, it seems bad. For an amateur artist, time and resources may be in short supply. To lend them out without the guarantee of compensation may be too risky for some. I myself see it as falling under the “Incentive” tenet of crowdsourcing, so let me see if I can’t justify it a bit.

The thing I feel drives a lot of people to spec work is that for them, it’s not primarily about the money. Much spec work is done by non-professionals who are simply looking for an opportunity to hone their craft. After all, spec work is almost always voluntary. Who else would sign up but people passionate enough about their work to do it potentially for free? A lot of contest-model sites embrace this notion, offering their members educational materials or access to other members for learning purposes. Money is a bonus, but simply a secondary concern.

There is something else I didn’t realize until I spoke to a friend of mine who had entered a shady poetry contest in his formative years. He didn’t find out it was a scam until later, and although he was disappointed, he was still glad that he had gotten the chance to show off his work. He told me that the “spec work” aspect of it didn’t bother him so much;  almost all artists start out doing entirely spec work to help them make a name for themselves. It’s part of the game, he told me, and I happen to agree. If you’re trying to get by on creative talent, it’s practically accepted that getting paid for it is not going to happen right away.

So we have the amateur and part-time creatives finding things to enjoy about the spec work model. That leaves the full-timers, the creative professionals, a group I could definitely see having a problem with the concept because they’re accustomed to guaranteed payment for their efforts. But as I mentioned, spec work is both voluntary and primarily not about the money. Full-timers would be wise to mostly avoid the spec work market, leaving it to the amateurs and part-timers. This ensures that companies will still turn to professionals for their highest-quality creative needs.

Voila, spec work in a nutshell. If you’re a non-pro, spec work is a great way to hone your craft and get your name up. If you’re a pro, it’s probably not what you’re looking for. Overall, I’m a fan of the idea; after all, spec work forms the basis of a ton of creative crowdsourcing efforts. What’s your experience with spec work been like? Enchant us with your tale in the comments.


9 Responses to “The Thing About Spec Work”

  1. Chris Irish May 21, 2012 at 10:55 am #

    Its interesting seeing this from the other side since I’ve been in sort of a dilemma about this. Trying to design a tattoo while I myself have no artistic ability, I’ve been talking to artist friends. And while I am thoroughly willing to pay real world dollars for a design I like, I have no interest in paying for a design I don’t. So I feel bad asking an artist to put possibly hours into a design, just to have me say “…that’s nice, but not what I wanted.” And I think I’d feel worse if I asked multiple people to work on it, and then only pay the one I liked. Its reassuring to hear that at least some artists are used to it.

    • Seth W May 21, 2012 at 4:39 pm #

      Well, I can only speak for one artist, but it is something to consider. Heck, some mighty even say that me doing this blog is spec work.

      • SB June 6, 2012 at 6:15 pm #

        Seth, you raise a good point about spec work – it’s voluntary, so the designers know what they are getting into.

        In general, I wasn’t a huge fan of contests – my full time job kept me plenty busy. But, recently, I entered three logo designs to a contest, simply because I liked the name of the organization. My designs ended up being three of the top four, I won a prize, sponsorship of the organization, quite a few new clients for my freelance business, and the opportunity to promote myself whenever they meet on a monthly basis. It worked out much better than I ever expected, and was definitely worth the initial time I put forth.

        • Seth W June 7, 2012 at 3:42 pm #

          Glad to hear you had such a positive experience! Your opinion in particular means a lot to me since you’ve had that first-hand experience.

          I should note to the readers that the author of this comment is the fantastic Sameeha of InkedLeaf, who designed my logo! I highly recommend her for your design needs.

  2. Sherry June 2, 2012 at 4:47 pm #

    So what about the clients who are the recipients of the free (or very low cost) work? One of my main pushes is for client education. The creative industry is one of the few where people can learn to expect free work. People don’t go into a fancy restaurant and only pay for the food if they like it. They don’t go to 5 different auto mechanics who all work on their car and then only pay one of them. They don’t do those things because those industries will not tolerate that kind of behavior. If creatives are ever going to change that fact that in order to get started they have to work for free they are going to have to spend more time on educating potential clients that their work (even as someone just starting out) is worth paying something for. I’ll also add that as an amateur or someone who hasn’t done professional work, there are still plenty of ways to build a portfolio and showcase your talents without just giving those talents away. One way is to create faux projects (as long as you inform potential clients that you created them just to show what you can do I don’t see a problem with that) and another is to offer your services pro-bono to clients you want to work with. Pro-bono is not the same as free. Think non-profits, special causes, that sort of thing. That’s also a lot different than “competing” for someone who only wants to pay a fraction of the worth of the project (someone who doesn’t understand the value of design, art, illustration, etc.).

    • Seth W June 4, 2012 at 11:52 am #

      First off, no clients are getting work for free. They pay for the work that they end up choosing, and the creatives retain ownership of any un-chosen work. Of course, this only applies on platforms that set up such an arrangement in their Terms of Service, but wise creatives should seek out only those anyway.

      I don’t think anyone is expecting free work; merely they want to pay for only the work they can feasibly use. People can absolutely go into a fancy restaurant, try a meal, and not pay for it if it is unacceptable; the problem arises if they’ve eaten the entire meal and then wish to not pay for it. Spec work equates to “tastes”, since a different client can still “eat the meal” (pay for the work) if the initial client isn’t satisfied. Same with the auto mechanic example; you may not expect trial repairs from all five mechanics, but receiving quotes on the work before you commit is perfectly reasonable. You claim that the creative industry cannot tolerate giving away a portion of their talents to entice customers, but it would appear that every industry accepts some level of “try before you buy”, or an alternate way of not paying for services you aren’t satisfied with.

      And you know what? I’ve seen some amateur creative work. A lot of it ISN’T worth paying for, because it’s off-brand, offensive, overly simplistic or complicated… any number of traits that make creative work unusable. You encourage these people to not “give their talents away”, to make their own faux projects to fill their portfolios. That bit in particular makes no sense to me, because I can think of many ways that spec work would be preferable to self-designed projects. Spec work involves a creative brief that must be correctly read and interpreted (a valuable skill for any creative). Then there are the community aspects I mentioned in my article that serve to hone talents and foster connections, and the fact that even if your work isn’t selected it may be “featured”, praised, or recommended. Plus, if you’re doing a faux project, you’re dropping your chances of getting paid for that work from “small” to “non-existent”.

      I can see your points about damaging the industry and giving clients the wrong idea. I suppose my counterpoint, then, would be that the creative industry is being damaged not by the presence of spec work, but by their unwillingness to accept this aspect of their industry that is clearly not going anywhere. Also, no intelligent client expects any sort of work for free. One way or another, they’re paying, and I don’t think any of them have any delusions about that.


  1. Top 5 Ways to Get Paid With Crowdsourcing This Summer « Tiny Work - May 30, 2012

    […] you’ve really got a hand on creativity, and you’re okay with the concept of spec work and non-guaranteed pay, you can clean up with design contests. Businesses everywhere are turning to […]

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