We recently came across this video, parodying ‘spec work’. We’re a digital development and design company, and sometimes companies in this field get requests for speculative work. This article is our take on spec work and how it affects the design community.
What is Spec Work?
Free stuff is great, isn’t it? People like trying free samples at ice cream bars or getting complimentary bread at restaurants. But many businesses wouldn’t expect people to ask for free samples of their work. Like the video suggests, you wouldn’t ask a barista to make a coffee for free so that you can decide whether or not to pay them for future coffees. For some sectors, ‘free pitching’ or speculative work is something that producers live in fear of. In this article we’ll be looking at why this is, and the case for and against spec work in creative industries.
Speculative work is when a designer or manufacturer (any kind, from graphic to architectural to digital) provides samples of their creative work to a client before agreeing on a commission or fee. It can also involve unpaid development work, such as creating wireframes (the skeletal blueprint of a website) and functional specifications to detail the functions and appearance of a software product being developed. It gives the client the chance to decide whether or not they want to do business with company in question, based on whether the piece of work is what they’re looking for.
Benefits of Spec Work
The debate over whether or not this is the right way to do business is ongoing. The proponents of spec work argue that it allows clients to make an informed decision about which company to use, and the quality and compatibility of their services. They also argue that it helps designers and developers, by ensuring that their clients won’t be dissatisfied with the services they pay for, and by keeping the quality of design work high through competition.
Costs of Spec Work
But do these arguments hold water? When clients hold ‘competitions’ for spec work, this means that many or most competitors won’t get paid for their work. Often designers and developers, especially those just starting out, can’t afford to work for free. This creates a barrier to entry for new talent or niche products, meaning that larger companies who have been around for a long time have a significant advantage. This can make new, dynamic and varied work harder to come by.
It also means that unscrupulous clients could use the concepts or details of the spec work they get without giving the producer credit or the chance of paid work. Going back to the ‘free stuff’ analogy, giving customers free samples of ice cream or bread won’t lead to them stealing your recipe. But with creative design work this is a distinct danger. Even the wireframes and functional specs that are used to created a prototype website can be re-purposed to be used by another designer. So designers and developers need to be given a guarantee of paid work.
Spec work doesn’t just hurt the producers of creative products, it can also lead to a worse product for clients. This is because spec work devalues the labour of designers, meaning that their work is cheapened. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. If producers have to work more for less, they may not have the funds to undertake market research or staff training, which will impact on the final product. In this climate, large and established design companies can thrive by pumping out hastily made, mediocre designs to as many clients as possible to maximise their chances of getting commissions.
You might be saying to yourself, “But if I don’t see a sample of the work before I pay, how can I know that the work will be up to my standard?” There are two responses to this question. First, you can pay a small fee for a sample of their work before deciding to pay for a full design commission. Think of this as an investment in the confidence and skill of the design industry. Secondly, you can narrow your search for the right producer by looking for professionals with certified qualifications and using their portfolio of previous work to find ones that fit your requirements. Most clients, if they’re honest, would admit that they don’t know as much about design or development as a professional, and so rely on their expertise to make the final decision.
We hope that this video, and campaigns such as NO!SPEC spread awareness about the , and that this article has been useful to you, either as a producer or potential client.