October 12, 2012

Working On Spec And Other Crazy Payment Schemes

“Id like you to design a logo for me and give me a few choices, and if I like it, then I’ll pay you for it. I’ve also asked a few other designers to do the same thing. I don’t want to pay for something if I don’t like it.”

That’s called working on spec(ulation). Sean Lorenz of the Boston Business Journal writes, “The recent downturn in the market hit graphic-design professionals especially hard, since advertising and marketing are among the first elements to be cut from a company’s budget. With this downturn, there has been a disturbing rise in speculative graphic design projects. And it’s not just freelancers and out-of-work pros who are affected. Firmly established design firms and agencies are also using this technique to compete for business.”

Recently a guy called me to see about building a website for him. He told me a few times that he didn’t have a whole lot of money, so I already had a clue as to where this conversation was going. We had a nice conversation, and then I gave him a ballpark quote.

“I was hoping that you would work for a percentage of the money I make after this venture gets off the ground.”

“Ummm, no. Because I still have to pay my rent and buy food. I don’t work for a percentage.”

We ended the conversation on a nice note, and I hung up.

The LA Times described Mayor Antonia Villaraigosa’s “Designed/Made in Los Angeles” logo contest. Several designers and agencies submitted logos, and people are invited to choose their favorite. I’ve been having a problem finding out what the designer gets out of this little exercise. Money? Huge publicity in all the major media? Or just the warm fuzzy feeling that your work is hanging on all the clothing made in Los Angeles? It reeks of spec work.

A lesser, but just as offensive, solicitation is the “Charge me a really low price now, and it could work into a lot of work for you later” offer of work. It almost never does. Enough to always say no.

Why is spec work so bad?

Spec work is so offensive to most professional designers that someone even created a “No!Spec” website devoted to it. Elisabetta Bruno of Think Creation writes, “In a nutshell, spec requires the designer to invest time and resources with no guarantee of payment. This is a common point of view for many who confuse the professional with his or her tools. The process is more than simply tapping at a keyboard or clicking a mouse. It’s about understanding the nature of a communication challenge and then using one’s brain to find the appropriate solution.

“At the end of the day, there is a certain irony in spec work. A prospect requesting it is ultimately saying, ‘My project isn’t important enough to hire a professional who will take the time to understand my situation and goals and invest the time needed to create a suitable solution.’”

Sean Lorenz explains, “Another reason to reconsider accepting that spec job is the safety of your work.…If a company sees the spec work and decides to not utilize your services, they may still incorporate or elaborate upon concepts of your design either in-house or elsewhere. This is especially a concern for web site designers. The majority of web designers doing spec work will bring screen shots on paper for the client to look at, finding it unwise to show a spec site on live media.”

Copyright law says that copyright (all or part can be sold) must be released in writing. Did the client requesting the spec work have the designer sign a form releasing those rights? If not, the client doesn’t have the right to use those images. If so, the designer is screwed, because the client could make a lot of money off your idea, with no compensation to you.

“Crowdsourcing” is just a dirty word

Another version of spec work is crowdsourcing, such as what’s presented at or CrowdSPRING’s website states, “It’s easy and affordable. Just name your price, watch as dozens of talented creatives participate in your project and choose from an average of 110+ custom designs.” In other words, for the possibility that my work will be chosen, and a probably paltry fee paid if it is, I’m going to spend what should be billable time on a custom logo design or article, and, as the site states, “Work with a designer to perfect your favorite – they’re not paid until you say so.”

Say what??? I don’t get paid for my time? Thank you, but I’ve already chosen my pro bono client for the year.

Why is the concept of “spec work” so offensive?

Most professional designers have put many years of expensive education and experience into our work. We’ve joined professional organizations, bought books, magazine subscriptions, training videos, gone to seminars, and trained ourselves to be neverendingly better at what we do.

We’ve put examples of our work in our online or physical portfolios so the client can see what we are capable of. We’ve entered costly creative competitions to win awards to prove that our work is good. We’ve purchased very expensive software that gets upgraded every 12 to 18 months at an additional expense to use on expensive computers. That’s all overhead.

And now we have to audition with free design work? Unlike an acting audition, where the work can’t be repurposed without the actor’s consent, design (and writing) work can be. It’s really pretty easy. Even watermarks on artwork can usually be removed with the right software.

When we’re paid, we spend time with you finding out more about your business, your brand, your history, your goals, your products or services. We use that information and our talent and skills to come up with solutions that will further your marketing objectives. Spec work doesn’t allow for those insights.

Spec work also takes away from time spent on existing clients who are paying us for our time, and who rightfully expect attention that isn’t diluted by a design audition.

Then there’s the “paying bills” part. Can you imagine if you went to your landlord or bank and said, “Business is a little tight right now and might stay tight for a couple of months, but it looks like it’s picking up. How about if I pay you a percentage of what I make every month, and hopefully, in a few months or so, I’ll be able to pay you MORE than my regular payment?” Or, “I don’t know if I’m going to get paid for the work I did this month, so I don’t know if I can pay you, but I still need a roof over my head. Are we cool?”

Imagine doing that with your car loan company, your utilities, the gas station, and the grocery store, too.

A filled-out portfolio is an excellent indication of your designer’s skills, so use that instead of spec work to assess quality work. Expect to pay a (nonrefundable) deposit up front, because it’s a good faith gesture, and it helps cover the time the designer spent traveling to you and talking to you in the first place, not to mention the research about your company they probably did before they met with you.

Just remember, you almost always get what you pay for.

Image Credit: Lasse Kristensen / Shutterstock

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