Spec work in different industries

Posted on Jan 1, 2011 in Thoughts

on the fence about spec

In the wonderful world of print, web and motion design (which is where I’ve been trained and have worked) spec work is a four letter word. To be part of any design organization, one must not engage in it. I’m an advocate for ridding the industry of spec work. It devalues designers work, it creates sub par design solutions, and way too many hours of designers time is wasted.

If you’re a designer, you probably know what I’m talking about, and I hope you’re on my side of the fence. For anybody that isn’t familiar with spec work, you can view a short motion piece that I created at VFS, and continue reading this post. (There’s also another great piece on YouTube that was created by Yasmin Kercher) spec work is asking a group of people to complete work with a limited creative brief, and without a contract to ensure payment. Often they come in the form of contests. While some clients think spec work is great because they get many options to choose from at the end of the contest, it really isn’t the best design solution. There’s even a whole website dedicated to the issue.

A good designer will sit down with the client and together they’ll write up a creative brief. The client knows exactly what the designer is capable of in terms of quality, time and cost, and the designer knows exactly what the client is expecting. These one on one meetings, give the duo the opportunity to nitpick and allow the designer to fully realize what the client is after. In competitions, that dialogue is stripped and designers are left spending more time on conceptualizing, guessing what the client wants, and usually not being able to deliver a suitable design solution because they don’t understand the client’s needs.

It’s the equivalent to having a cough and emailing ten different doctors with a plea that says, “I have a cough. Please come up with your best way to get rid of it and present it to me next week. If I like your answer, I’ll come to you for treatment.” It’s absurd. Neither the doctor, nor the patient actually know what the problem is, before they’re trying to find the solution. The absurdity is compounded when you bring money into the equation. If 30 designers spent 20 hours trying to complete a poster with an ill prepared brief, whereas one fully informed designer could have completed the brief in 12 hours, the client just received 600 work hours for the price of 12.

I know I’ve went on about this rant before, (and so has Mark Busse, who graciously helped me out on the sarcastic motion piece while I was learning at school) but the reason I bring it up again is because spec work seems perfectly normal in the film world. In a reality where it seems everyone wants to be a multi-millionaire directing hollywood blockbusters, there’s a plethora of minions in a heap at the bottom scrambling to climb their way to the top. Filmmakers take advantage of these film virgins and exploit them for free labour.

And for some odd reason, no one sees any problem with this. There’s too many people on the opposite side of the design fence that thing that spec work is just a part of making your way into the industry. So if you’re a pushy loudmouth who stands up to advocate for fair labour, you’ll be pushed aside and a quieter slave will get the benefit of working long hours with no pay, all the while being applauded for climbing the ladder the good old fashioned way.

The reason that I bring this up, is because as a designer, I’m forbidden (by the Graphic Designers of Canada and the Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario, as well as my own morals and values) to engage in spec work. And although I’m making a semi-cross over into the film world, I find myself at conflict in whether or not I should actually be engaging in this Nokia Direct and Project competition. While on one hand, the promotion (which is what clients who regularly engage in this sort of behaviour try to sell their bad business practice on) of me and the film I would create at the Vancouver Art Gallery would be good press, in my heart, it’s still spec work, and just plain wrong. Do I make an example of myself and pull out of said competition, or do I forge ahead with my head down to make it in the film world? It’s a question that only time will tell.


  1. Bashar
    January 1, 2011

    look at it this way… u take the job and the form of payment/reward u get is that it gets played at the vancouver art gallery. I’d take on the job.. spec or no spec..it’s work at the end of the day. Not every work needs to be compensated in cash, there r other ways to get “paid”.

  2. Mark Busse
    January 1, 2011

    Good for you for taking a stand Amanda. There will be many opportunities like this in your career and you have to make decisions that are right for you. In my opinion expressions of thought leadership, like this article, combined with your reputation for producing excellent work is how you’ll succeed and differentiate yourself in the industry. Go get ’em girl.

  3. Ian
    January 1, 2011

    I’ll throw these two thoughts out there – First: Wouldn’t any of the material completed by students during their time at VFS be considered ‘spec’ work? Second: Any profession where you are fighting for clients/customers with others will increase the chances you might be doing work for free. From car sales to design – anything commission based is going to require some level of ‘free’ work. Frustrating for sure. The trick is to know when ‘enough is enough’ and say ‘no’.

    • admin
      January 1, 2011

      Student work isn’t considered spec because it’s usually not for a real company. In the case that it is, we were encouraged to bill for the time spent on the project. Although it’s debatable, VFS (as an educational facility that needs to make money) promotes student work primarily to promote that individual or group of individuals. Promoting the school and their programs is supposedly considered secondary.

  4. Taura
    January 2, 2011

    Although I completely agree with you on spec work, I am learning that even large ad agencies (like the one I am at) do what I would consider “free” work at some point. Any time they pitch to win a new client there is a ton of “free” work, ideas, and concepts that get thrown at the client. Lots of time, money and creativity gets put into these pitches with no guarantee of a contract at the end of it. Or does it even matter so long the the little people at the bottom get their monthly paycheque? Where exactly IS the line drawn?

  5. A conversation on spec | design & development blog of Amanda Healey
    January 4, 2011

    […] wrote a blog post about it here: http://amandahealey.ca/spec-work-in-different-industries/So as I was writing this blog post today, again, I was like shoot, I’m doing spec, it’s […]

  6. Emily Smith
    January 5, 2011

    Awesome, Amanda!

    Although, I have to say that spec is worse than the mentioned:

    “It’s the equivalent to having a cough and emailing ten different doctors with a plea that says, “I have a cough. Please come up with your best way to get rid of it and present it to me next week. If I like your answer, I’ll come to you for treatment.””

    It’s more like:
    Having a cough & visiting 10 different doctors and have them TREAT you – and then not pay them if that treatment doesn’t work out – based on their subjective experience of it. I think it’s safe to say that clients can shop around to see what different designers have to offer, but when it comes down to it, as soon as the designer starts working, they should be paid for their time/knowledge/effort.

    I think a lot of clients that look for designers are also looking for someone to help them be creative … because it may not be a faculty that they have experience with. Because of that, they don’t really understand what’s involved with the creative process, and ask for an absurd request that will likely produce shiteous results – like spec work. I do think there are cases when clients aren’t necessarily bad people, but just a bit misguided – and need to be educated on what sort of environment this creates for the designer. And if they still insist on it after knowing what kind of environment they’re creating, let them do their silly contests & be jerks, they’re not worth your energy.

    I like what Mark Busse had to say about a lack of trust in your video. So very true! I also think clients that lack trust are the ones that end up being control freaks. and who wants to work with/for a control freak?

    Kudos to you for sharing your experiences!


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