Robert Bowen August 24th, 2011

Live Together or Die Alone : Spec Work vs the Community

For years the web design and development communities have had an enemy amongst the ranks. A wolf in sheep's clothing, parading through the communities as a friend of the game, when really it is more of a foe. Perhaps a well intentioned foe, as some might argue, but a foe nonetheless. That enemy goes by the name of Spec Work. We see posts popping up all over the web condemning this community damaging practice, yet still it persists. And what is worse, is that it there are still so many in the community buying into the lie this backward business model projects and perpetuates about it being good for the community.

A No!Spec poster from designer Jeff Andrews

After years of dedicated sites and services springing up around the web to facilitate this selling out of the community, it is easy to see why so many struggling designers and developers see these contests as opportunities, and not as what they truly are. Part of the reason they are struggling. So today we are going to take a hard look at the downsides and damaging impacts of Spec Work on the design and development community in hopes to open a few more eyes to how much partaking in these communal contests for work do more harm than they do good.

The Breakdown

If you are unfamiliar with how this beast operates, we will break it down for you briefly in this first section. The Spec work model is one that relies on the ‘spirit of competition’, where a prospective client comes to the community with an ‘opportunity’ to showcase their skills and potentially get paid for the work that they complete. On the surface it seems like a fairly simple, lighthearted and fun approach that works out well for all parties involved. When in reality, it doesn’t.

A No!Spec poster from designer Rob Gough

In this model we have professionals being asked to use their time, training, and developed skills for free. Time, training, and developed skills that they could be directing towards a more promising and prosperous job. And we hear examples all the time about how you wouldn’t ask this of any other business professional, but that is really not the point. Many of us know that several businesses and handfuls of those outside the field of design undervalue it. So it should come as no surprise that we would be asked to give so much of ourselves so freely. The surprise is that there are so many in the design and development community who are willing to participate.

A Labor of Love Alone

Most of us who chose design or development as a profession do so because we enjoy it. It truly is a labor of love. However, for some, this translates into the fact that the love of doing it is all we should need to work for them. And this Spec work model is simply an evolution of that mindset, as there are a number of these so-called contests that end unresolved because the person hosting found nothing that they liked ‘even after all of their encouraging notes prompting revision after revision spoke otherwise). But the dream is not to just do what we love, there is more to it than that. We seek to make a living doing what it is we love, and Spec work is making that more difficult than ever.

The Impact on the Community

If we want to see the negative impacts that this model is leaving in its wake we need only examine a few ways that it has effected the fields so far. After all, if this model is being represented as being beneficial for the design and development community, and it is through this misguided marketing that so many buy into it, then a look at the true impact could shed light on why there are so many who are avidly anti-spec work. So many that an entire movement has sprung up to rally the community against this model.

The Competitive Market

With so many qualified professionals having chosen to populate this field of business, the market is a fairly competitive one. Just like with nearly every field of business, you have each designer and developer vying for potential clients over the rest of the field. All looking for that proverbial edge that will get them favored over the others. But there is still an artistry behind it which elevates the industry and causes everyone to step up their game. Reflecting positively on the field as a whole. The Spec model amps up the competitive aspect of the market, so that it becomes overly so, without the rest of the benefits this competition usually yields rising in balance.

Lowers the Bar

Not only does this competitive imbalance tend to lead to less than perfect end products, but it also can cause the perception of the field to get driven down from those outside it. Given that these contests undercut the overall design process by hugely shortchanging the project brief and research aspects of it, the work that gets churned out for the contest holders does not measure up to our best work. And with the highly publicized nature of these competition sites and services there are many who see this as indicative of the entire field’s potential. They see these contests and set all of their expectations of the industry based on this model. And what exactly is this saying to them?

A No!Spec poster from designer Von Glitschka

Furthermore, these contests can also leave somewhat of an less than professional taste in the outsider’s mouths. Giving them the impression that the entire field as a whole is still in the the professional infancy stages, and not growing into a fully grown industry demanding to be taken seriously. If we allow our business to determined by these games, then what incentive do they have to treat us as professionals? It is hard enough to get those outside the field to take our profession seriously because our work is steeped in creativity. Creative’s contributions are often undervalued and underestimated as it is.

Reasonable Rates?

As those outside the field begin to let their perceptions of the industry slip, witnessing these contest results and in turn discounting our processes more so than before, the rates that the rest of the community try to charge for their time and work no longer seem reasonable to them. Suddenly it seems as though those charging what should be seen as reasonable rates are looked at as greedy overchargers. And the mindset gets pushed that if there are those willing to do the work that cheaply, then those trying to scale their prices above those more minimal contest rates are doing for no other reason than avarice. In their eyes, a large portion of the community is attempting to gouge them with the pricing model.

And if the rest of us try to explain the rates by breaking down what all goes into the processes and overall time and effort involved, then we are looked at as being dishonest. After all, they can watch the results of these contests come in and argue that our quoted lengthy and involved processes are unnecessarily so. They get to then point to these examples of Spec work as indicative of the industry and say, but it obviously does not take all of that work and planning to complete the task at hand. Because for those outside the industry, they do not see any difference between those contest entries and their potential end result.

Declining Demand

And where does that road lead us? To a bit of declining demand for those wishing to not partake in the Spec work system. Given that so many see this model as a viable solution to any design and development needs, when they find themselves with needs of their own, which direction are they likeliest to turn? They will opt to hold a contest and watch the slew of puppets dance for them with the pull of a single string. So how are the rest of us in the industry supposed to compete? As this leads to less actual paying work being available as more of the potential client base align themselves with this bastardization of the design and development system.

When Scales Tip Beyond Balance

Welcome to the design and development new world order. Look around today and you can see that the scales are already tipping out of balance. When the Spec model was introduced, it was seemingly done so as a cheap alternative for those small businesses and sole proprietors who did not have the financial prowess of their big business counterparts. And so it was initially looked upon as a path of accessibility to the industry, but that is no longer the case as the model reaches beyond these smaller businesses these days. Suddenly we have big companies and businesses who can afford to pay some of the best designers and firms out there, holding competitions to get their design work done rather than handling it the professional way.

Another No!Spec poster from designer Von Glitschka

Facebook recently ascribed to this Spec approach when they decided to host an architectural and urban development contest for their new corporate headquarters that they want to build in New York. So a company that is worth as much as Facebook sees no harm in asking hundreds of professionals to give of their time and expertise freely. And they can do so because of their status. People believe that just by being associated with Facebook in some fashion that they will be looked after and safeguarded against being taken advantage of. Or what is worse, they do not care that they are being taken advantage of because of who is doing the taking.

The Huffington Post also opted for this approach in a recent logo redesign competition. With businesses this large taking part in the devaluing of the industry, it just further demonstrates to others that this is how designers and developers work. It is a labor of love and we are expected to bite any bullet we are asked to simply because we enjoy our work. No other professionals are expected to work for free, competing for a chance to maybe get paid for their work, and we should not either.

Field of Nightmares

This makes the playing field less populated with opportunities and more populated with frustrated games of chance. We end up looking down at a field of nightmares upon which we are expected to slave away with the odds stacked against us, and the rules being written without any consultation or consideration for their impacts on us. They have built it, and we are supposed to come along and be thankful for this damaging construct that undermines the industry as a whole, and our chance to play within it. But we have the opportunity to correct this slight by simply refusing to play this game. Though for some it is not so simple.

Hunger Pains

One underlying and well known reason that Spec work has taken such a hold on the industry is not because of a streak of greed that runs through the members of the community, but because of the hunger pains that run through it. With such a large number of active players in the game, naturally the amount of work we can get for ourselves can be somewhat slim when it comes to pickings. So as we see less actual opportunities on the horizon, and more of these contests cropping up, then it is easy to understand how many of the designers and developers end up with their hats thrown into the Spec work ring.

A No!Spec poster from designer Matt Clarke

Which effectively makes the entire Spec work model that much worse when you consider that by and large it is taking advantage of those struggling to find their footing in this new field. And most of them are hungry. Considering that there is faction of these participants who are also fresh to the field, it is also easy to see how they could get caught up in this industry debacle. Especially if they are students. After all, students are conditioned through internships and work of that nature to understand that not all time and work is compensated. Forgetting that with most internships you are at least given room and board of some sort, so some of your needs are effectively being looked after. In the Spec work model, no one is meeting any of your needs or looking out for any of your interests.

In Conclusion

In the end, the sad truth is that there more than likely is a small niche that the Spec work model could effectively and beneficially serve in the design and development community. However, given the rampant greed and devaluing of the industry by the large corporate sector of the business world, reigning that model into that small a niche may never fully be possible. There will always be those who are willing to take advantage of others situations and circumstances to save themselves money. And unfortunately, there will more than likely always be those hungry enough to allow themselves to be taken advantage of for a shot at bettering their situation. No matter how long a shot it is. What are your thoughts on Spec work and its impacts on the design and development communities? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

Further Reading

Consider Some of Our Previous Posts As Well


Robert Bowen

Robert Bowen is an emerging author, celebrated podcaster and poet, and most recently the co-founder and imaginative co-contributor of the creative design and blogging duo at the Arbenting and Dead Wings Designs.


    1. It is always about human behavior, no matter what the issue. People see an angle, they will play it…simple and easy. Everyone has an agenda in this world, don’t let anyone fool you into believing that this is not the case. Some will show their agenda up front, and others it may take time to figure out what it is, but it is there. I think that the economic situation has left the “bigger fish” holding most of the cards, in terms of which avenues to go down. If I was to win a $80 million lottery jackpot tomorrow, I would be out of the game so to speak, I would not be obliged to anyone, same thing with larger companies/corps. Whoever has the power calls the shots, and people will obey if they want any hope of maintaining some sense of career or professional sustainability.

      Art, music, design are expendable in the eyes of a lot of people in this world, even those that consider themselves to be “liberal” or “appreciators”. It will always be about how much value can I get out of something without investing too much of my own time or money into it. We all do it on some level…kings of convenience I suppose, or perhaps slaves to it? Best wishes, great read. :-)

  1. Great article! I’ve never seen this approach, laying out all the drawbacks in a well thought out fashion. I loved that you went this direction as most authors take the same approaches when speaking of the evils of spec work. Again, great job and thanks!

  2. Nice post, I am dead against spec work. Have seen so many designers doing spec work lately. Very hard thing not to do when times are hard. Thanks need more posts like this.

  3. Thanks a lot for this comprehensive article!

    One time I was invited by such a community to participate in a contest. I had no idea what’s all about, just sent in my work ant thought “that’s it and it’s good.”

    But far from it! The discussion started about my work, it was commented back and forth. So I looked up the profiles of those commenters and thought: “WTF?” Since years I am working as a pro in design business and sure can divert between bad and good. I felt judged by a committee of school kids.

    But the best is to come: The person who criticized my concept the most, finally won the contest. By what? By taking over my concept, distorting it a bit and throwing in the idea 2 weeks before end of contest.

    I was so frustrated – unbelievable.

    And then I made my thoughts about this business model and came up to the same conclusions you share here in this article. BTW I already shared it on G+.

    Kind regards,

  4. I have really noticed this past year or so clients being apprehensive about forking out money for graphic design. They’re happy spending money on a shop fit out, website, or accountants advice but not on designing a nice logo or business card.

    I do however want ‘Spec You’ on a T-Shirt!

  5. All I can say is thanks for this. Wonderful.

    No Spec.
    No ‘crowdsourcing’
    No ‘microstock’

    We are either in business or doing a hobby.

  6. Terrific article Robert, stellar examples. I had no idea Facebook did that, and honestly, true professionals would not have taken the bait. These seem like people that are just really desperate to get work or young people without experience (like students). I myself am a student, but I’ve educated myself in my field years ago.

    Do you work for free at a regular job? Is a dentist told to do some dental work on a dummy before they do it for a customer? They are proven through their experience and college degree.

    If your work speaks for itself, you should have no incentive to do this. Build a brand, portfolio, list of testimonials, and a strong network of colleagues. Spec work is like poison and I’ve always known that and the first time I tried a job board, I realized how worth it was and left it alone. There’s a chance you won’t get paid or get exposure? It makes more sense to do a personal project will you will GIVE yourself exposure or do charity work to build experience. Not only are you working to build a product that will help solve problems, your expertise means you get fair pay. Anyone saying otherwise does not get your services. I know times are hard, but if you don’t value your work why would anyone else value it?

  7. Thanks for all the kind words, the shared examples and added thoughts. Really great to see that so many are responding to the post. It is a truly sad state for the industry to be in, but hopefully, as the comments are a bit reflective of, many of us in the industry will be able to not only stand against this tide, but turn it away from the shores of the design and development fields.

  8. Excellent article. Though this is not just limited to design work. Photographers are targeted too by contests that are simply rights-grabs to build up a stock of images essentially for free.

    The terms of entry for photo contests frequently (almost always) require agreeing to a perpetual license to use your image in any way the promoter sees fit without compensation, EVEN IF YOU DON’T WIN.

    I might be inclined to enter some of these if the non-chosen images are tossed out and the promoter has no rights or license to use them.

    I have no problem with some boilerplate language that allows them to host the images to display exclusively in the context of the contest itself, but not to allow use for any other purpose without specific authorization of the creator/owner, and compensation if appropriate.

    Maybe I should create some similar posters, er, um, “photographs” to enter into some of these contests and see if they actually will display them.

  9. Most articles I read online are not as rambling as this. Really, your point would be better made getting right to the point. If you really are up-and-coming, please earn it. Verbosity won’t do it.

    It must be said that there are two sides involved here. I’m not convinced by your articles as long as there are people willing to participate. These companies aren’t making them submit work.

    It makes me wonder how the new-comers can be better helped by those who have gone before, rather than finding themselves in a position where the allure of spec-work is an option.

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