I got 99 design problems

I got 99 design problems


… but spec work ain’t one

A long-time client recently told us they used a speculative crowdsourcing website for a design project. The conversation that followed was candid, revealing and inspired us to publish our thoughts on the matter. 

Ask any graphic designer, and they’ll rattle off the 99 problems they have with spec work. However, it was refreshing to hear about the challenges experienced from the client’s perspective.

Spec work is a big bane of the graphic design business and is as old as the trade itself. When the first cave man said to the first cave artist, “Draw me a buffalo and if I like it, I’ll give you some food.” (and the artist said, “Sure, what the hell.”) — spec work was born. 

What exactly is spec work in the graphic design business?

The interwebs provides two definitions for the word speculative:

1. Based on conjecture rather than knowledge.

2. Involving a high risk of loss.

When it comes to speculative design work, both definitions are spot-on. There are three kinds of graphic design spec work:

1. Spec work as a pitch: Show me what you’re thinking

Speculative pitch work is the most common and longest-standing kind of spec work. Typically, the client provides a short creative brief and invites several agencies to come in and present executed concepts. Fortunately, the tide is starting to turn away from this type of arrangement in favor of clients interviewing agencies based on their process and experience. 

2. Crowdsourcing: All the kids are doing it

The internet is a magical place. Don’t know a designer? No problem. Just ask the internet. Here’s how crowdsourcing design typically works: As a client, you pay a fee to a crowdsourcing website and fill out a creative brief. The website offers your project to literally a million+ designers. The designers work for free, you review between 30 and 90 designs, and the “winner” you select receives the money you paid, minus the website’s cut.  

3. Design contests: You might be a winner

Design contests are the most innocent-seeming and most detrimental form of spec work. Typically, a design contest is promoted to amateur and professional designers alike. The client offers a small prize like $100, a coffee gift card, free stuff or the privilege of having your work published. In Colorado, both Colorado Creative Industries, an organization with the mission of creating “significant and sustained investment in the creative sector where creative entrepreneurs and enterprises will flourish,” as well as our otherwise fine governor have promoted design contests.

Comparing spec work to working with a trusted design partner is not an apples to apples comparison. It’s apples to rocket ships.

Stupid clients, why do they ask for free work?

There are two universal truths about the designer / client relationship: 1) we love our clients, and 2) we love complaining about our clients. When it comes to spec work, designers are quick to point the finger at clients and condemn them for asking for free work. Well, when we point that finger, we should notice the other three pointing back at ourselves. Simply put, clients ask us to work for free because we will.

Several years ago, we were conducting a post-project review with a client in the social sciences. It was a beautiful website but went way over scope — the client had many more rounds of edits than we anticipated, and we lost money on it. This is one of the most common causes of animosity between designer and client. The designer resents the client for not having their act together or respecting their time. The client does not understand why the next project costs twice as much.

In this case, we learned something important from our social scientist client. After we explained how we’d over-delivered and exceeded our scope, she told us, matter-of-factly, that people will take what you give them. It does not make them bad people. It’s human nature. We didn’t tell her she couldn’t have it, so she didn’t stop asking for it.

The passion paradox

I’ll tell you a secret: I would do this job for free. If tomorrow I won the lottery or my distant aunt Edna died and left me a windfall, I’d come into work the next day and do my job. I would come in later on Mondays and change a few other things, but for the most part, I do what I do for the love of the game. I think most creative professionals feel this way.

This is good, and as creatives we can’t lose that passion. The problem with the passion is it’s exploitable. For the most part, it’s not exploited nefariously. People will take what you give them. The reason you can pay actors nothing is because actors will act for nothing. The reason you can’t pay a plumber nothing is that plumbers won’t plumb for nothing. 

The onus is on creative professionals to understand that while we need to do our art to live, we also need to make a living doing our art.

The risk / reward ratio

The most common and understandable reason a client would chose to pursue spec work is to reduce their risk. Starting a relationship with a designer can feel risky. How do you pick the right designer? What if you’re not happy with the work? Client-side, it’s attractive to pay a lot less for design, to not pay unless you’re satisfied and to have a million+ designers to choose from. The element that’s not so readily apparent is the reward factor. When 90 designers are competing for your approval, they can’t possibly have a vested interest in your brand. Consequently, the work suffers. You suffer, too, trying to field questions, comments and revisions from 90 different designers. So while you may have reduced your risk, you’ve also compromised your reward. 

While I’m anti-spec, I’m totally pro-pro bono

It’s important to note that when we’re talking about spec work, we’re not talking about pro bono work. Graphic designers, like lawyers and doctors and plumbers, do plenty of pro bono work for worthy causes and non-profits. Pro bono work can be an excellent win-win for both client and designer. Deserving non-profits that are not well-established enough to have marketing budgets, and designers who need to build their portfolio and satisfy their need to make the world a better place, can both benefit from healthy pro bono relationships. 

Speculative work is a contradiction in terms

At Toolbox Creative, our process is the exact opposite of speculative. Every concept, every sketch, every final touchpoint is the product of immersive research, extensive knowledge and well-honed intuition. Lots of designers can make stuff look great. We make stuff work (and look great doing it). We’ve got skin in the game, and we don’t succeed unless our clients succeed.

Our Brand Engineering process is designed to reduce risk and maximize reward. We translate complex technologies into strategic, customer-ready marketing that fast tracks sales and grabs market share. Brand Engineering bridges the gap between the science of science and the art of selling it—converting tech talk into brand love, and connecting tech companies with their customers.

About Toolbox Creative:

On of the top branding agencies in the tech space, Toolbox Creative offers a powerful engine to grow technology brands and take on the big players in the field. We help innovative technology companies look and sound as good as they truly are, increasing brand equity, boosting media buzz and making the most of marketing dollars.