Spec is Speculative

Golden Spoon

So a site pops up that asks artists to compete for assignments and then to rate other artists on the assignments to help the original querier pick the best of the lot.

There is a no question that this is spec work, which is defined as doing any work before you get paid, or before you have an agreement for payment. It’s called spec for speculative, meaning that it’s speculative whether you will gain any return for your efforts. It’s speculative whether your work will get used.

Pixish is spec work. But, we need to ask: is spec work always bad, and is the way that Pixish is using spec work unethical?

Derek Powazek writes:

Big company says to little designer, “make me a logo!” The designer works for days on the logo and hands it over to the company. “No good!” they say, and walk away. Later the designer finds out that the company had been doing that with lots of designers, and they only paid for the one they liked (if any).

The company has all the power. The designers, disconnected from each other and working in the dark, are victimized by the company because they spent time on a design for no pay.

This is not the only situation where spec work comes into play but is presented as such in his article and thus is a somewhat lame straw man. However, Powazek is correct, in my opinion, about spec work only happening in an unequal power relationship. Almost always, it happens with designers or illustrators starting their careers, and acting on the promise of a snake-oil salesmen who tempts them with tales of riches and recommendations if they do the work first.

Tell me if any of these sound familiar:

“I’m not going to pay for any work since I don’t know if I will like what you do.”

“I’ll tell all of my [business partners, friends, famous connections] and bring you tons of work if you do it for me.”

“Think about how many people will see this design and want to hire you because you’re doing it for me.”

“I’m helping you make your portfolio stronger.”

Or, in this case:

Also note that the power relationship has changed. Clients aren’t taking advantage of designers in secret. The publisher is inviting submissions (something that most publications do), but instead of doing it in private, making different deals with different contributors, it’s all out in the open.

Which really only addresses the fears of inexperienced artists. I don’t think established illustrators and photographers would really be that keen about all of their financial negotiations being in the open. Which to me just means that Pixish is an attempt to capitalize on the labor of the naïve.

What irritates me is the implication that this site is solving a problem in the industry. It does no such thing. It solves a problem for Powazek, who clearly states it:

I put out a call for submissions, review them all, choose the best, and make arrangements with each artist individually. I love it, but it’s incredibly time-consuming. I wish there was a way I could put out a call for submissions, empower the community to sort them, and have a more elegant way to choose and reward the best submissions.

Which can be translated as: “Please help me do my job.” That’s a fine thing to ask, but don’t try to play off queries for spec work by claiming it’s not.

Frankly, I was fairly neutral on Pixish until I read Powazek’s article. In its desire to be cute it misses the issue completely. Be honest about what you’re doing and let the market decide if spec work should be re-evaluated for the internet age (my thought? Maybe for photographers since the barrier to entry is now so ridiculously low. The value of good photography is plummeting. Not for illustrators, for whom the barrier to entry not shrinking nearly as fast).

Finally, one of his attempts to toss away his straw man is so ludicrous it needs to be addressed:

Spec work is when you’re asked by a client to do work which may not be paid for upon completion (the “spec” is for “speculative”). That’s a problematic definition, because all contests work this way.

Exactly. Which is why the AIGA website is extraordinarily clear on this point:

Similarly, organizations sometimes initiate contests as a way of developing logos or other identity work. Unlike disciplines in which the designer can bill for implementation of the proposed design (e.g., architecture), in communication design, the submitted solution already represents the bulk of the intellectual work. AIGA encourages organizations to issue a request for proposals from qualified designers.

Illustration “Golden Spoon” by Christine Larsen, ©2008. Used with permission.


Posted by: Martin McClellan
On the date of: February 21, 2008 03:51 PM
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