Spec Work is bad for design

Why I am again writing about the evils of crowd-sourcing and spec work

So I’ve been asked to be interviewed by an EDMC employee based on what I’ve written before about crowdsourcing and spec-work. She says she will attempt to explain both sides. Clearly EDMC is a poor source for any unbiased information because they will always fall into line with the idea that the buyer must beware (even when being lied to) and that companies should have the right to make money unfettered by regulations, morals, and/or regardless of any serious damage it causes to others. One must understand that this company, (EDMC), makes the Barbary pirates look like amateurs through their ability to profit and plunder. I don’t know the author or know how she could bring herself to write copy that not only defends the actions of thieves and profiteers but also seeks to promote their evils but I suspect that she’ll downplay the serious impact that crowdsourcing has on design and will take the tainted money of these profiteers while excusing herself from any moral obligation to warn people away from such disgusting inhuman filth that she, through her writing, helps to rape students and taxpayers alike.

Why you should never do spec work

If anyone out there has any question about how bad spec work is below, as clearly as I can put it, is an explanation of why you should NEVER DO SPEC WORK.

While there are a myriad of ways to become successful in a creative field doing spec work or as it’s now called crowdsourcing is a particularly problematic way of seeking success. Don’t be fooled by the name change crowdsourcing is spec-work. It might be wrapped up in a fun buzz word but it is still a terrible method that is now employed not just by design clients but also by 3rd parties to squeeze money from a field that already has very tight profit margins.

Lets look at CrowdSpring.com – as of Feb 09, 2011 they list 1,629,529 entries. If each of those entries took 1 hour to do that  equals over 186 YEARS worth of round-the-clock work. Only a little more than 2 years worth of that design work has been paid for – that’s nearly 184 years worth of work completed that has not been paid for. Being paid for your work is vital to survival.

When you factor in the fact that many of these designs are likely to have taken more than an hour. If we place the average closer to 2 or 3 hours per entry that means we can double or even triple those numbers. As much as 500 years worth of round-the-clock work not being paid for. Not only is this not right but that is the figure from only 1 spec-work recruiting site. How many designers are being robbed of a means of making a living by all of these companies?

One can argue that that lack of payment is spread out among a huge number of designers but it is still unbelievable when you add in the fact that many designers who do get selected are paid far less than a designer working for a client in a more traditional setting. So even when you win, you loose.

Spec work is a gamble – literally

Companies like CrowdSpring are full of smart people. These people know a little something about human nature. Nearly all mammals can be trained to do something over and over for reward even if that reward doesn’t come each time. When rewards appear to be random people and other animals will work hard for that reward even at times when they won’t receive it. This is how reward based animals training works it’s also how gambling works.

CrowdSpring and other design-extortionist companies use this to keep designers coming back. They work like a slot machine, eventually a designer might win. When they do they get a pay-off. Those that don’t eventually win stop playing but there a lots of others waiting to take their place. Those designers who have an entry selected are very likely to keep coming back just as flocks of people visit casinos or bingo-halls over and over.

These companies employ the same tactics that drive people to play slots or buy scratch-off tickets.

Spec-work is a game of chance and should probably be regulated as such especially when you account for the fact that cost to play is disguised. These companies advertise the prize upfront that the winning gambler will receive no matter how hard they work, how good their work is, or how little research into the project, the client, the industry, and the end-audience they’ve done.

Lack of research and knowledge of the project is another problem of spec-work. When a designer works with a client to create a logo, visual-branding, or so on they get to ask questions of the client, they get to see marketing research or work with an internal or external marketing team to make their design match the goals of the brand, the project, and the target audience. By removing this essential piece from the design process the designer is now working without direction, their end design might look good to the client but it’s highly unlikely that the design will meet the actual marketing goals and/or message therefore it will likely not meet the needs of the client.

The companies that seek spec-work typically have little future use for design. Even if they do purchase a good deal of creative work they likely don’t see much true value in it otherwise they’d pay a fair price for it and would ensure that it fits in with their other branding and marketing. No matter what these companies are unlikely to come back to the same designer. This only helps to discourage research, knowledge of the target audience, and understanding of the clients needs. If the client doesn’t care about their needs why should the designer.

It’s no secret that it’s easier to maintain client relationships than it is to find new clients. When one does spec-work not only are they providing work for free they are also forcing themselves to work harder to keep finding new clients because those they have already found have no loyalty and see no value in their work.

A study done by the logofactory.com showed that even the top five designers at 5 of the most popular crowdsourcing sites win on average less than 10% of the “contests” that they enter. So even if you are a top performer your still only being paid for less than 1 in 10 of your designs. If we go back to our average of 2-3 hours of design per 20-30 hours. If we assume 2 hours per design (to make the math easy) that means in a 40 hour work week you’d be paid for 4 of those hours. If you’re a designer reading this picture yourself sitting in a cubical for 40 hours a week and each payday, every two week you get a check for 1 days worth of that work. So every month you work 20 days or 160 hours but get paid for only 16 hours or 4 days. Add to that the fact that the pay you are earning is less than what your potential is, less than what the average pay is for the same work in your area and clearly spec-work makes no sense.

Now lets think about this – not only are you being paid less than what you’re worth, not only are you working 20 days per month and being paid for only 4 of them but you are also having to pay your boss for the privilege of providing you with work. Keep in mind while picturing yourself in this position that you’re on the top, your one of the 5 most successful people in your company.

Spec-work in and of itself was bad enough when companies were seeking spec-work on their own but if there is one difference between spec-work and crowdsourcing it’s that the later is far worse in that it allows a 3rd party to set a low-price for your work and then take a significant piece of the money that you’ve worked so hard to earn.

Clearly spec-work and it’s evil sibling crowdsourcing is never a good way to break into a creative field. Being paid poorly for less than 1/10th of your work, having to pay for the privilege of having your work selected, having the same tactics employed against you that are used by casinos to keep people gambling, being forced to continually look for new clients, and disrupting the process of design are all the downside of spec-work and these problems far out-weigh the supposed benefits of “democratizing design” which is hardly what crowdsourcing companies are doing. They are really simply making money by providing what is purely a disservice. They’ve not democratized design they’ve turned it into a contest which is more about competition and the free-market than design has ever been. Whereas design, like all business, is partially about networking and getting to know clients crowdsourcing is purely about the whims of the client.

Speaking of clients … Time is money and spec-work wastes not just client money (by providing them with sub-par designs) but also wastes their time because they often must wade through so many designs. Worse yet contracted designers can revise and refine their work while spec-workers are often hired with the understanding that their work is finished or is sold as-is.

Not only is it hard on designers when they have to continually find new clients but it is also hard on companies when they are loosing out on the potential to hire a designer long-term which is exactly what happens when they turn to spec-workers.