A Careful Defense of Spec Work

There’s been some ongoing kerfuffle across the internet about spec work, with one website mentioned that I’m actually familiar with, 99designs.com.

A lot of good arguments have been made on both sides of the issue. Spec work definitely has its dangers and downsides. But having used 99designs, I wanted to let you know some of the arguments on both sides, and why I don’t think spec work is always a bad or immoral thing.

What is spec work or “work on spec”?

Spec work or work on spec is when a designer or artist of any type submits finished or partially finished design work for a prospective client before securing the work or deciding on an equitable fee. This can be in the form of a contest or competition to fulfill an actual need. In some cases (perhaps most?), the designer loses all rights to works submitted even if their work isn’t chosen or paid for as the “winning” entry. You can read a very good outline of spec work and its downsides at the nospec.com FAQ page.

Arguments Against Spec Work

  • Spec work devalues art and the effort of producing art by asking designers to work for free. This is even more true in the case where the rights to “losing” entries are also claimed by the entity running the contest or other submission process.
  • By devaluing the creative process and creative skill required, spec work encourages frantic submission of cheap entries by underpaid, less-skilled creatives.

Arguments For Spec Work

  • Spec work is a way for an entity looking at purchasing a custom creative work to see what the options are.
  • Spec work is a way for beginning creatives to build their portfolios while having a possibility of being paid.

My Experience

Please understand that, despite the explanation below, spec work doesn’t always work out well for everyone involved. If you are creative and considering spec work, go into it with your eyes open. However, I do believe it can have benefits for both parties when done right.

I used 99designs.com to identify a book cover for my first book, The King’s Sword. You can read a blog post I wrote about the process here. First, I did look around for a book cover designer before I chose to go with 99designs. I found several with very good portfolios, but none that I felt were especially close to what I wanted my book cover to convey. I did not have a specific idea of what should be on my book cover, but I did know that it wasn’t a stereotypical epic fantasy book and needed a cover that would properly convey the feel of the book. Essentially, I looked for an individual designer first but did not find one I was confident could fulfill the need. Let it be clear – I am not a graphic designer, nor do I have experience designing book covers myself. I am not an art or marketing expert. But I did know my book and the overall feel that I wanted the cover to convey.

I did not choose 99designs because of the price… in fact, running a contest there was more expensive than several of the designers I considered. I chose to go with the design contest largely because of the guarantee that I would be satisfied with the end result. 99designs has the fee decided upfront, as well as a standard contract for the rights transferred at the end of the contest. It isn’t a contest for some undetermined pittance… it’s a decent price, although not high-end. As the client, I actually was surprised by how big of a cut 99designs took – when I worked directly with the designer for a second cover, we didn’t have to pay that (which is totally above-board, by the way; there is a process to do it through the website itself) and it reduced my cost by about 1/3. I wasn’t aware of the amount that went directly to the designer vs. what 99designs took (that’s opaque from the client end) and I only discovered it later.

I understand that part of the creative process is understanding what the requirements are. So I spent hours over a few days to write an extensive design brief, including the overall impression of the book and some ideas of scenes and symbols that might be appropriate for the cover. When the contest went live, I identified designers on 99designs whose work looked promising and invited them to participate. I also spent hours writing feedback on individual entries, most of which I made public so that everyone interested could read the feedback and have the best chance of understanding where I was coming from and what I was looking for. I understood that if the designers didn’t have the best possible understanding of the book, they wouldn’t be able to represent it well.

In any design process, some designers really get the feedback and catch the vision. Others don’t, for a variety of reasons (anything from laziness to being in a hurry to a language barrier to a simple lack of skill in translating understanding into a design). After the first round of feedback, I was pretty ruthless in eliminating designers whose work was definitely not in contention. I figured it was better to let them know so they wouldn’t waste time on more iterations of a design I knew wasn’t a possibility.

I ended up with three designs that were technically very good and very appealing. One of them was submitted fairly late in the contest (which was less than a week, so it wasn’t a long, drawn out thing) – the designer read my extensive design brief and all the feedback on the submitted designs and came up with something new. That one represented my work the best, and ended up being the one I chose (with a few minor changes). I love the cover art I received and I think the process did result in the best design being chosen. I’ve gotten quite a few compliments on the cover, but I understand that it isn’t for everyone.

I already had the sequel finished and I worked directly with the same artist for the second book cover. He made the same amount of money and didn’t have any stress from working on spec, and I paid less because the fee to run the contest wasn’t an issue the second time, since I worked with him directly. We were both happy.

I would not have found this designer ordinarily – I’m based outside Washington, D.C., and he lives in Italy. Nor did his portfolio have anything similar to what he produced for me.

The main benefit of spec work for a designer is something just like this: it allows a designer to play around in a new area with the potential to get paid. Yes, it’s not guaranteed. Yes, once they get more experience and a portfolio, they should use that portfolio to attract clients directly. But when they don’t have a portfolio to support a new line of work… what to do, what to do? The advice given to creatives is to “build a portfolio.” You can do that for fictitious clients, or you can do it for real ones. Fictitious clients never pay; real ones, even on spec, might pay. Plus, the experience of reading a design brief and going through the process of understanding a client’s needs…. that takes skill. Skill must be developed; it isn’t innate. Producing for a fictitious client is easy, because there are no constraints, no one giving feedback, and no chance to evaluate how your designs may or may not work for the client.

Working on spec is not something a talented, skilled designer should do forever. Nor is it something that a business should use as a way to always choose the lowest bidder. I shouldn’t need to say it, but I will anyway: using any designer’s work without paying for it is completely unethical. I didn’t get the rights to any of the covers I didn’t use. I did keep track of their names though… now I have two other artists to consider for future work.

I don’t expect that my designer, or either of the other two in the final running, will use 99designs forever. That’s ok. I’ll be happy to pay their rates when they’re more established, and I’m glad my cover will be in their portfolio.

There is a place for art that is purely “on spec” in the sense that it was created with no design brief and no client in mind. An artist can sell art on his or her own website, on Etsy, on eBay, or on any number of other websites as well as in-person galleries. Those pieces were created for the pure joy of creation, but the artists also hope they sell. Most of my jewelry is like that… I created it, and I hope that eventually it will find the eye of the person who wants it. That person will be willing to pay for it, and until then, it waits.

There is also purely custom work, where an artist has his or her own website, takes custom orders, and works with clients to understand their needs and come up with solutions. I do some custom work for my jewelry business, but not a lot.

Spec work is the middle ground. Yes, it can be a rough place, but I don’t think anyone is meant to stay there forever. It’s like an internship… you’re learning and growing and developing skills and expertise to be used later in a higher paying job. It’s up to the artist to translate those skills into something marketable. No one becomes an expert overnight, and a designer with no portfolio can’t necessarily expect to charge professional rates. Spec work is a way to build a portfolio, not a way of life. Thus, spec work farms are bad… they turn what should be a learning experience into a financial prison. Obviously, I’m not in favor of that.

A Learning Experience

I touched on these topics already, but I wanted to note a few things that I think made my design contest ethical. These aren’t always the case, but if you are considering spec work (either from the designer side or the client side), please consider these factors and how they play into your decision.

  • I wrote an extensive, clear design brief that 1) gave a clear vision of the overall goal and feel, but 2) didn’t dictate how that goal and feel were to be accomplished. I trusted the designers to be designers; they would know more about how to achieve that goal than I would.
  • I gave detailed, public feedback on all the designs. All the designers had the same access to my impressions and feedback and the same opportunity to act on it.
  • 99designs does not give contest holders (me) access to the designs during the contest. I only got access to the winning design after it was chosen and the contest was ended. The money was held in escrow for a specified time for me to approve it, and then the designer was paid. I had no access to the other designs.
  • Any/all of the designers could use any designs they submitted in their portfolio. Many of them chose to remove designs after they were rejected. However, the designs in the final running would be excellent additions to any portfolio, and I hope the designers use them to gain work in the future.
  • EXTRA: I used the design contest as a way to identify a designer (actually designers) to use for future work. I’ve already gotten a second cover by the winning artist and hope to have more work for him in the future. Unlike some contests, this wasn’t just a vague hint of future work… the second cover was completed and paid for less than two months later.

Think of it like an internship. An intern begins work knowing that the experience is the main benefit. Payment is minimal or nonexistent  but at the end he or she will have something worthwhile to put on his or her resume. I considered myself to be something like an intern coordinator, and so I spent a lot of time trying to make the experience as useful as possible, even for the designers whose work I didn’t use. A company doesn’t owe an intern a job after the internship, but they do owe them a useful learning experience. As the client, I owed it to the designers to give them as much information as possible so that they could learn from the contest, even if they didn’t win.

Conversely, an intern should learn as much as possible at an internship. An internship is a good thing for someone just starting a career. It’s not a good thing for an experienced professional. A design contest wouldn’t be an appropriate use of skills for a professional designer with a full portfolio, but it isn’t necessarily a bad idea for a new designer who needs experience. It would not a good idea to continue in design contests and spec work forever once a designer has progressed past that early-career stage. That doesn’t mean spec work is inherently evil, or that intern coordinators are evil. It just means that it isn’t appropriate for everyone at every career point.

One More Thought

There’s a lot of talk about undervaluing literature/art/design/etc. that underpins the conversation about spec work. I understand that; I really do. I love art. I make jewelry in my free time as well as write. My husband is a talented amateur photographer. Beautiful things make me happy.

But the world doesn’t owe me the right to make a living doing something fun. If my novels are great, and people are willing to pay for the enjoyment of reading them, that’s wonderful! I’m sincerely grateful for every purchase. But you don’t owe that to me. I write my books because I choose to. I write on spec, and most fiction writers do too. We write because we want to, and we find enjoyment in it. We develop our skills. We practice our craft. We study writing. We attempt to learn how to market.

But when it comes to the end of the day… readers don’t owe us. It would be wrong to pirate a book, just like it’s wrong to use a photograph without paying for it, or any other piece of art without paying for it. Aside from the basic moral obligation to not steal, readers and other art consumers don’t owe artists anything. They don’t owe us good reviews, they don’t owe us word of mouth, they don’t owe us purchases. We appreciate all those things, but they are not our right.

Many writers have day jobs. Yes, it would be nice to make a decent living writing. But not everyone has the talent, skill, or experience to do that. The world doesn’t owe me the right to stay home and write all day, regardless of my level of skill. The world owes me fair payment for the work it chooses to consume. In the self-publishing world, we like to think that the cream rises to the top. If that’s true, those of us with the talent, skill, experience, and sufficient titles will eventually be able to stay home and write all day…. not because it’s our right as artists, but because we’ve earned it by producing things the world wants.