Wednesday, September 12

Taking Care of The Business End of Design, Part II: The Perils of SPEC

Guest Contributor Dagmar Jeffrey

Another very dangerous pitfall that every designer, most especially entering professionals like graduates and self taught creatives need to avoid like the plague are businesses that utilize speculative (widely known as "spec") models. They're alluring to a young starter, however in reality they are unethical, undercutting and ultimately counter productive towards the "Business-designer."

For one, the entire purpose of earning a living in this profession is just that—you earn a living. One is a professional first, designer second. Spec models essentially require a designer to work on active design projects for only the possibility of compensation. They are often masked as contests, logo mills or "tests" (to prove one's skill) by prospective employers. Designers fall for this trap by the boatload for several reasons. Some are:

1. Exposure. Designers feel that it's well worth working for free if it means that their stuff is "out there" where it might lead to actual paying work. For the most part however, very, very few ever get exposure that leads to paying work nor proper compensation (if any at all) for what they've already done.

2. Clients. By participating in contest and logo mill sites, a Designer feels that they will somehow establish some form of client relationship that could lead to referrals and better paying work. Again, a myth. Whether they can actually afford to invest in something as important as the identity of their business is irrelevant, people who solicit these places are there for one thing—bargain basement design. Lets say that they do want to work again with the designer. They'll still expect what they had before—ridiculously inexpensive design. They don't understand that the true value of a creative lies in the intangible, conceptual work, not the final execution. As I like to say, design is two parts conceptual development and one part execution. However to them, they feel that logo design is so simple, anyone with a computer and the right software can do it—and why believe otherwise? Clients are rarely privy to the behind-the-scene hours spent researching, sketching concepts, rendering and revisions. All they ordinarily see are a set of finished looking concepts to choose from and the final design.

3. Fast money. It's a concept that doesn't logically exist in a logo or contest mill. It's basic mathematics—there is one prize and a huge mass of eager entrants, all willing to literally give away their time and talent for the mere hope of winning. As with any contest, there is obviously no guarantee of winning. Even if there is, the "prize" is so ridiculously low it's laughable. It almost certainly doesn't justify the labor involved in producing the final product.

Logo design can cost tens of thousands of dollars. The famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) 2012 London Olympics logo cost nearly a cool million USD. The more humble creative can charge anywhere in the range of five to fifteen thousand USD. Why so pricey? Among other reasons, unlike an ad, a website, or a billboard, a logo is used over and over by the client, in a myriad of applications, from signs, business cards, stationery systems, invoices and unlimited promotional collateral for the duration of the business or until the logo has outlived it's usefulness.

Designers with an intuitive business sense include their price for the usage rights of the logo—think along the lines of "licensing fees." When a designer creates anything, by law it is automatically theirs, unless they sell or give away their ownership rights to it. So what does the savvy, business-minded mill and company do? For the designer to participate they first have to agree to give away the rights of their submission, even if they lose. The reality is that the only one who really wins in a spec situation is the spec business itself.

4. Training Grounds. One doesn't learn how to develop a proper, stable and realistic client-designer communication. They rarely if ever learn how to create informative client briefs, nor establish a healthy developmental creative process. How can they, they're too busy vying for the winning bid to foster a positive proactive relationship. It's just a poor professional training ground in nearly every sense of the word.

5. Absence of options. A business that requires as part of their recruitment process that a designer work on active projects to land a paying job is really getting free labor. Pretty obvious, isn't it? There is sometimes some form of testing to verify one's skill it's true, but not on active projects for actual clients. The simple fact is that this is not an acceptable or ethical process. Many designers in such a situation have been known to ask for a written agreement that their work will not be used without proper compensation first.

There are plenty of articles that a designer can turn to further their education. One is an article I wrote for Designorati titled, Combating The Stigma of the Overpriced Designer. Another "must bookmark" resource for every designer is the no!spec web site, which has all sorts of nifty tibits and downloads on the ills of speculative work. Or simply take a trip to any reputable design forum like HOWdesign...there are two now,'s GD forum, and the The GDF. Members will be more than happy to offer nuggets of wisdom for those in need.

Next Time: Part III

Dagmar Jeffrey has accumulated over ten years of print advertising and graphic communication arts experience through independent design contracting and pre-press production, both through her business Archetype Design Studio and via well established enterprises. She is also a member of the Brainstorming Team at no!spec and is presently collaborating on other projects pertinent to the industry.

During her down time, you can normally find Dagmar actively participating and generally hobnobbing in some of the most well regarded design forums, as well as tending to her design and news blog, ARCHE-BLogGER, a visual exploration inside the Creative Mind.

"speck" illustration by Dagmar Jeffrey.
No!Spec logo design by Piers Le Sueur.


Anonymous said...

Thanks. Your article helps to take off the rose tinted glasses and get a better look at, and prepare for the realities after graduation.

Juggling Jason said...

Really great practical advice. I had gone through the no spec site before but your article helps me understand the whole concept of nospec quite a bit better. I would like to offer to readers another link that might help in justifying the cost of logo work.

The website is wherein different branding projects are discussed and the advantages/disadvantages of logos are clearly defined.

If any of you dear readers would like to also offer such suggestions please feel free to do so.

Thanks again Dagmar, looking forward to reading part 3