I might be beating a dead horse here, but I feel it’s one of those topics that need to be addressed often. Even before joining the AIGA, I felt very strongly about spec work. Spec work is short for speculative work. What it means is that you the designer (or other creative professional) do a job for a potential client in the hopes that they will believe in you as a professional and sign you on to do a project. Now that doesn’t sound bad on the surface, but it’s a terrible idea that really messes with your sanity.

Here is how spec work screws with our industry. Design contests, call for submissions and the like…they are all calls for “ideas”, “entries”, “submissions”. In plain English it’s this.

“Hey Designer! Send us some designs of how you would redo or brand our product/service/company and if we like them, we’ll use them.”

More often then not, the fine print about these contests clearly dictates that ownership of these submissions now reside with the prospective client. They are not obligated to use your work in any way, shape or form. They retain complete ownership of the material you sent them and they now own them outright, for which they can go and get copyrighted and use for whatever purpose that suits them.

The promise of getting national recognition for submitting your work is just plain false. It’s a bold faced lie. The promise of helping to jumpstart your career with a large client you’ve done work for is a lie. If they have to say that in their brief, then I would worry. If that were true, wouldn’t everyone be doing it?

Typically, it’s new creatives that fall into this trap with spec work. Sometimes it comes in the form of design contest, or on 99designs, or sometimes it’s a prospective client that reaches out to you and asks you to do something for them and they will see how it works out. Most new creatives at an early point in their career don’t have the business savvy to see these “opportunities” for what they really are, which is crap.

So let’s say you send in a submission for a logo design for cosmetic company, you read the brief or description of the project and do some research, work on a few sketches and work up a final comp to submit for consideration. Naturally, we love competitions. Everyone does. We all want to feel like we where chosen due to our uniqueness, cleverness or any other trait that everyone else has. After the supposed deadline date, you hear nothing. A week goes by, then two weeks, then a month. Nothing.

At this point in your mind you are starting to second-guess yourself. You question if you have read the brief correctly. Maybe you email them and ask for an update. You spend time looking to hear anything about this competition or maybe you keep sending the “client” emails to find out what’s going on. You want to know what’s happening, where you picked, is there any other work coming out of it, and most importantly, will you get compensated. Wasting all of that time about this one project is not helping you.

Two months roll by and maybe you happen to see your design being used for something for a cosmetic company advertisement, or maybe another industry altogether. It maybe your exact design or it looks like someone changed it a bit. Maybe the client you were in direct contact with took parts of your logo and mashed it up with another submission they got. Regardless, you got screwed and you didn’t get paid and you have no legal grounds to sue because you had no contract signed.

Now you either have two roads you can go down. I’d like to hope that more creatives learn from this scenario and start to use contracts and protect themselves from unscrupulous competitions and con artists. Sadly, I have seen the opposite. Design competitions and client submission projects are like gambling. You are betting on this one project will help skyrocket your career. If you can just get this one big break, you will be on a path of gold. Unfortunately, you are the player betting against the house, and the house always wins. It’s a cliché statement, but it’s true.

The more you continue to take part in these competitions and submission request, the less you are using your own abilities and the more you design to what you think will make you “win”. Your skills begin to atrophy, your thinking starts to change, and your business sense becomes extremely skewed and flawed. Now, you live for the possibility of hope that you might be chosen. That is a demoralizing place to be in.

What spec work does is tell clients that you don’t have faith in your abilities as a designer nor do you have any business sense to protect yourself and get paid for your work. Potential clients have no reason to respect you and aren’t to not use any of your free work because, hey, it’s free. They don’t have to pay you for your spec work because they aren’t legally bound to. This isn’t a jab on clients. This is just a fact. The virus of the quick and easy route is very pervasive and it can very quickly affect all facets of your craft. It also builds a reputation, one that you don’t want to have.

I know that I got on my soapbox a bit with this post but I feel very strongly about this. It’s our natural inclination as creatives to want to develop something that people will see and use and comment positively on. At first, we are pretty good about the creation, but pretty crappy at the compensation. What’s the answer to this? How do we help our own industry avoid the pitfalls and devious charlatans who prey upon our own naivety? Education, and I am not talking about formal school. Befriend another designer, preferably someone who makes their livelihood at freelancing and start learning from them. Open up a dialogue and become a sponge. Join an organization like the AIGA and tell them “Teach me how to not get screwed”. They like to help make sure we don’t get screwed. Join LinkedIn and find design groups and ask questions there. Find other small business owners and learn from them. The basics of business are pretty much the same; we just differ in services provided.

In conclusion, as creative, we need to look out for each other. We are the ones who will educate the public on what we do and our importance in society. Let’s give them the best.

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July 2, 2013

Tell me your thoughts.

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