Spec Work Defined for Andrew Warner

Office Space the Movie at Red Rocks

I was on Mixergy this week, which is just a fantastic project by Andrew Warner.

I’ve looked up to Andrew for a while, it was great to be on.  I didn’t plan on talking about spec work at all, but it came up and took over the interview.  Always interesting.  I’ve talked to hundreds of people about spec, and have not met a single person that supports it without financially benefiting from it.

Andrew is a great guy, and my jaw was a bit on the floor when he said:

“I think spec work is the future. I believe in it a lot.”

To me this says that Andrew just doesn’t know what Spec Work is.

Spec Work, as a term, is set up to describe a reprehensible system.  It is a term used to describe something bad.  Something horrible.  So saying “I think spec work is the future” is the equivilant to saying “I think kicking my dog is great.”  You are arguing against a loaded term, like ‘garbage.’  You can’t argue for garbage.  Well, you can, but you put yourself is a small group that advocates a wasteful way of life, which, I would say, is a group that people I look up to stray away from.

Spec Work is a tricky subject for many, because the loaded parts of community and competition in design ‘contests’ make them look, well, damn good.

So this post is for you Andrew, and for those that are not quite sure of what Spec Work is.  Done in a very friendly way.

Spec Work is:

Professional custom work completed by many for the slight chance of non noteworthy payment.

If it doesn’t fit every part of that definition, it isn’t Spec Work, and has the fighting chance of being pretty dang cool (there is a smell test here).

Why is Spec Work bad (they choose to do it, right)?  Let’s look at some numbers (and realize why almost everyone that has been around it runs away from it):

  • 100 projects are Spec Work’ed out (Design Contest!)
  • 100 designers per project, each spending an average of 2 hours
  • 1 winner per project (lets say $300)

So, we have $30,000 changing hands after 20,000 hours of work is completed.  18,000 hours (99%) go unpaid, and an average per hour rate of $1.50.

That isn’t a guaranteed $1.50 either, it the average hourly, some higher, some lower.  I would be a little more fine with this if designs were picked on merit but many times the clients pick the most atrocious and plagiarized content.  The cards are stacked against everyone, as you can now see.

If I’m a random designer in a spec ecosystem, this means that I work 200 hours with a take home of $300.

Spec Work ecosystem = work 5- 40 hour weeks (over a month) and get $300 (or less).

As a person on this earth, one that has benefited from being in sustainable communities, is this something you refer to as ‘the future?’

Whoops, did I say $300?  Well, that is before the fees the Spec Work Middleman takes out.  Let’s take another $30 in fees for them (you see, for hosting the 100 ‘contests’ they will take home ~$3000, more than 10x what the worker is getting).

The problem is in human behavior.  We like to compete.  So by setting up a contest with the cash at the finish, you are stacking the deck to a short term win.

Short term win and a longterm loss.

If we were to look at a site like Mixergy, which doesn’t fit the definition of Spec Work because it isn’t custom and isn’t done for the intent of a chance of none noteworthy payment.  You have set up a site with a subscription model, so, in theory, 1000 people a month would pay $10 a month nets you a nice little paycheck.  If 10,000 pay, you get the nice house on the hill.  There is a chance of massive upside (why startups exist right?).  Take a risk, work hard and there is a chance of a spike.

There is no chance of upside for a spec work worker.  All their designs are custom (“Paul’s Fine Furniture” can’t be reused per se).  All their winnings are small at best, and if they lead to future work, they lead to future work with someone that just got 2000 hours of work for $300 (it isn’t going to be a favorable contract to say the least).

All of their work leads up to their way of life being five weeks of work for $300.  That is the market you are supporting and creating.

I’m a fan of free markets, but I’m also a fan of fairness.  This isn’t fair to the worker, and the work (what do you think the quality of a piece is if they know 99% of the time it won’t be chosen?).

Everyone loses.  Well, except the person promoting Spec Work.  They get paid every time.

So by the numbers, do we see why this is such an unhealthy model?  Spending $300 on a simple identity for a small business isn’t bad, asking for 200 hours of work is what we all take offense to.

Is this something you want your name attached to?  Clear exploitation.  It isn’t worth it.  The entire creative class is against people who promote this action, and you really don’t see much benefit.  You’re picking on designers in this case, saying their work isn’t valuable, that they should complete work for the chance of payment.  Your picking on the person that has the most to lose, that isn’t connected.

You can get away with it, which is a very low standard to base your actions.  Not something uplifting or supportive.  Not something you would expect another member of the community to behave like.

There are amazingly innovative ways to look at this problem.  Startups need design.  Small businesses need design.  At a price point.  They don’t need 100 concepts, they need just one that fits their vision.

Spec work, at all levels is something everyone should fight against, as it is a lose – lose situation.

One that I will continue to fight against.

So Andrew, I don’t believe you love Spec Work.  You may like some rays of innovation you see (entrepreneurs see optimism) but I don’t think you see the model of what spec work actually is as anything more than a pyramid scheme for design.  A lot of people are getting hurt, and it pains me to see you promoting the companies that promote this poor behavior.

Here is the interview we did, I enjoyed it and look forward to answering any questions about this topic.

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