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.






23 responses to “Spec Work Defined for Andrew Warner”

  1. Alison Heittman Avatar

    Solid math – great job bringing everything down to dollars & cents, which is the only thing that a lot of people not knowledgeable in the space can understand. Thanks for a great post!

  2. chad totaro Avatar
    chad totaro

    No more spec work on my end, a few years back was bullied by a BIG corporation, do the spec or get lost, did the spec, countless hours in our studio, a few trips to their fortress, in the end the treated us with very little respect and we, for lack of better words, did not get the project and we did not get any compensation. A bunch of months later we saw some of the work we did in some of their national direct mail and print pieces, little bits of the work but nonetheless the attitude, copy tone, art was very similar. What is a little dinky design studio in Philly going to do against a BIG national company, we washed our hands and never did anything for FREE again.

    I still get a bad taste in my mouth when I look at sites like crowdspring, I even dabbled over there just to see what it was about and at the end of the day it is inexpensive design work/labor which devalues the design business…

  3. Peter J. Hart Avatar

    Andrew, welcome to the market. If you can't provide value above your competition, you aren't going to get paid at all. This isn't a moral issue, its a free market issue. It is like vilifying shopping on eBay as if it is unfair to established brick and mortars. Mere design talent isn't going to get us anywhere anymore. We need innovation now, like in every other industry.

    And what is not fair? If someone can do the same level of work that I can for half the price, is it fair to make the client pay my price? No.

    Things are not the same. They were never going to be. Imposing tariffs or subsidies are not going to stop progress. If good design is more affordable, then it will be more widely used. Which is partly why I am in this industry: everything is so ugly! 🙂

    There will always be demand for good talent, but in our lifetime, talent is easier to discover. Take photography. The barriers for entry used to be so high. Equipment was expensive and you had to use film. Now SLRs are affordable and you have instant feedback. Now anyone can at least try it. And now people who have a natural talent can use it when before they might never have known. Now there is a flood of talented photographers. Is that fair to the old guard? Those talking about how good they are at agitation? Agitation doesn't matter anymore because there is no film to agitate. You better step up your game.

  4. Peter J. Hart Avatar

    I don't know if my comment was clear. If as a designer you can only pull down $1.5/hr, you better find a way to be worth more. If it helps, you can think of it as getting paid $750/hr and paying $748.50 in advertising/lead gen.

    Commoditization is always painful to the unprepared. But why are you unprepared?

  5. SanJuanWes Avatar

    I have looked into these spec websites before but have not actually used one…. the beautiful thing is that nobody is forced to do this spec work. It is completely voluntary. One could imagine a situation where these spec websites are driving down the wages forcing designers who normally don't take spec work into taking it. On the other hand you can also imagine a situation where if the quality of spec work is plagiarized or just not that great causing less clients to use that marketplace.

    I think the real take away here is that having a strong opinion about something popular is great advertising.

  6. Samo Avatar

    So it's basically OK for people to bring the overall price of a service down just because they either don't know any better or are prepared to live on the edge of poverty just to get the job?

    The experiences I've had were basically that people fresh out of design schools or just starting out often just don't have the experience of knowledge of how much they are worth and how much they need to earn to make a decent living. And that's what's being shamelessly abused—every halfway experienced designer will never, ever do spec work. It's not even the same market that they're in. So saying “you better step up your game” is borderline retarded. “You better not go after cheapskate customers” would be more like it, as far as advice goes.

    Anyhows, designers who are good at what they do will always (even if sometimes slowly) reach their $150 hourly rate—it would just be nice to educate them before they fall flat on their face with spec work.

  7. Debashis Avatar

    The ROI for the losers is simply a big ZERO. Now, the question is how much these contest would be too much? Many crowd-sourcing websites are popping-up with the similar business model; I won't name them but few have targeted wealthier clients with big budgets and few have targeted the lower segment of the market.

  8. anthemdesigngroup Avatar


    Its about more than volunteering. First, some people that need to pay bills can get desperate.
    But, The fact of the matter is that many people that engage in actual spec work are not professional designers BUT they are creating an idea in the minds of clients and businesses that these kind of practices are okay. Most clients do not look into whether or not they are receiving professional work, they assume it will be ( because sites like Crowdspring tell them they are).

    Spec work is an attack on the profession. It implants the idea that the work itself is not valuable. These ideas create expectations in the mind of a potential client, about the value and tangible price of design services. I constantly have to fight these expectations with my clients and while I never engage in these spec websites and contests, the fact that they are perpetuated hurts my business on a daily basis.

    Overall, this article makes fantastic tangible points. But, I believe that people need to understand how much damage this does to design as an industry as well. It is bad for everyone.

  9. Ian Cylkowski Avatar

    It doesn't get better than this when you boil it down to pure facts and figures. Superb read.

  10. Nick Routley Avatar

    “Commoditization is always painful to the unprepared. But why are you unprepared?” – Well stated. I agree completely.

  11. SanJuanWes Avatar

    I should have waited to email you…. I just restarted and all was better
    again. Love the product for the filtering and scrap container.

  12. Andrew Warner Avatar

    There's so much that I disagree with you about this, but I've given it a lot of thought over the weekend and realized I don't know nearly as much about the issue as you do, so I'd be smarter to give your ideas some thought instead of looking for ways to argue against you.

  13. Peter J. Hart Avatar

    I agree with your point. If we are trying to educate the inexperienced that they shouldn't do the work first hoping to get paid, then that is a good and honorable endeavor. I was under the impression the no-spec movement was trying to keep clients from asking designers to do the work up front with no promise of payment.

    There are two values I see in spec work: experience and competition. I have dabbled a bit in spec work and would do it more (using a service like 99designs) if I had the time. I need the practice in creating good work that clients will choose over the competition. Am I going to try and pay the bills with this? No.

    I don't think spec work is the problem. Some people are trying to fight exploitation or child labor (children can design logos? Awesome!) or whatever. I think it would be best to fight those problems directly instead of confusing it with spec work.

  14. ryanwanger Avatar

    Systems that result in a huge net loss for society (like spec work) are certainly worth taking a good hard look at. Although I've long held that market forces are all that matter, there are certainly lots of examples where the race to the bottom (where the cost approaches 0, as in spec work) is locking us into a way of doing things that is unsustainable in the long term.

  15. Dan Moore Avatar

    Should people be forced to participate in 'spec work', as defined above? No.

    Should people be allowed to if they want to (for any number of valid reasons–they enjoy it, want to try out a new career with low risk, want the chance to make some extra cash, are new on the market, want to make a name for themselves, live in a country with different cost of living, etc)? Yes.

    Will these sites drive down the cost of good design? That remains to be seen. My hunch is no. My hunch is that it is opening up a new market for designers, because people who use 'spec work' sites probably never would have paid a designer if the site didn't exist.

    I see 'spec work' as very similar to internships–if people want to do work for (almost) no money in exchange for experience and learning, they should be allowed to. Does that mean that I participate in such sites? No.

    I signed up for elance (similar to 'spec work' sites, but for developers–and you don't deliver the entire product before they choose a vendor) and quickly realized that I could not compete in that marketplace. Instead, I developed local relationships with people for whom a trusted face and an honest estimate (and, frankly, an American voice in the same time zone) was more important than the absolute lowest price.

    Now, the issue where a company was using derivative work that they did not pay for–that's a risk that anyone submitting 'spec work' should be aware of and take under consideration. To me, it seems scummy, but that's a choice a provider can make.

    If 'spec work' does drive down the cost of good design to the point where all good designers get out of the business, then suddenly there will be a demand for good designers and the price of design will rise. After all, many professional database programmers probably were tweaked out about Access and Lotus 1-2-3 destroying their profession, but it certainly didn't do so.

  16. andrewhyde Avatar

    I'm perfectly fine with 1v1 relationships. Markets do great things.

    I'm not fine, and as you have seen industries fail pretty miserably when adapting, with Spec Work.

    Are you a believer in minimum wage? Spec Work isn't a market play at all, it is an employment bullying tactic that can be defended with public opinion.

    Your favoring a system that rewards piracy, plagiarism, and and exploiting of community.

    Is that what you stand up for? Those are your values?

  17. andrewhyde Avatar

    Put some thoughts into minimum wage and why it is there.

    If you put the price of work at or below the cost of entry, you have an implosion. Lots of people get hurt, and it shouldn't be an option.

  18. andrewhyde Avatar

    There are plenty of opportunities in the market for crowdsourcing to really make a huge difference with unseen innovation.

    But what happens when this happens when bad systems like spec work take the name and drive public opinion to be 'crowdsourcing = exploitation?'

    It is a classic short term win longterm loss to me.

  19. andrewhyde Avatar

    I like this comment a lot more.

    The fear is that an entire industry is hurt and pushed towards clip art because of the greed and lack of morals of a few.

  20. Dan Moore Avatar

    I re-read your definition and it makes my argument about internships moot (not 'professional' work).

    But, minimum wage doesn't apply across national boundaries, and for some people $1.50/hr is a living wage.

    That said, there's a world of difference between saying something should be allowed to exist (my position) and that one should actively support it (for example, by participating in a 'spec work' site).

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