Spec Work Panel at SXSW

I’ve been thinking of the SXSW panel on spec work named after my post “Spec Work is Evil

The panel was fantastic, because, it was really a panel.  There were people on one side, people on the other.  Other panel organizers, this is how it is done.

Brutal 10am Sunday morning timeslot for the "Is Spec Evil" panel
Brutal 10am Sunday morning timeslot for the "Is Spec Evil" panel

The panel was organized by the folks at CrowdSpring, which, perhaps childishly, I have called evil and a ponzi scheme.  Going up to the panel I was under the impression that the panel would be moderated by them as well, and was worried it would be an informational.

First off:


Spec is evil.

I don’t know what they planned on talking about for the rest of the panel, but that is the quick answer to the question.

Here are a few things that bothered me about what was discussed (if I had a mic, I would have said these things):

Crowdsourcing is Not Spec

It can be, but isn’t always.  Crowdsourcing: vote for our new slogan, we will use the one you all like the most!  Spec: we need a slogan, someone write one for us and we will pick the one we like.  The first one is a win win.  The later is a win (kinda) lose. 

Spec is not Disruptive

Something is disruptive if it is sustainable itself.  iStockPhoto creates such a community that is disrupted the stock work market then became sustainable.  The spec work middle man companies are not disruptive, they are leading to destruction.  Big difference. 

Sockpuppets are Funny

Some of the questions from the audience at the end of the panel were obvious plants.  One questioner even shared the same last name of a certain founder.  I asked, and was told there was no relation, but after checking on IP’s of comments on my posts, I can verify that there are many fake commenters supporting spec.

Designers ARE Arrogant

And I like that.  Much of the post panel discussion was based around how people felt about David Carson.  “oh, that guy has such a big head” was the gist of the conversation.  First off, good.  Second off, design is such a subjective practice, I find most designers just a big on the arrogant side.  This can be good, can be bad, and in general, just comes with the territory.  If we are talking about the top 1% of designers in the world, I would find them to be a) amazing b) know they are good and c) not immediatally relatable to general public.

Can we agree that if David has done a keynote at TED, for instance, that we can allow him to be a certain authority on an issue in which he makes his living?

Cool, here is the link to his TED talk.

Yes, David was a bit off the deep end.  He was asked to be that way.

Stop Giving the Sob Story Small Business

Much of the (fake) outrage revolved around the poor small business owner who needs a logo.  The sobbing begins when they think of spending *gasp* $5000 on a logo.  The truth is, if you are really a startup small business owner, you should be able to barter a logo for the $500 range.  You have things of value, develop a relationship.  Move some firewood if you have to.  Trade some services you have.  Find a portfolio you like, see if they will work with you.

If you think of your logo, or site design as a handshake to a new customer, the price of 3 office chairs should be a steal enough, and if you think that 100,000 people will see the design over a year, you are paying a nickel for every impression.

If you are starting out with a company, and you turn to spec, that is a red flag that you will make many more bad decisions over the next year.

The Model Needs to Change

After the end of the panel there were 30 or so that hung around (none of the sockpuppets, in case you were wondering).  What was obvious to me, was the model needs to change.  I will have another post about this, but I think I know just who is going to lead the charge.

AIGA Needs a Take Charge

No, designers don’t need a pushover of an orgainzation.  If AIGA folds on this issue, expect another to pop up with an actual backbone.

After the panel, I was approached by seven different companies pushing spec.  One for video.  One for fans of bands.  One for legal documents.  All were a little nervous.  They all didn’t want to be evil, but were seeing how the practice was certaintly painting them that way.  I don’t hate the people participating in spec.  I find it very interesting.  What I don’t like, is for companies creating WIN -> LOSE situations for companies, and profiting on the process.  If I am vocal about one thing, this is it.

Make it win win, and I will shut the hell up.

More on the fantastic SXSW later.

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14 responses to “Spec Work Panel at SXSW”

  1. jacksonfox Avatar

    [Dear Disqus, thanks for eating my comment, I hate you]

    To paraphrase the nice long comment Disqus just ate:

    * CrowdSpring has found a niche, and has satisfied customers
    * How can AIGA or a business provide a win-win alternative?

    This alternative seems like it should:

    * Facilitate the interaction with the designer, make it less intimidating
    * Make it easy to find designers you like
    * Provide access to design services at flexible price points
    * Ensure quality

  2. andrewhyde Avatar

    Damn the comment eaters… always a horrible feeling, thanks for retyping it.

    I think the niche they have found is lower end design and client matchmaking. They don't want to be here. They want to be fortune 500. I would also argue against the 'satisfied customers' notion. I get many complaint emails about them (because one of my posts ranks highly for their name).

    On your 2nd point, I have outlined this in a post that publishes at noon or so tomorrow.

    I agree with all of your alternatives. This is the direction they should go forward with if they want to create a longterm relationship with designers and clients.

  3. jacksonfox Avatar

    Looking forward to your post. While CrowdSpring has many unsatisfied customers, it also has satisfied customers. I didn't mean to imply they were all satisfied 🙂

  4. Phil Earnhardt Avatar

    I'm not sure I buy your definition of a disruptive technology.

    AFAICT, all disruptive technologies are going to destroy something. That's why they're disruptive. Gutenberg's press eventually destroyed the process of hand-writing books — hundreds if not thousands of jobs. Computers in the pressroom eventually destroyed the Linotype machine. The Internet seems as if it will probably end up destroying the print newspaper industry.

    If you have a counterexample, please make it.

    There have been protectionist measures taken against disruptive technologies. The Pressman's Union had a no-layoff clause in their contract with newspapers; that protected their employment for many years. The US auto industry rejected the use of advanced robotics for automobile assembly for many years. Ultimately, these protectionist measures will fail.

    Nobody wants to try to make spec work illegal, right?


  5. Charlie Avatar

    Andrew, I'm not following you here.

    You claim that spec work is unsustainable and a ponzi scheme. That sounds like you're saying that at some point in the future, some underlying economic force will cause the spec market to implode. Is that what you're saying? What would drive something like that?

    Also, you write that AIGA, or some organization, needs to take charge and grow a backbone. What do they not have the spine to do which you think they need to start doing? I guess this is in your post for tomorrow?

  6. Lydia Mann Avatar

    Thank you, Andrew, for continuing this discussion with intelligent analysis.

    As you know, AIGA invited comments on this topic late last year (http://www.aiga.org/content.cfm/position-spec-work). A task force was created to gather facts and perspectives and present findings and recommendations for action at the next AIGA board meeting in April.

    Personally, as a designer with over 25 years experience, it was a challenge to remain equanimous on the panel but since I was representing AIGA it was important to do so. Though I don't know what the recommended actions will be, I am confident that AIGA will continue to support and advocate for designers as it has for nearly 100 years.

  7. […] year featured some real knock out panels.  I have written about the Yes Spec Is Evil panel, but there were so many other panels worth […]

  8. Jeannette Gutierrez Avatar

    Thanks, Andrew, for the attention to… and dialog about,,, spec work.

    Regarding the realities of the “poor” small business owner, I'm creating a niche for myself doing logo design for them for $500 or less, using a well-defined (by me) and very streamlined process. They get professional designer to work with them one-on-one to create a quality logo, and I get a decent hourly rate that compares to my former salary, because I'm fast, and good.

    I'm in Michigan, and there are a lot of really small startups. People are becoming entrepreneurs by necessity. And, the well-paid corporate design jobs that have sustained me throughout my career have disappeared. I get a lot of satisfaction (I'd like to see Detroit revitalized by local small businesses), and an income stream, from helping them launch. Now, this is truly win-win.

    The crowdspring model bothers me, and I'm not impressed with the respectful and reassuring tone they've adopted in participating in the dialog. No matter how “nice” you are about it, the contest model for practicing livelihood skills is exploitative and unsustainable.

    I don't buy the idea that design is an impenetrable “star system”, and that there are many talented people who would be unable to break into it without crowdspring. Design isn't Hollywood. It's not like you're “discovered”, and then the work pours in. Great designers may be celebrities with each other, but they're not celebrities with clients. Getting work is about being a good designer, and being good to work with.

    If a young designer needs to build a portfolio, and can afford to work for free, it's a much better choice to do pro bono work for a cause they care about. They'll learn how to work directly with clients to understand what the design needs to do, and, really, that's the meat of design work. You can't get anywhere in design without knowing how to work with clients. Plus, your design is pretty much guaranteed to get used, unlike with the crowdspring model. Also, if you are willing to work for crowdspring rates, why not go directly to the small businesses, showing your new portfolio of pro-bono work?

    In fact the more I think about it, think the idea of an unsung group of budding, talented design wannabees who are unable to break into paid design work (cue violins) and therefore crowdspring is providing a great service to everybody is a fanciful one.

    This characterization makes for good PR, but it doesn't ring true to me. Rather, I think crowdspring's labor pool consists of people who are more or less naive, are predisposed to a contest / American Idol / lottery ticket mindset, and are not particularly savvy with respect to business models. It's exploitation to take unpaid man hours from these people in order to offer that labor to crowdspring users as part of your paid service.

    I think the designers that are participating in the crowdspring model are doing it from naivete. It's so not ethical to base a business model on that.

    BTW, I think that's where you were coming from in comparing it to a Ponzi scheme. Of course, it's not really a pyramidal compensation model where money is fed upward. But it is kind of like pyramidal sales models (Shaklee etc.) in that the profitability of the business is based on the existence of a broad bottom level of people who are not actually making money. And like pyramidal sales, the crowdspring model also depends on naivete, and a fresh crop of hopefuls when previous crops wises up and drops out.

    Thanks again for the dialog.

  9. andrewhyde Avatar

    A disruptive technology is successful if it is sustainable itself.

    Some are calling spec disruptive. I am arguing that it, in the end, will fall like a pyramid scheme.

  10. andrewhyde Avatar

    It is already happening. http://www.thelogofactory.com/copycats4.html

    These companies want it to be an industry standard. If it was, it would crumble.

    When opening up a 'contest' you can't verify the legality of all the creators participating, where they came up with the concept, if they own the fonts, if they have a legal copy of photoshop etc.

    The AIGA needs to stick by their position, and not waver with the hijacking.

  11. andrewhyde Avatar

    I've said before, I think the AIGA's stance is fantastic. And the organization needs to stick with it.

    Great meeting you.

  12. andrewhyde Avatar

    Thank you for the comment!

  13. mlgreen8753 Avatar

    $5000 is really not a bad investment for a logo that is going to brand all of their advertising for the life of the company, but bartering is a good way to avoid the out-of-pocket expense although they would still have to pay taxes on any difference in value.

  14. hudsonbar Avatar

    I needed this info thanks mate



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