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Speculative Work is Bad (For Everyone)

I thought this debate was dead. Over. Fini. But recently, a rather heated thread on Twitter illustrated how wrong I was.

For those not in-the-know, speculative work (also spec work, or sometimes simply ‘spec’), is a growing cancer in the world of well-meaning, hard-working designers. Put plainly, it’s a policy that promises payment after work is approved (which may never happen), rather than compensating the artist for their time and creative energy. It’s a complex topic, and while I don’t claim to have all of the answers, I’ll try to answer a few questions and provide perspective during this brief article. If you have other questions or wish to debate the topic, a comment thread is below.

But before I dive in, let me address the readers who’ve already solved the problem. I know you’re there because I’ve met several of your kind, and discussed this topic at length. “It’s easy,” you quip, “artists shouldn’t accept commissioned work, and instead, focus on their own.” Thank you; in a moment, you solved a problem that’s plagued creators since time began. But let me point out that commissioning an artist is a perfectly acceptable practice, both for the client and creator. When Pope Julius II asked Michelangelo to work his magic on the Sistine Chapel, financial compensation was assumed. Even when the Pope became ill, the artist was compensated. (When he painted in the chapel again, his pay increased drastically.)

Now that I’ve silenced the geniuses in our crowd, let’s begin formally.

The Value of a Creative Mind

Many people don’t truly understand why creativity is a valuable asset. From the days of Mad Men forward, creative work was misunderstood. Currency goes in one end - and then, almost unexpectedly - beautifully crafted collateral exits on the other. The process is the mystery, and yet remains unquestioned. Businesses pumped money into the system because it worked, and consumer purchases increased. However, as businesses who regularly hire artists and other creative workers, wouldn’t it help to understand at least some of the process?

I believe the key to understanding a creative mind, and thereby assigning value to it, begins with acknowledging it’s strength. All artists, regardless of medium, are on a constant search for inspiration - and they find it, often in unlikely places. A rusty, twisted guardrail; distorted wood grain of my hardwood floor, nighttime lights of the city, and lines on concrete have all inspired my work in the past. Sometimes on a one-to-one basis, where each eyeful inspired a single work, and at other times, they mixed to form something entirely new. This is the power of a creative mind. It gathers seemingly unrelated elements, drafts a coherent work, and refines until the product is ready. Like an artisan spirit or craft beer, the overseer’s opinion and commitment to quality is what matters.

When visual design is properly executed, the viewer immediately understands. A paramount of efficient communication, the final product is a result of countless hours spent by a designer as they pull often disparate pieces together to form a single message. Meetings drone on, as they listen and ultimately distill your message into a single impression. This is what you pay for. The final work is important, yes, but it’s ultimately a byproduct.

The Business Proposal

Entrepreneurs and businesspersons of all stripes chase a single goal: creating value for their company by fostering beneficial relationships. One of their main methods for attracting attention is branding: the distillation of core values into a single, simple concept. Coca-Cola wouldn’t be the same without the ‘dynamic ribbon device’, and Original Machine’s perception would certainly weaken without our increasingly recognizable lightning bolt and cog logo. Before deciding on the brand mark, I convened with Chicago designer extraordinaire (link: http://kristaseidl.com text: Krista Seidl) who patiently listened as I rambled about building an innovative artist services firm, where artists’ every need would be met. The spark, the power of vision, and the cog that drives the system, exist together in a way I never could’ve assembled on my own. To this day, I’m glad I chose her work, because she and I have a mutual understanding of each other’s work. I understand her job is difficult, and she deserves to be paid well. She understands my goals and desires to craft something truly unique.

Brands are often expensive to craft, and the simple truth, no matter how cliche, is ‘you get what you pay for’. As businesspeople, it’s easy to be lured by a wonderful financial deal, but consider this: if you want to be seen as a professional, and expect to build a reputation - it costs. As a small business, I want to pay this cost once. Most businesses, even large ones, can’t hold the cost required to re-brand. For perspective, 2007’s effort to re-brand the Holiday Inn chain of hotels cost the International Hotel Group (IHG) a reported 1 billion dollars. That’s no small sum, and in my opinion, it’s best to create your brand once then tend to it for a lifetime. Besides, responsive customer service alone is a sizable challenge.

“But”, you stammer, “my clients won’t know if I used a professional, or if I crowdsourced my design.” I put to you this question: every day, potential clients interact with well crafted, enduring brands. Are you saying your brand is unimportant, has no reason to be memorable, and your clients are stupid? Of course, they’ll know the difference. In the 1920’s, you might have a chance, but what about today?

Recently, I was approached by someone who said products produced through crowdsourced design services were acceptable if the brand “isn’t that important.” This should be implied by the text above, but I’ll reiterate it here: if you’re working to support an unimportant brand, you should quit, go home, and give up. The day is wasted before you even clock in. Honestly, do you want work without a future?

Respect

Plenty of designers work long hours, earn a decent wage, and will laugh at your spec work proposal - whether it’s in person, via email, or 99designs. But even if you complete a successful campaign, money talks. Your nebulous promise of payment for hours spent won’t draw out their best work. Do you trust your brand to someone who doesn’t understand your goals, and only works for your measly pittance?

Wrap Up

It’s a tough world, and few people live wholly honorable lives. We all cut corners, drag others through the mud, and fight for our selfish desires. So if you’re unable to pay your employees and contractors what they’re worth altruistically, then do it for yourself - and the business value you’ll reap for years to come. Please, as a businessperson, don’t alienate yourselves from the workforce you dearly need. You’ll regret it in a year.


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Nicholas Young is a husband, father, technologist, and rare illness advocate currently hailing from Denver, Colorado. He lives amid the snow-covered mountains with his wife, Susan, and daughter, Sloan.


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