Spec Work is Evil. Apparently, So Are It’s Defenders.




UPDATE: This panel is going on as I write this. I want to share two updates.

First, I addressed this in the comments, but I want to be clear: those that do spec work are not evil, they are just doing themselves and their fellow designers a disservice. Those that try to convince you spec work is not bad for you or our industry are evil. They are lying to you and trying to convince you that the work you do is without value unless someone likes it.

Secondly, one of the evildoers linked to this post. My argument is made, but I want to disagree with him on one point. 99designs.com is in no way similar to iStockPhoto. iStockPhoto is a way to create products. There is no creative brief, just a place to sell your wares. iStockPhoto is a flea market for royalty-free media. 99designs.com, on the other hand, is unadulterated spec work, with clients presenting vague creative briefs and expecting specific, targeted work without the benefit of research and understanding.

Also, to Jeremiah: “evil” is a very strong word, but you are someone who is systematically trying to destroy and devalue an industry that still has a lot to offer even in this global economy. It’s the best word I could come up with.

ONE MORE UPDATE: I also recommend Andrew Hyde’s post comparing spec work to a ponzi scheme, which Jeremiah Owyang also linked to. It’s incredibly well written. Users of Adobe Creative Suite should should be required to read this post before they install the software.


At this year’s South By Southwest interactive festival, there is a provocative panel discussion called, “Is Spec Work Evil? The Online Creative Community Speaks.” I expect it will be a hour of monstrous bullshit, and I hope the design community will converge on it en masse.

Let me start by answering their question: yes, spec work is evil. You’re not going to ask three plumbers to come fix your a leaky drain and then pay the one who does the best job. It’s unfair, it’s unethical. And yet, designers are asked everyday to behave in exactly the same way. If you ask a designer to create a logo for you, you owe that designer money, plain and simple. Groups like AIGA and campaigns like NO!SPEC are trying to educate the public.

Crowdspring and 99designs don’t realize they are actually doing a disservice. What makes a good designer stand out is research and strategy. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Fortune 500 corporation or a start-up restaurant around the corner—you pay a good designer for the discovery phase, which is essential to identifying business needs and developing solutions that will help you grow your business. If you slap a 50-word creative brief online, you may not get strategic work that is focused on your customers (but you’ll surely get what you paid for).

Thus, when I read that this panel was going to occur at the very influential SXSW, I thought, awesome! Someone is trying to make a difference, convincing not only companies but other designers that spec work cheapens our profession.

Then I looked at the panelists:

Mike Samson
The co-founder of the aforementioned Crowdspring, the leading website for trying to legitimizing spec work
Jeff Howe
The author of Crowdsourcing, which is a different concept—ad hoc online groups coming together to solve a particular problem. Crowdsourcing is not necessarily bad; it can be powerful when everyone who participates derives value, be it in the form of a micropayment like Mechanical Turk or helping a cause like finding aliens. Howe writes like he is more of an observer of the phenomenon, but I get the impression that he’s a fan.
Jeffrey Kalmikoff
Chief Creative Officer of Threadless. Don’t get me wrong—I love Threadless. I have a $25 gift card I’m looking forward to spending. In the case of Threadless, it’s not about solving business needs, it’s about promoting your art and possibly making money on it. Not exactly spec work, but it does live in a gray area. Nevertheless, in the context of the other panelists, Threadless sits as an enterprise that attained great success by asking site visitors to design artwork for free. And that example will certainly be lauded by…
Jeremiah Owyang
The one name I had to Google. Guess what? He’s pro-spec-work. One of his arguments is that it happens all the time, so let’s just get used to it. Well, corporate greed is unstoppable and happens all the time, so we should just get used to that, right? I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?

Then there’s David Carson. What he’s doing on this panel, I certainly don’t know. I truly admire David Carson for his place in design history. Maybe he’s the one who will argue against the other four panelists. Or maybe Carson, who originally proclaimed the “end of print,” thinks all this crowdsourcing is a great idea. Either way, David Carson’s work hasn’t been relevant for over a decade. It’s like asking John Hughes to speak about the future of directing movies.

Essentially, what we have in this panel is a attempt at convincing designers that this unethical practice is the future of our profession and that we should stop whining. Whining is one thing; defending our ethics is another.

I won’t be at SXSW, but I know many of you out on the interwebs will. Please: show up at this panel and give these guys the what-for. We’re professionals, and we perform an important service. Long tail, schmlong tail: that’s what Craigslist is for. We need fewer people telling beginning designers it’s okay to give your work away for free and more explaining that the work we do has value and, when done properly, will bring value to our clients.



  • BMF
    2/26/09, 9:15 pm

    Well said.

  • Lydia Mann
    3/14/09, 2:38 pm

    I expect this to be a controversial session, though at such a pit time (10:00 a.m. Sunday), not so well attended.

    I will be representing AIGA there, and suspect there will be a cadre of similarly-minded folk. Sorry you will miss it.

    Lydia Mann
    Web director
    AIGA, the professional association for design

  • Arlo
    3/14/09, 3:00 pm

    Thank you, Lydia. Good luck. I will be there in spirit.

  • John Christor
    3/15/09, 6:54 am

    Are the panelists evil? Or are the designers that end up doing specwork evil?

    Perhaps it’s the buyers that are evil, like Twitter (who crowdsourced the bird logo) and all the other companies.

    It’s one thing to call out the panelists, but it’s another to look at the whole ecosystem.

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    3/15/09, 7:23 am

    [...] Some designers are calling the panelists (me) evil. [...]

  • Arlo
    3/15/09, 10:33 am

    I only meant to say that the panelists were being disingenuous with how this panel (which is going on as I type this) was presented. It’s not a debate of spec work — it’s an advertisement for their services.

  • Scott Allen
    3/15/09, 11:22 am

    Having done enterprise software sales, in which we often had to do extensive RFP’s, customized demos and even partial prototypes as part of the sales process, I fail to see how spec work is significantly different.

  • Arlo
    3/15/09, 1:09 pm

    Is that partial prototype a usable piece of software when it’s done? I write proposals all the time and present complete ideas of how I will research and execute a project, but it’s not the actual project. Spec work asks for the actual project before you’re paid for it. If someone asks you for the entire software application custom made for them before they pay for it, you’d laugh in their face.

  • Spec work is evil and unethical… no way! | Josh Mullineaux dot Com
    3/15/09, 2:05 pm

    [...] There are a lot of designers out there whom I respect tremendously. Some of those same designers are completely against doing spec work, and I can definitely see their point of view. I am referring to Andrew Hyde and Arlo Bryan… [...]

  • Shawn
    3/16/09, 11:21 pm

    Hey Arlo, nice post. I just recently found 99designs and it made me feel dirty and fraudulent. Is that a sign of evilness?

  • Arlo
    3/17/09, 7:19 am

    Thanks, Shawn. I think the true sign of evilness, though, is how good 99designs makes people feel. The greatest trick the Devil ever played was to convince people he doesn’t exist.

  • Amanda Perry
    4/04/09, 9:48 pm

    I work in a print shop (drgraphx.com). Just in the past three years I have seen a tremendous jump in clients coming to me either expecting us to do basic typesetting/layout for free or next to nothing, or coming in with a file that a designer they probably found on craigslist did for them that was created at 72dpi, no crop marks, neon colors, fonts not outlined… everyone complains when I say I want to charge them more then what they paid for the design, just to fix it. Not only does spec work devalue the work that we do, I think it’s also lowering standards.

  • ARLOdesign® » BLOG › Bookmarklet to Search Current Website for PDFs
    12/29/09, 1:23 pm

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  • graphic design crowdsourcing
    4/05/10, 3:00 am

    But the problem is that where will a startup or a new restaurant get so much money to hire a professional graphic designer who will do the logo?

    I have never seen a company growing into a multi million dollar industry just because of its brand identity…

    Its service that matters…

  • Arlo
    4/05/10, 8:00 am

    Are you suggesting that a legitimate graphic designer is incapable of working within a client’s budget? That’s bullshit.

    Websites like yours are devaluing good design, and it is a proven fact that investment in design has a higher ROI than advertising does. Read “A Designer’s Guide to Research” by Jenn and Ken Visocky O’Grady to learn about everything that the designers on your site are NOT doing.

    By the way, shopfordesigns.com is hideous. You must have crowdsourced it.

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