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The Problem with Spec Work... Again, for Those Who Didn't Hear

What is "spec work" and why is it bad?

"Spec" stands for "speculative." Spec work is "work done prior to engagement with a client in anticipation of [possibly] being paid," according to AIGA. (Boiled down: Spec is knowingly working without a guarantee of compensation.)

Spec work can be disguised as:

• Pro bono/volunteer work - This is work usually performed for not-for-profit or struggling organizations. Companies tout the good feelings associated with voluntarism.

• Contests - People submit their designs to a judging panel on the chance of winning a (usually small) prize. Even large companies pull this one. We've all seen campaigns like MasterCard's fill-in-the-blank "priceless" contest where competitors submit scripts for the chance at having their commercial made.

• Internships - Especially in Los Angeles, unpaid "internships" are rampant in the entertainment and fashion industries. A great number of notable companies regularly search for interns but do not offer education credit, the stamp of a legitimate internship program.

• Submitting custom "samples" - Even when a designer provides tons of similar work samples, some companies will claim to need something "mocked up" to see what the designer's point of view would be if they were to work together on a specific project. Related to this is the practice of submitting finished designs to a client with the hope that the design will be approved and paid for.

Spec work is damaging to both sides of the table. Designers clearly get the short end of the stick:

• Many arguably deserving not-for-profits incorrectly believe that designers and other service providers can donate the value of their labor and receive a tax benefit. Ask your accountant: This is not a tax-deductible expense. (Only goods and cash apply.)

• Contest competitors have no way of knowing that a prize is even awarded--so it's possible that they've given free ideas to a think tank.

• Interns may complete work without seeing a single credit, payment, or even acknowledgment of their work.

• Custom-sample submission is giving ideas away without compensation, and I suspect a common practice of such companies (especially LA-area fashion houses) is "declining" the samples, then having an unpaid intern recreate the designs in-house--in a nutshell, idea-mining.

In any of these cases, there usually is not a clearly defined boundary. Interns and pro bono workers may find themselves on-call, with demands increasing steadily during their engagement.

That said, there are risks to the "clients" too:

• When you open the floodgates by allowing every Tom, Dick, and Harry to submit his "creative" ideas--this especially occurs in contests, where laymen think they have a chance at breakthrough--you're bound to set yourself up for sifting through tons of garbage to find legitimate work.

• In some cases, the designer may pursue legal action to enforce intellectual-property rights.

Still don't understand spec work?

You can read a tattoo-art analogy of spec work at No-Spec.com, or you can read my husband's analogy right here if you prefer something unrelated to the creative industry:

Imagine that you live in a house with two bathrooms, and both of your toilets have stopped working. You've determined, though, that you don't really have the money to pay for both to get fixed. You decide to hold a contest, wherein two plumbers each fix a toilet. You judge the two plumbers' work when they're finished and award the amount you've allotted to the one you feel has done the better job. The other plumber receives nothing, even though he put in the labor and you netted a second fixed toilet.

When Dan uses this analogy with potential clients, he closes with, "I just want the same respect a plumber gets." Indeed.

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Now, more than I've seen before, requests for spec work are rampant. Just this morning, I received a Facebook message from Kim Cooper, who represents the Downtown LA Art Walk, a not-for-profit. (If you've read my blog for a few years, you've heard me mention the Art Walk several times as a good monthly event.) Her message was heralding a contest to create the official logo of the Art Walk for an "honorarium" of $295--plus "that warm and fuzzy feeling that comes from creating the Art Walk's new visual identity."

Despite still being in bed, groggy, I fired off a quick message from my PDA berating the organization for encouraging spec work--and asking why the 40 or so galleries and 10-20 sponsors of Art Walk couldn't each pitch in $50 to hire a real designer and pay them the fair wage for logo development. Of course, her response was about "limited funds" and gave the same lame excuse everyone who endorses this practice uses: No designer HAS to participate... they choose to. That doesn't make the practice okay.

Let me get extreme for a moment: Young women in Cameroon and Liberia and some other African countries voluntarily participate in female circumcision. Does that mean it's okay, that it's just something that goes with their culture? Of course not. Over the years, their communities have virtually "brainwashed" females to think it's an acceptable (or even desirable) practice through inaction and private endorsement. There would be no female circumcision if there were no people praising its worth.

(Yes, I understand that spec work does not equal female circumcision. I am making a point.)

Ms. Cooper: By endorsing spec work, you are encouraging a culture that lacks respect for its designers and artists--a very group you are supposed to be advocating. (Creatives who participate are guilty too.)

The upshot, of course, is that--with only three days left in the contest--the submissions are craptastic.

Update: After writing this, I wondered if I went too far. However, on closer inspection of the contest site, I found some even more disturbing information. Competitors are submitting designs, and the Art Walk board is giving them critiques and requests to make changes to their designs. They're not just accepting designs as-is... they're art-directing! Even worse!