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02/03 Saturday 11:59AM

a spec check ... before a wreck by neil tortorella

Neil Tortorella
Author of Starting Your Career As A Freelance Web Designer
(Allworth Press, 2011) neiltortorella.com

As a creative, odds are at some point in your career you’ll be asked to do a speculative (or spec) project. It comes with the territory. Often these are geared toward graphic designers, but writers, illustrators and photographers aren’t immune, either.


The number of businesses putting out RFSs, often for a logo design, are on the rise. And it’s not just the small guys. Nope that’s not a spelling error. Unlike a Request for Proposal (RFP), this is a Request for Spec (RFS).

How are they different? An RFP documents what the project is, when it’s needed, the audience, some background research when available, who’s handing the approvals, the budget and other relevant information. The idea is to give the competing designers or firms equal ground to draft their proposal. The RFP makes it a lot easier to compare apples to apples, rather than apples to oranges. The proposal contains the designers’ understanding of the project, strategy, process, any additional research, fees and reimbursements, schedules, along with background information about the designer, awards they’ve won, client list and why working with them is simply the bee’s knees.

An RFS, on the other hand, will sometimes contain the same information as an RFP but with one important addition. They want the competing designers to provide layouts and often finished works ready for press. One person, or firm, wins out and the others are out of luck. Often there’s no background information and folks design in a vacuum.



As a matter of fact, I read an RFS online the other day. This one really took the cake. The company wanted a logo designed “that they’ll love.” But, not only did they state that they weren’t interested in seeing designers’ resumes, CVs or portfolios, they didn’t even tell what type of business they were in. And as for payment for the lovely logo ... the offer of referrals.

Spec projects often come in the form of contests. Beware of these. The sponsor usually includes a line such as, “We thought it would be fun ...” Sure, it’s loads of fun for them. Reading through the contest information, you’ll often find a ditty that states that the sponsor owns all the entries, not just the winner, and all rights to them.

The allure of contests and spec projects can be strong, especially for newbies. For some, ideas of fame, fortune and every thing that comes with them dance in their heads. Others see it as a way to get a portfolio piece. As for the latter, it’s important to note that if all rights are surrendered, you might not even be able to show the work in your portfolio.

There are those who believe the problem with spec is solely generated by client types. To a degree that’s true, but (and it’s a really big but) there are creatives out there eager, ready and more than willing to participate. And therein lies the rub. If creatives would refuse these requests and explain why they’re wrong the problem would begin to subside


Here are some reasons why creatives should just say no to spec:

Spec is unprofessional
Spec projects take away time and resources from bona fide projects with guaranteed revenue. Most pros won’t take them on.

Lack of professional research
Spec projects are often about just trying to win the work, not helping the client and often lack adequate research.

Needs of the audience are not met

Due to a lack of adequate research, most spec projects are off base.

Spec’s myopic
They tend to be “one-off” pieces that don’t fit and may erode a company’s overall branding efforts.

Spec reduces value
Speculative projects reduce the value of the client/designer relationship. This is important. The client/designer relationship is an important part of the process, if not the most important.

When dealing in services, trust is a cornerstone. When there are hundreds, if not thousands, of designers working on a spec or crowdsourced project trust, for the most part, becomes irrelevant. Design is reduced to a numbers game and the one with the prettiest picture wins.

Undermines consultative benefits

On the heels of reducing value, spec requests tend reduce the potential of design down to a commodity rather than consultative collaboration. As mentioned, the collaboration is a crucial part of the design process if both the client and designer are happy at the end. But, more so, the audience needs to be happy and be motivated to do something – buy a product or service, make a donation, change an opinion and such.

The design process is something of a dance between the client and the designer. The goal being to motivate an audience. With spec work, that dance never happens. In fact, the music never even starts. What’s left is a couple of wallflowers, both with high hopes that rarely materialize.

Undervalues the profession

Designers who participate in speculative work are undervaluing their profession and encouraging the behavior

Undervaluing means to take all those years of education and pretty much throwing them out the window. A designer may have gone to a formal school or be self-taught. The distinction, when it comes to spec, is another irrelevant point. Becoming a designer means learning to understand client problems, understanding your solutions as well as understanding the audience’s world and culture.. To get to that point takes time. It isn’t something that happens overnight. Nor is it something that happens simply because a design is charming. “Charming” might make a person say it’s so, but, odds are, it won’t have enough power to motivate them.

At the end of the day, design isn’t art. Sure, it shares many common characteristics, but art motivates people on an emotional level. Art stirs the heart. Design motivates them on an intellectual level and also an emotional level to motivate them to do something.


Pitches and design don’t mix

Ad agency “pitches” are created to land accounts with potentially large media commissions. Media commissions are not typical in the design industry. There are some that do and some that don’t

Nothing against advertising, but it, in most cases, simply isn’t as intimate as design. Advertising concerns itself with making a lot of money. Okay … I’m somewhat jaded on this point. At all the agencies I’ve worked at over the years, the point was to get it in, get it out and bill it. I rarely, if ever, met any of the clients face to face. I had to rely on account executives to tell me what the heck I was supposed to be doing.

Red flags

Designers approached for spec work should ask themselves why a client is making the request. Similarly, clients should ask themselves why a pro designer would work for free.


Spec often lacks proper documentation

Speculative work is often done without contracts, thus removing any clear representation of “rights” to the artwork between the client and the designer.

The bottomline is that spec work is exploitive, whether or not the business making the request realizes it.

Many clients are in the business of making a thing ... a product. So, they tend to see things from that point-of-view. Creatives, on the other hand, sell their time and use the currency of ideas and concepts. “Try it before you buy it,” might be a great idea for a software company, but it’s a lousy one for creatives

Unlike materials used to make a product, time is nonrenewable. When it’s gone, it’s gone. When creatives work on spec, they lose time, with no guarantee of compensation. That time would have been better spent working on a paying gig or marketing themselves to get paying work.

Design isn’t a product. A layout is an expression of an idea in tangible form. It’s the same with writing or photography. Writing is more than a collection of letters on a page. It’s the communication of thoughts and ideas. A photograph is more than pixels or silver on a piece of paper. It’s the photographer’s way of seeing and thinking.

When that next spec request shows up, it’s time to think about the damage spec does to the creative community. It’s time to think about the value you bring to the table. It’s time to think about your worth. It’s time to say no to spec.

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