The Personal Disquiet of

Mark Boulton

The Personal Cost of Designing on Spec

– March 26th, 2009 –

Yesterday, a rather heated debate raged over on Carsonified’s blog regarding a design competition they’re running to design a slide for the upcoming Future of Web Design conference in London. The debate was an old one, resurrected every now and then and fiercely debated on both sides. The debate was regarding speculative work. It’s a subject I feel very passionate about as I’ve seen the damage it causes – both personal and professional.

I’m a little tired of justifying my position and opinions on Twitter, so I thought I’d pen a few thoughts here and explain my personal viewpoint and hopefully spark some considered, intelligent debate (see my paragraph citing Matt Henderson for an example of this).

Defining Spec

I’m not going to spend a huge amount of time defining this here. I think most people understand what spec work is and why it’s damaging. Speculative work (or spec), can be defined by the AIGA as:


‘work done without compensation, for the client’s speculation’


Spec work, in my view, leads to a number of things:

  1. Sub-standard work.
  2. It undermines and devalues design.
  3. It harms the design industry.
  4. Exploitation.

Are Design Competitions Spec Work?

If you’re in the UK, you probably know of Blue Peter. Blue Peter is a long-running childrens TV series that has been going for, oh I don’t know, maybe 500 years on the BBC. Up until recently, Blue Peter ran many, many design competitions for children across the UK to enter. Kids would send in drawings of their wild and wonderful designs for all many of things. Now, is this spec work? Is it unethical? No, I don’t think so.

Children aren’t designers. It’s not their profession, and they’re not submitting professional work.

There was a great comment on the thread yesterday regarding Threadless. People submit designs to threadless, get paid if their design is picked, and get the glory of seeing it printed on t-shirts. Is this spec work? Even though Threadless are making money from this? No, I don’t think it is.

Designers and Illustrators want to be part of the Threadless brand. They have a lot of pull, so much so that professionals are willing to contribute to that brand. In the same way that if Apple were to do something similar, I’m sure many people (probably myself included) would contribute. Wanting to contribute to something you feel part of, or want to be part of, even if money is being made as a result is not spec work. It’s about wanting to belong.

Personally, I see a competition that targets a profession and solicits entries for a prize as exploitative and professionally unethical. For some, it may just be a bit of fun, but for me, it’s pretty reprehensible. I feel rather strongly about it.

The Personal Cost

I’ve worked in two industries where spec work is the norm: advertising and print design, and I’ve a close relationship with another: architecture.

I used to work for a reasonably sized design agency. We would spend maybe 30% of our time on unpaid, creative pitch work. We would also spend perhaps 10% of our time on design competitions, which I believe is spec work. That’s right, 40% of our time was spent working for the potential of winning one project that would pay for all of that speculative time. Now, if you’re starting out in business, or feeling the pinch as many companies are during these difficult times, your time, and the way you spend it, becomes critical. If 40% is spent doing stuff your not paid for that is potentially damaging.

The practice of spec work is the industry norm in architecture.

My father’s an architect. He runs a small practice and spends an extraordinary amount of time producing spec work. Unfortunately, the industry demands it. The spec work is conducted on the hope that one of the projects will be awarded to the practice and that will pay for the time lost on the other projects. Architecture is also an industry that is rife with design competitions. Some would argue that this is worse than spec work to a shortlisted field. Architects are invited to submit bids, proposals and designs for prestigious competitions. The winner gets the contract and the glory. The losers get nothing; the work is conducted speculatively.

I believe the practice of spec work harms business. It can be crippling, for both suppliers and consumers. Businesses fold, and consumers get sub-standard work.

A Free Market

In amongst the usual trolling on Ryan’s blog, I had a very interesting discussion with Matt Henderson regarding spec work. Matt is a guy I admire tremendously. I’ve worked with him in the past out of his Marbella office on some fascinating projects and he’s a smart bloke.

Matt’s take on spec work, if I understood this correctly, was that the market will dictate the practice. If both sides of the market – the supplier (the designers), and the consumer (the client) – find that speculative work is mutually beneficial, then the practice would become an industry norm. This view sidelines personal opinion, and presents spec work as a consequence of market conditions, which is fine, it is. But does that mean that the creative profession should shrug their shoulders and accept it as such despite ethical misgivings?

For The Record

For the record, Ryan is a good guy. My intention wasn’t to target Ryan personally, or to claim that Carsonified was unethical, they’re not. He doesn’t deserve the lambasting he receives on his blog for genuinely trying to do the right thing; for doing something he believes in. But all of those designers who commented on that growing thread were also doing that – commenting on an issue they believe in. The debate wasn’t personal, or unprofessional, it was a raw nerve.

I’m hoping this post sheds some more light beyond 140 characters on my own personal relationship with spec work and how I’ve seen first hand the damage it causes. I for one welcome an industry that debates these issues. An industry where you’re free to make a mistake, to openly question motivations and to do something you believe in. As Matt said, ‘let the market run its course’, but if you don’t agree with where it’s headed, push back and fight for what you believe in.

Filed in: business, design, personal.

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