Monday, February 11, 2008

Just say NO! (to Spec Work)

It's no secret that I've got pretty strong opinions about creative business – particularly about the many ways designers hurt themselves and the industry by not knowing or following good business practices. In the past, I've written about designers selling their services for pocket change. But I was recently asked to produce some work on spec and, in refusing, I realized that a far more insidious threat to creative professionals continues to haunt us – one that many designers unknowingly facilitate.

The threat is spec work – work done on a speculative basis. It is production work for a potential client for which a fair and reasonable fee has not been agreed upon, for which there is no guarantee that your work will be chosen, and for which there is no guarantee that you will be paid. It is the process of doing work in the hopes of getting paid? It simply doesn't make sense.

I was heartened, however, to discover No!Spec. The No!Spec campaign serves as a vehicle to unite those who support the notion that spec work devalues the potential of design and ultimately does a disservice to the client. Their campaign seeks to educate creatives and their customers, provide a common forum for the discussion of creative business challenges and suggestions for avoiding spec.

Sadly, spec has long been common practice in the design industry. But it is predatory and criminal – companies are preying both upon the young and inexperienced, hungry for work, and seasoned professionals ignorant of good business practice. Spec work may seem seductive when you're having a slow month, but it is detrimental in the long run. Not only does it train brain habits, but the clients you "win" will continue to expect you to work for little compensation or on a spec-basis even after you've built up your portfolio or become an established designer.

Prospective clients looking for spec work might argue: "We need to try out a designer before we pay them." Do they "try out" attorneys or accountants? Do they try out restaurants or public utilities? Of course not. As with shopping for any vendor, a client must assess a designer based on their resume, their portfolio, their reputation, their references, and their character. A professional graphic designer creates custom solutions, not cookie-cutter concepts. The creative process is more than simply tapping at a keyboard or clicking a mouse. As a No!Spec writer reminds us, "It's about understanding the nature of a communication challenge and then using one's brain to find the appropriate solution." Thus, the irony of spec work is that the prospective client requesting it is ultimately saying, "My project isn't important enough to hire a professional who will take the time to understand my situation and goals and invest the time needed to create a suitable solution."

No!Spec offers a lot of good, and passionate advice for creative professionals navigating around the threat of spec work. But a surprising issue that No!Spec leaves unaddressed is the legal ramifications of spec work. US intellectual copyright law grants the creator of any original composition – be it the work of a graphic designer, an illustrator, a writers, etc – immediate legal copyright to their work. When we sell our services to clients, and they pay for it, we are effectively selling them a license to our copyright protected work. In the case of photography and writing, this license is often temporary or defined by specific usage. In the case of graphic design, this license is nearly always permanent. But when a client does not pay for contracted work, or when the recipient of spec work takes the original work of a creative professional, uses it, and neglects to pay for it, they are stealing. More importantly, they are violating your protected intellectual copyright. And often the financial ramifications of this copyright offense far outweighs the artist's lost revenue – ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Get a copyright attorney involved and the cost of misappropriating your work could cost the offending client much, much more. Suddenly paying for your work will seem a reasonable alternative to even the most miserly client.

Sadly, such strong arm tactics are often the only way to get things done. I've been in court with clients who were furious that I was taking advantage of them by demanding payment for work I had done – that they had used. But perhaps, in lieu of a professional design organization that might spread its protective umbrella over the industry, such tactics are the best way to affect change and educate the market.

But likely a softer, more disciplined hand will do the job. Good creative business practice demands that professional designers operate under contract and – even with long-term clients – get some form of deposit before beginning work. The widespread adoption of these basic practices, combined with an outright rejection of spec, would go a long way to changing prospective clients' expectations of design professionals. FB