Why spec work is bad for the creative industry

No Time To Die poster competition

There has been quite a backlash over the recent marketing campaign calling for entries to a competition to design the latest Bond film poster (note: not the official poster, these are already in circulation). On the face of it, you can (sort of) understand where they’re coming from. They’re targeting ‘young creators’ and ‘budding artists’ which suggests a well-intentioned opportunity for less experienced designers to win a prize and kudos if they win. Once you read the submission guidelines, it starts to sound much less appealing and more commercially underhand.

All artwork ‘will become the property of MGM upon submission’ and artists may ‘not share your submissions anywhere online’ until the winner is announced. The spec (large format file dimensions) and brief of the poster indicate a sizable chunk of time will be invested by the artists. If these designers are students or (self-) employed, this will have a knock-on effect on their other commitments. The prize for the top 5 winners is just £2000. There is no guarantee of the artist gaining the kudos (‘you may be credited where your work is shown’ – bolding my own).

So for likely several days’ or even weeks’ work, you have a small chance at winning a tame amount of prize money, relinquish all rights to the work now and in the future, and are not guaranteed any kudos. The list of incentives also includes potentially receive career advice and feedback on their submission from a local creative agency’ – again, my bolding). So if the agency don’t have the time or inclination, this isn’t guaranteed either?

While it could be argued that this competition gives an opportunity to artists who may not otherwise get the chance to participate in something of this calibre, I would say their time might be better invested in their coursework (if a student) or their own passion project (where they retain all the IP rights).

The main reason it sticks in my teeth is that MGM and the design agency working on this are taking all the commercial glory, and can use all the submitted artwork in their marketing with nothing but a small prize fund going to the winning artist(s). Far more magnanimous would be to provide a more constructive prize, such as working directly with a local design college on the brief and the winning artist receives a year-long (paid) internship as the prize.

What is ‘spec’ work?

‘Spec’ work is short for speculative (free) work submitted by designers where no fee has been agreed. It often occurs at the proposal stage of a design project where a company is seeking to engage the services of a designer or agency. An internal brief has been written and approved to send out to a selection of designers/agencies. Part of the brief may include a request for visual work to indicate recommendations made by the designer as part of their proposal or pitch. We receive these frequently.

In theory, you can understand why companies use this process when hiring a new designer for a project. They get to see some ideas upfront to determine how the designer interprets the brief and their style. Much like an interview for a job, it helps the company see if the designer is a good fit for them and their project.

There are a number of reasons why this doesn’t sit well with designers.

  1. Unless the brief has been written incredibly thoroughly, there is little chance any supplied visuals will be a real indication of the final outcome. To produce design that serves a purpose and provides value, the designer needs to fully understand the goals of the project. This is only possible once we have a full understanding of the brand messaging, usually after a period of partnership and collaboration between both parties. If you need to see visuals, ask for portfolio examples of similar projects. This should be enough as proof of our competence and to see if our style is a good fit.
  2. It’s incredibly time-consuming to interpret the brief, brainstorm creative ideas, create some visually pleasing graphics that demonstrate an understanding of the brief, as well as write the rest of the proposal. To do this well enough to really provide value, it could take the best part of a week. This is a huge investment of time that may not be recouped.
  3. By default, the designer owns the intellectual property of their work (unless otherwise stated). If the designer submits visuals that include some ground-breaking ideas, but they’re not the chosen designer for other reasons (budget, timeframe etc), it is almost impossible for the company to ‘unsee’ these ideas and not make use of them. And almost impossible for the designer to prove otherwise. (See this article: BrewDog Punk AF launch sours: ‘The idea is clearly derived from our pitch’ says ex-agency)
  4. Put bluntly, it’s asking for creative ideas for free.

Why we say ‘no’ to spec work

Being asked for free spec work is a concept that still pervades the creative world in a way no other industry seems to allow. It is completely unjustified in a commercial setting. Designers are often freelancers or self-employed, so being asked to submit free creative work for proposals or pitches massively eats into their time and therefore their earnings. Even in an agency setting, where spec work may be given to a more junior designer for experience, it still eats into their bottom line.

We understand that it might be important for the selection process to see some creative ideas before making a decision about which designer to engage for the full project. In this case, it seems reasonable to me to allocate some budget for this initial stage. Include this provisional task in the brief, detailing budget and allow some time to discuss any further details the designer may need. If this is included as part of the project, by the time a designer is selected there will be a much better match and smoother working relationship from the outset.

What's wrong with spec work?

An ideal selection process

  1. Write your brief, outlining the goals of the project. Describe an initial separate design task for the selection process, including a budget allowance for this. Be transparent about how many designers and agencies will be selected for this initial task.
  2. Research, and request recommendations, for suitable designers and agencies.
  3. Have a shortlist of 6-10 to approach with details of the project.
  4. Determine from the responses you receive which 3 designers to engage for the initial task.
  5. Provide the designers with details of how to invoice, with payment on receipt of invoice.
  6. Make an informed decision about the best designer for the project.
  7. Provide feedback to those designers and agencies who are unsuccessful in the selection process. We all need a chance to grow and improve.

These steps are not prescriptive and you’d need to allow some flexibility. For example, if you’re unsure how much budget to allocate you may need to ask the designers to quote for the initial task and use this as part of your selection process. I’d recommend a face-to-face discovery session as part of the initial task, depending on the nature of the project. This process would very likely require more time and financial investment but I’m confident it would be worthwhile.

If you’re now wondering whether this investment would be worth it, and if some designers may stipulate their ideas couldn’t be used without transfer of the IP rights, then perhaps I’ve highlighted why it’s important not to ask for creative spec work. Designers deserve to be paid for their efforts, experience and expertise and it’s time we all said ‘no’ to spec work.

Saying no to spec work doesn’t mean saying no to providing standard proposals or allocating time for pitches, but it does mean expecting to be rewarded financially for creative ideas and time, as well as expecting transparency about the selection process.