Artists and the Specter of Spec Work

From the Artist’s Desk…

At some point, every artist asks the same dreaded question: “Should I work for free?”  There’s entire websites devoted to the question of spec work (my favorite being shouldiworkforfree.com).  Movements like AntiSpec and No!Spec are gaining traction among the artistic/design communities.

“Spec(ulative) work is a cancer with the design industry and all designers need to understand their role in fighting it.” – AntiSpec

It seems like there’s a never ending stream of design contests, challenges, etc. that promise fame for the winners but no real compensation to the artists that enter them.

Spec work is crowdsourcing where a single designer or agency design something for free in the hope of winning a project or gaining notoriety.  Basically, the artist invests time and resources into a project with no guarantee of payment.

So the Client holds a contest for a new logo with the prize being “recognition” or at best, maybe a few hundred dollars.  Hoping this will be their big break, artists pour hundreds of free design hours into their works and send them in.

The Client gets to pick from a variety of designs while hundreds of artists lose all those design hours that they could be working on paid work. The artist always lose.

And don’t lose sight of the fact that only in art is spec work is an “acceptable” practice.  Try rounding up three contractors to have a contest to build you the perfect dream house.

Then offer them a cookie with promise that you’ll spread the word about their great work to everyone you know.  It’ll never happen.  You’ll be laughed at by all three of them, because building a house takes far too much time and effort to do it for free.

So imagine my frustration when I come across the Obama for America Art Works poster contest. The campaign team describes it as a way for artists to “support President Obama’s plan to create jobs now, and why we’ll re-elect him to continue fighting for jobs for the next four years.”

Out of the thousands of entries I’m sure they’ll get, three winners will be picked to receive a framed print signed by the President.  Oh, and all submissions become the property of Obama for America.

As a designer, you pour yourself into a design for a presidential campaign that you must then give up all rights to in exchange for a small chance at winning your own poster signed by the President.   Every artists’ time is wasted – well, except maybe the winner but they’re not even compensated for it!

The greater travesty is that this is from a presidential campaign about creating jobs and putting Americans back to work.  Yet, the President’s campaign managers can’t even pay a hard-working artist to design a campaign poster for him. Catch the irony there?

Artists shouldn’t do spec work. You’re better than that.  Sure you’d get notoriety. You might even get a cookie. Instead of trying to win some contest, donate that time to a local charity that needs a better website.  Or create that poster and sell it yourself on Etsy.  Just please, don’t sell yourself out for the nothing that comes with spec.

P.S. Check out that fine print on the Art Works page. “No purchase, payment, or contribution necessary to enter. Contributing will not improve chances of winning.” What a joke – when even entering a submission doesn’t improve your chances of winning.

As an artist yourself, what do you think? Do you ever work on spec jobs like these? If so, why?


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