Interactive panel at SXSW ’09 will try to address the burning question: “Is spec work evil?”

For the few of you who don’t know, SXSW (South by South West) ’09 kicks off this weekend in Austin, Texas, with the Interactive Festival opening tomorrow. One of the interactive panels being promoted concerns the ongoing debate about design contests and it’s euphemistic cousin ‘crowdsourcing’. Hosted my Mike Samson, co-founder of Chicago based Crowdspring, a company thats entire business model consists of selling unpaid spec work as a ‘service’ (nope, no axe to grind there), the panel is being presented as ‘Is spec work evil – the online design community speaks‘. For the few people out there who don’t know what ‘spec’ work is – I’ll try to sum up: it’s when a designer creates artwork for a paying project in the hopes of having their artwork selected, in order to get paid for that work.

Think design contest as opposed to, oh, I dunno, a professional trade.

Design organizations like AIGA and RGD have generally frowned upon ‘spec work’ as being ‘unethical’ and have campaigned against the practice for years. While I have a hard time branding designers who participate as ‘unethical’ – shortsighted perhaps, but many have their reasons and motivating factors – I have absolutely no qualms about describing people who try to profit from the ‘spec’ work of others as ethically challenged. And it’s going take a lot more than a few articles in Forbes to change that position.

The ongoing spec work controversy.

But back to the panel at SXSW. “Is spec work evil?” A little on the hyperbolic side, but okay, I’ll bite. No. I’ve generally thought of ‘evil’ as understanding the difference between right and wrong and choosing wrong, so spec work can’t be ‘evil’ in and of itself. Now, if you were to ask me the same question from a different angle – say “are the people who try to make money off the backs of designers performing spec work evil?” I might be sorely tempted to answer “yes”.

“I’d have a little more respect for them if they just told critics to go fuck ourselves, rather than this passive-aggressive bullshit that passes for public relations.”

To be honest, I’m starting to get a little tired of outfits like Crowdspring going to the PR lengths they are, in order to defend their rights to make profit off the unpaid labors of others, and to present it as some sort of step-up for the people not getting paid. I’d have a little more respect for them if they just told critics to go fuck ourselves, rather than this passive-aggressive bullshit that passes for public relations. There’s not much room for debate. People are either pro-spec (usually people who’s business model is built on the unpaid labors of others) or anti-spec (people who make a living at design.) Neither side is likely to give the other sway. Crowdspring want, rather need, designers to work for free. Professional designers want, rather need, to get paid. Even designers who participate in design contests would prefer to get paid if at all possible, so there’s very few on the designer side who are ‘fans’ of spec work. Some see it as an opportunity to get somewhere else, while others believe they have no other choice. Most business owners using design contest sites aren’t even aware there is a controversy, and see these sites as a way to get ‘more design for less’. Even then, business owners generally understand that they have to pay for design work. And outfits like Crowdspring want to get paid for their “services”. This basic premise of ‘supply chain’ economics only goes awry when it comes to outfits like Crowdspring not paying “their” designers (“their” being used in the most liberal sense of the word), the people that produce Crowdspring‘s product.

Honest debate or publicity stunt?

If one takes a look at the ‘panel’ at SXSW, you’ll see that almost everyone participating thinks spec work is just groovy. Jeff Howe (editor of Wired Magazine), Jeffrey Kalmikoff (CEO of Threadless) and Jeremiah Owyang (an analyst at Forrester Research.) The only possible hold-out is graphic designer David Carson, and as his position isn’t known, we’ll have to wait and see what he thinks.

“Design contest and so-called crowdsourcing sites want, rather need, designers to work for free. Professional designers want, rather need, to get paid. Even designers who participate in design contests and crowdsourcing offerings would prefer to get paid if at all possible.”

While I understand their rational from a profit vs. expense formula, I find outfits like Crowdspring‘s ‘why can’t we all get along, we’re just awesome’ positioning tinfoil-on-teeth grating. And while I find it intriguing how they try to position their “me too” business model (pinched from Australian logo contest site 99 Designs and a host of others) as somehow a new and noble change in a stagnant graphic design industry.

It’s not.

It’s an old concept that a film producer and IP lawyer happened upon when they were looking for a way to make money on the internets. Now, they’re trying to reverse-engineer some David vs. Goliath battle in order to rationalize their for-profit model that lines their pocket while managing to avoid paying their workforce. It’s not a noble venture. It’s not a wonderful thing. Crowdspring is just another company trying to make a profit selling design services to small and medium business. That’s fair enough. Trouble is, if a business model is built on getting people to work for free, it could be argued that the model is ethically flawed, regardless of what you think of individuals participating in spec design. From the bigger picture POV, it’s a tragedy of the commons scenario that doesn’t have any sustainability for anyone.

Crowdsourcing and design contests are here to stay.

When everything is boiled away, design contests are a bastard child of the web and CMS websites combined with a low barrier of entry, just like spam was a bastard child of the then-amazing advent of internet communication. Both are examples of what happens when people do stuff that they can, rather than because they should. Backers of spec work are now using a lot of the same positioning and arguments that ‘Direct Marketers’ used to defend spam. And just like spam, spec work, design contests and so-called design ‘crowdsourcing’ are here to stay, whether designers embrace the concept or not. Sorry folks, that is the unfortunate reality. There will always be folks who are willing to exploit, and people willing to be exploited. So-called design crowdsourcing companies will continue to flourish and multiply. Crowdspring isn’t the first (though they’re the noisiest at the moment) and they certainly won’t be the last. Spec design is something that every graphic designer will have to grapple with over the next few years – especially those who are now working their asses off in colleges and art schools.

That’s just the way it is.

To try and lift this exploitative business practice as somehow an improvement over, oh I dunno, actually paying designers for their time, is a bit much though. In terms of the SXSW “Is Spec Work Evil” debate, it seems more of a glorified PR stunt for Crowdspring than a real debate on the effect the practice has on the design industry. I hope to be proven wrong come Sunday morning.

When it comes to bleating about design contests and ‘spec’ work, unless something terribly dramatic happens (maybe at SXSW), this will probably be the last time I write about the subject. For a while anyway. Someone described arguing against spec and ‘crowdsourcing’ as battling a ‘tide of innovation’, They certainly have a point. Not about the innovation, but about the tide.


Update: Looks like I’m not the only one who takes a less than enthusiastic position on this subject. Read Andrew Hyde‘s Spec Work is A Ponzi Scheme for more.

Update Two: While it certainly didn’t answer the main question, the Sunday morning ‘Is Spec Work Evil’ panel at SXSW ’09 turned out, quite surprisingly, to be a little on the feisty side, with several heated exchanges between the various panelists. Turns out David Carson isn’t a fan of design ‘crowdsourcing’ at all and had some cutting words towards the practice in general, as well as Crowdspring in specific. Quotable quote from Carson at the panel:

“Hopefully crowdsourcing companies fail along with the companies who use them.”

AIGA Web Director Lydia Mann was a last minute addition to the discussion, no doubt in response to some of the criticisms floating around about the ‘impartiality’ of the panel, or apparent lack thereof.

You can read the full “Is Spec Work Evil?” debate transcript here.