Micah March 11th

Kill All The Designers

As I was driving into the Lijit offices, I was thinking about this years SXSW conference, and how different it would be for me. I was thinking about the posts I had read from friends who were going and had gone before.

The difference for me this year will be striking (speaking vs. not-speaking, knowing people vs. not knowing people, how much hotter I am, etc.). Yet with all the growth I have done personally and professionally, some of my friends are still light years ahead of me in terms of accomplishment and recognition.

And thats ok.

I realized that what I love most about life is the realization that no matter how much I accomplish, I always have people around me to remind me that I have a long way to go. That, for me, the only thing that drives me is success and since there will always be someone more successful than me, I have a long way to go.

Which brings me to the raging debate about spec work.

(huh? Yeah, I know, but its how my brain works. Stick with me.)

I am not a designer. I can barely draw a straight line. But, I have been a business man, even played one in real life.

Here is how I see a basic logo development conversation (for 99% of the world):

Business guy thinks to himself, “hmmm, I need a logo. Im bored/tired/renamed my business/whatever, and it about time. I dont want to spend a ton of money on it.”

Designer guys thinks to himself, “I love being an artist. I live to create. I dont just “do” logos, I create identity.”

Business guy: “sweet on the identity. How much will it cost?”

Designer dude: “$5,000.”

Business guy (after laughing so hard he is crying): “Thanks.”

And then business guy heads over to one of the “spec work” shops, and puts in a request for a logo, with a couple of requirements, and prices it at $500. A couple of weeks later, a logo is approved and used, and the business guy is happy. The “spec work” designer is less happy, but has $500, the “real” designer is totally unhappy, and blames everything: spec work, the business guy and the “spec work” designer (but not himself).

There is no questioning his pricing, or the value of his production, just that he got undercut by an “amateur.”

I think I get it.

Designers are being protective of their industry and their “art,” by railing against an activity that by design, reduces the amount of money they can charge.

At SXSW, Jeffrey is on a panel entitled “Is Spec Work Evil?” and the moderator, Jeff Howe wrote a great post called “Is Crowdsourcing Evil and Other Moot Questions …” where he wrote:

The demand for low-end design has ballooned in recent years alongside the profusion of start-ups and small businesses. Conveniently enough, so has the supply of what we might call “low-end designers” (amateurs, recent grads and the like). According to Forbes there are 80,000 freelance designers in the US alone. Most of these are, proverbially speaking, waiting tables. When someone matches demand and supply, well that’s kismet!

I agree that the market drives the business and the business practices. Take the hurt feelings out of the spec work debate, and you have an efficient marketplace driving costs down due to an overabundance of designers, coupled with the increasing number of small businesses and startups (which by definition, have no money to spend on huge design projects).

Is spec work “evil” (meaning detrimental)? Hell yes. It devalues the work of the designer and trains the business professional to accept a lower quality (but sufficient) work product.

But the problem is not with the companies that drive spec work, or the designers that participate in it, or even the companies that pay for it.

The problem is simply a result of an upside down economic model where the artificially high supply of designers is pushing the pricing downwards. Include the general efficiencies that are provides by the internet, and BAM! spec work is perceived as evil. Read Jeremiah’s post about how he views spec work from the business perspective, and you can see exactly this dynamic occurring.

I commented on Jeff’s post:

I am excited to listen to the panel and continue the conversation that we have had around these here parts (Its Boulder, we can sound Western…).

There is a constant fight for equilibrium between business interests and service providers, where businesses will always undervalue the esoteric value of intangibles, and service providers will always overvalue them.

There is not a service industry that is not touched by the concept of spec work or unfavorable (to the service provider) competitions. The canary has been dead for awhile, people just have named it.

Of most service industries, graphic design (and design as a whole) is probably the most disparate in perceived and actual value. How do you value “art”? How do you value “feeling”?

Businesses apply a value to everything. When I sold my company, when I agreed to accept a non-compete that had a value. The association of my name to the new company had a value.

The positive of the spec work revolution is that it forces designers to think: 1) am I talented enough to be charging what I am charging; and 2) what is the real value I bring to the table that can be counted by my client (the business) in dollars.

The negative is that designers are realizing that their perceived value is not equitable to their real value.

(There is also the reality of the economic abundance of designers makes it easy for spec work to exist. If I were a designer I would stop worrying about spec work and get more people to quit the industry.)

At the end of the day, being underpaid for valuable work sucks, which is what the specter of spec work brings. Want to combat it? Dont suck. Provide value. Set realistic expectations.

The only way to reduce the negative effects of spec work on the design industry is to make the supply of designers scarce.

Want to end spec work? Kill all the designers.*

  • of course this is meant simply as an oversimplification of a complex problem. Please dont kill the designers. Perhaps take away all the stolen copies of Photoshop, or disallow internet access for designers at coffee shops, but killing them might just be a bit more evil than the perception of spec work.
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