Inevitably there’s also another side to the spec work story: designers who have successfully used design competitions to build their portfolios, get themselves noticed or even to make a living. Olly Moss arguably got his first career break by winning a design competition for Threadless, while talented designers like Jonathan Frost have gone on to become poster children of websites like 99designs thanks to the success they’ve been able to achieve: see the ‘A Different Perspective’ boxout for more information.
Spec work, of course, is not confined to crowdsourced design competitions. Blue chip clients increasingly use it as a way to get creative solutions out of agencies before they’ve even awarded the business: “Most businesses will pitch,” says Collins. “You have meetings and presentations to convince the client. This is normal. Design pitches are different. A design agency will have to design the actual logo, branding or website for the prospective client. This is doing the work and then hoping for a pay cheque,” he continues.
“It’s proven that refusing to partake in spec pitches will give you credibility. You’re essentially saying that if you want me to work for you then you’ve got to pay me. Just like you pay your accountant, mechanic, lawyer, gardener or any other professional who is good at their job.”
For Tim Lindsay, CEO of D&AD, it’s spec work like this that is doing the most damage to the industry: “I think respect has changed. The depth of talent in the agencies has changed because clients have reduced their remuneration – reduced the amount they pay agencies – so the talent is spread much thinner. The client has come to believe that they can creative direct the work. And their idea of that is to see a load of ideas and pick the one they like the most.”
Matt Woods, managing director at The Partners’ London office argues that in some cases it’s even worse than that – where clients try to mush the ideas from each creative pitch together and then give the job of pulling the disparate elements together.
“Even if you win a gig like that, you are forced to create an amalgam; a blend of mediocrity. There’s a reason why single malt whiskies command such a high price and the blended stuff – the blended wine or whatever it may be – is less expensive; less distinct: it hasn’t been crafted.”
He continues: “I know of a very large organisation at the moment that has put a fairly fundamental pitch out to a ridiculous number of large creative companies and, bizarrely, at the heart of that brief the core purpose is to be more singleminded, more focused and provocative. I’m thinking that if the client itself doesn’t have that wit, focus and self-belief, it isn’t going to engender that by scooping up lots of work from a disparate array of contributors. What it needs to do is find a creative supplier who it has an affinity with – some chemistry with – and then collaborate to produce a piece of work that is demonstrative of its ambitions and the way it works.”
And that just might be the final irony of spec work: by trying to crowdsource ideas from agencies and designers, or by trying to get design done on the cheap – no matter what the final output – clients, both big and small, will ultimately do their own business a disservice.