Sunday, March 15, 2009

Hating on spec work

People on Twitter kept talking about SXSW and spec work this weekend, and it got me thinking about that type of industry and the implications of working for free.

I'm going to start this off by saying that I'm not a graphic designer. I'm not even that visual at all, really. However, I AM a creative in the sense that I do freelance writing on top of my 9-5 (shocking, based on the drivel you read on here, right?) and I think that this project-basis experience qualifies me to speak on the whole spec work debate.

Oh, it doesn't? Eff it, I'm commenting anyway.

You see, I'm of the mindset that the truly talented creatives never have to work for free. Even when I first launched my freelancing business, I never started a project without securing the deposit first. My time was (and is) more precious than that -- most professionals feel that way about their work.

Sure, you can ask your friend to write up your company press kit, edit your resume or craft a cover letter, all for free. But you'll probably get a very different result than if you paid a professional to complete the same tasks. Basically, there's a reason why we charge for that kind of work. We consider the tiny details that non-professionals don't even know about. This is true with graphic design as well.

I understand that for those just starting out and for students in the creative fields, building up a portfolio is more important than getting a paycheck. So I don't necessarily think spec work is evil. From a newbie/student perspective, it can have a self-serving, important purpose.

I also understand that with this economy, businesses are looking to cut costs and have turned to spec work as one way to do that. Fine.

What I resent is the implication that any old jackass with Photoshop can be called a "designer." Or that anyone with a hobby thinks it so easily translates into a professional career.

I said I'm no designer, but I do work closely with one and, over the last few years, I've seen exactly how little I know about the intricacies of graphic design -- something you only get to figure out if you're consistently learning from someone who knows what they're doing.

From kearning details to font choice to careful image placement, there are so many decisions that real designers make when creating a piece. Not only that, but the true professionals understand how the target audience further influences those decisions and also understand how to make a logo/online design that will work in other arenas, including letterheads and print pieces.

The point? A lot goes into graphic design. More than someone without training can understand.

Yet spec work encourages people with no experience, no background and quite possibly no talent to tout themselves as professionals with the same level of skill as those who have been trained. It's not the same. And if you think it is, you're just proving my point.

So, can we please stop pretending that spec work generates the same level of quality as a pool of trained professionals?

The whole "you get what you pay for" manta is an over-simplified cliche in this debate, but it still rings true. If you're serious professional, you can get paid for your work without having to wonder if that paycheck will come your way. Don't sell yourself short, and don't waste your talent on a client who can't understand the difference between a hobby and a career.

Okay, getting off the soapbox now.


ANG* said...

thank you! this is one of the many reasons i love you :)

Allie said...

Amen. Big creative agencies deal with this too when it comes to new business, and giving away ideas for nothing can potentially lead to some major issues.

mary evelyn said...

speaking as a graphic designer myself; amen sister.

The Constant Complainer said...

I am a first time visitor to your blog from Cleveland, OH. I saw the link on another blog and decided to check it out.

I have worked in media for years and you are right; there are a lot of people who think they are designers or (on the editorial side) are qualified to freelance, but many of them are not.

There is absolutely something to be said about your experience, skills and talents!

A guy the other day just said to me, "Well, that's OK, I am a good fisherman, maybe I'll just write a column for the local paper about fishing." My response, "A lot harder than it looks dude, haha, a lot harder than it looks."

Anyway, interesting post. Thanks...

elle michelle said...

Ang: :-)

Allie: Ridiculous, right?

Mary Evelyn: Thanks for the props!

Complainer: Welcome!! Some of us just make our jobs look too easy I guess, huh?

Anonymous said...

Thank you.

michael said...

While I agree with you in theory, I think they've created a model that truly lets creativity thrive. Why does a degree or ten years of experience make you a better artist. In the fashion realm, such seat of your pants artistry has made for a new era of design. For every House of Dereon debacle, there's an As Four or an Imitation of Christ - artists looking for a way to express themselves. One could argue that the entire Pop Art movement was one of complete unprofessionals ... look at Banksy ...

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